Gray smoke curled from a .50-caliber hole in the ground, signaling the end of my six-day muzzleloader deer hunt in the Duck Mountains Provincial Forest.
Firing a muzzleloader’s lone round is the easiest way to unload black-powder rifles. There’s no cartridge to eject, as with centerfire rifles. No, you “create” each round by pouring powder down the barrel, stuffing in a bullet with a ramrod, and seating it atop the charge like a warhead atop a rocket.
To unload, you simply find a small hill, aim into its dirt, cock the hammer and pull the trigger. Boom! When the smoke clears, the hunt is over and you walk away.
But I didn’t want to leave when my hunt ended November 8. The hunting had been superb, even though I saw only two deer in six days. One of those deer was a nine-point buck with a 17-inch spread. It stood broadside at 65 yards for nearly a minute at 10 a.m., November 6, and walked away after I uncocked my muzzleloader’s hammer.
This was the Manitoba wilderness, and I didn’t want to end my hunt early on a deer that didn’t represent the forest’s finest. Bigger bucks were near and I’d have no chance at them if I killed a buck whose best antlers were yet to come.
Though that meant going home empty-handed, deer hunting is more than antlers, venison, and shoulder mounts. That’s especially true of this hunt, which featured “bush” horses, lifelong horsemen, and a guide who’s the last of his kind in “The Ducks.” When Pat Bergson, 52, of Bowsman someday tears down his corrals and hitching posts, and hauls his cabin-tents from this forest, Manitoba’s horseback-guided deer hunts will end.
Bergson is already the province’s only guide/outfitter using horses to hunt deer. Each day in November, he and his wrangler, Marvin Fichtner, saddle up at least four horses, load their hunters, and head into the forest from Bergson’s base camp, which is 15 miles from the nearest gravel roads.
The Manitoba government recently informed Bergson no other outfitter will receive such privileges once his business, Bows ‘N Bullets Outfitters, ceases operating. People will still be able to hunt deer in The Ducks, but only by walking in on foot.
Therefore, when I discharged my rifle and thanked Bergson for a great hunt, he warned me to hurry back if I wanted to hunt with him again. He and his horses aren’t getting any younger. Some of his horses have carried deer hunters for nearly 20 years. When they can no longer go, Bergson must decide whether it’s smart business to invest in new horses to replace them.
That’s no simple decision, of course. As John Millions, one of Bergson’s former wranglers told me during my previous hunt in 2006, “Riding horses isn’t as simple as turning the key on an ATV.”
No, horses are far smarter, interesting, and high-maintenance, and they’re vital to the camp’s allure. All-terrain vehicles, even where they’re allowed, add little spice to hunting. Each horse, however, has been broken and trained, and each knows the trails and treestand sites miles from camp. When heading out or returning in darkness, they somehow know which trails to follow, where to stop, where to turn, when to walk, and when to trot.
Take my favorite horse, Red, for example. She’s about 18 and was with the first group of horses Bergson brought to his camp nearly 20 years ago. Bergson nearly gave up on her when breaking her in. Twice she flipped him over her head and broke three of his ribs. Eventually, though, she submitted to the saddle and Bergson’s training. Even so, she has her own unique personality, as does each horse in Bergson’s corral.
Red’s a bit shorter than the other horses, and usually rides second in line behind whatever horse Bergson is introducing to camp. Whenever Bergson’s horse hesitates or misses a turn, Red confidently takes the lead, even with neophyte riders like me aboard. I, of course, basked in Red’s stature, as if I had anything to do with it.
One thing Red couldn’t do, though, was get me a big buck. That’s not in her contract. She carried me to each stand at dawn and retrieved me at dusk without dumping me once, even when cantering through chutes flanked by spruce and jack pines.
She wasn’t much for conversation, either. For that I had Tom Tilkens of Green Bay, Wisconsin, who spent each day still-hunting the black-spruce swamps and aspen uplands near camp. When Red deposited me at our cabin-tent’s door the second night, Tilkens excitedly told how he had rattled in a broad-beamed buck within 50 yards, but couldn’t see anything except its head and antlers in the thick hazel brush.
“No shot,” Tilkens said with a shrug, perhaps the shortest sentence he’s ever uttered.
“Rattling,” for those who don’t know, is a technique that imitates the antler-clashing sounds of fighting bucks. You hide where you can watch downwind, and then use real antlers, plastic sticks, or other devices to imitate a buck fight. When bucks investigate the commotion, they usually circle downwind to scent-check the antagonists.
It’s almost deer hunting’s version of casting for fish. You’ll usually “cast” at least 100 times for each buck you lure in. But when it works, it’s perhaps the best excitement known to deer hunting.
I didn’t rattle in the buck I let go November 6. Instead, I called it in by imitating the snort-wheeze that bucks sometimes use to intimidate rivals. Within two minutes of making the sounds—roughly “pfffft-pffftt-pheewwww,” the nine-pointer stepped into a meadow bordering the Singush River and looked my way.
It then crossed the meadow, picked its way across a beaver dam, and stopped atop the river bank below my tree stand. After I passed up the shot, it walked below a nearby spruce, raked low-hanging branches with its antlers, pawed the ground, and urinated to mark the scrape.
With any luck, I’ll make plans soon with Red and Bergson to intercept that buck when it becomes a full-size Manitoba whitetail.
Images courtesy Patrick Durkin