Part 1 – September
Leaves were falling, elk were calling. Early September in Alberta is a thing of beauty. For the first time, I would be a hunter host (aka “the guide”), and provide my German boyfriend Philipp Zerfass with the opportunity to hunt for antlered elk and antlered white-tailed deer. We emerged from the mountains after a multiple day bighorn hunt looking a bit grubby, with sheep tag still untouched in my backpack. A shower, some repacking, and one short night’s sleep later, we were underway towards the north in search of new quarry. Reunited with old friends, we found ourselves in some of the best ungulate country in the province. Here, things grow monstrous and wildly wacky. Reviewing some of the trail camera footage captured over the previous days, months, and years, we could hardly contain our excitement.
On opening day, our friend connected with a fine bull elk and Philipp got to place his hands on one of these majestic beasts for the first time. He also got to assist in the recovery, which is sometimes not so majestic. These gentlemen however, have got field recovery down to an art. Back at the cabin, we hatched a plan for the following morning. Behind the dark silhouette of the bull’s antlers in the truck bed, the night sky was perfused with dancing braids of green northern lights. Never before had I seen such a colourful and active display of Aurora Borealis. We stood outside, mesmerized by the light show, and reenacted that evening’s events.
We hunted ten days in total, and the number of “almost’s” added up like the number of tines on a non-typical. One evening found Philipp and I seated in stands on opposite ends of a forest’s edge. A layer of mist was curling into the earth’s every blemish on the open expanse before us. Were my eyes playing tricks on me, or was that a buck standing dangerously close to Philipp’s stand? It was far away, and the fog certainly had its fun with my imagination. I dubbed this individual the “ghost buck.” All that I could see was his glowing, phantom-like figure standing underneath a large spruce tree. What I didn’t see though, was the actual distance that separated Philipp and the buck. Though at one point, I was actually cursing Philipp out loud for not shooting the buck, later I learned that he was indeed standing just outside of bow range. The ghost buck lived on. We saw him on several occasions, but his cunning senses always kept him a safe distance from our sticks and string.
Whilst balancing in a tree another fine evening, I witnessed the sky mimic the colours and play of a campfire, while enjoying the commotion of geese migrating south. Meanwhile, Philipp had some visitors at the stand, but not of the antlered type. A family of porcupines waddled to and fro beneath him, and he was baffled by their peculiar noises. By the end of the evening, I was sandwiched between four whitetails and three bull elk. The bulls weren’t legal. One of the deer I even held my sight pin on. Though I realize that every animal with a bow is an accomplishment in itself, the buck’s size just wasn’t impressive enough to risk ruining an opportunity for Philipp somehow. It was prime time after all. The last twenty minutes of legal light I continuously awaited a whoop of joy from Philipp’s general direction, but none came. That’s bowhunting.
Another friend of ours connected with a “once in a lifetime” bull, as overused as that phrase may be. This bull truly was a king, his crown of bone extending well along the length of his spine.
We were very fortunate to have our friends helping us. They are the epitome of whitetail and elk hunting gurus, and it reminded us just how important doing your homework is. Though we didn’t fill one of our tags in those ten caffeine, adrenaline, and NoseJammer filled days, we added many tips and tricks to our skill set. That, and the sharing of laughs, close calls, and moments of hunting frustration (and success) with our buddies.
Part 2 – October/November
We were back for round two. I extended my reading week break by another seven days of hunting, while Philipp thanked his very considerate new boss for the time off. Hunters will be hunters. This time, we were hunting closer to home. Hence, we could appreciate my mom’s fine cooking and company. My dad on the other hand, was busy hunting; we only saw him three days out of the two weeks. First he battled avalanche strewn slopes in search of a big late season ram, then braved the windy south looking for monster mule deer. His decades worth of advice rang in my ears as I walked towards the stand from which we would be hunting opening morning of rifle elk season. I’d hunted here my entire life. Flashbacks of a blonde toddler huddled in the corner of a high seat in inhumane temperatures came to mind. Though cold gear for kids wasn’t what it is nowadays, I survived, and apparently not with too many scars; I still do it!
Day after day passed, and we still hadn’t had a shot opportunity. Sure, we saw plenty of elk, deer, and even one black bear, but they were always out of range, on the wrong side of the property, or simply not attainable. Our daily routine comprised of an early wake up, sitting in the stand until 11:00 am, going home for lunch and a nap, and returning to the stand by 3:00 pm, so to ensure we wasted no daylight. Boy, were we frustrated. Despair was the current topic. Though the weather was considerably milder than what can sometimes be expected of Alberta in the autumn, it was still cold. A thermos of hot apple cider and Halloween candy helped a tiny bit. As a kid, Halloween was more frequently known as “the night before deer opener”, and I would often get my candy “to-go”, as there were still elk to be hunted! Camouflage was my costume.
I looked to my left and saw a tan coloured shape standing on the forest’s edge. “Elk!” Philipp whipped his head to where I was pointing, and readied the rifle. October 30th. From a side profile, we could see that the bull was over the legally required three points. In fact, he looked pretty nice! Then he turned to face us, which made me gasp. “He’s only got antler on one side, the other beam is broken off, do you still want him?” We desperately looked in the forest, hoping to see the rest of the impressive bachelor herd we’d seen previously trailing behind him. “Take him!” Philipp’s first shot was deadly, the Krieghoff Semprio had done its job beautifully, but as we know the tenacious reputation of elk, a second insurance shot out of the .300 Win Mag was delivered to the wobbly kneed ungulate. This was Philipp’s first North American Big Game animal, and he was speechless. Much larger than any game he’d ever taken before, he was humbled by the antler size, despite the missing side. Guiding someone so appreciative is truly a blessing.
On the early morning drives to the hunting property, country singers wailed about their broken hearts and broken trucks on the radio. We were disappointed by one specific buck, who had made his scrape line and hence marked his territory on the ‘wrong’ side of a boundary fence. There was still another buck in play though, and he occasionally wandered over to where we were waiting. The morning of November 2nd, we arrived back on our perch. It was still too dark for my Geovids to pick up any movement, which meant it was still pretty darn dark. Sitting still, staring blankly out of the window, tears welling in our eyes from the stinging cold, minutes passed. I picked up my binoculars again, re-checking the surroundings.
“There’s a buck, right in front of us!” Either he was a hallucination (which I wouldn’t rule out at this point in the hunt), or a buck had in fact snuck past our guard and now stood before us. At first glance, he was definitely worthy of closer inspection. Philipp quietly readied the Krieghoff, as I continued to speculate over the whitetail’s tines. “If I were you, I’d definitely go for him. Big neck, big body, antlers as nice as we’ll see in the next while.” I was convinced, Philipp did a double take through the Magnus scope, and then nodded that he’d like to use his tag for this old boy.
He was less than fifty yards away. I looked at my watch: ten whole minutes to go until legal shooting light! The longest wait of our lives began. As the buck meandered away from our stand, we counted down the minutes. Luckily, he loitered behind a bush for a while, which prevented him from covering too much distance in the time that was left. A few seconds after the watch signalled that it was time to make something happen, the buck stepped out again, and Philipp took the first best shot opportunity. The buck dropped, and Philipp’s 2016 Alberta hunting season was over.
Walking up to the buck, Philipp and I looked at each other, the buck’s antlers were broken! We hummed and hawed, trying to recall whether we knew this buck from before. By comparing pictures and matching scrape lines, we concluded that we most likely knew him, and his antlers had been intact the day before. Fate would have it, that both of the trophies were busted, but full of character. We were tickled pink, and spent a long time photographing and admiring the culmination of many hours of hard work, both physical and mental.
And if that weren’t enough, we decided to again sit for whitetail that evening, since I still had a tag to fill myself. We were now in a ground blind on a different property, which made things exciting. There was one buck I was after, known from reconnaissance throughout the season and summer. I’d never seen one like him before. You guessed it, he too was broken. However, this time, in form of a fracture! From the few times we’d sat there, we knew his general pattern. Sure enough, after sitting all evening and even passing up a decent 4×4, the freak show walked out. He could easily be mistaken as a doe, for only two off skewed stumps protruded from his head.
Accompanied by a second buck, the two made their way towards us, not hesitating to chase a doe on the way. 173 yards stood between the buck and my Semprio. The rifle rocked, and the buck was down. I highly doubt I’ll ever see another buck like that again, and am awfully glad his unusual antlers grace my trophy room wall.
Though the headgear of all three trophies were broken, I’d have a hard time imagining a more complete hunt.
The German-Canadian Savanna Koebisch was only 12 weeks old when her parents took her hunting for the first time. Her childhood and youth were marked by outdoor and hunting adventures around the world, and hunting has become an integral part of her daily life. She recently moved from her home in Alberta to Bournemouth, UK to study chiropractic.