Across the wilds of Canada every autumn, feisty male moose, caribou, elk and deer wage battle with their impressive antlers. It’s an ancient ritual, driven by the animals’ instinctual desire to establish dominance—and earn the right to breed. It’s also a remarkable feat of nature that these racks of bone are grown and shed annually. But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of antlers is that no matter which species they belong to, no two sets are alike. No wonder hunters have long been enchanted by these iconic crowns of the wilderness. Here’s what you need to know to make them your own.
These vagabonds of the tundra grow astonishing racks atop bodies that can weigh more than 400 pounds. Most impressive are bulls with double-shovel brows, palmate uppers and multi-tined bez—the branched portions of the rack that extend forward from the main beam above the brow shovels.
Barren-ground caribou are the most gregarious of all ungulates, living and travelling in vast herds, which can make for a very dramatic rut. Like other antlered species, the bulls strip the velvet from their hardened antlers by thrashing shrubbery—a behaviour they continue throughout the autumn as a display of dominance directed at competing males.
Before the rut, mature bulls live in separate social groups than the females. By early autumn, there are plenty of ritualistic sparring bouts between members of a bachelor group as they test their antlers and hone their technique for the October rut. Caribou do not form harems, despite sometimes congregating in significant numbers. Instead, a bull tends and breeds one female at a time.
The rut can be intense in the land of the barren-ground caribou, as autumn may only last a few weeks and winter can hit hard and fast. Bulls expend an incredible amount of energy during this amorous time and are often left physically depleted. Many can become vulnerable to predators with the quick onset of winter.
When it comes to antlered species, caribou are the exception because the females can also sprout a rack—albeit very short and spindly compared with the male headgear. The function of these slight female antlers is unclear.
A successful caribou hunt requires good planning and timing to locate the animals. Although bulls are quite vocal during the rut, calling is not a common hunting technique. When there are typically plenty of females in sight, a bull will rarely trot off to investigate the sound of another male.
Instead, focus on finding the animals, then carefully stalk within range with your gun or bow. Always stay downwind and never reveal your silhouette against the skyline. And be sure to bring suitable gear and outerwear that can handle the wind, rain and cold.
Barren-ground caribou roam a magnificent landscape, where the open, rolling tundra can appear endless. Hunting these resilient beasts is about experiencing the rhythm of this magical land and the timelessness of the
caribou themselves—all within the brief window of the North’s autumn.
Moose are the largest antlered beasts on the planet, with a driving mass that can top 1,800 pounds. That means their palmate racks are equally gigantic, able to withstand tremendous force. The antlers of the Alaska-Yukon giants, for example, can span 80 mind-blowing inches and weigh more than 60 pounds.
Seasoned moose hunters consider antlers measuring more than 50 inches wide to be in the trophy category—the world record is just over 65 inches, sporting incredible upper palms and lower brows. Bulls reach maturity at around six years of age, but grow the largest racks when
they’re approximately 10 years old. Prime-aged Alaska-Yukon bulls sport wide, sweeping antlers with larger, whiter palms than the three other subspecies inhabiting Canada’s more-forested regions. These brutes of the Yukon use their oversized palms as giant reflectors, catching the sun to make them visible from kilometres away—in the northern taiga, it’s the females that locate the males.
As the foliage turns crimson, heralding the arrival of the Yukon’s brief autumn, cow moose search out the biggest bulls and congregate around them in harems, swooning in their urine-soaked wallows and competing for attention. This polygamous breeding pattern allows these northernmost moose to concentrate their mating efforts into the short autumn, where the transition from summer to a snow-covered landscape can be condensed into a few weeks.
The other three moose subspecies—Shiras, North-Western and Eastern—grow somewhat smaller, narrower racks with less robust palms. Many speculate this enables them to move more easily through forests of stout mature trees. Still, the antlers are impressive.
Ranging from B.C. east to Newfoundland, these moose demonstrate rutting behaviour that more closely resembles the white-tailed deer—one male will search out a single female in heat then mate with her for a few days. When the cow is no longer receptive, the bull will quickly move on to find another opportunity to pass on his genes.
Find a meadow where there’s fresh sign, such as huge tracks, rubbed and thrashed shrubbery or a fresh wallow, and make several cow moose bawls to lure in a lovesick bull. Calling will work throughout mating season unless the suitor is already engaged. Cooler days are best, as moose are never as active when it’s unseasonably warm.
Since bulls thrash shrubbery with their paddles to announce their presence to rivals, mimicking the sound can also lure in a big bull.
The haunting bugle of a rutting bull elk in the predawn stillness should bring goosebumps to anyone with a pulse. By far the most vocal of Canada’s antlered stags, a 1,000-pound rutting bull elk is an incredible force to behold. Not only does the second-largest antlered species in the world have a soaring, majestic rack, it can also exhibit speed and agility rarely found in an animal of its size.
Elk stags are so fast, powerful and relentless that an all-out elk fight is the epitome of wilderness combat. Testosterone-charged bulls have even been known to ram freight trains in their quest for dominance.
During mating season in late September, female elk congregate in harems devoted to the biggest and most vocal bulls. Inferior males in the neighbourhood will try to steal some of the females, a stressful annoyance the dominant bull must contend with day and night throughout the rut. Defending a harem can exhaust even the largest of bulls, slowly wearing them down, sometimes to the point where challengers can displace them before the rut is over.
A prime-aged bull boasting a hefty 6×6 rack is considered a trophy in most regions of Canada, but some bulls possess superior genetics and can grow even bigger antlers—a rare 7×7 monarch is one of hunting’s most coveted beasts of the wild. On occasion, bulls can even sprout additional points and become non-typical.
Western Canada has long been—and remains—the destination of choice for elk hunters. In recent years, however, a small pocket of Ontario has been offering an exciting hunt for residents lucky enough to draw a tag. These eastern elk were reintroduced from Alberta, so the bulls can rival those from the West when it comes to size.
Calling is the ticket to finding a dominant bull. Try a couple of locator bugles, and when you receive the eerie reply, chime in with some cow calls. This will hopefully seal the deal and convince the overzealous bull that he’s going
to get lucky. If the bull buys into your serenade, you could be in for one of the most exhilarating hunts of a lifetime. Backcountry expeditions may be necessary to find monster bulls in regions with considerable hunting pressure.
The most abundant, adaptable and popular of Canada’s antlered species, white-tailed deer are found coast to coast and continue to expand farther north. The bucks are rugged, tenacious battlers that can weigh as much as 400 pounds, although most mature bruisers have a field weight of 250 to 300 pounds.
The mass, width and height of the antlers all factor into a white-tailed buck’s success as it climbs the dominance hierarchy. Some rack formations provide a distinct advantage when it comes to battle. Wide racks, which can measure two feet across, make for impressive whitetail headgear, but I’ve found that bucks with tall racks are the most successful when the gloves come off. Their antlers simply give them a longer reach and can easily injure their adversary’s eyes, face and neck—and bring a quick end to the battle.
Fighting aside, white-tailed bucks also use their antlers to vigorously rub trees within their territory to broadcast their presence—glands on the buck’s forehead deposit a unique musk onto the exposed tree cambium to create scent-laden signposts. For this relatively quiet antlered species, scent is the key means of communication during the November rut.
Most whitetail racks have a typical symmetry, where one antler closely mirrors the other. Sometimes, you’ll find non-typical bucks, where the racks may have several unmatched sticker points, branched tines or even drop tines. These are rare and coveted by many hunters.
Many hunters consider whitetails to be Canada’s toughest trophy animal to acquire, given its reclusive and wary nature. On the flipside, big bucks are geographically and economically accessible to most Canadian hunters. Plus, they’re one of the most exciting big-game animals to pursue, not only due to their incredibly sharp senses and agility, but also because of the array of hunting tactics you can employ.
Whitetail behavioural patterns undergo distinct changes through the pre-rut, rut and post-rut; you need to study these mood swings as the season progresses to stay in stride with a buck’s changing travel and feeding patterns. The most common and successful strategy is to study the land to decipher the feeding areas, bedding hideouts and corresponding travel corridors the deer use. A carefully placed ambush site on the downwind side of the action is an excellent tactic for success.
Mule deer inhabit the prairies of Saskatchewan, west across the plains to the foothills and mountain regions of Alberta and B.C. Prime-aged males have tremendous, wide-sweeping antlers that are doubleforked. The biggest-bodied bucks can tip the scales at more than 400 pounds.
Mulies are more gregarious than whitetails and derive their name from their larger ears. The way they flee is different as well—they don’t so much run as they bounce, as though on springs, making for a faster escape in hilly or mountainous terrain.
As well, the mule deer’s body and antler dimensions are typically bigger than those of the whitetail. For many hunters, the benchmark for a trophy rack is a 30-inch outside spread. Not all prime-aged bucks have the genetic backbone to develop wide racks, however, and may make up for the lack of width with heavy mass or more height.
As with whitetails, there are typical and non-typical mule deer racks, although typical antlers are far more common. Whitetails often out-compete mulies where the two species overlap, but up in the alpine valleys, mule deer don’t have to contend with the rambunctious lowlanders.
It’s no small effort to place the crosshairs on a mature bruiser in high-elevation timber. Pack light but be prepared for inclement weather, and always carry drinking water. A good pair of spotting binoculars can be very useful on these hunting adventures.
One proven approach is to still-hunt the downwind side of east-facing slopes at dawn while the deer are actively feeding in the mountain meadows. Use the lodgepole pine and fir trees to conceal your movement, and don’t rush the process—mistakes can be costly in this steep and craggy terrain.
Despite what mountain hunting purists might say, giant mulies can also be taken in the foothills and around prairie croplands. But many of these easy-access regions of mule deer country are subject to higher hunter pressure, which in turn can lead to fewer mature animals. For those who persevere, therefore, hunting mule deer in the steep ridges of mountain habitat generally proves to be the most rewarding option.
Early autumn typically finds massive mulies in higher elevations. By mid-November, however, many heavy-beamed bucks descend from the thinner air to search for does in heat while avoiding accumulating snows up top.