The true spirit of Safari Club International lives on at the Sanctuary in Michigan. It is a hunting camp in the best tradition. And much, much more.
There is a saying at the Sanctuary: “Because there’s more to the hunt than the kill.” It is easy, however, not to understand exactly how much more there really is until one experiences all that the Sanctuary has to offer.
Although any hunt at the Sanctuary is memorable and a highlight in every way, truth is that it takes several expeditions to that whitetail deer hunting paradise to begin to really comprehend the totality of it.
During a trip there this past fall, I had the pleasure of meeting again with a number of the world’s foremost big game hunters. And when I asked what it was that kept bringing them back, year after year, both their words and enthusiasm made clear that it is, in their own words, THE place to hunt each year.
Other hunters there at the time included Stan and Pamela Atwood, Arthur Gutierrez, Buck and Ann Woodruff, John Eddie Williams, Kim Kauffman, Dan Baker and Bob Chiusano.
“It’s not just that they have great whitetails and fantastic whitetail hunting – it is the whole experience, the atmosphere,” said Stan and Pamela Atwood, who have been hunting regularly at the Sanctuary since the 1980s.
“It’s been a wonderful experience,” Pamela said. “Every year I look forward to this hunt. It’s like a family.”
“You have certain expectations in a hunt,” she explained. “I expect the best and I get the best. I’m not interested in going anywhere else.”
Atwood explained that at the 1986 SCI convention, he was looking for a whitetail operation. “I was with Rick Martin (New Mexico outfitter),” he said, noting that Martin introduced him to Pat Bollman, founder of the Sanctuary and subsequently President of SCI. Atwood recalled how he has been there as the Sanctuary has evolved. In the early days, he noted, a big deer measured 150 to 160. Several years ago, they went to 250 and this year have gone to over 300.
“This is the only high fence hunting we do,” Atwood noted. “It’s an adventure. It stands alone and apart from the others.”
Buck and Ann Woodruff have been going since November of 2007. They started going to Sanctuary after she bought a hunt there at the Sables luncheon at the SCI convention. Both are Hunter Legacy Fund members, and Buck is a member of the Board of Directors of SCI Foundation.
“It’s like coming home,” said Ann Woodruff. “You know everybody. They have an amazing talent of matching personalities. All the people get extra special attention.”
“You grow into the Sanctuary,” explained Buck Woodruff. “A lot of the hunters see each other twice a year – at the Sanctuary for a deer hunt and at the SCI convention.
“It’s where you can hang out,” he continued. “The camaraderie is here. Everything from the physical plant to roads and traditions are all here. It’s so special and they keep it special. It’s easy to be yourself here. This place is just right.”
“It feels like we are going to our own property when we come here,” Buck said. “It’s an island of sanctuary. This you can count on like putting on your shoes every morning. The comfort of knowing exactly what is going to happen. Friendships fire up.”
“Everybody, when they can, they come back,” Ann noted. “I like the flexibility. It’s comfortable.”
“The genius, ingenuity of Pat Bollman and family assure this place will last forever,” Buck stressed. “You can count on it being very stable. I feel very lucky to be here. The people here are of tremendous character.
“Staff self initiative is incredible here,” he continued. “They love it. This is a place in their heart here. You don’t have to be big and fancy to be special.”
“From the first time Denise and I went to Sanctuary in 2006, we knew it was very special and have not missed a year since,” said Brian Welker. “Why is that? It’s not because of the big deer, it’s not because of the lodging, it’s not because the deer are wild and running free on their properties, it’s because of the family atmosphere we were treated to from the moment they all came out of the lodge to greet us.”
“Ryan Bollman, General Manager at Sanctuary, and my wife’s guide, gets a special thanks from me for helping my wife with her shooting confidence as only someone who is NOT the husband can do,” Welker said. “Ryan and his wife Erin (because behind every man is a great woman), and the entire Sanctuary team will see us every year until our trigger fingers don’t work any more.”
Sanctuary founder Pat Bollman, a developer, explained how the ranch came to be. In the beginning, he had no idea that it would turn into a place that literally has defined for the entire industry how such a hunting preserve can and should operate.
It started out, he explained, when he had an opportunity to acquire a good size piece of land. What to do with it? That was in 1977.
Bollman recalled how there was an island in Lake Michigan off the coast where the deer had been allowed to mature and grow big – bigger than the deer that were available a few miles away on the mainland, explaining that he had an opportunity to hunt there.
The big piece of property, if properly fenced, would be a sort of island, he reasoned, and the deer on it could be managed and allowed to grow to their potential. It wasn’t long before he got together with Purina and the ranch began using food supplements that enhanced the management efforts.
“No one had ever high-fenced in the North,” Bollman explained, noting that he put in the first deer fence in 1978.
By the late 1980s, Pat formed a board of directors and went commercial with the operation.
But how is it that the commercial operation has been so successful?
“Because we’ve always stressed the whole experience,” Bollman stressed. “There is more to the hunt than the kill.”
“Many of the other operations are being run by former employees of the Sanctuary,” he said when explaining how the Sanctuary always has been the industry leader.
“The industry is what it is because of the Sanctuary,” he said, explaining that he is not as involved in day-to-day operations as he was in the formative years. “Ryan (Bollman’s son) started running it Sanctuary years ago.”
Speaking of other estate operations – “They took over the blueprint,” Ryan explained. “Sanctuary is as natural an experience as you can have and a fantasy experience for our guests.”
“The success of the Sanctuary created the whitetail hunting industry in the North,” Bollman noted. You can have a quality experience in a hunting preserve and we are proof positive that it can be done,” Bollman added. “The rebooking rate is incredible. There is a sense of community and family. Once you get in the door, you’re hooked. We continually strive to perfect our relationship with our guests.”
“There is no place in the world where you will see more really big deer and hopefully no place you will enjoy more,” Bollman said.
Guests each year come from varied backgrounds.
“Some of our guests are very wealthy and some work all year to save up to come here,” he said, “but regardless of their economic status, all the hunters are treated equally well.”
“Deer hunting is a culture,” he said, recalling how in his family his grandfather, father and uncles all were hunters. “Deer typify the beauty of nature. Part of the thrill of whitetail hunting is just watching the deer.”
And the Sanctuary has given back much over the years.
“I think we have raised more money for conservation than any other hunting operation,” Bollman said. “Over $1 million for pro-hunting organizations, veterans programs, etc.”
It might be easy to imagine that the Bollmans would go nowhere else to hunt deer than at the Sanctuary. Wrong.
Each year they take others, including members of their family, deer hunting at deer camps throughout the area.
Pat took seven youngsters for their first deer hunt last year – something he does each year to help keep the tradition alive.
Meanwhile, I spent time in the woods, looking for a particular kind of buck. I found him.
The magnificent buck was 135 yards off, slightly downhill in the woods. When the HS Precision .300 mag. barked, the buck flinched, ran off a few paces and dropped to the ground.
With the kill, the hunt for that buck ended. But there had been a lot more leading up to that moment.
For example, guide Chad Dilts and I had spent time in elevated blinds, ground blinds and stalking through the woods.
An interesting thing about a place like the Sanctuary is that there never is a question about whether one will see deer – anyone there sees lots and lots of deer on each outing each day. Literally, I looked at hundreds of deer and scores of nice bucks before squeezing the trigger.
When THE right buck was spotted, there was virtually no question: he was the one. On this trip, it meant a really nice, typical rack generally in the 160-175 range. Turned out to be on the higher side of that spread. That’s nice.
When it was time for the shot, there was no question in my mind that all would go well. After all, the rig I was using is credible a whole lot farther than the 135 yards between muzzle and buck in this shot opportunity.
The HS Precision rifle had proven itself on other hunts, including a bull elk and mule deer in Colorado. There, the longest shot was 301 yards (laser-ranged). Since the rifle shoots half and slightly sub-half-inch groups at 100 yards, normal hunting shots are pretty predictable.
During the time I have been using that rifle, a Swarovski 6-24x scope with TDS reticle has been attached to it. Again, all of the elements are there for long-range shooting if necessary. These same elements make a shorter shot totally comfortable. It makes precise bullet placement predictable at normal ranges. At the moment of the shot, the magnification power ring was set at 10x – a setting that is handy for such shots since it affords ample magnification yet still delivers a really big field of view.
Ammo was Remington with the Swift Scirocco bullet. Those bonded core bullets deliver superb terminal performance, which meant that at the time of the shot, there was no question that all I had to do was to put the bullet in the right spot and all would be well.
And that’s the way it worked out. Shot took out the heart and lungs, deer began to run off and, as it fell less than 25 yards away to the effects of the first shot, a second insurance shot spined it, just because why not? Quick double-tap, so to speak.
A terrific time, a successful adventure and memories to cherish forever: That’s the way it is at Sanctuary, every time, every year. You can’t beat that!– Steve Comus