A Season to Remember
By Pete Konopacky
This magazine, "Big Buck", actually played a key roll in getting my friend - Mike Bablitch, and myself to merely stop talking about a hunt to the Canadian Provinces. It was time to sit down, get serious, and look at booking such a hunt. Both us have shot respectable bucks in our home State of Wisconsin over the years. But seeing the heavy beamed, dark antlered giants of Alberta, featured in many magazines we regularly read, placed an added urgency on the matter. Canadian Whitetails have the reputation of combining large body size (mature bucks average 250 to 300 pounds on the hoof), with massive antlers, giving hunters perhaps the very best chance in North America to bag a Boone & Crockett animal. The typical hunter throughout the continent has a one-in-a-million chance of harvesting a net 170" inch buck, while in Alberta, the accepted figure is more like around one-in-600. The odds may even be better when you consider the fact that a non-resident hunter must book through an Outfitter/Guide, so the figure is usually even better! With all of this considered, we found ourselves one evening in February saying "let's do it"!
Our next job was to decide on an Outfitter. After sifting through dozens of brochures and checking numerous references, we decided on Alberta Wilderness Guide Service. AWGS is a long established Whitetail operation run by partners - David Bzawy, Terry Birkholz, and Tyler Shyry. They were very professional and had a good reputation. More importantly, they run a first class, fair chase operation. Their hunts have the hunters set on stand locations in areas that have been extensively scouted during the off-season. This being our first hunt, we had a lot of questions regarding equipment, weather expectations, hunting methods, and what stage the "rut" would be in for our hunt. David did his best to answer all of our questions and forwarded an equipment checklist along with a "tips" list, to pour over during the summer months. This allowed us plenty of time to obtain the needed gear, and also to prepare for the hunt.
The summer flew by, and once bow season started in Wisconsin, we had just a few short weeks left before our dream hunt. I got off to a great start in Wisconsin, by taking a beautiful P&Y buck in late October, with tremendous 12 " inch G-2's. My buddy Mike made the remark - " I think this is going to be your year". I looked forward to Canada, & quietly hoped he was right.
We arrived in Edmonton, Alberta, on November 22, 1998. We were greeted by one of the Guide staff - Ash Mckone. Before arriving at the Lodge, we stopped to sight in our rifles to ensure they were still on after the flight. Once back at camp, we were introduced to the others in our hunting party. Scott "Big Thunder" Miller from Michigan, and Greg Losacco, from California would be our partners for the week. We then sat down to a dinner fit for a king. After dinner, out came the air photos. Our other Guide - Darren, along with Ash, showed us on the photos where we would be starting out our weeks. It was a nice touch, as some of us would be starting in ground blind locations, while the others would be on tri-pods, and this exercise gave us a lot of confidence seeing the locations in relation to the feeding & bedding areas. Typically, a hunter on a guided hunt goes to & from his stand in pitch darkness, and never really knows why he's there.
Before I knew it, it was 10:00pm and although I was extremely wound up, my body told me it was time to turn in. Crawling into my bunk on my first night in Canada, I had a feeling something good was going to happen that week. I slowly drifted off to sleep, and when I awoke, I quickly sat up and looked at my watch, fearing I had overslept. My watch said 11:30 pm. I had been sleeping a whole 45 minutes!! After 37 years of opening days, I still find it hard to sleep the night before the hunt. I still consider this nuisance a blessing, as it proves to me that the passion & respect for Whitetails still runs deep, and has not yet diminished since my first hunt for them in 1962. After chasing deer around the room for the remainder of the night, 5:00am finally came.
After eating breakfast and readying for the days hunt, we were off. Ash took Scott & I, and Darren took Mike & Greg. Ash had planned on taking me in first. When we arrived at the spot to go in, Scott suddenly realized that he had forgotten his heavy outer camo coveralls! Ash wanted to head back to retrieve them, but Scott, not wanting to get to his stand late, insisted that he could make it without his heavy outerwear. I remember him saying - "I'll have my buck before I get cold". Well, he turned out to be quite the "prophet", because at 10:00 am, I heard a shot about a mile to the Northeast. I said softly to myself - "Scott sure must have known what he was talking about". He had shot a beautiful, evenly matched 10 point, that scored roughly 150 " inches B&C.
I sat in ambush all day, without even eating my lunch. I only saw two does. If a trophy buck could be measured by the size of the track, I had no doubt that I was hunting in the land of giants. The tracks that I saw on my walk to & from my stand were similar to the largest Elk tracks I've seen. Tuesday and Wednesday were not a whole lot better for my deer sightings. Daylight movement seemed slow and may have been due to the unseasonably warm weather we were experiencing in this part of Alberta for late November. Due to Ash's extensive scouting and updating sign in some other areas, he decided on a move for Thursday. He mentioned to me - "I cut some really fresh buck tracks, & although I don't want to get caught chasing sign, I think we should give this new location a go".
Day 4 came, and as the day broke, I found myself thinking that this location seemed to good to be true. I settled into what looked like the perfect stand. I could see about 400 yards in each direction down a cutline, and directly in front of me was a 200 yard wide clear cut. This set-up would have the deer crossing the cutline at either edge of the clear cut, in a sort of funnelling type of fashion. Ash had put some Golden Estrus Doe-in-Heat at two of the main crossings, and wished me luck as he headed out. I hung my grunt tube out, situated my pack within arms reach, and readied my rifle. At this point I was glad that I had walked the mile & a half from the truck slowly, so as not to break a sweat. I then leaned back in my tri-pod seat a relaxed into hunting mode. About 15 minutes later, I spotted a deer coming out onto the cutline, and I trained my scope set on 6X on it. I could see he was a really decent buck, probably in the 140" inch class. Although he was tempting, I held off, feeling better things would come.
About an hour later, I made out the slate grey body of another huge bodied Whitetail. This buck was a wide antlered buck and he stepped out at a major crossing to the west of me, and stopped at the spot where Ash had placed some of the scent. He stood almost "statue-like", in some of the most picturesque of Alberta deer woods. With every muscle swollen and bulging through his winter coat, the rut-crazed buck dropped his head to scent check the trail he was on. His enlarged, stump-like neck inhibited the movement of his traversing head, but at the same time, offered tremendous support for his large mahogany colored antlers. Even though I was momentarily mesmerized by his majestic beauty, I recognized this thick chested buck as a fine mature buck in the 145" inch class. I knew that the sight of this splendid wild animal, standing proudly on the snow covered cutline, would remain etched in my mind forever. As I studied him in the scope, I wondered if I was doing the right thing as I slid the safety back to the "on" position.
For the second time in the past two hours, I had passed up what could have been my only chance at a trophy buck on my first Alberta hunt. I felt a moment of regret, knowing that the odds were against me of shooting a buck now in the remaining three days of my hunt. But, on the other hand, if I had taken either of the two bucks, I would have been settling for less than I had hoped & dreamed for. I had booked this hunt with AWGS hoping for an opportunity at taking a buck that sported a set of antlers that reflected the mass & character for which Alberta has come to be known. The bucks that I had passed up, although symmetrical & large framed, simply did not have Alberta's trademark of Mass.
After a moment of reliving my encounters with these beautiful bucks, I settled back into full hunt mode and hoped for a chance at that one giant. About 30 minutes went by, and I noticed a deer that I instantly judged to be a mature buck, come out at where the previous buck had crossed. "Wow" - points grew everywhere! His rack resembled a picket fence. This buck did not pause on the line like the previous two, but was crossing like he was on a mission. I took a quick but steady aim, and squeezed the trigger. My 7mm Remington Mag shattered the still morning air, and through the scope, I saw a high leg kick. I felt real good about the shot, but stayed on the tri-pod for about 20 minutes replaying the scene in my mind. Over and over I could see the buck hump up into a high leg kick, and I felt very confident in a good hit.
After carefully climbing down from the tri-pod, I slowly walked the 140 yards to where I thought the buck had crossed. Finding hair and a few drops of blood in the snow confirmed my feeling of a hit. Taking up the trail, the blood began to increase. I went only about 50 yards further and looked at my watch. It was 9:50am, and I thought of Ash, as he had probably heard the shot. In considering that I did not want to break AWGS's Guides "100 yard rule", and not wanting to push this buck if it was a marginal hit, I decided to retreat and wait for Ash.
After waiting about an hour, there was no sign of Ash, so I decided to take up the trail for a few more yards. About 25 yards from where I had turned around, I spotted a large antler sticking up! I made a hasty run to my buck and almost could not believe my eyes as I lifted his proud head out of the snow. I spent some time admiring his bull-shouldered body and massive rack. The smell of spruce that was ground into his bases & browtines permeated the air. His antlers, with a drop-tine off of his left G-2, displayed more character than I had taken before. I could not help but to look into his eyes and think of all of the travels and encounters this truly mature buck had made in his days. He was certainly what I had hoped to bring home from Alberta.
After some alone time with my buck, I thought I'd best go put out a signal for Ash. I ended up meeting Ash on the way in, so we went back together to retrieve my buck. When Ash saw my buck, his first excited words were - "he looks like a Booner"! He was as happy and excited as I was, and we then spent some time shooting some video & pictures. By the time we got back to the truck, and the buck was loaded, the sun was starting to set to the west over the Canadian Rockies. This was a fitting signal to the end of a day that I will never forget.
The buck is a main framed 10 point, with heavy mass & long G-2's & G-3's. It has an outside frame spread of 24 1/2"inches. He also carries a rare drop tine off of the left beam, and has a green score of 179 2/8 B&C. This buck along with the P&Y buck I took back home in Wisconsin truly made this a "Season To Remember"!