Extreme hunting means different things to different people. For some it means loading up a backpack and heading into the high country in search of mountain game on a trip that will test their physical limits. For others it might mean doing something out of the ordinary, like floating an Alaska river in search of a big moose or caribou, or flying across an ocean to hunt animals not found in North America. Others think it’s seeing whether they have the nerve to stalk within spitting distance of a grizzly or brown bear, armed with only stick-and-string.
To be sure, all the above qualify in my book. Yet a bowhunt I took two Novembers ago involved none of those elements, yet it fit the definition of extreme bowhunting in a different sense. In this case, I was hunting Alberta’s Edmonton bow zone for big white-tailed bucks in temperatures so far below zero it sometimes hurt to breathe.
How cold was it, you ask? It was so frigid my quiver’s rubber grippers froze solid, making it almost impossible to get an arrow shaft out; so extreme that the tree trunks were so hard it was almost impossible to screw tree steps or bow hangers into them. At 25, 30 and 35 degrees below zero, every piece of equipment—and your mental and physical abilities—are pushed to the limit.
Big Buck Haven
Alberta has been producing top-end whitetails for decades. Many serious bowhunters aren’t aware that the province has set aside three areas for archery-only hunting, each near a major urban area (Calgary and Edmonton) or a large national park (Banff), and each hold some superb animals. According to the Alberta Fish and Wildlife Division, these units were established almost 30 years ago to address safety concerns in relation to gun hunting near growing population bases.
Together the three areas encompass nearly 3,200 square miles, or more than 2 million acres. Wildlife Management Unit (WMU) 212 is a 1,440-square-mile area around Calgary; WMU 248 encompasses 1,635 square miles around Edmonton; and WMU 410, commonly called the Canmore Archery Zone, is a 165-square-mile block of land west of Calgary, along the southeastern border of Banff National Park.
In each area, the archery season is open from early September until late November. Generally speaking, the Edmonton zone is the best for big whitetails, thanks to huge tracts of river-bottom habitat bordering alfalfa and wheat fields. The Calgary unit is also excellent, but has less continuous good deer habitat than the Edmonton zone. The Canmore unit is better known for elk and bighorn sheep. All three areas offer moose and mule deer hunting, with black bear hunting available during spring and fall in the Canmore and Calgary units.
All nonresident bowhunters must hire a licensed outfitter. The province sets aside a portion of all available permits for nonresidents, which are made available to licensed guides. A complete list of guides who hold permits is available from the Alberta Fish and Wildlife Division by calling (780) 944-0313.
Attitude Is Everything
The challenges of such an extreme bowhunt are many, not the least of which involves tweaking your equipment and wearing the right clothes. Your mental attitude will also be severely tested, especially when the hunting is slower than trying to pour molasses from a jug left on the porch all winter. And the year I went, the hunting was tougher than usual.
Jim Hole, owner of Classic Outfitters Ltd. (Box 124, Dept. NAH, Seba Beach, Alberta, Canada, T0E 2B0; (780) 797-2222) holds more permits than any outfitter in the Edmonton zone. His clients’ success rate is about what you can expect on this type of challenging hunt.
“Approximately 15 percent of the bucks our hunters harvest would make the Pope and Young Club record book,” Hole said. “And we usually shoot one or two real bombers; bucks that easily score more than 150 P&Y points, with body weights approaching 300 pounds.”
Hole hunts a combination of his family’s farm and neighboring farms where he’s obtained permission from landowners to bring his clients. It’s typical Edmonton bow zone real estate—plenty of agricultural fields filled with alfalfa and wheat and sliced by stands of aspen and conifers, as well as rivers and streams and their thick cover. In short, it’s textbook habitat for growing whopper whitetails.
When the hunting is slow and the weather bitter cold, it’s sometimes tough to get out of bed well before daylight, dress in all those layers and head off to sit in a tree for several hours. Yet all you can do is keep telling yourself, “Today’s the day it’s going to happen, and when ‘Mr. Big’ walks by, I’m going to let him have it!”
For a week, I sat morning and evening and watched deer, moose, birds and other critters wander by, yet a shot never presented itself. Not that I didn’t have a good time, mind you. There was the time a young bull moose walked up to my tree and started rubbing his young antlers on the trunk, shaking me like a late-season leaf ready to tumble off the branch. Another time I watched two young mule deer bucks shove each other around like testosterone-loaded teenagers, while a third buck moved in and stole the doe they were grappling over.
Then there were the bucks I saw, but didn’t shoot. One was a 10-pointer I thought might score approximately 140 P&Y?points that came within 35 yards but never passed through a shooting lane in the brush. Another was a monster 8-pointer I guessed would score in the 160s, but he strolled through an alfalfa field 100 yards away. The most fun I had was when a 11/2-year-old 8-pointer saw a doe decoy I had out and came speeding over, then did some sort of mating dance for nearly 20 minutes only 20 yards from my tree. He hopped and jumped and ran circles around her trying to figure out what she really was and why she wasn’t moving, and finally decided to save his dancing for another doe that would appreciate it.
No one in our camp punched a tag that week. Two guys had shots, but neither connected. However, two deer did come in. Jim’s brother Dudley, a serious buck hunter who’s taken some whoppers, killed a 140-class 8-pointer on a neighboring farm. And Jim and Dudley’s hunting partner, former Canadian decathlon champion and Olympian Mike Smith, also smacked a heavy-antlered 8-pointer about the same size.
This was one extreme bowhunt that was extremely frustrating. It was so cold I even had a hard time reading a paperback book to pass the long hours on stand, something I do regularly. Breezes that would barely float a feather created a wind-chill that dropped the mercury exponentially. And my nose never stopped running, yet the mucous froze so fast I had to chip it off my mustache, not wipe it off.
And yet, for some reason, the whole experience got to me. There’s no doubt the Edmonton bow zone has big bucks. And like true trophy hunting anywhere, you have to pay your dues. As often as not, that means coming home with an unpunched tag. If you’re serious about your hunting, that doesn’t mean coming home empty-handed. It was quite an interesting week of learning and observing, of dealing with an environment few brave. Like the saying goes, if it was easy, anybody could do it.
I have to go back to see if I can make the shot when one of those stud bucks gets close enough to make my knees knock and heart beat out of my chest.