By Greg Miller
With the unknowing, the buck fight taking shape in the poplar thicket sounded like a dandy. Large branches snapped like so much dried kindling as the two “combatants” attempted to intimidate each other. Occasionally, the heavy footfalls of two posturing bucks could be heard. No doubt the sounds were carrying a great distance in the early morning calm.Abruptly, the brush busting and branch breaking ended, and a deep grunt echoed through the stillness. Several seconds later, I could hear the sounds of antlers aggressively raking a tree. This disturbance went on for perhaps 15 seconds, and then there was quiet once more. The silence suddenly was shattered by the violent clashing and grinding of antlers.
From my position 60 yards away, I could envision two bull-shouldered Alberta bucks attempting to impress their dominance upon each other. However, I knew that simply wasn’t the case. In reality, this “fight” was being staged by my guide and outfitter for this hunt, Terry Birkholz.
Terry had buried himself deeply in the middle of a tangled poplar thicket and was doing his best to imitate the sounds of two big bucks having a knockdown-dragout battle. I had taken up a vigil slightly in front of Terry, in a spot that offered a fairly decent field of fire in several directions. As I was soon to find out, I had chosen my location perfectly.
Scarcely had the first sequence of rattling begun when I heard an answering grunt. At first, I thought the sound had come from the thick brush directly in front of me. But a second grunt quickly convinced me that the interested buck actually was slightly behind and to my left. In that direction, perhaps 40 yards away, lay a four-strand barbed-wire fence, which paralleled a railroad grade. The brush in which I was hidden ended approximately 10 yards on my side of the fence line. The remaining 10 yards of open ground was covered with waist-high yellow grass, which on this day was covered with a thick coating of hoarfrost.
As I strained to make out any piece of the buck I had heard, a heavy, long-tined and dark-colored rack suddenly floated into view. Unknown to me, there was a slight swale in the tall grass. The rapidly approaching buck was in this swale and headed past me in an easy lope. I stood in amazement as the head and rack of the big animal coasted past at a mere 20 yards. The buck continued by me and stopped in the wide open about 60 yards away, listening and looking toward the rattling commotion. This afforded me a great chance to look at his rack even more closely, for which I’m truly grateful.
His right antler was long-beamed and extremely heavy, with a 6-inch brow tine and extremely long G-2 and G-3 tines. His G-4 was only about 2 inches. It was the left side of his rack, however, that kept me from squeezing the trigger. There was a 6-inch brow tine and a 10 to 12 inch G-2 and that was it! I would guess the overall length of his stubbed-out left main beam at no more than 18 inches. Thus, the buck was a typical 5×3, with an inside spread nearing 22 inches. A unique trophy, indeed, but just not the type of deer for which I had traveled all the way to Alberta. (Had his left side matched his right, I’m sure he would have scored in the mid-160’s on the Boone and Crockett scale.)
This was the second day of a scheduled six-day hunt with Terry. He and his partner, David Bzawy, own and operate three camps for their Alberta Wilderness Guide Service. Terry’s camp and hunting area is nearly three hours south and east of Edmonton, near the small town of Edgerton. This area is generally cultivated farmland, with wheat being the main crop. Dave’s base of operation is near Smoky Lake, which is about an hour’s drive north and slightly east of Edmonton. There are larger stands of uncleared aspen forests there, but enough farmland still exists to offer local whitetails excellent nutrition.
Interestingly, the rate of success on big deer seems to run almost equal in each camp, due in large part to the fact that both Dave and Terry are extremely familiar with their respective areas. Also, the two spend an enormous amount of time each year studying and patterning trophy bucks. Sitting on stands that have been set up in areas of peak buck activity is the basic strategy employed. It was this, and strict adherence to a “no road-hunting” policy, that first got me interested in their operation.
However, as indicated by the experience above, stand-hunting certainly isn’t the only option available when hunting with these guys. Terry and Dave have found that rattling and still-hunting also are effective methods for taking trophy deer. A thorough understanding of mature bucks and a complete familiarity of their respective areas are the reasons they’ve enjoyed good success with these tactics.
This trip, in November 1992, was my eighth Canadian whitetail hunt. Now, while it is true that bowhunting for whitetails is my first love, gun hunting has been and always will be a very strong passion also. (The last four trips I’d made to Canada for whitetails had been bow hunts.) I had killed a 150-class buck on a gun hunt in Alberta with Russell Thornberry in 1986. Since that time, I had always wanted to return to the province for another go at a big deer with a firearm. I was more than excited when Terry called to say he had confirmed my booking into his camp for the week of Nov. 15-21.
Again, the events described above took place on the second day of my hunt, but we also had our share of excitement the first day. In fact, in a span of slightly more than an hour, I had two different bucks in the 170-plus class centered in my scope! But for reasons directly attributable to the amazing survival abilities of trophy whitetails, I wasn’t able to get off a shot at either deer.
The first of those bucks simply caught Terry and me flat-footed. We were walking across a wheat field and trying to detour around a 1 1/2 year-old buck when this black-horned monster suddenly came loping over a steep hill just 75 yards away. Both of us saw the buck at the same time. I knew immediately that he was a shooter and brought the .300 Win. Mag. to my shoulder. Before I could get any kind of decent sight picture, however, the big deer whirled and sped back over the hill. I sprinted to the crest, but he was long gone.
A quick gab session and comparative analysis of the buck with Terry confirmed my suspicions. Although the deer had been in sight only a few seconds, we both had seen enough to know that I had just missed out on one heck of a chance. He was a very heavy, long-tined 10-pointer with several sticker points. Terry figured the buck’s gross score would have exceeded 170. As I was about to find out, however, the first day’s excitement hadn’t yet ended.
Less than an hour later, I again had a big buck in the scope. That deer crossed a cutline approximately 200 yards in front of me. He kept his head down in the low brush growing on the cutline. Although I got occasional glimpses of some long tines, I just couldn’t tell enough about the deer to warrant squeezing the trigger.
Terry later told me that, before getting to me, the buck had run across a huge wheat field in front of him. He was fairly confident the long-tined wide-spreading buck would have grossed over 170 typical. What a way to start a hunt!
On the third day, I spent almost four hours watching a secluded cutline in a huge piece of cover. I tried rattling periodically throughout the morning, being successful in drawing in one small buck, a doe and fawn, and then a coyote. Terry showed up about 11 A.M., with a couple of sandwiches and a thermos of coffee. While I ate, he discussed an alternate game plan.
“This is really a huge area of cover,” Terry stated as he unfolded an aerial photo. “I think we should spend a couple hours walking and rattling in likely looking spots. The wind is blowing hard enough to ensure that we can move from one area to another without creating too much of a disturbance.” I quickly agreed to this plan of attack.
To make along story short, we spent the rest of the day walking and rattling. We jumped a tremendous buck that was lying with a doe, and we managed to rattle in a 140-class 4×4. The 8-pointer ended up so close, I’m sure I could have hit him in the face with a handful of sand. His rack was fairly heavy, with good tine length and an inside spread right around 19 inches. The base of his antlers and his skull cap were completely covered with fresh, green shredded bark. It was an unforgettable sight.
The next morning, Terry led me into a new area and set me up on a long cutline. “There are some wheat fields off in the distance,” he told me. “The deer you see this morning will probably be making their way back from those fields.” Before walking off into the pre-dawn darkness, he added that his hunters had taken some tremendous deer from this area in past years.
To summarize the morning’s activities, I saw two does, three fawns and two huge bucks. One of the bucks was a wide-spreading brute that I spotted as he was walking down the cutline to my left, at a range of nearly 500 yards. The other buck, a huge non-typical I’m sure would have surpassed 200 inches in total antler measurements, stepped out on the cutline to my right at a range of 200 yards and started walking straight in front of me. It just stood to reason that any buck responding to the rattling would sneak in from that direction.
Just before Terry started in on his first sequence of rattling, I heard a big deer off to my right suddenly bust out of its bed and go crashing away. Several times, I heard the distinct sound of antlers hitting branches as the unseen buck continued on, circling around slightly in front of me. I knew there was no way the deer could have winded me. Obviously, he had reacted to some slight noise he couldn’t identify.
I listened and watched as Terry went through his first rattling sequence. The only response came from a doe that snorted and blew steadily from somewhere behind my guide’s position. We spent 10 minutes waiting and watching before Terry started his second sequence. The smashing, raking, grunting and rattling went on for several minutes, then all was quiet again. Nothing.
We had been at this present location for nearly 25 minutes when Terry started his third rattling sequence. No more than 15 seconds into it, I saw him suddenly drop his antlers onto the ground and dive behind a tree. I was looking directly at him and he quickly yet subtly pointed back over his shoulder. I took it that he had seen a deer approaching from that direction, but try as I might, I couldn’t see a thing.
This was extremely nerve-racking. It was entirely possible that the deer sneaking in was a good buck, yet for nearly a minute, my eyes detected no movement at all. Then, suddenly, I caught a glimpse of a deer moving through a small opening. Before I could identify the sex of the animal, however, it stepped behind a large poplar. Well, at least now I knew exactly from which direction the deer was approaching.
There was the flick of a tail, and then the deer drifted through another small opening and walked down into a slight draw. Just before he disappeared into the draw, I got a glimpse of antlers. But I still hadn’t seen enough to know just how big a buck he was.
Directly in front of the buck was a rise like the one on which I was sitting. The only cover on the rise was some knee-high yellow grass. After about a minute or so, the buck came walking up out of the draw and on to the top of this open rise and turned broadside. This time I got a good look at his rack.
There was no doubt this was one of the largest typical whitetails I had ever seen in the wild. But even though the buck was in the open, I still was unable to get off a shot. The rise on which I was sitting was covered with extremely thick brush. No matter how much I strained my eyes or moved my head, I couldn’t find even the smallest of openings through which to slip a bullet.
The big buck had walked up to within 25 yards of where my guide sat and now stood on top of the rise, staring hard down into the draw. I knew it was just a matter of seconds before the buck would catch on that he had been duped. Leaning back as far as I could, I finally found a small, foot-square opening through the brush. The rifle came to my shoulder, and I laid the crosshairs on the buck’s left shoulder. Just before squeezing the trigger, I noticed that the buck turned his head and looked straight at me. Then the bullet was on its way.
At the hit, the buck kicked up his hind legs and then took off in a full-speed, head-down charge. Unfortunately, he had targeted the rise on which I was standing as his avenue of escape. Believe me, you don’t know what fear is until you’ve had a hog-bodied, huge-racked Alberta whitetail bearing down on you. Not knowing what else to do, I stood up and quickly bolted a fresh round into the chamber of the .300.
At a range of a mere 20 feet, the buck suddenly altered his course slightly and went crashing past, seemingly within arm’s reach. Although I felt confident about the initial hit, I slammed two more point-blank shots at the buck as he motored by. Just that quickly, he was out of sight. I listened as he ran over dead branches and underbrush, and then everything was quiet. For some reason, I glanced at my watch. It read exactly 12 noon.
The next thing I knew, Terry was standing next to me. “I want you to know that was a real big buck,” he stated excitedly. “Did you make a good hit?” I assured him that the first shot should have been right on the money. While we talked, I reloaded my rifle. Once that was done, we took a few steps to where the buck had run past me. There was an abundance of blood, so we took up the trail right away. We found the buck lying 150 yards farther on.
It was quite a thrill walking up on the monster deer. The tremendous height of his antlers and huge body size made for an impressive sight. There was a great deal of hand shaking and back slapping, and then Terry and I spent some relatively quiet time just looking at an admiring the majestic animal.
The rack is a basic 10-pointer with three stickers, including a 4-inch “mulie”-type point erupting off the left G-2. Inside spread is 17 4/8 inches, and each main beam is over 27. The G-2’s are 14 1/8 and 11 3/8, with the G-3’s measuring 9 3/8 and 8 6/8. Base circumference measurements are 5 1/8 and 5; the smallest circumference is 4 2/8. Amazingly, the big rack sported extremely short brow tines, measuring a mere 2 4/8 and 2 6/8. Still, the buck had enough “bone” to gross slightly better than 180 typical. He’ll probably net somewhere in the low 170s. A very good deer, even by Canadian standards.
This truly was a great hunt. But as is usually the case, it’s impossible to describe the amount of effort expended merely by writing about it. Suffice it to say that, like most of those other mature deer I’ve killed, this one was taken only after a lot of hard work and dedication to the task. Of course, such experiences only leave me wanting more. I fully intend to make a return trip in the near future.