The ‘Virginia deer’ has been in Finland since the 1930s, but they’re not highly prized.
By Mike Handley
It is not surprising that in Finland, a country practically developed by Nordic hunters in search of greener pastures and boundless game, hunting remains extremely popular. It has even been said that, given its sparse population, Finland has the largest concentration of hunters in all of Europe.
Wingshooting and small game hunting rank highly with the populace, but most probably prefer going after moose and bear. White-tailed deer -- North America’s favorite big game animal -- reside there, too, but they get very little attention.
Whitetails are not native to Finland. They were imported there from the U.S. in the mid-1930s, and the bulk of today’s herd is probably traceable back to the five fawns from that original shipment. Other “Virginia deer,” a term probably used to describe the subspecies rather than the state of origin, were shipped there from 1937 until the 1960s. Shipments have been reported from Michigan, Minnesota and New York. Most of those animals, however, never survived the harsh winters.
This was all news to me. Before I actually flew to Helsinki in 2001, I had no idea that whitetails could be found on other continents. I was there for a moose hunt. And if I hadn’t seen whitetails with my own eyes, I never would’ve known they were there.
The hunters I met, at least the ones who could speak some modicum of English, didn’t hold whitetails in very high regard. Farmers consider them nuisances, while hunters primarily view them as potential distractions for their well-trained moose dogs. The people won’t even shoot them during a moose drive, at least if dogs are used, because they don’t want the hounds to sniff a dead one up close.
A difference of opinion about deer is not the only thing separating North Americans from Finlanders. If you’re a big game hunter over there, you’d better be able to prove (every three years) your proficiency with firearms.
Imagine what it felt like to be in Dan Quayle’s shoes following his rebuke during the now infamous vice presidential debate of 1988.
Quayle’s handlers decided that, if Lloyd Benson played the age card, the best thing to do would be to suggest that he was the same age as John F. Kennedy when Kennedy was elected president. All went according to the well-choreographed plan, but it backfired when the solemn-faced, elder Benson smirked: “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. You, Senator, are no Jack Kennedy.”
I could almost feel the former Vice President’s pain as I stepped into the shooting box and prepared to convince the administrators that I was worthy of being granted a hunting license in Finland. I was surrounded by leading gun writers from Germany, Spain, Portugal and Australia; cohorts in the U.S. hunting magazine business; and expert marksmen from the Sako rifle plant.
Before I ever squeezed the trigger, I heard them in my mind … “We knew Jack O’Connor. Jack O’Connor was a friend of ours. You, Mr. Buckmasters, are no Jack O’Connor.” (For those of you scratching your heads, the late Jack O’Connor was one of America’s most beloved shootists, and was as adept at writing and storytelling as he was at contributing to the meat pole.)
Admittedly, I’m not a gun writer. My eyes glaze over whenever I’m forced – as an editor – to read anything in which “foot pounds,” “muzzle velocity” or “feet per second” are mentioned. But I am a veteran hunter, and I’ve taken more than my fair share of big game animals. I know how to shoot.
My old beat-up Remington is almost an extension of my arm.
Although I never let on, I was terrified when my number came up for the shooting test that we all had to pass before gaining our licenses. Not only was the peer pressure unbelievable, but I was also asked to do it with a strange rifle that I’d never even fired. I was handed a Sako 75 Hunter, chambered in .30-06, fresh from the factory.
I liked the feel and looks of it. The bolt was smooth as butter. But it wasn’t my rifle!
That test had been on my mind for days! I couldn’t fathom the humiliation if I failed it.
It was a two-part “test.” First, you’re supposed to put three bullets in the vital zone of a stationary, life-sized moose target within 20 seconds. Then, you have to put three more into the zone – consecutively – while the target is racing across a track at 18 feet a second. The target, by the way, is about 75 or 80 yards distant.
With the moving target, we were advised to take one shot per left or right pass. Our instructor could unleash all three in a single swoop!
The German, Werner Reb, strolled into the box first and made short work of it all. He might have made one miscalculation, but everything else was perfect. You get five shots at the moving target, which hands you a couple of misses to make adjustments. If that happens, you’d better be dead-on on the last three attempts!
The Spaniard, Jean Pierre Bourgignon (actually from Belgium), was next. If I remember correctly, he had to make a couple of adjustments before making the grade.
I was shooter No. 3, mainly because everyone else was sort of hanging back, pretending to be involved with examining the loaner rifles. I knew what they were doing.
My mouth was as dry as the red wine I’d sipped the previous night with my plate of reindeer tenderloin, and my skin was probably the shade of the grapes from which it was distilled.
Putting three back-to-back rounds in the standing target helped to relieve a lot of pressure. The bull-barreled Sako was a pleasure to shoot, and the recoil was almost non-existent.
Still, the most intimidating part was ahead of me.
I followed Werner’s lead by calling for a practice shot before ordering up the actual test. When my first shot made it inside the outermost ring, I was elated. Figuring that it was going to be a piece of cake, after all, I announced that I was ready.
I totally missed the next two attempts and lost all sense of pride. I knew what I was doing wrong, but resisting the urge to shoot in a hurry was difficult.
With only three more shots remaining and all three “musts” in order to gain my shooting certificate, my gut started tightening.
I barely clipped the vital zone on the first pass – the result, again, of shooting too quickly. Yet the shot in the No. 2 ring counted. On the next two passes, I put both shots into the No. 9 ring, which was as perfect as possible, considering the rifles were sighted in to be high at that distance.
It no longer mattered if I even saw a moose. I’d proven my mettle. Buckmasters’ reputation was salvaged!
My involvement in the shooting test (now that it’s over), seeing whitetails on foreign soil and merely participating in a few moose drives made for an incredible trip. By the time I boarded a plane for Alabama, it no longer mattered that I hadn’t seen a moose. I’d had the privilege of visiting a different part of the world – courtesy of Sako and parent company, Beretta, and immersing myself in a culture not altogether different from the South’s in the 1960s.
The average Finnish hunter belongs to a club with between 20 and 40 members, where moose are hunted through man- or dog drives. At the end of the day, while the members roast sausages over a fire, the meat is split among those who want a share.
The thing that’s so different, however, is the dogs and how they’re used. First of all, you’ll rarely see more than one or two dogs in any given hunt. And unlike the hounds on this side of the Atlantic, moose dogs do not bark as they’re trailing or even “jumping” a moose. The only time they’re trained to bark is when they are actually looking at a bayed moose.
If the moose breaks and runs, the barking stops. If you hear barking, that’s when it is time to creep up and shoot the moose – while the dog has it distracted.
When the dog gets tired, or even if there isn’t a dog, man-drives are the norm. As during the dog drives, about a third of the members walk through the woods with homemade noisemakers (sans rifles), pushing the game toward the “standers,” who are usually sitting on the stools they carry along in their backpacks.
Many of the drives encompass large portions of, if not entire, islands. Like Alaska, southwest Finland has an archipelago (a chain of islands) extending into the Baltic Sea. Altogether, there are 81,000 islands, and the wildlife – when pushed – often swims from one to the other for refuge.
Another big difference between Finnish hunters and Americans is that Finlanders are not in it for the antlers. They’ll shoot young bulls, cows and even calves – up to whatever number they’ve decided needs harvesting before the season opens. A monstrous bull, like the ones common in Alaska and Canada, is purely a bonus and very uncommon.
A big set of whitetail antlers is even more uncommon. And if one does happen to pass within range, you can bet that a Finlander won’t be afflicted with “buck fever.”
This article was published in the December 2002 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.