By Art Carter
Ahh! This was too good to be true. I had just settled into what looked to be the perfect deer stand. From my perch on the ridgeline, I could see 450 yards of snowy Alberta countryside to my left, while to my right stretched a 250-yard trail through an aspen woods. A great vantage point. And it had even warmed up to 15 degrees this morning-a veritable November heat wave compared to the day before.
I hung my grunt call on a limb at my back and situated my pack and rifle within arm’s length. Glad that I had walked the mile from the truck slowly so as to not break a sweat, I leaned back to relax for a moment. The day before Terry Birkholz and I had covered many miles hunting and scouting, but we had seen not a hide nor hair. Still, I felt good about this place because of the profusion of fresh deer tracks. Moreover, the rut was on, and the big bucks were definitely on the prowl.
Maybe 30 seconds after sitting down in my stand I heard it. Crunch, crunch…. crunch. The unmistakable sound of a deer walking in the snow – close! Slowly I eased my rifle against the tree and pointed it in the direction of the footsteps. Rock steady, I peered through the scope just as the nose and antler tips of a buck materialized in the aspen trees 60 yards away. Then he stuck his whole head and shoulders into the clearing. He was big – but big enough? Was this the trophy I had come to Alberta for? George Lori, my roommate back at the farmhouse had told me about the huge size of Alberta bucks. He was right.
Nose to the ground, the buck stepped into the middle of the trail. One, two three up; five points per side, his mahogany colored antlers were “high, wide and heavy”, as George liked to say.
I eased off the safety, but it made a loud metallic click in the frosty air. The buck jerked up his head. Muscles bunched, steam coming from his nostrils, the deer stared in my direction. He must hear my pounding heart, I thought, but he heard and saw nothing. I was clothed head to toe in snow camo.
The big whitetail took one cautious step, then another towards the woods line. I tracked him with the crosshairs as he walked toward the aspen grove. One more big step and he would be gone. It was now or never. I began to take up the slack of the trigger.
A hunt for Alberta’s famed whitetail bucks had been on my wish list for a long time. They have the reputation of combining large body size (mature bucks averaging 250-300 pounds) with massive antlers that give the hunter perhaps the very best chance in North America to bag a Boone and Crockett animal. The typical hunter throughout the continent has a one-in-a-million chance of shooting a B&C buck (170 points for a typical rack), while in Alberta the accepted figure is about one in 600 or so. It may be even better when you figure that a non-resident hunter must have a guide, and that each year the 3000 or so who hunt the province take from ten to twenty B&C bucks. That’s one chance in 150-300!
Terry Birkholz, my outfitter and the owner of Alberta Wilderness Guide Service, really produces results. Year after year 90 percent of his hunters get a reasonable shot at a mature buck and 60 to 70 percent harvest their animal. This past year 21 of his 25 clients got a good shot. Five of the six hunters during my week brought home a trophy and the other hunter missed two.
But a high success rate is only one reason the I booked a hunt with Terry. More important, he runs a first-class fair-chance operation. His hunts are conducted from stands for whitetails that have been scouted extensively during the off season.
I arrived at Terry’s camp in early November and was introduced to George Lori of Pittsburgh. I liked George immediately. He proved to be a fine, hard-working companion who had the kind of “I am going to succeed if I keep trying” attitude that is a pleasure to be around. And he was trying hard!
George had missed a big buck at 250 yards the day before I arrived. While hunting with Birkholz the previous year he had missed three bucks, all at long ranges. “But I’m going to get a big buck,” he said with confidence. “One of these days one’s going to come out in my range and he’s mine. I knew that with that kind of determination, sooner or later George would be rewarded.
The area we were hunting was in southeastern Alberta, about 20 miles from the Saskatchewan border where the rolling prairie countryside is covered with fields of barley, wheat, and alfalfa interspersed with woodlots of aspen and willow. This is prime whitetail habitat, though deer density is not high – about 10 to 12 animals per square mile (about what we have per acre in the South). The hunter will not see a lot of deer each day, but the buck-doe ratio is good. A typical week of hunting will result in five or six sightings of mature bucks. The hunter must make the most of his opportunities.
And one other thing. It’s cold. If you come from a warm climate like I did, where it is 50-80 degrees in November, zero or below temperatures take a little getting used to. But if you come prepared with the right clothes, it’s not a problem. We hunted in 10-15 degree weather, and the guides thought it was a little too warm. By mid-week it almost got up to freezing.
Within seconds after my buck emerged on the snow-covered trail, I knew he was the trophy I had traveled to Alberta to collect. Before the hunt I had told Terry, I wanted a mature ten-pointer. Peering through the scope in the early morning light, I saw a pair of antlers that would easily surpass any whitetail I had ever taken.
The .300 Winchester shattered the still November air, and the 165-grain ballistic tip Nosler dropped the buck instantly. I ran over to him and stood for a moment to admire his luxurious, long-haired gray coat, snow-white throat patch, and heavy, almost perfectly symmetrical rack. He was the most beautiful buck I had ever seen.
Ten minutes later, I could see Terry’s orange cap bobbing several hundred yards away down the trails as he hurried up the last ridge to my spot.
“You got him,” Terry exclaimed, a little winded from his run. “He’s a nice one.”
Nice one? It seemed that Albertans must be a bit jaded when it comes to trophy whitetails. At first Terry estimated the buck would score 140 to 145, but the more he looked at him, the more inclined he became to increase his estimate. I already knew he was the only buck I had ever taken that didn’t suffer from “ground shrink”. The more I looked at him, the bigger he looked.
Three of us strained to load the animal into Terry’s truck. Back at camp the buck field-dressed at 205 pounds (live weight was estimated at 260 pounds!) The rack scored 158 B&C points, 155 net. With only three inches of deductions, it was the most symmetrical Alberta rack that Terry had ever seen. The antlers had six-inch bases (the smallest measurement on his main beams was 4 1/2 inches) and had an inside spread of 17 1/2 inches.
My next day was spent riding and scouting the prairie with big John Stodola, a likable fellow from Wisconsin who helps Terry run the camp, and Richard Belotti of New Jersey. Richard had taken a 20-inch wide eight-pointer the same morning I shot my buck. Cruising the hills, we saw a number of deer, including a respectable mule deer buck. Near one of John’s favorite bow-hunting stands, two whitetail does and a buck broke from cover and almost ran over us. Less than 50 yards away was an active scrape. What a great location for a bow hunter.
The other hunters in camp did well. Bob Satcher shot a handsome ten-pointer that scored over 150, and Carl Baronowski took a nine-pointer in the 140 class. Eddie Pachula hunted harder than any of us and had a couple of shots at big bucks including a truly exceptional whitetail, but he didn’t connect. But he had a great time anyway.
And then there was George. Remember I told you that his time would come? John Stodola and I had just returned from some R&R in Edmonton on our next to last day, when Bob Satcher burst into the farmhouse to grab his camera. “George got a monster!” was all he said.
A couple of hundred yards away everybody was crowded around George, laughing and taking pictures. I could clearly see George’s grin from that distance. Up close, I could see why. He had taken a monster! The rack had a 20-inch spread and 13 points with double and triple brow tines. “High, wide and heavy”, George said, smiling from ear to ear when I shook his hand. The magnificent rack scored 168 with six or eight inches broken off one tine! With that tine present, we’re talking close to B&C. George had finally been rewarded for his hard work and perseverance. And he had shot the buck at an honest 250 yards. Talk about a way to break a jinx.
As I write this, I periodically look up at my buck hanging in a honored place in my den. He’s a wonderful reminder of a great hunt, professional and likable guides, and the fun of a well-run hunting camp. And it’s also fun to watch friends when they see my bull-shouldered buck for the first time. Their reaction is a lot like most of the hunters who saw him at the taxidermist. They would walk into his South Carolina shop with their local trophies and upon spying my buck would stammer, “Good God, where did he come from!” Enough said.
If You Want To Go
For a successful Alberta trophy whitetail hunt you must have a rifle accurate to 300 yards, and the ability to shoot it. My Kenny Jarrett custom .300 Winhcester fitted with a 3 1/2x10x15 Leupold scope was a perfect combination. Even though my shot came at a short distance, I would have felt extremely confident out to past 400 yards.
But you can’t shoot well if you are cold. Sitting still for long hours on stand is vital. I had heavy poly pro long underwear, wool pants, and a polar-tuff fleece hunting outfit of Realtree snow camo. I was perfectly comfortable and virtually invisible in the woods. All the guides thought it was the best camo pattern they had seen. Good snowpacks with wool felt liners are a must. Also, I used an Icebreaker boot blanket over-boot and hand-warmer insulated with Hollofil; they worked great.
This past season I changed to a Pentax 8×40 binocular, which served me well. It is tough and on par optically with just about any other binocular.
Another potential problem for the first time Alberta hunter is judging a trophy whitetail. The large body size of Alberta’s bucks makes it difficult. Prior to my hunt I watched a video (about a hundred times) produced by Telmark Inc. of Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, called “Monarchs of Alberta”. It really helped.
A reasonable expectation for an Alberta trophy is over 140 B&C points with 150 as a realistic goal. The chance for a 170-point trophy is there everyday.