I had spent 3 tough weekends in the foothills looking for that illustrious bull elk which has had a reserved space on my wall for almost 12 years now. The family actually jokes about the space suggesting that perhaps I should just place a large picture of a royal elk in the spot. To this day the vaulted ceiling overlooking the family room will accommodate a very large bull complete with rack but the trophy room operator has failed to find an appropriate specimen.
The fall of 2003 had some incredibly unusual weather "only strangers and idiots predict the weather in the foothills areas of Alberta". Cool, then cold and ever present snow for the first time from October through March 2004 for the first time in the 18 years I have lived in the West. Generally speaking we hunt in moderate elevations with the rugged Rockies only 3-4 miles away. In prior years we have had everything from 20 degree C. shirt sleeve bluebird day hunts to 20 below C. "can't feel my feet" after four hour hunts. Sometimes these conditions alternated from one weekend to the next. The ranch harbors some great herds of elk but hunting can be difficult for at the first sign of pressure they hole up in heavy timber and usually do not move unless forced to. The rancher allows limited hunting by "known individuals" only but my partner has hunted there for over 35 years so we are usually allowed on unless draught conditions make fire hazards an extreme risk. Vehicles are not allowed unless an animal is "down" so we often walk and climb 5-6 miles in a single day. Add 2-3 feet of snow which has been blown around and drifted by the generous Alberta ever present winds and you will understand why these hunts were difficult. Ridges that we could normally ascend to a vantage point in a half and hour or so were now taking 2-3 hours. Animals once spotted in the timber were unapproachable for they could hear you coming on "crunchy" snow for over a half mile.
After 3 weekends of this I decided to abandon the ranch for a weekend to take my boys on our traditional "deer hunt" weekend out on the (bald *ss) prairie in Central Alberta where the Red Deer River enters the Province of Saskatchewan. We had been doing this since my youngest boy now 12 was a tiny 5 years of age and the walking coulees, spotting both huntable and non huntable animals was something we have enjoyed for many years. Still wanted my elk and the season was running out but we had to stick with the tradition of the annual deer hunt weekend.
We have hunted this area for many years and as such have a good working relationship with the local landowners. They have native pheasants along the river valley bordering their lands and know and approve of me bringing some hens of varying bloodlines to supplement these bird each year we hunt there for the draw system in Alberta precludes one from getting tags in consecutive year. The landowner has a similar policy to the elk ranch in that once an animal is down we obtain a key from the farm house to open the gate and then can proceed to the downed animals with a vehicle to retrieve it.
We held several tags for both mule and white tail deer between my oldest son and myself and the little guy is looking forward to obtaining tags of his own starting in 2005. On the opening morning we sent my oldest son ahead to a known ridge 2 miles away along the river valley while my youngest and I scouted in the opposite direction for 15-20 minutes allowing him to be in position prior to us initiating a gentle "push" towards him. Whitetails and huge bucks are known to frequent the heavy river valley cover and we hoped to push a giant whitetail towards him in his hiding place. Mid way through our push I had a large mule deer buck stand up and look towards me confused in the morning light, snow, branches and my simulated snow camouflage coveralls. I fired immediately ensuring he was not allowed to run towards either boy when a shot would not have been safe. He collapsed in his tracks. Signaling the oldest boy to maintain his position "just in case" my youngest and I dressed the animal, tagged it and made our way to pick up the oldest boy before heading back to the truck. A good start to the season is ensuring the trophy mule tag was filled early so we could concentrate on some known small patch whitetail cover in the area for the remainder of the day. One such cover exists within only 1/2 to 3/4 of a mile from the farmers house and is a narrow strip of mature trees and mixed shrubs along a road allowance which seldom sees traffic except during the harvest of the nearby fields. It is rough in good weather and impassable in wet weather. On this day it was just snow covered so required 4 wheel drive. I pointed to the cover saying we would give it a push after we retrieved the mulie to the two boys for it often contained whitetails. The youngest pointed to a tree near the gravel road we traveled and said "there is one right there by the tree, dad".
As I followed his hand to look to the side I saw not a whitetail buck but rather the biggest 6 point (western count, one side) bull elk I have ever seen trying to hide behind a 12 foot tree within 20 feet of the gravel road just as we drove past him. Realizing at the very least an incredible photo opportunity I stopped the vehicle turned around instructing my oldest boy to ready the digital camera and roll down the window on his side of the truck. He readied the camera but never did get the window to roll down with the -20 degree temperatures and of course with the camera sitting in the cold truck for nearly 3 hours the photo lens did not wish to function. He managed several poor quality pictures through the dirty window before the bull walked undaunted across the stubble field trying to go around us. I backed up the truck while my son continued to take pictures and the other boys searched through the Alberta regulations to determine if the general bull tag in my pocket was valid in this zone. He quickly determined the closest legal Wildlife Management area for Elk was over 100 miles away since elk are not supposed to frequent the open prairie in this area. We were content to watch this monster at close range while he continued to try to cross the gravel road.
Carrying on to the ranch house after 5 minutes we located the farmer in the haystack rearranging the large bales with his tractor for winter feeding with a neighbor assisting. We greeted them, obtained permission to retrieve the downed deer and remarked "you'll never guess what is standing in the ditch a half mile from your house". Once told both the farmer and his neighbor piled into the waiting truck to "take a look". Sure enough "his majesty" had succeeded in crossing the road after we passed and was feeding in the stubble field on the other side only 150 yards from the road. Asked how big he was I confessed I was so excited about seeing him I forgot to count but know he is good as the top 3 tines are good and long so he is at least a good 6 point. The farmer borrowed my binocs and confirmed in fact he was a "very respectable" 6 point bull who was probably out wandering from the Suffield or Cypress Hills areas to the south of us.
I guess smart bulls hang out during elk season in places where you can't shoot.
Well, maybe next year in the foothills, I still have an opening on the wall!
p.s. I have talked to 3 other deer hunters who hunt within 10 to 20 miles of this farm and they all saw a 6 point bull elk during their deer hunts either on that weekend or the two weekends that followed. He sure gets around or there are a few of them out there trying to blend in to the stubble fields and scrub brush.
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