By Michael Deming
A buck pole full of big mature whitetails is something you usually see in faded black and white pictures. They are memories of the days when big bucks were more abundant, even though most people shot the first deer they saw. Hunting wasn’t as focused on trophies, although they still existed for a few. Today, parties of hunters head to the woods in November to fill their freezers as well as build memories. Evenings around the campfire, listening to stories from the older generations, is what gives the next generation the vision of getting their turn at hunting those old, mossy-antlered giants.
Being a western hunter, I was always intrigued with these good-old-days opportunities in the hardwoods. When I got out of the Marine Corps in the early 90's, I even made a trek to Michigan to hunt. On a shoestring budget, I hit the woods with high optimism of getting my own giant. I spent the better part of five days in a tree hoping for a giant, but never even saw much more than a small 6-point. My optimism faded with time, but my hopes of putting myself in a better hunting situation in the future was born.
The next day, I made a stop at the local sporting goods store and saw lots of great mounts on the wall. I spoke with one of the store employees and he said, “You should be hunting the Sanctuary. They harvest some of the biggest whitetails around.”
I found a brochure at the front of the store and gave them a call. The gentleman on the other line said that I was fairly close to their operation and should stop by to discuss hunting opportunities. I was so excited to think that I might get an invite to hunt such a prestigious place. I found the place and it looked like a serious hunting camp. The cabin was pumping smoke out the chimney to take the chill off of the November day. As I walked in, there were mounts of giant whitetails that made my jaw drop nearly to the floor. I got to sit down with a gentleman and talk about the opportunities they provided. It quickly became obvious that this wasn’t a place I was going to just get permission to hunt, but I had to pay. Since I was just getting started in my career after spending eight years as an underpaid Marine, I knew anything more than a few hundred bucks was definitely out of my budget. However, the fire it kindled in me to return someday and experience this great hunting destination was something that never smoldered.
I finally decided in 2017 that it was time to check this trip off of my bucket list. I had visited with Ryan Bollman and his team at the Safari Club show in Vegas for several years about hunting opportunities for the coming years. Each year they would display the giant bucks taken with them on the previous season. The demand to hunt the Sanctuary was so high, I was going to need to reserve my own spot a full year out. I planned the trip and started the clock ticking. It had been 25 years since I first set foot in the Sanctuary and my anticipation of the November rut hunt was worse than a five-year-old at Christmas.
When I arrived at the lodge in November, things looked much different than it had from my first visit, but the feel was still “old style hunting camp”. The leaves had pretty much fallen off of the trees and the air was cold. Pulling up to the cabin, smoke was again pumping out from the wood stove. The meat pole outside was empty and the firepit staged, ready for another great evening of storytelling. I already felt like my dream had come true in checking this off of my bucket list.
Many of the week’s guests were already at the lodge. Nearly everyone had been here more than one time and some of them had been returning for decades. In most cases, showing up to hunting camp as an outsider can be very intimidating. That was not the case here at the Sanctuary though, and before lunch was over, I felt that I had a new group of hunting buddies. Everyone was happy to share their stories of years and decades of hunting experience with this family-run operation.
The evening hunt greeted us with high winds, driven rain, and pure cold. Mike Kolenda, a.k.a. “Puck” was going to be our guide for the week and he knew exactly where we were going to go. We still hunted through some of the hardwoods until just before sunset and then we slipped into a blind where a big mature 10-point had been hanging out. Although we saw plenty of deer, I didn’t see anything worthy of my tag, especially on day one.
When we got back to camp, the outside bonfire was raging and many of the hunters had already started to gather around with stories of sightings for the evening. Word got back to Puck that two of the hunters had connected on great deer. Everyone waited with anticipation as the trucks pulled in to share their success. A couple of absolute monsters had been harvested and were on display for all to see. Reliving the stories of the event was almost as good as getting it done myself and reaffirmed that this was a traditional hunting camp that I was very happy to be part of, regardless of the outcome of my hunt. A few minutes later, we were notified that dinner was ready.
This is where things began to get a bit different from your traditional deer camp. We were greeted with a plate of Alaskan King Crab and a juicy filet with all the fixin’s. This was a first-night dinner, so I figured that we were getting the red-carpet treatment, but we found that every dinner was equally good, or better, as we had everything from roasted quail to lobster tails with complete four and five course meals. To say we ate like kings during our stay would definitely be an understatement.
Sitting in a blind or stand for hours on end isn’t very fulfilling for my western hunter personality, but Puck was always willing to accommodate us. We still hunted and rattled during all of the prime-time periods, except when there was a better situation to harvest a target buck. With hunters filling tags each and every day, we were constantly getting feedback of other bucks that had been seen. The rut was in full swing and it wasn’t uncommon to see 10-20 bucks on a prime-time hunt. I just hadn’t seen one that truly grabbed me. I wanted a big mature deer with lots of mass, and hopefully not broken.
On one rattling session, we had a possible candidate buck coming on a string. The wind was perfect and he was looking for the fight that he thought was going on. He closed the distance from several hundred yards down to less than 30 in a matter of minutes. Although this deer was a solid 10-point with some extra points and probably north of 180” B&C, he just lacked something that I was looking for. I think more than anything else, I just wanted to continue hunting.
We were down to the last day of the hunt and in most cases, people would feel the pressure of going home with tag soup. However, I was in the moment and enjoying the experience of being at the Sanctuary more than just getting worried about harvesting a buck. It was as if I was living a dream.
The morning turned out to be a bust and the high winds had the deer hunkered down and not moving. I informed Puck and Ryan that I’m usually a “last light of the last night” kind of guy and that I wasn’t even remotely worried about it. Even if I didn’t get a buck, I was elated with the experience and would definitely be back in the future.
Puck said it had been a couple of days since the big-framed dropper buck had been seen, but Ryan had been out looking for us that morning and thought he got a glimpse of him at one of the other properties. We decided to go all-in and see if this guy would show at a blind sitting in a field before we ran out of daylight.
We got into the blind fairly early since the rut was in full swing. We hadn’t been sitting very long when does and small bucks started funneling out into the fields. Behind the field was a creek and a hill that provided good bedding. As the sun got closer to the horizon, doubt started to creep into my mind that I just might not get one. As if being smacked into reality, Puck said, “I think I see a good buck down in the creek”. My western mind wanted to get out of the blind and go try to make something happen, but Puck assured us that staying put was a good play.
We kept seeing flashes of two big mature bucks chasing a hot doe down by the creek, but we never got a big enough window to judge them or even get a shot. The sun finally set and now the clock was definitely ticking.
I was getting worried when we had eaten up half of our last thirty minutes, especially when I hadn’t seen either one of the bucks since a minute after sunset. I strained, looking into the low light of the creek with my Zeiss binos until my eyes hurt. I pulled my head away from them and looked quickly out the right side of the blind. Coming in from behind us was my dream buck. He had mass for days, with long beams and completely intact. On top of that, as he gave us a quick glance, he had about a 6” drop-tine on his right side. Puck said, “That’s him, kill him”. I had already made that commitment. This was the buck we were here to target on our last night and we still had at least 10-minutes of legal shooting light. I put the crosshairs of my .26 Nosler behind his shoulder and squeezed the trigger. The buck didn’t make it twenty yards before he expired.
After a good field photo session, I finally got my evening as the hero when we pulled into the yard. Everyone at the lodge was cheering for my success. I got to sit around the firepit with a whopper whitetail story of my own. I had once again got it done on the last light of the last night, but more importantly, I got to hunt every possible minute I was at the Sanctuary. It fulfilled a 25-year-old dream and was way more than I could have ever imagined.
Yes, the Sanctuary (231-972-7722) is an old-style hunting camp with all the comforts of home. You might show up an outsider, but you will definitely leave as part of the family. I’m sure after you make your visit, you will be just like me and be booking your next trip before you leave.