Alberta. Among serious deer hunters, the very name conjures up visions of white-tailed bucks with bodies the size of a small cow and multi-tined antlers with bases as thick as your wrist. I’ve been hunting there off and on since the mid-1980s, sitting in treestands during the November rut trying to survive air temperatures anywhere from zero to minus 35 degrees, driven even lower by strong north winds. I’ve even killed a buck or three, all dandies, and seen many more that just didn’t quite give me an opportunity to give them a ride in a farm truck. It’s a part of Canada that gives me goosebumps every time I think about hunting there.
So when my friend and booking agent Wade Derby of Crosshair Consulting ((925) 679-9232) told me he had a sleeper spot for good bucks in Alberta, I was ready to hear more. And it was when he said it was for mule deer, not whitetails, that I became all ears.
Growing up in the West, I’ve been something of a muley fanatic since high school. I’ve watched the changing face of mule deer hunting closely, as muley populations declined, hunting has become more difficult and the trophy quality in many areas once known for whopper bucks has been reduced to stories of yesterday. Of course there are still some areas where big buck potential remains, but to hunt most of these areas one must either draw a limited-entry permit—often requiring more preference points than you have fingers on both hands—or purchase a landowner permit costing several thousand dollars. And if you want to hunt during the mule deer rut with your rifle in an area with true trophy potential—the time when monarch bucks drop their guard just enough to become vulnerable—the odds of drawing a tag become about equal to those required to win the Powerball jackpot.
“In southern Alberta you can hunt the rut with any legal firearm you choose, be it rifle or muzzleloader, except a handgun,” Derby told me. “The rut here coincides with the rut in the Rocky Mountain West, with the bucks becoming interested in the ladies in late October and really rocking in another week or two.” Alberta’s mule deer rifle season runs October 25-November 30, while the bow season runs September 1 through the end of October. By law, no Sunday hunting is permitted in Alberta.
Of course, after seeing Western mule deer herds hammered by, among other things, uncontrolled rifle rut hunting before most states finally came to their senses, my first question was about trophy quality, and the fear that such unrestricted seasons would eventually lead to the same problems in Alberta. So I began doing some research. One of the interesting things I discovered is that in many of the best muley areas residents have to be drawn for tags, but nonresidents who hunt with an outfitter do not. Resident tags are so limited that it often takes a local 3 or 4 years to draw a tag, which really helps keep the deer herd from being hammered.
So I booked a hunt through Wade and away I went.
When I first think about trophy mule deer hunting, I have visions of a wall tent camp set at relatively high elevation, trying to stay warm at night in below-freezing temperatures and cooking on an old Coleman stove. There was none of that on this hunt. We stayed in a very comfortable bed and breakfast in downtown Nanton, near Calgary, sleeping in comfortable beds, enjoying a real shower and eating a big breakfast and supper while packing along a sack lunch for the day’s hunt. The hunt itself was conducted out of the outfitter’s truck, though on some hunts horses might be used on any given day to make accessing areas far off the road practical.
The first morning broke crisp and clear, with the air temperature a tad below freezing and the wind blowing steadily from the northwest at 15 mph. Here on the plains you can expect the wind to be a constant companion, making wind-blocking clothing essential. We spent the morning glassing coulees, spotting several mule deer but no bucks we liked. By mid-morning it was time to make a move, so we slid up a draw to look over some new country. And just like that, we found a good buck. He was trailing four does, and his tall, heavy antlers made him worthy of a closer look.
Soon we were off in pursuit, trailing the deer as they made their way out of sight in the rimrock-studded south slope of the canyon wall. We picked up their tracks in the snow and moved as quickly as we dared, glassing down into the canyon and along the rims. After a quarter-mile, we hadn’t found them again, which is something that always perplexes me when hunting mule deer. I mean, the country is relatively open, and you’d think with no place to hide the deer, well, couldn’t. But they always do.
After a couple of minutes I spotted a lone buck in the canyon bottom, but a quick check with the 10X42mms showed that it wasn’t the one we were looking for. But then, like magic, there he was, also in the canyon bottom and this time without his little harem. As the buck began to vigorously rake some brush, we crept in to about 250 yards where we stopped and I took a sitting position. I turned the scope’s power up to 10X, flipped off the safety and squeezed the trigger. When the .30 caliber, 180-grain Swift Scirocco bullet from the Remington factory load hit him, he simply imploded.
Just like that—less than 4 hours into it—my Alberta mule deer hunt was over.
And what a dandy buck he is. With heavy antlers and good, deep forks, the buck gross-scores right at 176 Boone and Crockett Club points. This buck is typical of the trophy quality found in most of Alberta’s prime mule deer country, though bucks scoring more than 200 B&C points have been taken in recent years.
The fact that I was able to break out my pet .300 Win. Mag. and experience the joy of hunting the rut with a rifle without having to wait years to draw a limited-entry tag or spending huge dollars on a private landowner tag in the States made it even more enjoyable.
When it comes to mule deer hunting, southern Alberta is coming on like a freight train. It won’t be long before the rest of the hunting world is hip to what the area has to offer. The fact that I got in on it on the leading edge of the wave just makes it all the more satisfying.