I have been hunting Manitoba black bears with Tom Ainsworth of Grandview Outfitters for several years with fantastic success. I knew he also offered November whitetail hunts for hunters toting rifles and muzzleloaders, but I never thought much about hunting deer in Manitoba. That is until I started looking through the photos of giant bucks his hunters had killed: bucks with racks scoring in the 170s, 180s and even some close to 200.
Then I handled a few of the shed antlers he has picked up and saw the big velvet bucks feeding in the alfalfa on August evenings. Tom told me that he would be interested in offering hunts for early season bowhunters, but he had never really marketed this option. And most of the bucks are still in velvet when the archery season opens the first Monday in September. Huge velvet whitetails in early September feeding patterns? Sign me up. It took me just a few moments to agree to be his first guinea pig; I would take an early September hunt and find out just how good the possibilities might be.
For the fall season of 2016, I would hunt bears starting on the opener August 29, then turn to deer on opening day September 5. Turns out I shot a 500-pound black bear on opening day of bear season, so I had the rest of the week to scout for whitetails.
And scout I did. I glassed fields in the early mornings, put out eight scouting cameras, and sat in box blinds overlooking Tom’s large hayfields. He has 1,600 acres, and I barely scratched the surface of the potential of this area for big bucks. Within a couple of days, I had identified three target bucks, two mature 10-pointers and one big 8-pointer with a bladed G-2 tine. I had also seen about 20 other up-and-coming bucks.
One buck in particular held great interest for me: a big 5×5 still in velvet that was remarkably predictable. I shot several photos of him and got many trail cams pics of him using one area of an alfalfa field. He was in trouble come opening day. I decided to focus all my efforts on him, and I ignored the other two mature target bucks. I put up a stand in just the right spot for him.
On September 3, only 2 days before opening day, he scrubbed his velvet off. Almost immediately, his pattern of using the same access point to feed in the alfalfa each evening began to break down. But I still felt confident I would get him.
On opener I was in the stand early and he came into the field 2 hours before dark, 60 yards south of me. I had no shot. The following day he came into the field 60 yards to the opposite side of me. I put up one more stand and hunted it a couple of times, but he would always use a trail just out of reach.
On the fourth day I was in the right place at the right time – he was coming down the trail and within moments I would be standing over him and calling my taxidermist. But when I reached for my bow, five does in the field behind me saw the movement and exploded into a running, snorting fit. I named him Lucky because he seemed charmed.
We played this chess game for 6 straight days. I saw him every single day, but never got a shot. A couple of times I seriously considered abandoning my pursuit of him because another mature heavy-racked 10-pointer 2 miles away was begging me to shoot him as I saw him appear just before dark on the scouting cam photos every evening. But I kept trying to shoot Lucky and drove home empty-handed. It was my luck that ran out, not his.
Tom Ainsworth has some incredible deer hunting, and this early season pursuit of huge-bodied, big-racked bucks in bachelor groups is quite addictive. I know I will have to go back and try it again. Plus, there are a few more 3-year-old bucks that will be added to the target list next year.
So when Tom asked me if I thought there was a market for this type of a hunt, I really wanted to lie to him and say, “No.” But I know I am not the only person who gets a thrill from seeing and getting close to mature bucks every day of an early season deer hunt. So I already committed to going back again. And just think how big Lucky will be next year. I just hope he doesn’t get any luckier as well.
Images by Bernie Barringer