Bow Zone Bonanza
by Chris Green
(Bowhunters Annual, Number 18, 1993)
Serious trophy whitetail deer hunters know the potential Alberta has for producing world-class deer. There is an area of the province where rifle hunting is prohibited and it is in the heart of this prime habitat. As a result, the light hunting pressure allows bucks in this 1600 square mile zone to grow to trophy-producing age.
I first became aware of this amazing bowhunting opportunity in September 1990. Alberta law requires non-residents to be accompanied by a licensed outfitter or guide. I contracted Jim Hole, Jr. of Classic Outfitters Ltd. in Edmonton and made plans to hunt in the upcoming season.
After several close encounters with record-book candidates that season, I managed to rattle in and harvest a 140 point-class five-by-five buck. In most places, that deer would have been the best the area had to offer, but not in Alberta. In fact, the deer was only 3-1/2 years old! Three out of four hunters in camp that week scored on Pope & Young Club record-book bucks. The largest was a heavy four-by-four, scoring only 148 points by Illinois hunter Stan Simpson.
At the close of the season, six bucks harvested by Hole’s hunters would qualify for Pope & Young Club entries, ranging from 130 to 162 points. Not bad, considering Hole guides whitetail deer hunters only four weeks each year. Needless to say, plans for my return the following season were initiated before I left.
Several phone calls to Hole kept the fever burning through the long summer wait. Then, in late September, some shocking news came. A bowhunting companion of Hole’s, Don McGarvey, had harvested a huge typical whitetail. Preliminary scores indicated the deer would not close to 200 points. After the mandatory 60-day drying period, the McGarvey trophy officially scored 199 5/8 Pope & young club points, ranking it as the second largest typical in the world, taken with a bow!
As if that news wasn’t enough, continuing reports filed in. Jim Hole had connected with a five-by-four scoring 152 points. Hole’s brother Doug – also an accomplished trophy hunter with several Pope & Young buck to his credit — had arrowed a heavily-antlered six-by-six in September 1991. The shot looked good, but unfortunately, almost unexplainably, that animal was not recovered. Six weeks later, Doug Hole managed to harvest a large buck in the same area. Upon inspection, Doug Hole was amazed to find this was the same deer he had encountered earlier. Firmly imbedded in the shoulder ball joint was Doug Hole’s original broadhead. Hole harvested the deer after watching it jump a fence and head straight to his stand. The deer appeared to show no ill-effects from the original wound. The six-by-six buck scored in the mid-160s.
My arrival in Edmonton finally came on November 10, 1991. I soon learned one of Hole’s clients had scored yet another 160-point-class buck the previous week. Weather conditions had been ideal, with cold temperatures forcing increased activity on the deer. Unfortunately, these prime conditions soon changed. In fact, most of my hunt took place with unseasonably mild temperatures. Adding to this was the approaching full moon. Regardless of the less-than-perfect conditions, I was determined to keep a positive attitude.
I had already decided to hold out for a buck larger than the one I had taken the previous year. My decision was tested the first evening. I was positioned on a fence line that separated two large fields. Twenty-five yards south of the stand was a small woodlot that also separated two large fields. The sign indicated the deer were bedding in the woodlot and traveling through the field toward the northeast to feed. There were also several fresh scrapes on the edge of the brush. I was expecting the deer to enter the field close to the stand. As is often the case, that did not occur. Instead, just after sunset, I spotted a large-bodied deer approaching from the open field to the east. As he paralleled the stand approximately 100 yards away, he appeared to be a nice four-by-four in the 130-point class.
I watched through binoculars as he reached the edge of the brush. He was due east, about 80 yards away. The buck turned toward me for the first time and I almost dropped my binoculars. His rack extended at least inches behind his ears! I realized he might not score as high as last year’s buck, but I couldn’t resist that spread. I grunted softly to him and, instead of entering the brush, he turned and began making his way toward me. He stopped several times to lay scrapes and thrash branches along the way.
I remember thinking, “I can’t believe I’m going to be done after only one day of hunting.”
I came to full draw as he stepped behind a large tree 20 yards down the fence line. Two more steps and he would be mine. He emerged from behind the tree, exposing his head, neck and shoulder. I needed another six to eight inches to shoot behind his shoulder when he decided to stop. With a steady breeze blowing in my face, there was no way he would make me. He just decided to stop right there. I was locked at full draw for approximately one minute when he made his move.
He turned and walked out of my shooting lane. I eased the bow down as he walked away. A good trail crossed the fence line just ahead of him. As luck would have it, he took that trail and entered the field on my side of the fence. I had no more trees to worry about. As he made his way into the field, I estimated the range at 40 yards. I drew and released as he quartered away.
I knew something was wrong when I heard the arrow strike. It didn’t sound right. As the deer bolted, I raised my binoculars and tried to see if he was carrying the arrow. From the sound of impact, I knew it could not have been a pass-through. I focused on the deer, but there was no arrow. As I scanned the area, I spotted the bright orange fletching and realized I had overshot the buck. An important lesson had been learned about bowhunting open field. My rangefinder would be used much more frequently during the remainder of the hunt.
Upon my return to camp, I learned fellow Pennsylvanian Jack Deurer had scored on a nice four-by-four that would score just shy of the Pope & Young minimum for record book entry. After an uneventful second morning for me, more good news greeted my return to camp. Another hunter, Mark Stanley of North Carolina had connected on a huge five-by-five which grossed in the mid-170s. Stanley had spotted the buck at 350 yards and decided he was a shooter. Normal rattling was ineffective, because of the distance, so Stanley pulled out all the stops and rattled furiously to get the bucks attention. The tactic worked almost too well. The deer ran within 10 yards of Stanley’s stand. A perfect heart-shot put the big deer down within 100 yards.
After a brief discussion with my guide, Mike Ukrainetz, I decided to try the same stand from which I had missed the wide eight-pointer the previous evening. Wind conditions were favourable. Although a few does were spotted, the buck never showed. I think he may have learned his lesson. Ukrainetz knew of several other mature bucks in the same area, so we decided to concentrate our efforts there. Rather than over-hunt the stand, we agreed to try hunting another field about a mile to the west.
Unfortunately, I was able to hunt the stand only one time, because of wind conditions. However, that afternoon was eventful.
Three good trails entered the field within shooting distance of the stand. Two fresh scrapes were located 25 yards to the south along the field edge. The wind was out of the west and conditions seemed perfect. The first deer were two does and a small six-pointer. The does entered the field 15 yards north of the stand and began feeding. The small buck stayed in the bush about 30 yards away.
Next to arrive were a few more does followed by a 10-class four-by-four with a six-inch drop tine. Although a bit smaller than my original goal, the drop tine antler made me eager for a chance at him. The does made their way out into the field and joined the others to feed. This buck also decided to stay back in the bush until he was sure the coast was clear.
The does continued to feed out into the field. I began to worry they would wind up due east of the stand and downwind. I grunted softly to the buck and managed to draw him within range, but I couldn’t get a clear shot through the thick brush. As I watched, admiring the buck’s handsome rack, a loud snort sounded from behind me. As I had feared, one of the does had moved out into the field, eventually ending up directly downwind, 75 yards from the stand.
All the does began to trot farther out into the field. They settled down about 300 yards away. I lost track of the small six-pointer, but I watched the drop-tine buck move north along the wood line. He entered the field 150 yards away and maintained that distance as he made his way out into the field to rejoin the does. I tried grunting and lightly rattling to him. Although he did stop once or twice along the way, he would come no closer. I watched as he reached the does, chasing and scattering them.
Shooting light was almost gone and as I began to think about leaving my tree stand, I suddenly heard hooves pounding and brush breaking from back in the bush. As the noise grew louder, it was obvious another buck was tending a doe 100 yards away. Through my binoculars, I could make out the doe and the much larger body of the buck, but it was too dim to tell how big his rack was. The deer eventually made their way to within bow range, but by then it was too late for a shot.
The most interesting thing about the experience was the sound of the buck’s grunt. I can best describe it as being the loudest, deepest sounding grunt I’ve ever heard. I’ll never know how big the deer’s rack was, but he definitely had a Boone and Crocket Club record-book grunt.
Despite the unseasonably mild temperatures, the deer were definitely showing increased rutting activity. Rattling and grunting attempts were bringing consistent results for most hunters in camp. I passed on two opportunities at smaller bucks in the 120-point class that responded to my rattling. I came close to getting a crack at a 140-class five-by-five after a rattling session one afternoon. I was positioned along a field edge when I spotted a deer bolting across the field toward my stand, apparently eager to accept my challenge call. Unfortunately, a doe appeared between the buck and me and he decided she was better company.
Another of Hole’s brothers, Jack, arrived from Vancouver to join the hunt. After several close calls, each of which resulted in a hilarious tale from Jack, his chance finally came. I had helped him move one of his stands closer to a trail the deer were using quite heavily. With the help of his grunt call, he was able to harvest a handsome five-by-five from that stand the following morning. Jack’s buck scored in the mid-140s.
Attitude and determination play an important part in successful trophy hunting. I’ve often noticed the consistently successful hunter is always the one whose concentration never falters; he’s the guy who always seems to stay focused on his goal . After being in Jim Hole’s camp, I realized the most important advice he consistently offers is to maintain that positive attitude. I recall thinking about that advice as I took my stand the evening before my last day in Alberta.
I was positioned along an old road bed that ran east-west, separating two large stubble fields. The deer were entering the fields from the northwest and from the southeast. The only wind direction that could be hunted was due east. The deer started showing up almost immediately after I was settled. I watched as two small bucks and several does and fawns made their way out into the north field to begin feeding. The stand faced directly north toward the field that was being used most heavily. However, the large stubble field to the south also deserved some attention. I turned carefully to the south to scan the edge of the field and noticed a large buck entering the bush. I realized he was the one for which I had been waiting all week. I had only a brief glimpse, but that was all I needed.
He was about 350 yards away and heading into the brush. The edge ran northeast toward the road bed where I was positioned. I tried to rattle the buck in. I watched for 10 minutes or so, but he never showed. All the while, more deer were entering the north field to feed. Although two more bucks had joined the others, neither were shooters.
As I watched the deer feed, I heard footsteps behind me. I turned to see three deer moving long the edge toward me. The lead deer was a doe, followed by a 140-class five-by-five. Last, but not least, was the large buck I had earlier observed. He was a four-by-four, however, his tine length was incredible. His best tines had to be 12 or 13 inches long. Along with good mass and spread, he was one impressive deer.
I grunted softly to get his attention. What he did next quickly grabbed my attention. The buck charged my position to within 25 yards. As usual, a clear shot never presented itself. He stayed on the opposite side of the road bed, bordered with brush. I watched with dismay as he retreated to join the doe and other buck. I tried grunting again and, to my amazement, the buck bolted back to the same spot on the other side of the road, just 25 yards away. After surveying the area again, he quickly rejoined the others.
The three deer were heading for a gap in the road be 100 yards east. I decided to quit fooling around and wait for him to make the next move. As they entered the field, the two bucks headed out to join the other deer as the doe turned my way. She stopped 35 yards away and began feeding. As the larger buck began to chase the does and smaller bucks, the five-by-five decided to make his move on the doe in front of me. He ran directly toward us, covering almost half of the 125 yards before the larger buck realized what was happening. He was in high speed pursuit in less time than it takes to talk about it.
I stared in disbelief as two mature Alberta trophy bucks streaked toward me. The five-by-five hit the brakes at 20 yards. He stood broadside and stared back at the rapidly approaching eight-pointer. I remember briefly considering taking the smaller buck. He was at least as good as last year’s buck. He was in what seemed to be a can’t-miss position. However, one look at the big buck’s long tines brought me back to my goal. It would be him or nothing.
The large buck covered ground quickly. At 50 yards, he looked even bigger. At 35 yard, he stopped to stare down his opponent. He was within range, but he was quartering toward me and no shot was available.
All three deer stood motionless. The heavy breathing of the bucks, panting to catch their breath was the only sound. The first to move was the doe; her nerves had to be almost as frazzled as mine. She bolted away and the bucks followed. I was so close!
Although my attitude would remain positive for the last day of the hunt, I couldn’t help but think my chances were departing as quickly as the big buck had.
I had already experienced more on this hunt than I had hoped. Next year, if I have half the action, it will be all worthwhile. Some would argue where the best trophy whitetail opportunities exist, but the bowhunter would be hard-pressed to find a place better than Edmonton, Alberta’s Bow Zone.