Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A Hunt in the Northwoods - Alberta Deer

Those few remaining stragglers who care at all about this sadly neglected blog will undoubtedly be amazed and awed at the fact that A) I am actually writing something, and B) it pertains to hunting, not my usual aquatic forays, or my cat. A bit of background info is probably in order.

Way back in the day, as a youth growing up in PA, my first outdoor passion was actually hunting. I'm sure that is because my Dad was an avid hunter, primarily of small game. I have vivid memories of waiting for Dad to come home on those few November Saturdays when PA's small game season was open and running to the car to see what he got. Rabbits were always part of the day's bag, and a pheasant or 2 often found its way home with him as well. Once, and only once, he shot a ruffed grouse. We were a family of houndsmen. My grandfather lived on a farm and always had a few beagles. His hunting partner always had a few, too. Between the two of them, we would alternate dogs throughout the season and chase cottontails.

In PA, you had to be 12 years old to go hunting, and you had to pass the Hunters Safety course. I took the course at Boy Scout Summer Camp in the summer of 1972, and still remember that I got one answer wrong on the test. The question was: how far from an occupied building does the Safety Zone extend? The answer is 150 yards; I answered 250. I guess its better to be safe than sorry!! (I still find it amazing that I remember that question, and my answer, after nearly 40 years, but can't remember what I had for dinner last night) Anyway, I began hunting that Fall and hunted every available Saturday in the open season until I started college. I hunted deer on that "unofficial holiday" in PA - the Monday after Thanksgiving - with my Dad and brother until I was in my late 20's, and moved to another state. I continued to hunt deer periodically in NY, but it just wasn't the same, and I didn't have the same enthusiasm about hunting in NY. Without the family aspect of the hunting experience, I simply lost interest in hunting, and gravitated toward fishing. The last deer I shot was a small buck in NY in 1994.

My recent job change, coupled with a few personnel moves here put me in a position to fill in for a former employee on a hunt with customers to Alberta for whitetails. Well, I guess if you're going to start hunting deer again you might as well jump in with both feet! Northern Alberta is home to some of the largest whitetails in the world, both rack scores and body sizes. The hunt is a completely open land / no fences / no baiting hunt, and was scheduled for the second week of the rut hunt. Absolutely perfect timing - at least on paper. But you don't hunt deer on paper.

My first task would be to recover my rifle from my Dad. Since I had stopped deer hunting, my rifle had become the "extra" for anyone who needed it. The rifle in question is the first one rifle I ever bought - a Browning A-bolt in .280 I bought new in (I believe) 1986 and mounted a Leopold Vari - X II 2 - 7x scope on it. It has been a tack driving machine since the day I bought it. I am a fairly good rifle shooter, but this is the only gun I've ever owned that I could consistently shoot groups at 100 yards with bullet holes touching each other. Of course, I hadn't shot it over 15 years, and I was using new ammo (Hornady 129 grn. GMX), so I needed to get it sighted in.

As you can see, it still shoots great. These were my last 2 shots at 100 yds

Luckily, I am a huge advocate of layering high-tech undergarments to ward off extreme cold, so I was stocked up on UnderArmour Coldgear and Medalist. The rut hunts in northern Alberta are notoriously cold, and the colder the better for the hunting. It is not uncommon to be hunting with highs that never break 0, and can be as low as -20F. We would be hunting out of elevated blinds with Mr. Heaters, but those temperatures are cold no matter what you do.

The excitement building up to the hunt was two-fold for me: first, I have always admired the huge body size and potentially gnarly, beat up, thick mass of the antler configurations of these northern bucks. It's all personal preference, but I've always liked them more than the white, thinner, more symmetrical antlers of the typical Texas deer. Second, this would be the first time I would actually be hunting deer that were unpressured. My upbringing of PA and, to a lesser extent, NY deer hunting meant the only times I was hunting deer was when there were virtual hordes of hunters out in the woods, and the deer were pressured. They were always on the move, being pushed from hunter to hunter. The accepted way to "get your buck" was to sit and outlast the other hunters. If you still hunted (my preferred way) you were basically just moving deer into other hunters. This was especially true on the opening day and the few weekends, and these were the only times I could hunt. The Alberta hunt would be in vast areas of mixed farmland, edges, or boreal forest. And the deer are virtually unpressured, so you are hunting them in their natural state, doing whatever it is they do naturally. In the rut, that means big bucks chasing does. At least I hoped it would.

We arrived at Edmonton airport on Sunday Nov. 6. a 2 hour drive should have put us into camp in late afternoon, but ... One of our party was missing his duffel bag, and it contained all his warm clothes. (They would show up Monday night at the Lodge) So a stop at Canadian Tire (as well as one of the seemingly million or so liquor stores) and we were off. We finally got to Ron Nemetchek's North River Lodge. after dark.


Hunting here is done primarily in elevated blinds. The blinds are covered, and each one has a propane bottle hanging from an edge, which is attached to a Mr. Heater unit inside the blind. You are generally in the stand from before daylight until after dark. If yo absolutely can not sit in on place for that amount of time, your guide will move you or take you out on the seemingly endless dirt roads glassing for deer n the fields. While you will see many deer from the truck this way, everyone agrees that the biggest deer come from the stands. And BIG is an understatement. The body size of these deer is huge. It is a genetic trait that allows them to survive, and prosper, in this harsh, insanely cold climate from December until April. The only problem is thatteh deer have such huge body sizes that sometimes a massive trophy rack doesn't look so big because the body size is so immense.

Many people come here looking for specific B&C scores and won't shoot anything under a certain number - 170, for example. I had no such criteria on this hunt. I simply wanted to enjoy the hunt, enjoy the camaraderie, and, if the opportunity presented itself, shoot a mature buck. I don't even know, or care , what a 150 is. In addition to a deer, your tag allows you to take unlimited wolves and coyotes.

Finally, it is worth noting that there is more diversity of wildlife in this area than I ever thought imaginable. In addition to the whitetails, there are : mule deer, moose, elk, black bear (in hibernation now), wolves, coyotes, martin, fisher, lynx, snowshoe rabbits.

My guide had me hunting in the boreal forest, which is where I wanted to be. The fields in this area are absolutely huge - many over a mile (or multiple miles) long and wide. I felt more comfortable in an area with a more limited range. That being said, I could still have shooting opportunities out to 300 yards on the cuttings I was hunting.

The 3 views from the blind on Monday. Across the cutting was 80-100 yards.

The gas line I hunted had 6 blinds on the cutting that stretched over a mile and a half long. I was the only person hunting this area all week. On Monday, I saw 2 deer all day - both small bucks (a 4 point and a 6 point) The deer came out on the cutting at 9 and 1. But, the area just felt like it was ready to break loose. You always felt that, at any moment, a magnificent buck might wander out, or chase some does through the cutting.

Moonrise from the stand - late afternoon

Aaahh - the Mr. Heater!

Monday evening found no deer brought to camp. A few were passed on, but no shots fired.

Tuesday brought more promise. I was back in a different stand - same area, though - before dawn. As the sun finally came up, I saw a lone deer feeding in the grass about 150 yards below me. I ended up watching that deer for about a half hour - he was a small 6 point. Not even close to being a shooter.

In the picture below you see the fields in the distance. They are actually across a river and over 800 yards away. The week prior some hunters had seen a "record book class buck" in that field!

After the small morning buck, things were quiet for a while until about 11. A pair of does came in the cutting near the area the buck had been in. They kept looking behind them, and I did the same, expecting to see a buck on the ir trail. Nothing. about 5 minutes after they got through the grass, a lynx walked along the same trail they were on. Cool - my first wild lynx sighting! Finally, around 2 pm, I spied another lone deer in the same area. I put the glasses up and saw that he was a buck, but was really unsure of the size of the rack. He kept his head down as he walked further away from me. Finally, at the edge of the woods in the picture above, he held his head up against the dark green background. The rack was wider than the ears, and higher than I first thought. Still, it wasn't one of the "you'll know it when you see it " bucks. I let him walk. Would I regret it?? (2 deer were brought into camp on Tuesday)

A little afternoon snow

Wednesday found me back in the stand above the area I hunted on Tuesday. Nothing showed at daybreak this time. At 10, 2 does came in close to the stand, but no bucks followed. From 11 - 2, I either caught glimpses of deer or was glassing deer fairly regularly - maybe a half dozen deer total. Then, while glassing a doe, a big buck walked in my sight picture. Dark , heavy rack. "you'll know it when you see it" - I knew it. But - he moved quickly into the woods and I lost sight of him. I caught a glimpse of antlers one more time, but no possibility of a shot. 2 more deer were brought in on Wednesday, making the take for the camp 4 for 16 so far in the week. One point to note : my party had to leave on Friday night to catch early Saturday flights. The usual hunt goes through Sat. So, at this point, we were down to 2 days left to hunt.

Frosty Morning!

The area I saw the big buck on Wed. He was as far out as you can see down the left side of the picture along the tree line - a solid 200 yards.

[PART 2 to follow]


Cofisher said...

Wow Joe! Don't leave us hanging. I'm not a hunter any more but you really got the adrenalin pumping...buck fever just reading!

Anonymous said...

Very cool! I'm movin' right on to the next part...