An Alberta Foothills Archery Whitetail Adventure
Most people think of Alberta as the place for trophy Whitetails. In many regions of the province, it is. But in the foothills where I live, trophy quality has been down for the past decade.
We had severe winter kills in 2010 and then again in 2015. The overall population has rebounded, but we just aren’t seeing the big bucks everyone typically hears about in Alberta. During the 2018 season, we probably saw over 100 different bucks. I’m not sure one would stretch the tape beyond 125 inches. One night, when I was sitting in my ground blind on a hay field, there were over 50 deer in front of me with about 20 being bucks. At least half were spikes. The remainder were an assortment of two-year-olds that went from fork horns to four-point—but not one was over 100 inches. It was really encouraging to see all the up-and-comers, but it was also a little frustrating not to see even one mature buck.
In 2019, things were starting to look up. We started seeing more two- and three-year-old bucks and a small number of older deer. There was one particular mature four-point that I came close to with the bow a few times, but it just never quite worked out. Right at the end of rifle season, my partner, TJ, spotted a nice 5×6 at about 30 yards. He guessed the buck to be only three years old so decided to pass on him. At three years old, this buck was already scoring in the 140s. We have a fair bit of hunting pressure in the area where we have permission to hunt, so letting a nice buck like that walk rarely works out. So, we crossed our fingers and hoped he would survive another year. Neither of us folded a tag in 2018 or 2019 on a Whitetail buck. We were really hoping that 2020 would be our year, especially after seeing that 5×6.
Seeing Him Again
On opening day of archery season 2020, we decided to take a walk up a long-timbered ridge in search of elk. We hadn’t had much time for scouting and our trail cameras hadn’t shown anything we were particularly interested in. This was more a scouting trip than anything. We’d only walked a few hundred yards from the truck when some movement to the east caught my eye.
I quickly grabbed TJ’s sleeve and motioned to my left. It was the 5×6 buck that he’d passed on the previous year, but this animal had definitely packed on a lot of bone in a year. He looked absolutely massive and had a full coating of velvet. That buck had really blossomed.
He was exactly 72 yards away, feeding on the lush green grass in the aspens, and he hadn’t noticed us. The sun was directly behind us, and the wind was perfect. We quickly discussed our options and decided the only play was to crawl directly toward him. The grass was quite long and still green so we were able to crawl in relative silence. With the sun at our back, the chance of being spotted was greatly diminished. We had to gain about 30 yards to be inside my comfort zone with my bow. TJ ranged a tree that was 32 yards away. If we could make it there, we’d have some cover for me to draw my bow and a relatively easy 40-yard shot.
I was surprised at how easy the crawling was. It didn’t take long for us to reach the tree. I slowly peeked over the long grass and could see that the deer had moved away another 20 yards. He had no idea we were there and was calmly grazing. TJ motioned that we needed to get closer. He pointed to a tree that was 30 yards farther away and hand-signaled to crawl there. We needed to get closer to have any chance at this buck.
He Gets Curious
The grass began to get shorter and more sparse as we crawled, and I could see the deer was now looking in our direction. He wasn’t spooked, but he was definitely curious. TJ was in front of me and ranged him at 42 yards. He waved at me to get beside him and motioned that I was going to have to shoot from there. As I slowly rose to one knee and began to draw my bow, the buck got nervous and turned away from us, then slowly walked away. I let down on my bow, totally disappointed, but still exhilarated by the close encounter with this magnificent buck. It was only day one of the season. We still had 90 more days for our paths to cross again.
Meeting Twice More
And cross they did. We ran into the buck twice more while hunting elk, although he offered a shot neither time. We saw him and the older four-point from the prior year on trail camera several times. We began to pattern their movements and established a couple of mock scrapes. As the end of September neared, these bucks were showing up on camera about every third or fourth day, but typically only at night. We set up a ground blind on the trail they seemed to use most and sat in it several evenings without luck. Finally, they showed up on camera one morning about an hour after sunrise. I decided to give them two days and then head out in the morning for a couple-hour sit.
Seeing the 5×6
We snuck quietly into the blind well before first light. We figured the pair were likely feeding on a hay field about 500 yards below, so we wanted to be in position early. TJ was sitting on the right side of the blind running the video camera and had clear sight of everything ahead and to our left. I was tucked into the left side of the blind and had clear sight ahead and to our right.
And then we waited. The sun was just starting to come up when TJ caught movement about 100 yards to our left. He looked through his binoculars and confirmed that it was the big 5×6 and said to get my bow ready. I waited in anticipation for the 5×6 to come into sight, but the buck had other plans. He ended up passing the blind about 60 yards to the south. TJ shook his head in disappointment as he watched the buck jump the fence onto the neighbor’s property then disappear. We discussed our options and decided to give it another hour.
About 10 minutes later, TJ caught another deer moving our way. This time it was the four-point, and he was on a direct course toward our blind. I couldn’t see him from my position in the blind but did see him on the video camera screen. The buck was extremely cautious as he approached the blind. As his nose rose to test the air repeatedly, we’d hold our breath, thinking we’d been busted. But each time, he’d drop his head and walk a few more steps. It became obvious that he could smell the scrape we had created, and his attention was focused solely on that. He just needed to take two more steps and he’d be in position for a shot.
As he began to step forward, I drew my bow. The buck turned slightly, offering a quartering-away shot. He was at 22 yards. I took a steadying breath and then squeezed the trigger on my release and the arrow slipped perfectly behind his front leg. The buck ran off to the east and we heard several trees break, then silence. We both knew he had died only a short distance away, but we still waited 30 minutes before leaving the blind. We picked up the blood trail right where the buck had been standing when I shot it and found the arrow a few yards later. It had passed completely through. We continued walking on the blood trail and soon found the big buck piled up on some deadfall. It looked as though he literally died mid-stride.
I gazed in awe at the magnificent buck. It had been a year since we had actually laid eyes on him, and it was gratifying how the plan came together and all our hard work paid off. Score-wise, the buck wasn’t going to set any records. But considering the number of mature deer we’d seen in the past few years, this was indeed a very special buck. It was an amazing fall morning so we took our time shooting video, taking pictures, and getting the buck dragged out to the road. It had been several years since we’d taken a good buck and we just wanted to savor the moment a bit.
We never did see the 5×6 again that season. We did get him on a trail camera a couple more times in early November, but then he totally disappeared. We also saw a couple more decent bucks in November, but none were quite what TJ was looking for.
In mid-December, I pulled the card on a trail camera in a remote part of the property and was pleasantly surprised to see the 5×6. He had survived the season. It wasn’t until the fall of 2022 that TJ finally crossed paths with the big 5×6 again—but that is a story for another day.