Alberta. For decades, this western Canadian province has been known for world-class beef, agricultural land that stretches as far as the eye can see, waterfowl numbers that can literally blot out the sun — and some of the largest whitetail deer on the continent.
When I first began seriously chasing whitetails back in the late 1970s, Alberta was the place to go if you wanted a realistic chance at a buck that weighed upwards of 300 pounds and sported antlers pushing the Boone & Crocket Club’s minimum score of 170 inches (typical). Sometimes the heaven’s smiled down on you, producing a book-eligible non-typical scoring more than 195 inches. And so north to Alberta I went, many times.
Mostly those trips proved fruitless. It was the result of poor outfitter choices, unseasonably hot weather or just plain bad luck. I hunted early in the season when the weather is pleasant, and even in late November in the Edmonton bow-only zone when temperatures never got above 20 below zero Fahrenheit and every move in an exposed treestand was both painfully cold and deafeningly noisy. In six week-long hunts my score was one 10-point buck scoring about 150.
It had been more than a decade since I’d given Alberta another go when last November I headed north of Edmonton to hunt with Todd and Taylor Loewen of Red Willow Outfitters, a well-respected team that came highly recommended. They hunt whitetails, mule deer, moose, elk and waterfowl. They also have some of the best coyote hunting around, with the odd chance of bagging a wolf as well.
In camp were industry friends old and new, assuring a good time if nothing else. I mean, let’s face it, my track record north of the border has not been stellar, so I came with eyes wide open hoping to find a giant buck at long last.
What I found was something altogether different — but in a good way.
Mother Nature Hates Me
Those who spent any amount of time deer hunting in 2016 all remember all too well the unseasonably warm weather that helped keep much of the deer movement nocturnal, even during the rut. Success rates on older deer for many proved as elusive as buying a winning Powerball ticket. That same unseasonably warm weather greeted us in Alberta. Instead of frozen ground, we found mud. Instead of snow and ice, we found a freezing rain. Instead of temperatures that never topped the freezing mark, we never encountered a day with below-freezing temps.
And so our guides, while remaining hard-working and optimistic, were also realistic. “It will be tough,” they said, “but we have some ideas.” And they did.
A trio in my group were hunting mule deer, whose open prairie living make them arguably easier to locate in warm weather than whitetails that prefer the sanctuary to swamps, forests and brush thickets.
This choice proved solid. None of the three — Eric Poole, Jason Gilbertson and Josh Honeycutt — had ever shot a muley buck before, and each tagged a very nice 4×4 buck. In Poole’s case, that 4×4 turned out to be a 7½-year-old brute with 7-inch bases and long tines that I measured at a gross 1842⁄8 Boone & Crockett points.
The Elusive Whitetail
For us whitetail chasers, things were more difficult — but not impossible. I spent my time in and around gigantic alfalfa fields that bordered forested blocks. We’d cruise the roads and glass at prime time, trying to locate a buck the boys told me was a sure 170-plus typical 10-point that another client couldn’t drop the hammer on days prior. This we did knowing it was a pipe dream, since the rut was on despite the weather. That meant he could be anywhere.
So one day I made a sit in a little ground blind from before dawn to after dark. It was a 12-hour shift that left me stiff, sore and wonder how I was going to be able to make a move on the nice 10-point I saw pop out right at dark at the far end of the field over 700 yards away the next day. Seeing that buck gave me hope after seeing zero deer up to that point. But I did finish a pretty good Jack Reacher novel, so all was not lost.
Roll the Dice
That next day we cruised some roads and glassed some fields at prime time but saw little. So after some breakfast and a nap, Jordan and I headed back to my field and set up next to one of the 1,500-pound hay bales in the field’s center. This allowed us to cover both ends of the field. We arrived at 3 p.m., with legal shooting light ending at 5:15 p.m. We hunkered down out of the biting wind facing opposite directions, and tried to sit still.
Nothing. Nothing, that is, until about 4:50 p.m. That’s when a nice 10-point with short tines but good bases and tall beams entered the field. I sized him up, said “Yes,” then watched as he walked back into the forest. Whattheheck? Was the Alberta Jinx still alive and well??
Then back he came, this time accompanied by four does. The range was a bit over 500 yards. It was too far for someone shooting a rifle he was not totally familiar with in fading light. So Jordan and I slithered to the edge of the field, entered the brush line and crept to a small finger of brush that jutted into the field. I took a quick rangefinder reading — 335 yards — then set up my Bog Pod tripod sticks, sat down, put the crosshair on the buck’s shoulder, turned up the power to 10X, took a breath and squeezed the trigger. The buck literally dropped in his tracks, the 150-grain Deer Season XP bullet from my Winchester XPR in .300 Win. Mag. hammering him like a sledge.
It wasn’t the elusive 170-buck. Instead just a solid, big-bodied 10-point with a little kicker off the left side that technically makes him an 11. Given the conditions at hand, I consider him to be a super buck taken on a fair-chase hunt that was conducted well and a lot of fun.
Before leaving camp I spoke with Taylor about maybe making a return trip this year, bow in hand, to see if I might be able to put the sneak on one of those big mule deer bucks. While I live and breathe whitetail hunting, I grew up hunting muleys out West, and it’s still a passion that burns white hot.
Who knows? Maybe that Alberta Jinx is a thing of the past. The only way to find out is to give it another go. I can’t wait.