Gun-hunters looking for mature whitetail bucks and truly big woods to roam will find both in the three-million-acre Superior National Forest in northeastern Minnesota. The Superior sprawls along the Canadian border for more than 150 miles encompassing the famed Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and large tracts of adjacent land. Abundant wolves, moose and bears share the wildest whitetail habitat in the Midwest.
Access roads and ATV trails are few, leaving literally hundreds of square miles of undisturbed ground to ambitious hunters. Aspen, jack pine and white pine cloak glacier-scoured ridges of Precambrian granite. Low lands are laced with spruce bogs, beaver ponds, rivers and lakes. Getting lost is easy; dragging out northern bucks that commonly dress at 200 pounds is not.
The Superior supports only about five deer per square mile, but the ratio of mature bucks is high and the 16-day gun season falls early enough to overlap the peak rut (the 2003 opener is November 8). Bucks range widely in search of scattered does, even in broad daylight. I’ve shot most of my Superior bucks at midday. Knowing a good buck can appear at any time keeps me alert when I’m not seeing deer.
UP AND MOVING
Grunting, rattling and tree stands can produce, but I like to hunt on the move and steadily explore new ground. I consistently intercept mature bucks while still-hunting along rub lines and travel routes. I move quickly through areas of poor visibility and gear down where I can see decently. I constantly scan for motion. Bucks that are up and walking are the vulnerable ones, but you have to see them and shoot before they detect you or slip from view. When everything clicks you’ll have a few seconds to convert an off-hand shot on a walking buck at 20 to 50 yards. In 2001 I shot a 147-inch 10-pointer that walked quietly out of a creek bottom 25 yards behind me. If I wasn’t scanning all directions I would not have seen that buck, much less shot him, before he slipped across my back trail into thick conifers.
A snowfall means it’s tracking time. I tracked and shot one eight-pointer within a quarter-mile of his bed, but many tracking attempts terminate at substantial creeks or bogs, or when daylight runs low. Tracking, like still-hunting, is most productive on the ridges where veins of open ledge rock increase visibility and allow you to walk silently. When you’re tracking and you top a rise, study the very next rise in the land–that’s where a buck may well stop to watch his back trail.
In warm years canoes and boats let you access country that is virtually unhunted, but usually the slower river sections and smaller lakes freeze in early November. The Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness is roadless and closed to logging, but scattered burns and blowdown zones support young browse. Much of the best browse is outside the designated wilderness in recently logged areas. I currently hunt the western end of the forest, northwest of Ely. Fisher and McKenzie topo maps, sold by many canoe outfitters in the area, will help get you into and out of the big country.
I camp on the forest and go prepared to hunt for a week or more. While recent seasons have been balmy, be ready for snow and nights near zero.
Minnesota’s gun hunt is earlier than those in surrounding states, making it an attractive opportunity for nonresidents, who pay $136 for a buck license.
Roughing it often is an integral part of any serious hunter’s Superior National Forest deer-hunting experience. The forest has 23 developed campgrounds and 16 rustic campgrounds, as well as a large number of back-country campsites located inside and outside the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness. Most of the developed campgrounds are open all year. Be aware, however, that regular maintenance ends after the Labor Day holiday weekend.
MINNESOTA DNR: 888-646-6367, www.dnr.state.mn.us
SUPERIOR NATIONAL FOREST: 218-626-4300, www.superiornationalforest.org
For more regional information, go to www.outdoorlife.com/regional