An early season hunt on legendary Anticosti Island provides a rare trophy opportunity.
There was no need for my guide, Richard, to speak. I knew it and so did he. Experience told me to follow close on his heels, walk when he walked, stop when he stopped. No need to look around or ahead. He would be the eyes, and when the time came, I would be the gun. As a single unit, we made our way across the open ground in fits and starts.
The cold, wind-driven drizzle relentlessly searched for any chink in my GORE-TEX armor. Fog limited our visibility to a scant few hundred yards as it billowed across the meadow of spongy peat moss and low, broad-leaved evergreens that lay before us. Moments before, gazing across the landscape, I could easily imagine myself hunting red stag on the heaths of Scotland or the verdant hills of New Zealand’s South Island.
Now, all I saw was the back of Richard’s raincoat as we hurried another 50 yards forward. I could barely hear over the howling wind when he turned and whispered, “Now, you shoot.” Like a well-practiced team, we went into action.
No sooner had my gaze fixed on a small mound of moss when Richard dropped his pack there as a shooting rest. I lowered myself into a prone position and asked, “Which one?” re-checking that I’d adjusted the bullet drop reticle on my scope.
“The one on the right,” he replied, identifying the larger of the two bucks we’d been stalking.
I found a russet-brown body partially concealed in the brush, ranged the right-most buck at 185 yards, then settled my rifle into the pack and waited for a shot. To this point, I hadn’t gotten a good look at his rack, and I wasn’t about to now. The buck was just entering what would be the last opening before he disappeared into the heather. I trusted Richard’s judgment, focused on the buck’s vitals and squeezed off the shot. Ka-thwack! The damp moss deadened the rifle’s roar, but the crack of impact resounded back sharply. “I think you hit,” Richard said. “We wait.”
That was the third morning of my Anticosti hunt. It was also my third trip to the island. The previous two had been in mid- to late November, during the peak of rut when the bucks were on the move. In both cases, temperatures stayed below the freezing mark and snow blanketed the ground.
This trip was far different, lapping over from the end of August into the first of September. Temperatures dipped into the 30s early and late in the day but soared to the 60s and 70s at midday. The bucks were still in a very casual summer mode, often in bachelor groups and all still in velvet. Yup, this would be different.
It was cold and raw when my companions and I, a menagerie of outdoor writers and representatives from L.L. Bean and W.L. Gore, arrived at one the island’s airfields — little more than a gravel strip and a small doorless hut. Our host, Guy Lefebvre, greeted us and transported us to the Chaloupe River Camp, one of two camps run by Cerf-Sau Anticosti Outfitters. Mechanical difficulties had delayed us a day, and we were all extra anxious to go afield. We hastily unpacked and, after a quick visit to the shooting range, hit the woods.
Hunters may choose from several methods. The most popular is to still-hunt along one of the many well-marked footpaths that interlace the island’s sometimes dense woods. You can also spot-and-stalk in the open bogs or ride the woods roads on the back of a four-wheeler. Each guide is assigned a pair of hunters, and one typically hunts with the guide while the other hunts alone. I prefer to hunt solo, so I was given a map and dropped off at a likely spot for the first afternoon.
The truck crunched its way down the gravel road and over the hill, and suddenly I was alone. I paused for a moment to take in the silence before venturing out onto the bog. Stepping on the soft ground, I could hear as well as feel the water percolating out of the sphagnum. It was like walking on pillows, the ground yielding with each step, then springing back into place as I lifted my foot. I cursed my choice of footwear: ankle-high boots.
I’d gone maybe 400 yards when I spied the first deer, a yearling doe. I had no intentions of shooting, but seeing her out and about in the middle of the day seemed to bode well. It also offered an opportunity to hone my deer hunting skills after a seven-month layoff. Using the wind and vegetation as cover, and moving stealthily only when she put her head down to feed on the lush sedges, I eventually stalked within 30 yards. Satisfied I could sneak up on a buck should the need arise, I skulked off in search of one. And while I saw a few that day and the next, none were to my liking; not yet, anyway. I knew the island’s potential.
For those of you under the age of 21, or who have been living under a rock for the last 20 years, Anticosti is a 31,000-square-mile island at the mouth of the St. Lawrence River, northeast of the Gaspe Peninsula. Two decades ago, it reigned supreme as THE whitetail destination of the East. In a time when big bucks were only considered common in places like Texas and Saskatchewan, hunters routinely returned from this whitetail Mecca with a brace of mature stags. In an age when seeing a racked buck earned you bragging rights back at camp, Anticosti boasted hunter success rates of about 90 percent.
Eventually, the crown jewel of the Northeast lost some its luster, not because the hunting there got any worse, but because it got better just about everywhere else. The island still supports roughly 55 deer per square mile, which is robust anywhere, though somewhat less so in this day and age. And the 85 percent annual hunter success rate doesn’t seem quite as significant as it once did, until you consider that’s not for one, but two deer apiece. What still sets the island apart, though, is the proportion of mature bucks taken annually — 25 percent of the overall deer harvest, according to Gilles Dumaresq, director of public relations for Sepaq Anticosti.
Imagine hunting a place where your odds of taking two deer are 85 percent, and there’s a better than one in four chance at least one will be a mature buck. Now, consider that all happens in a four- or five-day hunt. I’ll take those odds any day. Those are unprecedented numbers for almost anywhere, but for a location on the northern fringe of the whitetail’s North American range, they’re remarkable. Then again, Anticosti is a remarkable place.
It was on the third morning that I finally took a shot, across that open bog. It felt good, but Richard wasn’t as confident. So we waited. Thirty minutes later, as we walked slowly up to a copse of evergreen, we spied movement. It was the smaller of the two bucks. Something in the bushes had his attention and he stood, alertly staring it down. I had an inkling, but I waited for Richard to move forward. Sure enough, it was the other buck, lying still on a carpet of sphagnum.
After a quick field-dressing, Richard pulled a short length of cord from his fanny pack.
He slit the buck’s hocks, then pushed the front legs through the slits and tied them off. Then he hefted the deer onto his shoulders, wearing it like a backpack. As he trudged across the spongy sphagnum bog, never breaking stride, I had all I could do to keep up. Remarkable.
The weather finally broke, so I decided to take the afternoon off for a little fishing, a fringe benefit of the early hunt. Actually, there’s nothing “little” about fly-fishing for Atlantic salmon. Eastern Canada is one of the few places left in the world where you can find fishable populations, and several of Anticosti’s rivers have strong runs. I thrashed the water to a foam but only managed one hit. I would have loved to do more, but I had one day left and one more deer tag to fill.
The dun coat of a whitetail blends in well with the grays and browns of the leafless late-autumn woods. That’s not the case in late summer. As if nature had played some cruel joke on them, their reddish summer jackets stood out in stark contrast to the evergreen background of Anticosti. It was this contrast that I saw as Richard and I rounded the corner on the Dauphine River.
“Is that a deer or just a tree?” I asked, the initial excitement draining from my voice.
“Tree,” he said calmly, simultaneously lifting his binoculars to make certain. “No. Buck. Big buck. Shoot now!”
Again I trusted my guide, checking my reticle, flicking off the safety and looking for a solid rest. This time, however, I had a second to view the buck in my scope. No question, he was a shooter — narrow, but tall and heavy. I quickly shifted from rack to vitals as the buck took two tentative steps closer to cover. One more step would put him safely in the bush, and he took it ... a fraction of a second too late. “I think you hit,” came Richard’s conditioned response.
“Yeah?” I asked.
“Oh yes,” he said, the corners of his mouth curling into a grin.
This article was published in the July 2008 edition of Buckmasters Whitetail Magazine. Join today to have Buckmasters delivered to your home.