The muted glow of dimly lit wall tents tucked in a shadowy grove of thick black spruce warmed my spirits. It was nearly midnight, and our hodgepodge of hunters, camp crew and guides had spent the past 4 hours riding and winching four Argos through slop hole after slop hole as we slowly motored toward the remote moose camp north of Peace River, Alberta. If we were quick to stow our wet gear and grab a bite to eat, we might catch a few short hours of sleep before we climbed back on the machines at daybreak to begin hunting.
This was the first leg of a made-for-magazine Canadian double-header hunt. After the moose hunt I would journey to Ontario to pursue whitetails during the rut. I was equally excited about the prospect of bagging my first moose and getting a crack at a huge-bodied Northern whitetail.
A moist spit of snow tickled my face as I emerged from our canvas barracks before dawn and followed my nose to the kitchen tent where our cook, Debbie, was preparing breakfast: thick black coffee, eggs and Canadian bacon. Guides and hunters exchanged sleepy greetings as we congregated to make the morning's plans.
I was paired up with hunting buddy and North American Hunter "Whitetails" columnist Mark Kayser, and we were introduced to our guide, Dennis. After a second cup of coffee we grabbed our rifles and packs and piled into the Argo. Dennis gunned the throttle, and we lurched down a slippery trail that was slightly illuminated by the machine's dim, muddy headlights.
It was late September, early in the moose rut. Seductive cow calls and territorial threats, we figured, would bring every bull within earshot on the run. We figured wrong. The bulls we did encounter were stubborn, tentatively answering our calls but remaining well-hidden in the thick Canadian underbrush. Our only recourse was to hunt food-rich clear-cuts that would hopefully draw the moose out in the open and provide us with enough visibility for a shot.
Moose are browsers and primarily feed on leaves, twigs and buds of hardwood and softwood trees and shrubs. An adult moose will consume 40 to 60 pounds of browse a day- willows, birch, aspens, maples, fir, etc.- available in abundance on the regenerating clear-cuts. Moose utilize clear-cuts until the plants grow beyond their reach, which takes at least 10 years, and they avoid dense clear-cuts that restrict their movement and visibility.
Knowing this, I also knew it was all theory if the moose weren't there. After hunting several clear-cuts for 2 days with nary a sighting, a change was in order. On the third afternoon, I had Dennis drop me off at a ground blind near a beaver pond. The willow-choked flowage from the dam to a small lake provided a perfect funnel for feeding, sneaking moose.
I was leaning against a tree, lazily watching Ma and Pa beaver patrol the family digs, when the distinctive snap of a large branch 80 or so yards back in the bush reminded me I was moose hunting. I got to my feet and stood motionless, my hands cupped behind my ears. There! A heavy footfall followed by another loud snap.
I bull-called softly several times but got no reply- probably the cow and calf I'd seen earlier in the afternoon, I told myself. Still hopeful, I called again while kicking at the ground in a mock display of aggression. This commotion was immediately answered by several soft grunts ... a bull! We exchanged insults for several minutes, but the obstinate moose wouldn't budge from the tag alder jungle. Time was slipping away as the sun's waning rays filtered through the tamaracks.
I frantically looked around, found a large, dead branch and began trashing a nearby cluster of red willows. I had no sooner stopped to listen when I heard what sounded like a runaway freight train crashing through the brush toward me!
Yikes! I quickly dropped to a sitting position and traded branch for rifle- shouldering it as the angry bull emerged from the heavy brush, his head thrashing from side to side in an impressive exhibition of supremacy. I grunted, for lack of a better idea, and he stopped in his tracks, quartering toward me 60 yards away, penetrating eyes searching for the intruder. I only vaguely heard the rifle's report or felt the heavy recoil from the .300 Mag., even though I soon discovered the scope had opened a large cut on the bridge of my nose. The 180-grain Nosler Partition found the base of the bull's neck and dropped him in his tracks. Elated, I walked over to my trophy as I heard the drone of the Argo coming up the trail.
Dennis slapped me on the back as we admired the large animal before turning to the chore at hand. As I held the flashlight and Dennis went to work, I could not have been happier that we had a couple hours of butchering ahead of us.
My mind was in a happy place as my Suburban swayed gently from side to side while I navigated a winding ribbon of blacktop that meandered toward Emo, Ontario, a small agricultural town cozied up to the northern bank of the Rainy River. Once there, I would rendezvous with Steve Toriseva, who helps operate Border Country Outfitters ((877) 258-2767), a premier guide service known for its Saskatchewan-type whitetail hunts. Their hunting property is situated along the edge of the Canadian Shield- a transitional zone from agriculture to true wilderness, which provides exceptional whitetail habitat- and produces exceptional whitetails.
"These are big, powerful, alert animals, used to dealing with harsh weather and large predators," Steve told me at camp that night. "Mature bucks are reclusive, perfectly content to spend most of their time in dark cedar and black spruce swamps.
"It's the rut that makes them vulnerable," he said. "But even though they like to feed on the alfalfa and clover fields and mingle with the does out in the open, they remain pretty nocturnal. Hunting pressure, even though it's relatively light, makes them that way."
And so it was with visions of gargantuan, gnarly antlered bucks that I endured the long vigil the first morning of the hunt, determined to stay put in the ground blind as long as my fortitude, and numb toes, would allow. During the afternoon I took an uneventful walkabout on the property, returning to the blind for an unsuccessful evening sit.
After sticking it out for 4 fruitless hours the next morning in a different area, I decided to take a more proactive approach and climbed down from the treestand for a look around. I found an abundance of active scrapes, rubs and trails and spent most of the day sneaking about, occasionally banging my rattling antlers together.
About mid-afternoon I settled into a hidey-hole on the edge of a small clearing- which appeared to be the vortex of deer activity in the are- where I was determined to sit until dark.
I complacently let my rattling antlers slide to the ground after a 30-second clash-and-smash session, which I'd been dutifully performing every 20 or 30 minutes for the past 3 hours. I was cold, my butt was frozen to the ground and my concentration was waning. But I was determined to stick it out during the last hour of daylight- the "golden hour" I kept telling myself.
I was rubbing my numb hands together when I caught movement 200 yards across the clearing, stopping me in mid-rub. I stared at the brush and it stared back ... literally! I could barely make out the obscured outline of a deer's face and antlers intermingled with the tangled buck brush. I was sure it was a buck but couldn't assess the size and mass of his antlers.
I was easing my binoculars up as the huge deer emerged from the brush and began walking stiff-legged directly toward me. What an awesome sight! The buck's hackles were at full mast and he was clearly agitated that another buck had invaded his territory. I fought the urge to drop the binos and slam the gun- which was lying in my lap- to my shoulder. Instead, I slowly lowered the glasses and just as slowly shouldered the rifle. The buck had closed nearly half the distance between us and was showing no sign of slowing by the time I established a sight picture in the scope.
Uncomfortable with the straight-on shot angle, I grunted with my mouth and the buck stopped and pivoted to his right as he assessed the situation. This provided a better angle, and I squeezed the trigger. The buck bolted, tail down, for cover. I lowered the rifle and took a deep breath, marking the spot where he entered the brush.
Incredibly, I was no longer cold. Deep in the bush to my left I heard a loud crash. The buck had gone down hard. I paused to reflect on the incredible moments that led up to the shot and then got to my feet and stretched my stiff legs. The sun was just clipping the tips of the tallest jack pines as I walked into the bush to retrieve my second Canadian trophy.