The fiasco that was: A recap of my 2016 Alberta hunting season

Well, to say that my 2016 hunting season was interesting would be an understatement. Having been away for university in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan since 2012, I have only managed to make it back for 1 hunting season, meaning this year was the first time I had been out since November of 2013. I was unprepared as usual and I was in the worst shape I have ever been in. The university lifestyle has not been kind to me: since starting school in 2012 I have been to the gym only a handful of times and I have put on a good 30 or 35 lbs and about 6″ on my waist.  What that meant for me was a rough season and having to go back to my generously sized, cheap as dirt fleece camo because my $1000 set of Sitka camo didn’t fit me anymore. Needless to say it was a rough November for me.

Things got off to a bad start well before the season even began. Things started going downhill with my dad somehow putting down the wrong WMU* for his antlered mule deer draw. He has friends who have a farm down near Foremost, Alberta and he somehow got it in his head that he was applying for a WMU that they had land in when in fact he didn’t. The only way for us to hunt for his mule deer was on a 30,000 or 40,000 acre ranch that allowed foot, bike, or horse day access only, and the thought of packing a deer out 10 or 15 miles didn’t sit well with either of us, so his tag went unfilled.

The fun in Foremost didn’t stop there, however. I managed to see and scare off the same 3 point whitetail buck not once, not twice, but 3 times in the same morning. We’ll blame that one on bond dry fields of stubble that are so loud you couldn’t sneak up on a deaf person and my lack of physical fitness. The last time I scared the buck off was with me getting within 50 yards of it, not seeing it, and scaring it because I was too exhausted to care enough to pay attention to what I was doing. Lesson learned.

Sadly, that wasn’t the worst part of our trip to Foremost. Things continued their downward spiral. On the afternoon of our second day of hunting, through a massive miscommunication between dad and I and horrendously poor timing on dad’s part, dad managed to scare off perhaps the nicest 4 point whitetail buck I’ve ever seen; a buck that I would have an easy 150 yard shot at had dad only shown up literally seconds later. Instead, dad took 2 standing shots at the buck from about 150 yards, missed both, and the buck was gone like the wind.

The rest of our trip was about as bad. Dad missed another standing shot at a nice buck, and of course we had to see a nice 4 point muley buck. Where would the fun in hunting be if you didn’t see big bucks you couldn’t shoot? And the worst part was this buck knew it. I first spotted him about 50 or 60 yards away with 6 or 7 does. I was tromping along making all kinds of noise and these deer just looked at me and casually walked off, knowing full well I couldn’t shoot any of them. But that’s how it always goes for us it seems.

Fast forward half a week later and we found ourselves just northwest of Sundre, Alberta on our 75 acres of swampy land for our annual Remembrance Day weekend hunt. This is the same hunt we’ve been doing in the same place for the last 9 or 10 years, and it’s something I’ve looked forwards to-until now. I found myself recovering from about a dozen blisters on my feet facing a 5 or 6 days of hunting on land that I knew was going to be miserable to hunt on. On property is surround by quite a few square miles of Crown land** that is primarily swamp mixed in with rolling hills and islands here and there. Normally it isn’t too bad to hunt in November because the swamps are all frozen or at least mostly frozen, but because of the unusually warm weather we experienced this November, there wasn’t a frozen swamp in sight and they were all filled with a lot more water than usual.

Normally walking on frozen or partly frozen swamps for me isn’t an issue because my boots, a pair of nearly decade old Irish Setter Elk Hunters with 1000g of Thinsulate and Gore-Tex lining, have enough waterproofing to keep them dry. This year was a little different. I had last worn my boots 2 or 3 years earlier and I hadn’t applied any leather treatment to them in years, so the leather was dry and ripe for absorbing and holding onto whatever water I stepped in. Needless to say that my feed didn’t stay dry, and after hunting season was done it was a good 2 weeks before my boots fully dried out. Problems were further compounded by my excessively baggy fleece pants which only served to soak up tons of nasty swamp water and add many extra pounds to my already stupidly heavy feet. It was a rough week.

What made the week even worse was that I was super exhausted from hunting by Foremost so I missed a LOT of opportunities to take a buck because I was too tired to pay attention. Yes, I could have shot a doe, but we always seem to try and hold out for a buck even though the chances of seeing a good, shootable buck where we hunt is slim to none. In previous years we’ve been lucky to see the tails of 1 or 2 bucks in 4 or 5 days of hunting. This year, however, was different. I managed to see 6 or 7 good bucks, but none of them were meant to be. They were either far too far away for me to feel comfortable taking a shot at them, or all I saw were their tails and antlers as they disappeared over a hill.

Finally I got so fed up with walking in water and holding out for a buck that I adopted a “if it moves, I shoot” policy, which ended up working out well for me. I managed to land a 60 yard shot at what I thought was a doe, but turned out to be a button buck. I was happy to have a deer down, but kind of sad that I’d shot such a small buck. Not that I care too much about antler size, but in an area that is road hunted a lot and that is getting quite popular, you never want to take out a young buck like that; one that hasn’t had a chance to reach its prime.

Despite having a disastrous year, there are many things I learned. Number one, I need to hit the gym and get back in shape. Not only will that help with hunting out at Sundre, but I’d like to start doing sheep and elk hunts out in the mountains in a year or 2 and if I tried doing that in the shape I’m in now I’m pretty sure I’d drop dead of a heart attack. Second, I learned that I need to take better care of my boots. After I got home I put 4 coats of leather treatment on them and I will never neglect them like I did. That being said, they performed great as usual. Over the decade or so I’ve had them I’ve put on hundreds of miles and they’re still in excellent shape. I’d never hesitate to buy another pair, and hopefully I won’t have to. Finally, I learned that I need a much better sleeping bag than I currently have. I took my North Face Elkhorn mummy bag that is rated to -18C with me (as I do every year) and I froze despite the fact that it only dropped to -8C or so overnight and I was in a canvas sleeping bag cover and was covered with a Mexican blanket. Both of my mummy bags have since been sold (I don’t know why I bought one let alone 2 mummy bags; I can’t stand them and they are unbelievably uncomfortable) and now I just need a job and money to get a new one.

All in all it was a weird year, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. At least I can say I got a deer and that’s all that counts anyways.

*For the purposes of hunting Alberta is divided into various Wildlife Management Units, or WMUs for short. These WMUs dictate where you can hunt, what you can hunt, what type of license you need (i.e. a general tag versus a draw tag), and when the season opens and closes, as well as what days you can hunt (this only applies to a few areas, though).

**Crown land is government owned land that is fully accessible to the public.