Welcome to Hell
I felt like a pincushion. Countless grueling stalks on hands and knees over a carpet of cactus, around boulder after crude boulder, and through a spirited tract of unmerciful landscape, had left my body in a state of agony. Two weeks prior I had pursued elk for four days in mountainous terrain – topography only fit for a mountain goat – yet on this day my lungs begged for mercy, my clothes sagged – saturated with perspiration – and my oxygen starved muscles screamed bloody blue murder. The relentless punishment of 50mph winds gushing across the barren environment dehydrated my eyes, which constantly oozed dusty tears as they peered into this invisible force wreaking havoc on them. As I dog paddled across the slake ground, my thoughts inebriated with rattlesnakes, my every sense was tuned to the slightest rustle, buzz or sound emitted from the boorish grass that ingested my silhouette. Was I in Hell? No, I was hunting – hunting antelope in Alberta’s badlands!
Blood, sweat and tears are how I would describe stalking pronghorns on the great plains of Alberta. This is a place with a menu of things that can bite, rake, scratch, gore or sting you, a place that will hone your hunting skills. It’s a pitiless ambiance of seemingly void space that will leave you jaded, your very soul begging for mercy after a day spent where “the antelope play.” Unforgiving clutters of prehistoric mania, the badlands are remnants of a great flood that lay waste thousands of years ago. The real Jurassic Park, you almost expect to bump into dinosaurs if not genuine cowboys and Indians.
Toil worn, I lobbed my aching body to the mercy of the austere prairie, the sweet emanation of sage foul in my nostrils. My legs on fire and joints throbbing with unforgiving pain, my heaving chest sucked up one mouthful of much needed air after the other. Equally graceful, long time friend and hunting companion, Dan Shook, crumbled to the earth beside me. He had joined me weeks earlier on a four-day excursion for elk that had led us over mountains, through swamps, across ridges, and in places only fit for a mountain goat. Like me, he thought he was in relatively good shape; that was until he joined me amidst the short grass and gopher holes for a much needed rest, he too in possession of a non-trophy antelope tag.
Dan didn’t have to say a word; his body language said it all. He had underestimated the demanding terrain of the badlands. Although exhausted, he was loving every minute of it. Not only was this his first hunt for antelope, it was his first rendezvous with the windswept mesa of southern Alberta’s rumble, tumble flatland. And living up to everything I had said it was, the badlands were “as tough as hell to hunt.”
Several years earlier I had drawn a permit for trophy ‘lope, having applied for the limited entry draw with an old school chum, Randy Hermann. Our destination near the town of Brooks, we would be hunting an area called the Eastern Irrigation District, a zone where the badlands and agriculture overlap.
By ten o’clock the first morning we spotted over 300 antelope. Most of the pronghorn we located were at long range out on the flat terrain where a stalk would be fruitless, but we eventually stumbled onto a small party of animals tucked out of sight in the belly of a cactus-infested coulee.
I had to navigate at least six hundred yards on my belly to get into position for a shot, this poor body of mine still carrying the scars. Once within three hundred yards of the herd, I eased up out of the sage into a shooting position, rolling my jacket into a tight ball and nestling it atop my pack as a padded rest. With the crosshairs fixed on his ribcage, I was presented a broadside shot at a handsome buck that broke off by himself. Slowly exhaling, my index finger gently tightened around the trigger until my .300 Winchester lunged forward, a dull thump echoing back. One more round and he folded to the withered ground in a puff of dust. No monster, his 13.5-inch horns were as black as coal, sporting white curled-over tips and exceptionally thick prongs.
I'll Be Back
Flat on our backs like two cells in a battery charger, Dan and I rekindled the day’s events as our wearied bodies rejuvenated energy to plough on. We had been hunting the breaks, where the flatness of the prairie dove into a maze of gruelling fingers and ridges that plummeted into the banks of the South Saskatchewan River. Now late afternoon, we had executed more than a dozen stalks. With several miles of wear-and-tear on pounding feet, we counted our blessings for tagging out on the first day.
Perched high above the South Saskatchewan River on a plateau, Dan and I seized a welcomed moment to lather up a long, hard, peaceful look at the land that had tested and, in the end, rewarded us on time spent challenging its chapters. For without this special ecosystem, as without the birth of wildlife management in Alberta back in the late 1800s, we could not have exploited such an adventure just shared, a Poetic emprise all sportsmen and women should experience at least once in their lifetime. It seemed only fitting then to pay respect to such a cruel, yet breathtaking place that truly deems protection, and as our eyes feasted against the river breaks, we both knew that some day we would be back: back to “hell” hunting the badlands.
That Day Arrives
The perfect environment, southern Alberta hosts some of the best mule deer habitat in North America. In addition, strict management practices have been in place for several years running now, so hunters can expect to see a “whack” of deer and anticipate an honest chance at harvesting a true wall hanger. This was obvious each time I headed to the open plains in quest of buccaneering, having seen some pretty impressive muleys on my sojourns south. Finally in November 2001 I was heading back again, this time with an antlered mule deer tag in my clutches.
To insure a quality hunt, mule deer in the prairie region are regulated through a priority draw system for resident gun hunters, with a limited number of tags available to non-residents via outfitters. On average, residents can expect to wait 5 to 8 years to get drawn in the best wildlife management units. Regarding non-residents, they can hunt each year, but should expect to pay $5000 to $7500 US funds for a three-day rifle hunt. To further boost the quality of mule deer hunting, the firearm season is restricted to three days per week, running Thursdays to Saturdays during the entire month of November. The best zones are those that lie east of Lethbridge to the Saskatchewan border and south of Medicine Hat to the Montana border, basically the entire southeast corner of the province.
A Leap of Faith
"No! No! No!" I groaned in out and out horror, watching helplessly as my buck tumbled off a three hundred foot ledge.
A cloud of dust peregrinated the thirsty air for several minutes afterward, so I was unable to survey any damage using binoculars. With that said, I wasted little time making my way through the inhospitable network of cactus and boulders that separated me from his whereabouts. Eyes and ears peeled for snakes, I moved so fast down the coulee battlement it felt like I was walking on unoccupied atmosphere. Even then it took almost ten minutes to reach my mule deer, a brown haze still wafting over his lifeless carcass when I extended trembling hands to grab antler.
A coveted tag for those seeking an honest to goodness trophy, I was on pins and needles waiting to hunt the magical period of the rut. With all the stories I heard over the years on the number of decent bucks I could expect to see on any given day chasing does in the middle of November, would I really be able to hold out for a monster?
Severe drought in 2001 left most of southern Alberta looking like a moonscape. Amazing creatures that they are, mule deer have long learned to adapt to the harsh conditions a desert environment can dish out. It’s big topography in the badlands, and these deer will travel several miles in a single day just to masticate or hydrate with a slug of water.
Spending nearly two weeks scouting countless miles of barren ground on foot and from the seat of a pickup, plus a day in a small Cessna taking aerial photographs, it became apparent that this hunt was not going to be a walk in the park. The deer were definitely in some of the most rugged country I’ve ever come across, which consisted of untamed coulees and river breaks. In fact, according to our GPS units, the area was so steep in places that there were changes of more than 2000 feet in elevation. If anything, it brought back memories of pursuing bighorns in the Rockies.
My initial goal was to take a respectable buck with black powder. I did have a chance to kill a couple muleys that would easily make minimum for the Longhunter Society record book. After seeing the potential to take a real dandy, however, I held off from petting the trigger.
With only one day to hunt during peak rutting activity due to prior commitments, I elected to use a rifle instead of my muzzleloader. This proved to be a wise decision, because I found a buck worth serious consideration on another ridge several hundred yards distant. With no chance to sneak close enough for my .50 calibre in-line Remington anyway, the .257 Weatherby suddenly felt complacent.
The day prior our crew had spotted over 300 mule deer while scouting for whitetails, several of those being bucks, five they figured would easily make Boone and Crockett. Sharing this news over dinner that night, all agreed the muleys were now in peak rut. Ironically, the best chance at filling my tag would indeed come that very next morning, the last day I had left to hunt.
In the first hour of legal light we counted over a hundred deer. A handful of good bucks tempted me, but I pocketed the urge to shoot. Then it happened. Two canyons intersected, creating a huge grass-bottomed funnel. On all sides rocky fingers jutted down the craggy walls, providing excellent cover from predators. As we peeked over the closest ledge deer exploded everywhere, and for several seconds afterward it was utter chaos.
With five sets of binoculars working, it didn’t take long for someone to call me into action. “Over here!” a voice hissed. “Quick, grab your rifle, he’s a shooter!”
It was the most beautiful sight I’ve ever witnessed. Precariously alighted like a mountain goat on an escarpment one gorge over, the majestic buck stood statue still facing us. His rack tall and wide, I’ve never seen a nobler creature. Sometimes a trophy can be the measure of a hunt, and this was just such one occasion. No matter how well he performed on a score sheet, everything was absolutely perfect. In my book that’s all that mattered, so there was indeed no second-guessing when I decided to take him.
My first shot connected and so did my next, but my third zipped over his back. Scrambling for higher ground in a zigzag fashion to navigate the steep terrain, the buck almost made it to the brow of the palisade when his back legs buckled. Dropping to his haunch, the old boy held on for a few more seconds before demise took over, his front legs crumpling under limp weight. Impossible to defy gravity, he started to slide backwards. It was at this point everything went in slow motion.
At first he slowly rolled over a couple times in a big heap and we all thought he might sludge to a stop, but then he started to gain momentum. When he tumbled off the ledge and careened straight down for 300 feet, everyone held their breath, and then went dead silent. We couldn’t see how bad he was busted up from all the dust spawned to life, especially because of where he landed. Fearing the worst, I sped down the slope as fast as my rubbery legs could carry me.
To our great surprise, with the exception of one antler tip his headgear had weathered the horrific fall pretty much unscathed. Regarding the deer himself, that was another story. Bloodied from one end to the other, my buck was smashed to pieces internally. From broken bones to a gaping wound down one side of his chest, he was definitely going into sausage with what was salvageable.
Frankly, the word “open” is used loosely when describing the landscape of southern Alberta; you simply cannot narrate the barrenness of the place, no matter how many times you’ve been there. Since you’ll spend most of your time glued to binoculars or a spotting scope, quality optics is a must. So is a laser rangefinder, as accurately judging distance without any real sort of reference points to compare against is virtually impossible. In addition, eyestrain – from wind, sun, and simply staring at empty space all day – can pose a serious threat to your vision. I highly recommend a pair of polarized sunglasses for that sort of protection. Also, bringing a skin cream or sun block will help prevent any exposed skin surfaces from being chaffed or sunburned. Even if it’s miserably cold out or the sun isn’t shinning, the air in southern Alberta is extremely dry. Not only that, the wind constantly howls, misery in itself that is extremely taxing on the body.
Flat shooting rifles are a must, as shots of 300 yards or more are the rule rather than the exception. By the time November rolls along, bucks are on the prowl – as they begin to rut – and hunting pressure has now been an influential factor. Getting within shooting distance can be awfully challenging during this phase of the season, especially considering the lay of the land you have to negotiate terms with. But hey, that is what makes this hunt so invigorating in the first place.
One advantage to the breadth of such a lacklustre environment is that you can hunt – with equal success – during all hours of daylight. Since prairie grasses are far too delicate for any type of vehicular traffic, however, hunters are forced to stick to primary trails when driving and hunt on foot otherwise. Rugged hiking boots are a must, as is clothing that can withstand the price of trekking through such punishing landscape. Hunters must be in topnotch shape, as I honestly found it more demanding than scaling mountains for sheep. The hunting’s best described as sheer “hell” here, but I wouldn’t want it any other way!