Is Saskatchewan Deer Hunting Overrated?

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The Canadian province is home to the world record typical buck, and for years Americans traveled there in hopes of North Woods monsters. Is it poised for a come-back?

Hanback killed his first Saskatchewan giant, 170 inches strong, in 1987, and he has been hunting the north country ever since. Image by Mike Hanback

On a cold, gray afternoon in Saskatchewan, Canada in 1987, a whitetail buck thick as a steer chased a doe into a pasture. I threw the .30-06 to my shoulder and fired; miraculously the beast went down in a heap.  

My knees shook as I walked up to the 300-pound deer. (Legit, we weighed him later on a cattle scale back at camp.) My heart jumped as I gripped the gnarly, mahogany antlers. Lord, I thought, I just shot a 170-inch buck.

I went home and wrote a story about the hunt for a major outdoor magazine. Two months later I got a call on my old landline from the outfitter.

“Please don’t write any more stories about your deer, I’ve gotten 3,000 letters asking to hunt up here next fall, and they’re still rolling in,” Bruce said. “I’m booked for the next 20 years!” This was in the days before email, websites and cell phones.

A few years later, resident Saskatchewan hunter Milo Hanson shot an amazing buck near his home that rocked the whitetail world. Scoring 213 5/8 net, it was the new world-record typical whitetail (and remains so to this day). Hundreds of magazines articles and the first hunting videos profiled the Hanson Buck (Realtree’s Bill Jordan was among the first to interview Hanson on camera, in Monster Bucks II). Milo appeared with the record mount at sportsmen’s shows across the United States.

The mad dash of Americans heading north to hunt for a dream buck was on.

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The Good Old Days

The mid-1990s to 2010 were the banner years. The few deer hunting outfitters operating in the province then filled their small camps with hunters from across the U.S. Many of them shot 250- to 300-pound bucks with gnarly, chocolate racks that scored 150 inches and up. Wild, seemingly mythical beasts that you couldn’t find down in the states.

I hunted Saskatchewan many times during those golden years, and while I didn’t shoot a buck on every trip, I did pretty good. Five years in a row I killed bucks that scored 162, 182, 177, 151 and, in 2010, a giant 15-pointer that grossed 209 inches.

Amazing. If anything, the hunting was underrated back then.

Bill Jordan and Milo Hanson poses with the world record typical whitetail, taken in Saskatchewan. Image by Realtree Media

The Lean Years

By 2010 people had figured out that whitetail hunting in Saskatchewan could be lucrative, to the tune of tens of millions of dollars a year. The provincial tourism department promoted the quest for “huge, wilderness bucks,” and wildlife officials allotted more tags to a growing number of outfitters to hunt deer on millions of acres of government forest in the northern half of the province.

New outfitters built huge lodges and booked 60 to more than 100 American hunters each November, charging $5,000 a pop to hunt a buck. It didn’t take long for the hunters to literally shoot out the mature, trophy bucks in many areas. Then they turned to shooting whatever buck they could take back home, and it was the death knell for many 3-year-old bucks with 120- to 135-inch racks.

You don’t spend upward of $10 grand to go to Saskatchewan to shoot a 130-inch buck. You look for the deer of a lifetime, 150 inches and up.

In the last decade, too much hunting pressure, along with the inevitable winter and wolf deer kills in the harsh environment, greatly diminished the buck age structure across Saskatchewan. I hunted up there 7 years in a row during that time. I shot one 150-inch buck and came home empty-handed many times. In 2018 I stopped going back. To say the hunting had become overrated is to put it mildly.

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During Saskatchewan's heyday in the 2000s, Hanback shot bucks in 5 straight seasons with a total of 881 inches of antler, including this 162-inch brute. Image by Mike Hanback

COVID and the Future

One of the only good things I can say about the brutal pandemic is that it might have saved Saskatchewan deer hunting, at least in the short term. In early 2020 Canada closed its border to Americans, and that virtually shut down the deer hunting in the province. Feeling no human pressure for the last 18 months, herds have expanded and the buck age structure has improved. Three- to 5-year-old bucks have matured, and many of them have grown huge racks. There are thousands more trophy deer roaming the bush today than in the last 20 years.        

That is why I’ll be shivering in a ground blind deep in the bush of north-western Saskatchewan the second week of November. The border reopened late this summer, and we American hunters are going back. I predict the good old days of Saskatchewan whitetail hunting are back, at least for the next 2 to 3 years. If you’ve been wanting to go, do it soon.

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