Alberta: Home of the "Dream" Bucks!
By Marvin Thomey
A full two hours before the first hint of light, I restlessly waited outside a small woodlot for the erratic Alberta winds to stabilize. After about 15 minutes, the strong swirling winds changed to a soft Canadian breeze that continued to blow directly into my face. With more than one and a half hours of darkness remaining, I started my slow, stealthy stalk into the woodlot. Many obstacles, such as blowdowns, made night travel very tedious, while the crusty frozen snow demanded slow gentle steps. My destination was a mere 200 yards from my drop-off sight, but I barely managed to arrive before daylight.
Crunch, crunch,...... crunch. The unmistakable sounds of deer. They were moving about in the crusty snow around me not nearly so determined as I to temper the noise. Success! I had beaten the capricious Alberta winds and had aptly crept right into a nest of a sleepy deer. It was still a bit too dark to see the deer, but I strained my eyes in hopes of spotting the outline of a giant Alberta buck.
The crunching sounds soon faded, and gray light filled the bush. Suddenly, there was a feeling familiar only to those who have spent infinite hours pursuing trophy whitetails. Something - a subconscious feeling of a nearby presence, perhaps- prompted me to ease around and look over my shoulder. "Good God!" I thought to myself. "Where did you come from?"
Through the dim bush, I made out the slate-gray body of a huge whitetail. The wide-antlered 10 point buck had crept to a position less than 30 yards from mine and was now standing statue-like in some of Alberta's most picturesque deer woods. With every muscle swollen and bulging through his winter coat, the rut-crazed buck flared his nostrils and strained his fiery eyes in search of a romantic doe. His enlarged, stump-like neck inhibited the movement of his traversing head, but, at the same time, offered unlimited support to his large mahogany antlers.
Even though I recognized this thick-chested buck as a fine trophy in the 155 class, I was momentarily mesmerized by his majestic beauty. I knew that the sight of this splendid wild animal vignetted by snow-covered brush would remain etched in my mind for years.
I raised my rifle gently and focused sharply on the old monarch's chest, hesitated and looked again at his wide, tall rack of antler. I knew I might wonder for a long time to come if I was doing the right thing as I carefully slid the safety back to the "on" position and softly whispered "bang".
I passed up what could have been my only chance at a trophy buck on my first Alberta whitetail hunt. I felt a moment of regret, knowing the odds were against my finding a better buck or getting another cinch shot during the remaining three days of this hunt.
On the other hand, if I had taken this buck, I would have been settling for less than I had hoped for. I booked this hunt in Alberta hoping for an opportunity to take a buck sporting a set of antlers that reflected the mass and character for which Alberta is known. The exquisite buck I passed up, although symmetrical and big framed, simply didn't have Alberta's trademark of mass. After a moment of reliving my encounter with this handsome buck, I stepped onto a blow down and resumed my visual dissection of Alberta's woolly brush country.
The temperature had risen to a full 15 degrees this morning, making it easy to unravel myself from a protective ball posture and scrutinize the landscape surrounding me. Suddenly, the graceful loping of a fleeing doe caught my attention. She bounced toward me then veered at the last moment. Something had spooked her and her casual flight suggested it may have been another deer.
Hoping for the best, I focused on her back trail. As if suddenly uncovered, a heavy antlered buck materialized in the undergrowth more than a hundred yards away. From what I could see, his body size and antlers appeared average, so I leaned back and welcomed a more comfortable position against the tree behind me.
Only moments passed before the buck began moving slowly in my direction. He had lost sight of his doe and was forced to use his sense of smell to pinpoint her position. With his head held low, he slowly followed her exact course. At a distance of approximately 90 yards the buck raised his head in search of the doe that now stood only 25 yards to my right.
Somehow, this buck's antlers appeared larger than I had originally thought. At any rate, a closer look through my scope was definitely in order. With my scope set on 6X, I shouldered my rifle and viewed the buck's antlers.
Wow, points grew everywhere! His massive rack resembled an uprooted tree. Many times I've heard of a deer's antlers described in such terms but this was the first time I had actually seen one.
I eased off the safety, but the loud metallic click caught the attention of both deer. The buck stretched his neck and stared intently in my direction. "He must hear my pounding heart," I thought. I was standing motionless against a large tree and dressed head to toe in camo.
Resting my crosshairs on the buck's shoulder, I began to squeeze the crisp trigger. A loud crack from my 7mm Remington Magnum shattered the calm November morning. The buck reared slightly then collapsed. I ran to the site where he had fallen and stood for a moment to admire his bull-shouldered body and massive rack. His antlers displayed more character than any I had taken before. He was exactly what I had hoped to bring back from Alberta's famous deer woods.
The area I was hunting was in east-central Alberta. The rolling prairie countryside is covered with fields of barley, wheat, and alfalfa interspersed with various-sized woodlots of aspen and willow. This is prime habitat for growing impressive whitetail bucks.
As an avid trophy hunter, the opportunity to hunt one of Alberta's famed whitetail bucks had become a lifetime dream. Alberta's bucks have earned a reputation of combining large body size with massive antlers. This provides a hunter with an excellent opportunity to bag a record-book-class buck. In many areas throughout North America, a typical hunter may have only a one-in-a-million chance of shooting a book buck, while in Alberta a realistic figure is about one in 600. These odds may be even better for non-residents.
All non-resident deer hunters must have a guide. And a guide can drastically increase a hunters success. From the 600 to 800 or so non-resident hunters that hunt Alberta each year, a half dozen bucks will be made book. That means the odds for a non-resident trophy hunter could be as high as one chance in 100 during some seasons.
I booked this hunt with outfitter Terry Birkholz and Dave Bzawy. They own and operate Alberta Wilderness Guide Service and run a first-class, fair chase operation. Bzawy runs their camp near Smoky Lake, Alberta and Terry runs the camp where I hunted near the town of Wainwright. Effective fall of 1995, they will open a third camp in central-western Alberta near the town of Edson. In all camps, their strategies are based on a one-on-one encounter from a well-scouted stand site.
Upon arriving at Terry's camp in mid-November, we discussed his strategies at length over a meal fit for a king. I was not surprised to discover his tactics were very well thought out. After dinner, Terry broke out several aerial photos of his hunting area. From looking at the maps one could readily see that the region consisted primarily of large crop fields separated by relatively small wood-lots. This was an area ideally suited for stand hunting. Terry's chosen hunting method: waiting in ambush.
With the rut in full swing during his hunts, Terry likes to position his hunters in an open area separating two woodlots. When a buck crosses the opening in search of receptive does, his hunter is offered a clean (but sometimes long) shot at the buck. The clearings that Terry chooses for his hunters come in many forms. They may be a broad unused cattle pasture, an endless pipeline right of way, or an old abandoned roadway cutting through the center of a brushy woodlot.
Terry's hunting technique has proven lethal for him and his hunters. Year after year, 90 percent of his hunters get a reasonable shot at a mature buck and 60 to 70 percent harvest a good buck. The year of my hunt, 21 of his 25 clients were presented with good shot opportunities at trophy-class bucks.
The first few days of my hunt were cold and extremely windy. Harsh winds soared from different directions but primarily blasted down the narrow clearcut I was hunting. Terry assured me that my scent would go undetected. After bowhunting the Midwest for 20 years, I couldn't help but feel a little uneasy about that type of setup. Still, it proved productive for many of Terry's hunters.
During the late morning I would briefly abandon my post to eat lunch and examine tracks around the perimeter of the woodlot I was hunting. I hadn't seen a single deer cross the opening I monitored, however, my lunch time investigations revealed that each and every day 12 to 15 deer would exit the woodlot from the extreme northern edge and re-enter the woodlot in the same place. This woodlot was small and obviously harbored a high concentration of deer. The problem was that these deer were bedding down long before they reached the narrow clearcut I was watching. A close examination of the tracks crossing the clearcut confirmed that they weren't even crossing at night.
After a few days of monitoring this movement pattern, I was convinced that almost any buck using the area could be taken from a position nearer to the deer's beds. That is why on the fourth day of my hunt I chose to be dropped off nearer the site of this active bedding area. To my delight, my efforts were rewarded that morning when I harvested one of Alberta's beautiful whitetail bucks.
As a dedicated (or maybe fanatic) trophy deer hunter for nearly 20 years, I've seen a great deal of "good" hunting areas. Few, however, can compare with the bonanza of opportunities offered in Alberta. The high percentage of mature bucks found in Alberta may be its greatest asset. Even if you are not lucky enough to be the one in 100 or so that takes a record-book buck, you are still assured an excellent opportunity at taking a real monster...and quick! Alberta is one of the few places that I would feel confident in taking a trophy-class buck during a relatively short hunt of one week or less.
"IF YOU WANT TO GO"
To prepare for a successful Alberta whitetail hunt you must concentrate on warmth and marksmanship. It is the hunter's responsibility to dress warm enough to stay put under extremely cold conditions and hit his intended target once it presents itself.
To stay warm I would recommend expedition-weight polypropylene underwear with heavy wool outer garments. Gortex lined bibs or coveralls over your wool will offer excellent protection against wind and melting snow. I wore a garment called Wapi over my wool and remained very dry, even after sitting in the snow for hours on end. Most of the guides recommend a snow camo design, but I think almost any camo design will work well if movement is restricted. Good snow packs with wool felt liners and heavy wool mittens are a must. I found a scarf, ski mask, and hooded jacket very comforting on days when the wind chill plummeted to minus 25 degrees Fahrenheit and colder. Some hunters carried small pads that generated heat from a chemical reaction to the air.
Shots in Alberta can be offered at ranges from 20 to 400 plus yards. For this reason, a flat-shooting, high velocity cartridge would be an excellent choice. A drop-in synthetic stock would be a good investment to counter the bitter Alberta weather. Provided your chosen rifle is accurate to 300 plus yards, your bullet diameter is .25 caliber or greater, and your aim is rock steady, the cartridge selection itself is not important. We can all buy the first two I've mentioned, but I don't know of anyone marketing a rock-steady aim yet. We all have to pay for it in a slightly different manner. Practice, practice and more practice. I don't think you could practice too much for an Alberta hunt because steady bench-like rests are too few and the loss of a missed monster buck too great! Just like with most endeavors we encounter in life, the better we are prepared, the greater our chance of succeeding.
A reasonable expectation for an Alberta buck is over 140 B&C points with 150 as a realistic goal. The chance for a "booker" was present every day I hunted. In fact, if the buck I had shot had not broken off 15 or more massive-based tines, I'm certain he would have been a record book contender in the non-typical category.