|Alberta’s Foothills region is not only home to monster whitetails, it features a wilderness classroom where hunters can see textbook examples of Northern habitat and deer behavior.
The trip began when I flew to Edmonton in early November and hooked up with the lucky winner, Mike Kruse of Northfield, Minn.
I knew this trip would be extra special when I realized it was Kruse’s lifelong dream to hunt Alberta’s rugged wilderness. We started the adventure by navigating ourselves through the province’s largest city.
Edmonton is not unlike any of the big cities in the States. The main difference, however, is that we needed to drive but a few miles west to get our first glimpses of an absolutely gorgeous countryside.
Our final destination was a remote camp in the western edge of the Alberta Foothills, which is actually part ofthe Rocky Mountains.
After arriving at camp, we met our host, Claudio Ongaro. Ongaro is a legendary waterfowl outfitter who also happens to be a diehard whitetailhunter. “I’ve always been fascinated by big bucks,” Ongaro said while showing us hundreds of photos of deer he captured with his “trapline” of remote-sensing cameras. “You could almost call it an obsession.”
Ongaro’s enthusiasm is fueled by the extreme difficulty of unraveling the patterns of mature bucks in this unbroken wilderness.
Land of the Free
Alberta has a long reputation for monster whitetails, but it gained worldwide fame in 2001 when bow-hunter Wayne Zaft killed a 206-inch typical 12-pointer.
Amazingly, that deer was grown in suburban Edmonton, not the vast wilderness that most envision when they think of the province.
Ongaro’s territory consists of seemingly endless square miles of habitat containing hog-bodied whitetails that have not yet learned that humans present a long-range danger.
In fact, these deer probably have adanger response comparable to those of their ancestors of 100 years ago; they’re more curious than timid. Kruse and I witnessed such behavior throughout the week.
Several times, deerstanding 100 to 200 yards away spotted us in our stands or on the ground and did not flee. Instead, they bobbed their heads in curiosity before ambling off into the forest.
If that weren’t enough, we also observed free-ranging elk, moose and bald eagles. We also happened upon freshtracks from wolves and a cougar, which reinforced the fact that Alberta is truly one of North America’s final frontiers.
Despite the pristine surroundings, hunting in this environment is far from easy. Subzero temperatures, a dense conifer forest and low deer densities (often in the single digits per square mile) can make for long days on stand.
It’s not uncommon to sit from dark to dark for several days without seeing a single buck. Diehard hunters, however, usually get a chance, as was the case with every hunter in our camp.
Success in the Wilderness
Kruse and I shared camp with three other hunters: Paul and Scott Roskowski of New York and John Kemp of Ohio. Paul Roskowski shot the biggest buck of his life — a gorgeous 10-pointer that chased a doe past his stand on Day 1.
Kemp found success later in the week when he caught a 10-pointer slipping through a drainage area that bordered an old railroad right-of-way. Earlier that day, I bagged an 8-pointer that was chasing a doe across an old seismic cut-line.
Kruse passed up several bucks in hopes of waylaying the wall-hanger of his dreams. Unfortunately, his week ended with an unfilled tag. He did, however, have several memorable encounters.
Early in the week, he used his grunt call and rattling antlers to rattle in a pair of young bucks. Later, he watched as a small herd of elk browsed within bowrange of his tower stand.
He captured that excitingmoment with his video camera.“I’m just taking it all in,” Kruse said.“Those bucks I rattled would have been hanging on the meat pole if that would have happened back home in Minnesota.”
Alberta’s wilderness offers hunters a chance to see deer behavior and movement patterns that few places can duplicate. The fact these deer frequently use natural licks is one of the most intriguing aspects of Ongaro’s outfitting range.
The stand from which I shot my buck, for example, was within 250 yards of a seepage area where moisture oozed from a crack in the ground.
The lick was frozen when I investigated it more closely, but deer still pawed the snow and ice in search of trace minerals. Ongaro has never tested the soil for mineral content, but it’s quite possible these deer acquire higher levels of such things as sodium and magnesium from natural licks.
Deer learn the location of licks at an early age, and adult deer regularly return to them even after they’ve dispersed to new home ranges.
These facts make what I observed in Alberta even more fascinating, because this unbroken wilderness provides deer with miles of potential range.
In fact, it’s not uncommon for a buck to travel many miles each fall in search of food and breeding rights. For that same deer to visit a single lick seems unlikely.
However, that’s exactly what they do, and Ongaro has the trail-camera photos to prove it.
Over the years, D&DH has co-hosted many memorable sweepstakes hunts.
Although not all of them result in that deer of a lifetime, each trip has provided us and the winners with valuable insights into deer and deer hunting tactics. You can’t put a price on that.