Velvet Over Ground
Welcome to Anticosti Island—3,000 square miles, 300 people, 125,000 deer, and not enough hunters to notice.
Gray’s Sporting Journal | September/October 2008
It’s the first Saturday of September, opening day of dove season back home, and as I tug on a wool hat and zip up my parka, I imagine the heat of a cut sunflower field, sweat trickling, Georgia football on someone’s radio. I miss the ritual, and even the heat. But all things considered I’m grateful to be sitting on a cool Canadian knoll rather than on a rotating dove bucket, roasting like a rotisserie chicken.
It’s my first day hunting with Cerf-Sau Outfitters on Quebec’s Anticosti Island near the mouth of the Saint Lawrence River, and guide Chris Blackier is schooling me in the crosscountry style of “still” hunting as practiced by Anticosti guides. We’ve already covered a couple of miles across rolling terrain, lowland bogs, and woodlots, stopping only to glass the horizontal brown forms that weave in and out of the landscape at seemingly every change in vantage point. An hour in, and we’ve already seen several does, a couple of crotch-horns, and one six pointer. After parking ourselves on a knoll to glass an opposing hillside, we continue at a pace more akin to Olympic power walking than to the type of deer hunting I’m used to.
“Stay close,” says Chris in a Quebecois accent that makes me think of hockey. But by the third hour, keeping pace is increasingly difficult. My calves began their official revolt while negotiating an overhanging creek bank, and my thighs feel made of tofu. What’s more, we’re blowing out deer left and right, apparently working our way toward a mythical eight-pointer standing at the edge of some magic meadow, dumbly chewing his cud. By the fourth hour, just as the hunt has become a more reasoned walk, I am lagging about 10 yards behind when I get the hand motion to stop.
“Nice buck,” Chris whispers.
I’m too far behind to see anything but a hindquarter. We stand motionless for minutes, until Chris waves me forward just far enough to see an eight-point buck standing at the edge of a meadow, dumbly chewing his cud. But before I can edge into position the buck throws a majestic, full-throated look in our direction, and then it’s all hooves and high tails.
I’m angry with myself for missing the critical moment. We’ve probably seen 20 deer, which matters naught if the only one you want to shoot catches you picking brain daisies. In the end, I feel as though I’ve been following rather than hunting, and by the time we reach the truck I’ve decided to strike out alone in the morning.
The next day, Chris drops me off alongside the Riviere Maccan, where a single-track logging road flanks the shoulder of a ridge curving miles upriver into a bracing blue sky. The air smells sharply of spruce and fir, and it penetrates the lungs like therapy.
Chris has supplied me with a topo map, and soon the sound of truck tires on gravel is replaced by rippling water a hundred feet below. Shouldering my rifle and pack, I plot a wide, arcing still-hunt upwind through the valley, then drop off the hillside to cross the stream on stones.
Leaving dewy boot prints across a braided island, I bushwhack into a woodlot that swallows me whole. The drainage stands choked with blowdowns, and I crawl under as many logs as I scramble over before emerging at the edge of a new-growth knoll perfect for a game of whitetail hide-and-seek. The breeze is in my face, and with a body’s width between each sapling I can weave quietly through the trees, rifle at port arms.
When I spot the buck, he’s nibbling chin-high at a conifer bough. His fuzzy rack is in full summer vascularity, held high to expose six inches of neck. He is a “legal” buck, sporting a rack outside the ears, but in the surge of adrenaline that comes with a head-on encounter at 20 yards, my crouching, ass-first retreat into better cover is a dumb mistake. I had hoped to back up, ease to my right or a better angle, and release my daypack. But in the process I lose sight of the buck, and despite some painstaking maneuvering I end up putting a 20-minute stalk on a vapor.
Looking back, simply freezing and waiting for the buck to lift his chin again would have made for an easy offhand shot—a killer’s shot, immediate and unpremeditated. This early in the year—hell, bow season hasn’t even started back home—I don’t have the edge to pull off a snap shot. While killing is certainly one thing about the hunt, it isn’t my favorite thing, and truth be told I’ve begun nearly every one of the last 20 deer seasons with a missed opportunity resulting from a lack of predatory conviction. It won’t be the last time on this island, either; but if you can’t get into full canine mode here, you can’t do it at all: the deer are everywhere.
Anticosti’s massive whitetail herd is the legacy of a French chocolatier named Henri Menier, who in the late 19th century imported 220 Odocoileus virginianus to his would-be private hunting paradise. The offspring of those original deer now roam this Quebec national park and number some 125,000 strong. Absence of an apex predator and the sheer safety of numbers makes them the perfect game animal for spot-and-stalk hunting in rolling, lightly wooded terrain.
Given the density of Anticosti’s whitetail herd and the island’s two-buck limit, defining success depends on the experience you are seeking. After two days on the island, my choices seem obvious: see more but smaller deer by hunting on my own, or gamble on seeing a huge deer with one of the rangy Anticosti guides who hunt like their feet are on fire.
That evening, returning from a three-hour solo hunt in a high meadow farther down the Maccan valley, I meet Chris and my hunting partner and fellow Georgian, Brad Yeomans, at the truck near dark. Earlier they had backed a four-wheeler off the tailgate and pushed a few miles closer to the coast toward a remote meadow. I have a cold barrel. They have a 10-point buck strapped to the back of the four-wheeler.
“Yeah, he was just standing there when we walked up to the meadow. Easy shot. Chris packed him out on his back. You shoulda seen it,” says Brad, still marveling at the way Chris lashed the buck’s hooves together and carried him out of doghair brush like a fur backpack.
ANTICOSTI’S SPRAWLING 3,000-square-mile landscape is worked by numerous outfitters, each with so much available terrain that it’s rare to see another hunter. Cerf-Sau Outfitters has two major territories totaling 425 square miles—the Chaloupe River and the Bell River—both divided into smaller tracts of about 25 square miles apiece. Each tract is usually hunted by no more than one guide at a time with one or two hunters.
Three days into the trip, Chris and I plan to hike an unmolested tract up the Riviere Biladeau valley, a plateau of fire snags, wind-gnarled spruce, burdock, pitcher plant, thistle, and myriad forage that carpets the rolling hills of Anticosti’s interior. We’ve parked the truck by the side of the Anticosti Highway, a dirt road that stretches three rugged hours east to Port Menier and the island’s 300 or so year-round residents. Having bronco-busted the four-wheeler a mile or so into the territory, we dismount in the vastness, with no sound but moving air. Chris checks the wind with a slight cocking of his head, nose up, cheek to the breeze. “Okay, here we go,” he says. Stuffing a sack of sunflower seeds and a water bottle in his fanny pack, he heads into the wind at a loping, cross-country traverse.
Everywhere stands evidence of the forest fires that have periodically swept the island. The landscape bristles with spruce and fir snags tilting like lost spears. Unscathed tree lines offer perfect cover for both deer and deer hunter. It’s the first week of rifle season on Anticosti, and Chris tells me the Biladeau hasn’t been hunted this year. Here and there we see does in open meadows and along the wooded edges, all with the very un-whitetail-like habit of foraging head-down for minutes at a time. Anticosti’s deer haven’t learned to look up for coyotes, wolves, bears, cougars, or even dogs: There aren’t any. You could probably walk up and kick some of the does in the butt here, but like whitetails everywhere the big bucks are a different story.
About an hour in, we stop to glass, and Chris is eyeballing a doe and a six pointer about 400 yards downfield. Because we’re a hundred yards from the nearest tree line and in plain sight, the pair stops eating to study us. (Anticosti’s deer may be tolerant, but they have the open-field vision of a tank commander.) Chris pulls out a white cotton glove and begins flopping it in the wind like a deer’s tail. Amazingly, the six-pointer and the doe resume their simple-minded lawnmowing. Chris puts his glasses back on them.
“Oh. There’s a huge buck!”
“In the trees behind ’em.”
I have to look through Chris’s binoculars over his shoulder to find the buck, tucked motionless among the shadows and staring straight at us from a quarter mile away. I can see only his brisket, face, and rack above a bough, and from this frontal perspective it looks like he’s wearing a canoe on his head. One-fifty class, at least. Maybe 160. Without doubt the biggest deer I’ve ever had in front of me.
I’ve shot off stumps, off logs, off the ground, off my belly, offhand, and off-target, but I’ve never even considered shooting off someone’s back.
Chris flops the glove again, and then we’re down in the grass and duckwalking through bogwater toward a tree line. By the time we get there, the buck has wandered into the open with his doe. It takes us 15 minutes to close the gap, and the closer we get the faster Chris moves, knowing the opportunity will be fleeting. For me it’s exactly the wrong pace. My thighs are burning, I’m huffing, and when we step into fatal range the deer’s massive right shoulder presents a steep, quartering-toward shot. It’s obvious this is the big boy, but he has his head so deep in the grass I can’t see his rack. In another few seconds he’ll step behind a bush. Chris abruptly stops with me in his hip pocket. We’re maybe 150 yards away.
“Take my shoulder! Take my shoulder!” he hisses. We had stopped to practice this earlier, but in the heat of the hunt it feels as awkward now as it sounded when he first told me that hunters had killed perhaps 400 deer using his shoulder as a rest. I’ve shot off stumps, off logs, off the ground, off my belly, offhand, and off-target, but I’ve never even considered shooting off someone’s back. I place the rifle on Chris’s left shoulder, and even though I’m sucking wind through a straw he’s as steady as an anvil, fingers jamming his ear holes.
“Shoot, shoot, shoot.”
Crosshairs anchor in flesh for maybe two seconds, and in those two seconds I make 20 years of arguments about when to pull a trigger and when to pull back. Even two missed opportunities in two days haven’t been enough to quicken my finger. I simply can’t take such a fleeting shot. It’s been three years since I’ve killed a deer—driving a wooden arrow through the boiler room of a small Georgia buck—and in that time the hunt has existed too much in my head and not enough in my blood.
“Oh nooooo,” Chris groans as the deer strides into a thicket. “Why do you wait?”
“It wasn’t a good shot.”
Chris is dubious, although like any fine guide he doesn’t argue the point. He just picks up the chase. But the big buck has disappeared, leaving us another three hours of long-range tramping among the bogwater, frogs, and gorging does. Later, when the sting of this hunt has worn off and we’re gathering by the truck for another, I tell Chris I need to step back into the lodge for a second.
“Okay,” he says, grinning. “But I hope you’re better with a camera than a rifle.”
ON THE EVE of the last day of our hunt, Cerf-Sau’s handsome main lodge barely contains the hubbub of sporty talk. Salmon flies and brook trout. Deer racks and rifle bores. World travels and lame French, all fueled by vin rouge and camp gusto. By lights-out, however, the upstairs hallway is a hive of deeply apneated snoring and involuntary flatulence. Having earlier taken an afternoon siesta, I cannot get to sleep through the ruckus. (My skill as a rifleman may be debatable, but my talent for facedown, buck-naked, midday camp napping is not.)
With someone on our hall virtually swallowing his tongue in slumber, I can’t decide whether to slip down there and end his misery or cut my own throat, and by two in the morning I’m dragging the mattress off my bed and outside onto the timber-frame veranda. A full moon rises deep in the upstream bend of the Chaloupe River valley, and under moonlight her tannin-stained waters take on the lead-gray color of galena.
A moment later and I’m coming awake at the breakfast table, where, over a plate of ployes and sausage, one of the offending parties looks up from his enthusiastic forking, takes a slug of coffee, and asks me, “Has your wife ever mentioned that you snore?”
SALVATION COMES IN the form of the Petite Riviere de la Chaloupe, “Little Rowboat” river, an eastern sister of the bigger water that had lulled me to sleep just hours earlier. At sunrise, Chris drops me off alongside the dirt highway at the head of a logging road traveling upriver into Anticosti’s rich blue sky. A quarter mile in, bleary eyed from lack of sleep, I stop to check the wind and glass a bald ridge lying toward its source. I can’t bring myself to walk the road, and instead feel drawn downhill into the trees. Before I can formulate any more assumptions about how to hunt this vast landscape, I’m moving slowly at the edge of a small meadow hanging above the main river valley. When I spot the buck, he’s moving left to right across the meadow’s far perimeter. Ten more steps and he’ll be in the trees, but I can find no good rest.
The fir boughs are too thick to lean into, and when I try the buck looks up in my direction. I fumble to release my pack, then back away from the fir to sit folded atop a small hummock with one leg tucked. I find a rest atop my bent left knee, draw down on the buck, and settle the gently waving crosshairs behind his shoulder. I exhale deeply, find the bottom of my breath, steady the reticle, freeze, and squeeze. The buck topples over in the roar. He struggles to stand one more time, then falls like a newborn calf. A hind leg kicks once above the grass and then goes still.
One hundred and twenty-six paces later, I see that I couldn’t have placed a better hole with a hand drill. An inch behind the shoulder, right through the heart. Perfectly lucky.
My knife is three years clean but sharp, and after I dry the cavity with moss and drag my buck into shade, I cover it with freshly cut spruce. Already a black fox circles the meadow, sniffing out the gut pile. But it’s still early, and Chris won’t be back with the truck for three hours. So I might as well keep hunting.
Flagging my cache, I walk away and begin glassing from the lip of the meadow, where the valley gathers wayward braids of the Little Rowboat into a single ribbon headed toward the coast. Glassing the opposite hill, I spot three deer, one a nice buck grazing far across the valley. Even through glass I can’t tell much about his rack; only that he is big-bodied, heavier than the modest eight-pointer lying in the grass behind me.
Twenty minutes of sneaking takes me across the valley floor and around the hip of a small ridge, the end of which is flanked by a woodlot where I last saw the buck. The trees grow thicker until openings appear and then close with every step. It’s time to slow down. Stop. Stalk ahead.
I hear the buck’s hooves first—15 yards to my right behind a blowdown—and then I see the rack, majestic and fully polished and held high, the first buck out of velvet all week. I can feel his hoofbeats through the wet ground, and as he disappears up the ridge I follow him only to push several more deer out of the woods at close range. The trees open onto a ridge looking back toward the meadow where my buck lies under cut spruce a half mile away. With a cool wind scudding in off the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, I build a fire in the lee of a fir and pull a sandwich from my pack. It’s a fine spot to sit, to eat, and to watch the valley alone. ✦