The bucket list
From Newfoundland caribou to Yukon moose, 13 must-do hunts of a lifetime.
Whether it’s coastal waterfowl marshes, wide-open prairie or high mountain passes where you can grab hold of the sky, Canada boasts a vast array of hunting destinations that are at once breathtaking, unmatched and unforgettable. Add in the incredibly wide diversity of game and the opportunities are seemingly endless. But what are this country’s ultimate hunts? The list is long, and to help narrow it down I’ve selected one extraordinary hunt for each province and territory—just some of the highlights of the awesome adventures that await.
For complete details on seasons, licensing and other regulations for the following hunts, please contact the relevant wildlife authorities listed below.
Newfoundland and Labrador
Looking down from atop Newfoundland’s Mount Sylvester, a patchwork of brooding black spruce forests, shimmering ponds and golden bogs stretches to the eastern horizon. At this elevation, barely 330 metres above sea level, the terrain below appears gently rolling and deceptively easy to traverse. But down on the deck, where scrubby, crotch-high brush resists every step, the land beneath your boots is often just a floating mat of vegetation. And with stunted spruce crowding the higher ground, it wouldn’t be hard to develop a loathing for this windblown land.
Fortunately, thanks to untold generations of caribou, game trails wind through the willow and Labrador tea, around the bogs and across the grey bedrock. Caribou are insular Newfoundland’s only indigenous deer, and during the 1990s, more than 90,000 wandered the woodlands. As has happened with most caribou populations across North America, however, Newfoundland’s herds were decimated around the turn of the millennium, leaving a relatively stable population of 32,000 head.
A third of those animals roam the Middle Ridge region of eastern Newfoundland. These are woodland caribou, the only huntable population of the species recognized by the Boone and Crockett Club. And the chances of getting a respectable woodland bull are good: 70 per cent in the general hunt, and even better if you book through an outfitter.
Getting a tag is the tough part. In order to manage the harvest, Newfoundland’s Department of Environment and Conservation allocated just 140 caribou hunting permits for this fall—79 for residents and the remainder for non-residents—but these allocations should increase as the population continues to recover.
More Info:Department of Environment and Conservation, 1-800-563-6181; www.env.gov.nl.ca
More Hunts: Black bears, ruffed and spruce grouse, white-tailed deer, willow ptarmigan
From Digby, the Annapolis Valley stretches some 130 kilometres northeast to Minas Basin, defined by the gentle ridges that shelter its lush farmlands from the Bay of Fundy to the north, and the Atlantic gales to the south. Small vegetable farms, grain fields, vineyards and pick-your-own orchards thrive in the valley, one of Canada’s three most important fruit-growing regions. It’s also home to the largest population of wild ring-necked pheasant east of the Mississippi, and some of the best hunting for truly wild birds.
Though not native, these pheasants are as cagey as a game bird can be. After all, they’ve been moulded by the bitter cold of winter and, more recently, the relentless hunger of coyotes. Attempts to establish self-sustaining populations of pheasant have been ongoing since the mid-1800s, but on the heels of every apparently successful program, ring-neck populations collapsed. Finally, in the early 1960s, Nova Scotia suspended pheasant stocking operations altogether. To everyone’s surprise, the birds began reproducing naturally and are now abundant throughout the valley.
Like pheasants everywhere, the gaudy Annapolis birds inhabit farmland, but since the six-week season traditionally opens at the beginning of November, most crops have already long been harvested. As a result, landowners typically grant permission to hunt, usually with hints on where to find the birds (there is no guide requirement for non-resident upland hunters). Pheasants can be walked up, but bird dogs are a definite asset. If you still have energy to spare after limiting out on two roosters, there are also plenty of ruffed grouse in the woodlots.
More Info: Department of Natural Resources, (902) 245-2164; www.gov.ns.ca/natr/hunt
More Hunts: Black bears, Canada geese, ducks, ruffed grouse, white-tailed deer, woodcock
From the time the province’s season opens in mid-September, there are woodcock in the alder thickets along the Saint John River Valley—resident birds that breed and grub for worms and larvae in the black loam of the bottomlands. They’re a challenge for the belled dogs as much as they are for the shooters, but if the weather has been kind, chances are a few tasty timberdoodles will already be in the game bags.
Once September slides into October, however, everything changes. Some years, the migration of northern birds starts just a few days into the month. Other years it might be mid-October before the flights arrive. When they do, the number of long-beaks swells tenfold, and the wingshooting is some of the best you can hope for. It lasts until the hard frosts hit in the latter part of the month, driving the flights south.
Most any covert is likely to hold migrating woodcock, but not every one does. The trick is having a string of five to 10 coveted patches that you can hit in succession. The chances are always good you’ll find a few local birds, but when you come to a site that has a flight, the chalk marks—those splatters of white goop woodcock expel on the flush—are your clue you’ve hit the jackpot. Resident hunters accumulate these patches over the seasons afield, but non-residents are obliged to hunt with a guide or hunter-host, and they usually have their own preferred hunting spots all lined up.
More Info: Department of Natural Resources, (506) 453-3826; www.gnb.ca/naturalresources
More hunts: Canada geese, ducks, ruffed and spruce grouse, white-tailed deer
Prince Edward Island
Wild Goose Outfitters
Year in and year out, P.E.I. farmers dig upward of 1.3 million metric tonnes of potatoes from the island’s warm red soil to sate our craving for french fries. In the process, they also lay out a feast for some 75,000 hungry Canada geese migrating from the northern muskeg to their wintering grounds. In late September, they arrive in long skeins from across the Gulf of St. Lawrence, breaking formation over the red bluffs of the island and parachuting into the rich farmland of the Cavendish region.
The geese stage in sheltered bays along the north coast for a month or more, hopping inland to gorge. For the waterfowler, this is the ultimate adrenalin rush. Imagine climbing into your pit blind in the middle of the field, enveloped by the musty fragrance of the earth. To the northwest, you make out the distant clamour of thousands of geese. A light morning breeze kicks up and with it, the chatter from the northwest becomes louder. Then, as the sunlight floods across the field, the flocks lift off one by one, headed inland to feed and water—and soon you can make out the first birds winging toward your acre of heaven.
Is P.E.I. goose shooting a sure thing? It depends. You’ll see geese and you’ll hear geese, but a change in wind or the inexplicable whim of a lead bird can make the difference between a day of quick limits and an empty game bag. Islanders can hunt on their own, but folks from across the Confederation Bridge need to book through a licensed guide or hunt with a local friend.
More Info: Department of Environment, Energy and Forestry, (902) 368-5000; www.gov.pe.ca/envengfor
More Hunts: Black ducks, grey partridge, ruffed grouse, woodcock
SepaqSet in the stormy waters of the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Anticosti Island boasts the highest concentration of white-tailed deer in Canada. With a population conservatively estimated at 166,000, and an average density of 21 deer per square kilometre, Anticosti ranks with the deer-rich counties of the American deep south.
At first glance, this windswept island of stunted black spruce forests and free-stone salmon streams resembles the moose and caribou country of the Quebec North Shore, from which it calved. But that didn’t concern Henri Menier, a wealthy businessman and sportsman from France who bought the island in the late 1800s. Over several years, he introduced moose, elk, caribou, bison, white-tailed deer and an ark’s worth of smaller animals. Of these, the moose have survived and, in the absence of predators, the deer have thrived.
In 1974, the Quebec government purchased Anticosti and continued to operate it as a wildlife reserve, with the Société des établissements de plein air du Québec—the crown corporation also known as Sépac—as its primary outfitter. Additionally, five privately owned lodges offer deer hunts on leased territories, providing a range of services from very basic, unguided hunts to full-service guided experiences.
But how’s the hunting? Fabulous. My druthers are for the unguided packages where I can come and go as I please. I’m a still-hunter and Anticosti Island, with its many trails and swampy meadows, is ideal for that kind of hunting. Filling your two allotted tags is usually not a problem, but the four-by-fours and five-by-fives require a bit more work.
More Info: Sépaq Anticosti, 1-800-665-6527; www.sepaq.com/sepaq-anticosti
More hunts: Canada geese, ducks, moose, ruffed and spruce grouse
Military Hunting and Fishing
Without question, central Ontario now offers the best opportunity to take a wild Eastern turkey in Canada, with 80,000 to 100,000 of the big birds currently inhabiting their traditional range and beyond. It’s an amazing success story, since the last of the province’s native wild turkeys disappeared in 1909. Today’s birds largely descend from the 274 turkeys captured in adjacent states and bartered for Ontario moose, otters and grouse between 1984 and 1987.
The undulating highland region on the shores of Georgian Bay, from Lake Simcoe west to Collingwood, is among the most successful reintroduction sites. It has everything an Eastern wild turkey could want, with just the right balance of hardwood ridges and second-growth lowlands, all in close proximity to farmland. As a result, turkey gunners have a reasonable chance of tagging a mature tom in classic gobbler country, either during the traditional spring hunt or the either-sex fall hunt.
Most of the region’s land is privately owned, with a patchwork of farms and hobby acreages, where landowners may or may not be inclined to grant permission to hunt. An alternative is the Simcoe County Forest network. Scattered across 16 municipalities, it offers 31,000 acres of public access, with a mandate to foster responsible hunting.
The key to a successful wild turkey hunt is how much scouting you’re willing to do ahead of the season. If you can team up with friends or family members who live in the region, so much the better. Another option is to book one of Ontario’s several turkey guides, who work hard at locating birds and getting access to private property long before opening day.
More Info: Ministry of Natural Resource, 1-800-667-1940;www.mnr.gov.on.ca
More Hunts: Canada geese, ducks, Grey partridge, pheasant, ruffed grouse, white-tailed deer, woodcock
If you want a jaw-dropping black bear, possibly a cinnamon phase or chocolate, and a story to go with it, Manitoba’s western Parkland Region is the place to be. This is textbook bear country: gently rolling Canadian Shield with scattered lakes and ponds, aspen groves and spruce thickets. And there are enough bears around to encounter at least a handful in a week’s hunt.
What makes this area extra special? For one thing, between 40 and 50 per cent of the region’s share of the province’s 30,000 bruins vary from a rich dark chocolate to cinnamon to blond, each unique in its own right. Then there’s the size. Manitoba bears grow at the same rate as black bears in the rest of the continent, with a two-year-old likely weighing around 200 pounds. And in the spring, a mature six-year-old boar can bump the 550-pound mark, just like anywhere else. The difference is that year after year, a surprisingly disproportionate number of big boars taken here nudge the record books.
That’s due in part to the high bear density of the region, as well as the legal use of baits during the eight-week spring season. Though a contentious practice in some quarters, hunting over bait sites provides an opportunity to better judge if a bear is male or female, and whether it’s mature or has yet to reach full stature.
Several outfitters offer spring bear hunts throughout the region. Although Canadian residents are permitted to hunt on their own, outfitters can honestly boast a high rate of success, with book animals taken every year.
More Info: Conservation and Water Stewardship, 1-800-214-6497; www.gov.mb.ca/conservation
More Hunts: Elk, moose, ruffed and spruce grouse, white-tailed deer
Picture this: You’re hunkered down in a pit blind, sheltered against the buffeting ground wind, still cool from the morning frost. You hear the sing-song flutes and yelps of approaching white-fronted geese from the far corner of the stubble field, and instinctively duck out of sight. But then you catch yourself, grin and enjoy another sip of coffee, still hot from the Thermos. You can allow yourself the luxury. After all, you’ve already limited out on dark geese—whitefronts by preference and four Canadas to top up the quota of eight. And though you’re still short your limit of 20 white geese, you’ve already taken all you care to.
Far-fetched? Actually, no. That’s a fairly common experience during October when wave after wave of tundra-nesting geese show up in Canada’s heartland to feast on windrowed crops. Among them are upward of 700,000 whitefronts (known locally as specklebellies or barbellies) and, to sweeten the pie, big Canada geese and countless puddle ducks proliferating the potholes. Do your scouting to locate the field where the hosts are feeding, set up before first light and, if nothing goes awry, the shoot will be spectacular.
That goes for most of southern Saskatchewan and well into southern Alberta, but the greatest concentrations are around Lake Diefenbaker, southwest of Saskatoon. Canadian residents can hunt on their own, but this is privately owned land so you’ll need permission. For newcomers to the game, hiring a guide or outfitter is a great way to button up a memorable hunt.
More Info: Ministry of Environment, 1-800-567-4224, www.environment.gov.sk.ca
More Hunts: Grey partridge, mule deer (residents only), pheasant, Sandhill cranes, sharp-tailed grouse, white-tailed deer
Alberta Fish & Game Association
Wedged between ranch land and the craggy spires of the Rocky Mountains, Alberta’s foothills stretch northwest in a series of rolling hills and long ridges, forming a perfect blend of aspen parklands, lodgepole forests, montane meadows and mountain streams that braid, gather and become rivers. This is country where you could gladly lose yourself wandering the game trails that wind up to subalpine basins, afire with autumn colours. Deer, moose and bear thrive here, and when the dog days of summer play out, the madding bugles of bull elk echo off the mountainsides.
Aside from a few herds that have expanded eastward into the plains, most of Alberta’s 26,000 elk are here in the foothills. Mature herd bulls carry the massive, long-tined antlers typical of the Rocky Mountain subspecies and, if you’re impressed by such things, they dominate the first several pages of the record books.
For a mega-dose of adrenalin, it’s hard to beat the first two weeks of September when the bulls are in full bugle, and only the archery seasons are open in most management units. Firearms seasons begin between the middle and end of the month, once the bugle tapers off. Albertans and Canadian non-residents accompanied by a host hunter can hunt on their own; hunters from outside Canada need to book through a guide-outfitter. While there is access via a number of resource roads, the best elk hunting is well beyond the path, either by all-terrain vehicle (check the regulations) or on foot. Go there on horseback with a packhorse in tow, however, and you’ll never want to leave.
More info: Ministry of Environment and Sustainable Resource Development, 1-877-944-0313; esrd.alberta.ca
More hunts: Black bears, blue, ruffed and spruce grouse, moose, mule deer, white-tailed deer, willow ptarmigan
No matter how you look at it, Chilcotin Country is as good as it gets. You’ll never have a problem finding a country music station on the radio, fresh-washed Levis are considered dress pants and monster mulies roam the high country. True, there are plenty of mule deer in the lower ridges of this rolling plateau, with its cattle ranches, lodgepole forests and glacier-fed rivers. But to find the big, heavy-racked bucks, you’ll need to scale the Chilcotin’s ring of mountains, where the air is cool and damp, and snow squalls rake the peaks, even in early September.
Yes, it does sound much like sheep hunting, with the prime alpine meadows above the treeline at elevations topping 1,800 metres. There you’re as apt to bump into a band of California bighorns as you are a bachelor group of trophy-class mulies. In these wild and windswept heights, the browse is rich and succulent, and predators—including hunters—are few.
This is spot-and-stalk hunting, and you might glass the alpine meadows for several days before you locate a deer. But when you do, there’s every chance it will carry a 150-class rack or better. You’ll always remember hunting in this spectacular high country, with its patchwork of vibrant yellow, orange and brown, the rest of the world far below you.
Resident hunters, as well as Canadian residents accompanied by a hunter-host, can do this hunt on their own. However, a number of guide-outfitters in the area offer experiences ranging from basic horse packing to full-service hunts, the latter mostly for non-residents from outside Canada.
More info: Fish, Wildlife and Habitat Management Branch, (250) 387-9771); www.env.gov.bc.ca/fw
More hunts: Bighorn sheep, black bear, blue, ruffed and spruce grouse, elk, goat, moose, white-tailed deer, willow ptarmigan
Big Game Hunting Adventures
These animals are huge, but you don’t realize just how huge until you see one in the wild, awed by its sheer mass, the breadth of its heavy-beamed antlers and the other-worldly beauty of its surroundings. There are no exaggerations here. The Alaska-Yukon moose—designated as Alces alces gigas—has been moulded into as big an animal as the habitat will allow. Bulls typically stand more than six feet tall at the withers, measure 10 feet long or more and, at maturity, weigh upward of 1,500 pounds. The antlers, with their distinctly palmate brow palm, can spread as much as seven feet—though between five and six feet is most common—and weigh between 45 and 65 pounds.
The stronghold of these giants is, as the name implies, Alaska and Yukon. Outnumbering humans two to one, about 70,000 moose call Yukon home, with some of the best hunting along the 320-kilometre-long Macmillan River, roughly 265 kilometres northeast of Whitehorse as the crow flies. Access is by way of the Klondike Highway, which meets the Pelly River at Pelly Crossing a short distance downstream from the confluence of the Macmillan, or via Canol Road, which crosses the South Macmillan north of Ross River. The outfitter operating on the Macmillan shuttles hunters in by single-engine aircraft for both river hunts and horseback trips back from the river.
Yukon residents have the option of hunting on their own or taking a guided hunt, but Canadian non-residents will need to either hunt with a resident hunter-host (only once every three years) or a guide-outfitter.
More info: Environment Yukon, (867)-667-5652; www.env.gov.yk.ca
More hunts: Black and grizzly bears, grouse, mountain caribou, ptarmigan, Stone’s sheep (some Dall’s and Fannin’s)
Above the 60th parallel, the Mackenzie Mountains sweep 800 kilometres northward into the Northwest Territories. On the east, they’re bordered by the north-flowing river of the same name, and their western slope is in the Yukon. For sheep hunters, the towering spires and impossible scree slopes are the stuff of dreams. It’s a rugged land where the high crags and alpine basins are home to roughly 20,000 Dall’s sheep—named in honour of naturalist William H. Dall—with a high number of trophy rams older than 10 years.
They’re stunning animals, these white sheep of the northern mountains. Though less massive than those of a bighorn, the horns of Dall’s sheep are elegant, flaring outward, frequently in full curls or better. Almost everyone willing to do what it takes has reasonable opportunity to take a legal ram, but this is tough country. Hunts involve gruelling 600-metre climbs day after day, the questionable comfort of flimsy spike tents, sweltering midday heat and bone-chilling cold after dark. In terms of grit and determination on the part of the hunter, each of the 200-plus rams taken yearly in the Mackenzie Mountains counts as a trophy.
Unless you’ve been a resident of the N.W.T. for two years, a guided sheep hunt will run you $20,000, plus travel to the N.W.T., accommodation before and after the hunt, government trophy fees and gratuities. Access is by air from Norman Wells on the Yukon side, or from Fort Simpson to the east.
More info: Department of Environment and Natural Resources, (867) 873-7500; www.enr.gov.nt.ca
More hunts: Black and grizzly bear, caribou, grouse, moose, mountain caribou, mountain goats, ptarmigan
As the driving snow of yet another late-August squall stings your eyes, you catch a faint movement, then a looming form. The squall lifts for a moment, revealing a creature straight out of the ice ages. As its shaggy, dark chocolate fur sways in the wind, two beady eyes glare menacingly in your direction, framed by long, wickedly curving horns designed by nature for disembowelling. The creature stands almost as tall as you, and probably weighs half a ton. Before the veil of snow closes in again, the barren landscape, strewn with grey, weathered boulders, seems otherworldly. And when the squall finally passes, the place where the creature stood is now empty. You’ve just had a close encounter with one of Canada’s most remarkable big-game animals: a mature muskox.
This is one trip that’s way off the radar for most Canadian hunters—an incredible hunt in the barrens inside the Arctic Circle. Even with a price tag of six to seven grand, plus airfare and extras, this is one guided hunt with great value for the cost.
One of the largest land masses in Canada’s western Arctic archipelago, Victoria Island is home to more than 50,000 muskoxen. The gateway for hunt operations, including the island’s caribou, is Cambridge Bay, with a population of 1,900 hardy souls. From there, hunters are shuttled to camps three to four hours up the coast, and most fill their tags within two days of spot-and-stalk hunts. This is a rigorous hunt that few have contemplated, much less experienced. Pity.
More info: Department of Environment, (867) 975-7700; www.gov.nu.ca
More hunts: Barren ground caribou, rock ptarmigan
Award-winning Outdoor Canada contributor George Gruenefeld has hunted across Canada.
Another great article brought to you by