Anticosti Island lies in the Gulf of St. Lawrence off the coast of Quebec. Heavily forested and lightly inhabited, it’s a huge island of some 3,000 square miles. In perspective, that’s more than twice the size of Rhode Island, and a third larger than Canada’s Prince Edward Island to the south.
In the 19th Century, Anticosti’s rugged coastline was best-known as a hazard zone for passing ships — her beaches still littered with shipwrecks. Today Anticosti is most famous for her whitetail deer. Whether whitetails once occurred naturally or not remains uncertain; in Anticosti’s untouched boreal forests almost anything is possible. Known for certain is that, when French chocolate baron Henri Menier acquired Anticosti in 1895, black bears were extremely common and deer, if they existed at all, were very rare. Menier made the first of several introductions of mainland whitetails in 1896.
Before the island changed hands again in 1926, Menier attempted several other introductions including moose, elk, reindeer and bison. The moose took hold and still have a limited range on Anticosti; most of the rest were failures except for the adaptable whitetail deer. By 1920 there were 50,000 deer; in 1972 the population numbered more than 75,000 — not peak but close to a stable number. Oddly, as the introduced whitetails prospered, the native black bears declined. By the 1930s black bears were scarce, and now are just a rumor. Biologists believe that the explosion of the whitetail deer was responsible for the demise of the black bear by over-browsing on berry-producing shrubs.
Today, the whitetail continues to thrive, but Anticosti is harsh habitat, with no agriculture or artificial food sources. The population is large, but not dense. It’s a big place, and you can do the math and figure deer per square mile of forest, with the herd fluctuating depending on winter conditions. Today Anticosti is a provincial park, with revenue from deer hunting an important product. Some years back our SCI Records Committee separated the Anticosti whitetail into its own record book category. Although separated from mainland (our Northeastern) whitetail for little more than a century, I think this is apt. Food sources on the island are different; whitetails often comb the beachline, munching on kelp! Anticosti whitetails are big-bodied northern woodland whitetails for sure, but racks, though with good mass, tend to be tight with short tines.
Anticosti is a place I long wanted to see, a “bucket list” hunt that I just hadn’t gotten around to. At our 2017 convention I met the folks at Safari Anticosti, a private concessionaire operating several camps on nearly a third of the island. Their season runs from September through November, balmy to wintery, hunts in velvet through to the rut. They had two spots left for a mid-November rut hunt, so I grabbed one and my friend Max Page, from mainland Quebec, grabbed the other.
From an outfitting perspective, it was one of the most amazing operations I’ve ever seen. Anticosti must be the largest outfitter in North America, and perhaps the world, running, literally, hundreds of hunters through their camps in their 90-day season. And yet, honest, everything was smooth as silk from start to finish. Food is as good as I’ve ever seen in a hunting camp; lodges are warm and snug. Perhaps more importantly, logistics are like a well-run military operation. The charter flight is included; I flew into Montreal and joined a group of hunters—mostly from Quebec—who drove to the airport. Most of these guys were old Anticosti hands who come every year.
The hunting is different. We were 36 hunters in our lodge complex, and yet I rarely saw another hunter during a hunting day. There are stands for hunters with limited mobility, but the primary technique on Anticosti is still-hunting along established (and well-marked) trails. The norm is one guide per four hunters, so I’d call it a semi-guided hunt; most days you’re on your own with established pickup points and, at the end of the day, four-wheelers are used to collect the deer.
As I said, most of the hunters are repeat customers, and for sure they had a home-court advantage. In the first hour of the hunt I had a chance at a nice buck and should have taken the shot, but I did not. Timing, of course, is everything, and mine was not good. The rut was on, for sure, but in the fall of 2017 I was hunting after two bad winters in a row and deer were scarcer than usual. I shot a very medium buck at the midpoint and kept looking for a better one. Right up until the end I believed it would happen, but after then I saw only spikes. A couple of hunters in our group got skunked altogether, which, with whitetails, is almost certain to happen in any group. However, most of the hunters in our complex took their two deer, and there were several very nice Anticosti whitetails in the skinning shed.
For me it was a long trip across the continent to go deer hunting; most hunters come from the Northeast and drive—and do it every year. Even so, now that I know what to expect I’d like to go again. Wandering the forest trails, hunting the snowy woods at my own pace, Anticosti was a wonderful and unique whitetail-hunting experience. As they have since 1896, the whitetails will bounce back quickly, so I probably will try it again in a year or two. All you have to do is show up on time; everything else is ready to go!–Craig Boddington