Becoming the Hunter

By Russell Thornberry

In the atrium of the Nisku Inn, I sat relaxing in the open-air Jacuzzi, watching the hunters empty out of their rooms all around me. They reminded me of ants emerging from their holes, carrying loads much larger than themselves. Gun cases, duffel bags and more duffel bags. And on each face was a look of eager anticipation. These were all American hunters, now in Alberta, Canada, about to embark on the hopeful whitetail hunt of their dreams.

It was deja vu. How many times in my years of guiding whitetail hunters in Alberta had I picked up and delivered hunters to the Nisku Inn near the Edmonton International Airport? But this time it was different. This time I was not the guide, but the hunter, also awaiting the arrival of my guide. I was actually going on my first ever guided whitetail hunt in my former home province of Alberta.

I was booked with Terry Birkholz and David Bzawy's Alberta Wilderness Guide Service. I have known both men for years, and have recommended their operation to many Buckmasters inquirers. Why this operation? Because I know that they really hunt whitetails. By this I mean they don't just drive around in trucks. These guys get off their duffs and spend hundreds of man hours scouting and observing deer, and then they set up intelligent ambush sites and tree stands. That's my kind of deer hunting.

Birkholz and Bzawy operate three deer camps: one in eastern Alberta, not far from my old stomping grounds, and one northeast of Edmonton near Smoky Lake, and one west of Edmonton by Edson. I was elected to hunt the Smoky Lake camp with Dave simply to experience some new country.

Upon our arrival in camp on Sunday afternoon (no hunting is permitted on Sunday) the other three hunters and I spent some time on the rifle range making sure our rifles were still on. Then after a fine supper, Dave talked to us about our game plan for the following morning.

He showed us where he intended to put each hunter...some in ground locations and others in tree stands. To bolster our confidence he showed us aerial photos of our hunting locations so we could see where we would be in relation to the terrain, food sources, bedding areas, etc. That was a nice touch. Typically the hunter is taken to and from his stand or blind in pitch dark and he never really knows exactly why he's there. The photos gave us a feeling for our hunting strategy, which is important.

A traveling whitetail hunter may spend his entire hunt just sitting still in one or two locations. If he sees little or nothing in the first couple of days, his confidence may wane severely. The hunter's confidence level depends upon the guide. If the guide knows what he's doing and can convey that to the hunter, the hunter will have far greater staying power on the stand.

I am used to doing the scouting year round, and locating deer for someone else. It was an odd feeling to take another man's word for where I should hunt. But that's all a part of being the hunter, a somewhat awkward role for me. But to quote myself, "If you don't want to believe your guide, what's the point of coming in the first place?"

On the first day of hunting everyone saw bucks but me. By the second day it was beginning to appear that the rut was diminishing dramatically. Fewer bucks were seen. Conditions couldn't have been more perfect. We had a fresh blanket of snow, zero degrees F. and the dark of the moon. But hunting was tough because the bucks just weren't moving in the daylight. However, each morning revealed more huge, toe-dragging buck tracks in the snow, ample evidence that the bucks were there.

If a trophy could be measured by the size of a track, I had no doubt that I was hunting in the land of giants. I have seen elk tracks no larger than some of the buck tracks I saw.

On Wednesday morning, Wayne Baker of Demopolis, Alabama, was hunting from a ground location, grunting occasionally with his grunt call. He heard something walking boldly behind him in the timber and turned to see a huge 8-pointer. One shot from his 7mm Magnum retired his deer tag. It was his third trip to Alberta....successful at last!

That afternoon I sat on a small stool on a cutline which sliced through the thick aspen and poplar timber. It was laced with huge buck tracks. I faced downwind to the north and rattled antlers every 45 minutes. At dark I had still not seen my first deer of the trip, after three full days of hunting.

For the first time I experienced the dread of telling my guide I had still seen no deer. I knew I was hunting in the best place he could put me. I knew there were big bucks there. Fresh sign verified that. This was truly the flip side of the coin for me. In my guiding years, my heart ached for the unlucky hunters. Now roles were reversed. I felt bad for the guide, who was doing all he possibly could, but without the deer's cooperation his hands were tied.

When I met Dave at dark, he asked me what I'd seen. I reported "nothing" as cheerfully as I could, but I could feel his heart sink. I wouldn't have traded places with him at that moment. I assured him that I was not unhappy with our game plan and that I would have chosen the same approach if I was the guide. However, I don't think that was overly comforting for him. As he explained, his personal success was measured in realistic opportunities of big bucks in his hunter's crosshairs.

Larry Whitlock of Ocean City, Maryland, who was hunting three-fourths of a mile from me had spotted a monster buck, just as it got dark, which he deemed a shoe-in Boone and Crockett. The buck moved out of his sight a split second before he could get on the trigger. The sighting was encouraging to us all and proved once again that we were in the right neck of the woods.

Thursday morning I trudged back down to the same spot on the cutline where I had spent the previous afternoon. The slight breeze was still out of the south, so I sat down on my stool facing north. I tied two dried aspen saplings together to form an "X" as a shooting rest. At 7:40 I picked up my rattling antlers and rattled vigorously for a minute or so. I waited about 10 minutes and rattled again briefly, then I laid the antlers in the snow. When I looked up there was a deer in the cutline about 150 yards away. By then it was 7:50 and the cutline was still in deep morning shadows. I leaned into my scope and identified the deer as a proud 10-point buck, with heavy main beams well beyond his ears. He had obviously heard my rattling and stepped out into the cutline to see if he could see the buck fight he thought he had heard.

I was dressed totally in white, and against the snow the buck couldn't tell I was there. I simply shifted my weight a little and centered the crosshairs on the buck's chest. My rest in the fork of the crossed saplings gave me a steady aim.

It was too good to be true. A buck came to my rattling and virtually stepped right into my crosshairs. I touched the trigger with confidence and the .280 cracked. I saw the buck jump high and to his right and land in the timber out of my view. There was no doubt in my mind that it was over. A hunter just knows when he's done it right. I fully expected to find my buck laying within a few yards of where I shot him.

When I arrived at the spot where the buck had been standing, my heart sank. There in the snow was a 4-foot string of long gray hair, the sign of a grazing shot. I knew that somehow my shot had been off to the right. Dutifully I followed the buck's tracks into the timber. Long bounds soon stopped and the buck was walking well on all four legs, right back over the tracks he came in on. After following him for a quarter of a mile I knew that he was perfectly healthy. Never a drop of blood was shed.

Having satisfied myself that the buck wasn't wounded, then came the task of figuring out why I grazed him instead of hitting him in the center of the chest where I was aiming. Was the gun off? Was I not as steady as I thought when I fired? And yet another question: how was I going to face Dave? I dreaded the thought of it.

Was it that I was embarrassed to have made a poor shot, or was it that I hated to tell him I had failed on such a hard-earned opportunity? In either case, it was going to be hard to tell Dave.

I walked back up the cutline and sat down on my stool. It was much lighter now. I looked through my scope at the spot where the buck had been standing. For the first time I noticed a wild rose bush about 30 yards in front of that spot. Could it be that I nicked a branch and deflected the bullet off course? I had to go look.

Sure enough, there were particles of leaves sprayed out on the snow on the downwind side of the rose bush. It appeared possible that I had found the reason for my misplaced shot. Could I be sure? Not positive, but pretty sure. At least I had a probable excuse.

"Man, being the hunter can get complicated," I thought to myself. If I blamed my miss on the rose bush, Dave and the other hunters might think I was just making up excuses. Perhaps it would be more honorable to just say I missed and leave it at that. After all, it's not a crime to miss. Or is it? In my guiding days, I sure thought it was. It really bugged me when hunters missed easy shots...especially when the hunting was tough. Maybe this was nature's way of chiseling a little compassion into me for the hunter's position. In any case, I already felt a lot worse for Dave than I did for myself! He had put me in the right spot at the right time and for whatever reason, I blew it.

I met Dave at noon and broke the news. He took it very well. I admired his diplomacy. After a sandwich and some coffee, I asked if we could go somewhere so I could shoot my rifle just to be sure it wasn't off. (I secretly hoped it was.) We set up a target a few miles from where I had been hunting, and resting over the hood of the truck, I put two shots in the same hole at 100 yards. Oh well, so much for the gun being off.

I admired Dave's sensitivity to the hunter's psyche. Even though I had been in an excellent spot, he sensed that I needed a change of scenery, and without hesitation he explained my next position to me. It was a high tree stand in an aspen-studded draw, a natural runway and deer funnel. He showed me the layout once again with aerial photos and when I arrived at the stand I was excited. If I could pick my choice of hunting locations, this one would be my first choice.

This stand was in a draw at the edge of a slough bottom surrounded by diamond willows. The spot was real tight with trees and limbs everywhere around me. It was a sniper's set-up and a perfect location from which to rattle.

That evening I rattled in a 2 1/2 year old 8-pointer that was destined to be a trophy in another year or two, but I let him walk. Two does came in as well. The next morning I rattled in a little fork-horned buck, and that was the last deer I saw. At dusk the Alberta deer season ended. Was I disappointed to end up without a buck? Not at all. After all, I had been hunting, and that's what means the most to me. I had a crack at a good buck, so what more could I have wanted?

At no time did I doubt the presence of great trophy whitetails. I can read signs as well as the next hunter. Rubs as big around as my leg and huge dragging tracks told the story. The deer were simply laying up in the timber.

The previous weeks, when the rut was in progress, hunters had taken numerous trophies. The Polaroids on the coffee table proved that. And I must admit that I was wishing I'd come in bow season when I saw the massive 164-point 10-pointer Dave had taken in October.

When hunters ask me the best way to find out who to hunt with on guided hunts far from home, I always tell them, "Get a list of the hunters who didn't bag a buck from your prospective outfitter, and ask those hunters what they thought of the hunt. If the unsuccessful hunters will recommend the guide or outfitter, you can bet he's a good man."

Now, for the first time I was one of those unsuccessful hunters I was talking about. So, what would I say about my hunt to a fellow hunter, looking for a good whitetail hunt in the north? I'd say, "In spite of the fact that I didn't bag a buck, I'd go back in a heartbeat with the same outfitters. They did their jobs as well as I have seen it done."

The truth is that I don't consider myself unsuccessful just because I didn't put a trophy on the ground. I hunted in great deer country with men who did everything humanly possible to assist me. I ate well, slept well, and hunted well, and thoroughly enjoyed myself. Isn't that success?