By Shawn Monson
The chains begin to rattle and shake, the familiar clicking sound begins as the hoist raises the last deer kill of my Alberta season. With a final click the deer comes to rest in mid air. The chains secure its height, and I stare at the carcass as it slowly sways back and forth. The tools of the skinning shack are quickly snatched up and the sound of sharpening knives snap me out of my trance. The bitter sweet sounds always remind me of the experience and relationships built every year we are there. Canada is a place of it’s own, and Alberta for me is even more unique. Mule deer hunting, being the first part of my passion and shooting and hunting with my bow being the second part. The Province of Alberta is a place that the two passions can be seamlessly fused. With Alberta’s presence in the deer hunting community growing, and becoming ever more popular for waterfowl I see why it is a gem and I know why it is still important to carve out your slice.
Alberta is sandwiched between the 49th and 60th parallels or more specifically south of the Northwest Territories, north of Montana and right between British Columbia to its west and Saskatchewan to its east. This place falls right in Canada’s Heartland. Alberta stretches out to 255,000+ sq. miles., allowing you to stretch your legs and get your stalk on to hunt the various topography changes. Put your skills to a test in the target rich environment.
If I am driving or flying I know in the back of my head that I am heading to a place that is still untouched, River Valley Lodge, just 20 minutes south of the famous buffalo town of Wainwright. Rich with history, the cowboy still lives strong here. Hanging out with three generations, you get to hear the stories that make you want to become part of the family or uproot your life and move it all there. Just not sure grandpa will let me rope just yet.
Making it to the Lodge, the welcome party awaited and quickly started to help snatch up our equipment and gear. It shows they were just as eager to get into the field as I was. Taking a bit to stretch the legs and take care of the greetings, I headed into the lodge or my 10 day home away from home. Walking into the main entry, I was greeted by the sights of the movie room that shares space with the wood burning stove, which on a cold day, fills the air with the calming noises of crackling wood. Moving on into the next room, which is equipped with a bar, a table for sixteen, and yet two more TVs with a few couches., kind of like a sports center. Now the kitchen is something that any great cook would love to have but I can’t go into too much detail as I am always getting kicked out. I know it has enough appliances to cook for the crew and the food that comes out of there is unbelievable. These guys don’t believe in crock pot meals and chili every other night. You are going to get a taste for Alberta’s beef industry and a little taste of home cooking. The main lodge has something like three bathrooms and six to eight sleeping rooms, with an office loft and reading room.
We headed back outside and snatched up our bows, and followed our normal routine of sighting in. Lee and Eric McNary, the owners of River Valley Lodge, usually join in on this and we turn to a little bit of fun and competitive shooting on their spacious range. After making a few shots and confirming that our weapons were doped in, we were pretty excited to go out and see the country. More importantly, we were eager to scout some of the locations where we would be hunting Alberta’s best mule deer. After our quick night of scouting, a little bit of bonding and just catching up, we headed back to quickly set the game plan for the next ten days.
Working out the details over some homemade desserts, we also went through our tags and took care of the province by paying our GST and signing our tags along with making sure we had all the appropriate paperwork. This is where you don’t want to joke around with Lee to much, he doesn’t like doing it as much as us just one of those things you have to do. All kidding aside Lee usually has all of the details prepared and in order for you to quickly get tags signed and moving on to the fun.
As our first morning started we were in high spirits and chomping at the bit to get back to our old stomping grounds. Not only did we ache to see the country again but also the magnificent sunrise that happens everyday in this big country. As the sun cracked over the horizon, the agricultural land in front of us quickly came to life. This is what we live for, the chance to see the buck that has been filling our dreams throughout the summer, and driving us to consistently practice with our equipment and prepare our gear.
Hunting the agricultural land in eastern Alberta you get treated to the rolling topography with the occasional drainages. You also have patches of bush that are usually made up of 10 to 12 foot aspen trees and some dead fall, all mixed with under brush that does a great job of creating escape routes or hiding areas for the deer. On the flip side, they make great cover for when you have a bedded muley that you are about to put a sneak on.
This past year we where hit with standing crops and unusually wet weather that made finding some of the deer a bit harder to do. Changing up our strategy we quickly learned the bucks were still out in the canola, wheat or oat fields. Becoming a bit more patient we realized the bucks where becoming lazy or just taking advantage of the unusually high crops they had at their disposal. After a few days of glassing and locating some deer we began to narrow down some possibilities.
One of the opportunities of hunting Alberta that most still don’t consider is the opportunity to take two deer on your trip. Alberta offers the chance to take a mule deer and a white tail deer. So every year that I find myself going, I end up with both tags at my disposal. The boys up there will usually recommend having both and one question asked is should I get both? I would have to say yes. Just to say you know if you don’t have a combo hunt and you just have mule deer you know your going to see a stomper buck. With a combo hunt at River Valley Lodge you are able to take advantage of hunting mule deer in the morning and whiteys at night. The advantage to this is while you are slowing the pace down a bit at night you can watch the woods come to life as the evening draws near. Eric or Lee are usually out looking for the mule deer and trying to put them to bed for the next morning’s hunt.
In the middle of our trip we had caught our break and one of the mule deer we had been watching made a mistake. It was now my job to get in there and get it done. Over the next few hours we where able to come in on this buck that was bedded on the side of a thirty yard stretch of bush. His location allowed for us to come in beyond the ridge and belly crawl down to some cover that would allow us to move horizontally with him and more importantly stay above him just enough to have a clear shot at him as he walked through the wheat field. Getting into position the patients test began, but luckily for us the buck had to move. We knew he screwed up and we where not only able to get him in his early bed, we where able to catch him as he wanted to move to his afternoon bedding location. With the buck on his feet and me patiently ranging and guessing his every move I waited for the right location and the right height of the wheat he was walking through. Thankfully he stopped on a rise in the field and I was able to get an arrow in him as he paralleled us at 86 yards. When he came to a stop I let the Easton flatliner go, and watched as the T3 punched through him dealing a lethal blow that would only allow him to travel another 40 yards before tipping over.
The celebration was on and once again reassured me as to why I make the travel north to Alberta year after year.
Not wasting much time, we took the hero shots, recapped the story, and quickly loaded him in the truck. The music came on and we celebrated another well deserved kill. The memories were established of yet another priceless hunt and as most hunters or outdoorsman know, the kill is a great reward and a small part of the over all experience. The comradery and the every day sights and sounds build on the ultimate outdoor experience. As we arrived back at the skinning shack, the big red doors peel open, the lights turned on, and the chains began to lower. We slid my Alberta muley out of the truck and onto the slab of concrete inside the skinning shack. I cut a hole in each of his legs and got the gambrel ready so we could hoist him in the air. I slowly took account of the commotion going on around me and realized my close friends I had with me and have made over the years are all there to celebrate and help in processing the deer.
To create your own Alberta memories, look Lee and Eric up at www.rivervalleylodge.com and experience mule deer in the heartland of Canada for yourself. You won’t regret it.