Crawling through waist-deep barley after the fresh rain only helped our efforts to close the distance on the huge, drop-tined mule deer buck bedded nearly 800 yards away. Wisconsin native Jana Waller -- host of Skull Bound TV on the Sportsman Channel -- has spent the better part of 20 years bowhunting whitetails from elevated stands, but stalking mule deer out on the wide-open prairie was a far cry from the solitude of a Midwestern treestand.
Not far from the bedded buck, several mule deer does popped their heads up amid the barley as they took a stretch from their mid-morning naps. We hoped to catch the drop-tine buck off guard among the sea of barley that stood before us. This was the first day of Alberta's archery season, and Jana was about to take her first step into one of North America's most scenic backdrops.
I met Tim Ewing the previous year while filming another television show. Over the course of five days, we killed a 180-class mule deer and another decent 4x4 buck on film. I kept in touch with Tim after that hunt, and one day he mentioned that Jana might be able to hunt with his co-worker Melissa Simpson. Luck was in our favor, and soon we found ourselves headed north of the border for some fast-paced, spot-and-stalk action.
With a full day to scout, Jana and I readied our binoculars, spotting scope and cameras. First thing in the morning we had two big boys spotted not three minutes from Tim's house. Both bucks stood proudly showing off their velvety racks, which soaked up the early-morning light like a sponge. "These two are cut from the same cloth," said Tim, amazed both bucks hadn't bounded away yet. Excited at our luck so early on, Jana and I were blown away by how many big bucks were roaming the agricultural fields along the Rocky Mountain's rugged Front Range. By nightfall, we had spotted well over 30 bucks, with several in the 180-inch class, a sign we were on the right track to making Jana's Alberta archery hunt one for the books. "We've just scratched the surface today," Tim said to Jana. "Tomorrow, we'll bring our bows."
Opening morning found us looking for the two big boys near Tim's house, but both had disappeared like thieves in the night. By mid-morning, we were told of a nice drop-tine buck that was spotted by another bowhunter in our area. After an extreme glassing session by all, we finally spotted what we believed to be the drop-tine buck's antler tips enticing us to enter his domain. "Jana, what do you say we give him a try?" I asked, looking back to her for an answer. Her face said it all, and with a quick nod we were on our way.
After a painful hour of crouching, peeking and crawling, I knew we might have a tiny window of opportunity. Closing the distance to 400 yards, we knelt down and continued on hands and knees for the remainder of the stalk. The earth below our hands was damp from the recent rain as we slowly moved single file on all fours. Finally, Jana was within 40 yards of the big buck. Slowly she moved in front of me while coming to full draw. Her Trophy Taker Shuttle T broadhead at the ready, she signaled me to make a loud noise, hoping the buck would stand up. After several attempts, the buck snapped to attention like a Marine during inspection.
Rising up from the barley was an enormous, 4x4 mule deer with a 10-inch drop tine. The buck turned to face us both as the arrow flew forward, slipping just under the buck's vitals then vanishing forever. The buck bounced away, unsure of what had just transpired. "He's gone Jana," I said, watching him bounce away in familiar mule deer fashion. We watched him leave the field and climb a nearby butte, gaining elevation with every stride. Jana closed her eyes, then looked to me, knowing she had just missed her first mule deer buck.
"It's OK," I said. "That was just a warm-up."
"I blew it!" she replied. "That was the hardest stalk I've ever done!"
I already knew hunting mule deer in the wide open is tough, and adding a bow to the equation only makes it tougher. Jana had just learned for herself that spot-and-stalk mule deer never come easy to bowhunters. It's a trophy you have to earn.
DOWN TO THE WIRE
In reviewing the morning's video footage, we could see that Jana's arrow was headed straight for the kill zone, but was pulled down by the deep barley. The big, old, mainframe 4x4 did indeed have a drop tine that formed a club at the bottom. Deflated and full of emotions, we headed back to the vehicle to tell Melissa and Tim of our fate.
"Awesome job guys, that was so close!" Melissa said as we approached.
Tim chimed in, "That's only your first stalk, and what a deer he was!" I too was in awe of the sheer size of that buck's rack.
By late afternoon, Melissa and Jana had made several ill-fated stalks on two groups of bedded bucks. After a quick bite to eat, we decided to change areas. We glassed from several high points hoping to spy Mr. Big, but only small bucks showed themselves. With a half hour of shooting light, left we called it a day.
The next morning, we counted 19 bucks before 10 a.m. In one group, several bucks were in the 180-class but presented no chance for a stalk. Jana and Melissa just gazed at the sea of antlers cast against the waving barley. As the sun disappeared behind the Rockies, we headed back to town. Time was of the essence, since we were down to one more day of hunting.
The final day began with a sunrise right out of National Geographic. We were back in the same area where Jana almost nabbed the biggest drop-tine buck I'd ever laid eyes on. "I see antlers," Tim said, looking over to Melissa for verification. Jana's last day meant every chance she had might be her last. There in the distance stood a decent 4x4 mule deer, barely visible as he stood feeding in the barley field 800 yards away. Crawling down the same path we used on the drop-tine buck would put us within bow range for sure. "What do you say we go for broke Jana?" I asked.
"Let's go get him!" Jana said. And from the look on her face, I could tell she meant business!
The prevailing west wind muffled the sounds of our stalk, giving us a little added advantage in closing the distance. One hour later, we rose up slowly like two Navy Seals and began to range our subject. The prevailing wind continued to blow hard from the west as Jana made her move down the fence line. Deer beds littered this end of the field as we moved through the yellow-green barley.
"I see his antlers," Jana whispered to me.
"I see him!" I whispered back. "He's 150 yards now. Let's take our time and move with each wind gust."
Jana's heart rate soared with every yard we gained on the bedded buck. The buck's tall points stood out against the amber grain waving in the wind. Bent over, but still walking upright, I led the way towards the buck. His antlers rotated like a periscope while his ears probed for any sign of danger.
Twenty minutes later, we were standing 23 yards from the buck, which was bedded facing away from us.
"I am going to get his attention with a yell," I told Jana. "You draw back when I tell you."
Coming to full draw on my command, the huntress locked on to her target as I shouted, "Hey!" The buck shot to its feet in a nanosecond. Jana released her arrow, striking the buck and quartering directly into his vitals. The buck whirled and began to bounce away, still unsure of what had just transpired.
"It looked good to me," Jana said, turning to me in disbelief to what we had just pulled off.
"He's hit good," I said, watching the buck through my binoculars. "A far cry from the Wisconsin woods, eh?"
I was elated that Jana had stuck with it and made a good shot on her maiden mule deer voyage. We watched together as the buck bedded down for good, and as we walked up to this deer, we both realized he was much bigger than we had originally thought. Sporting a 4x4 main frame, this buck was just beautiful. His rack supported matching sticker points on both bases.
"I can't believe it," Jana said. "My first mule deer ever; he's going on the wall."
We had done it!
Spotting and stalking Alberta mule deer is by far one of the most challenging archery hunts you can do. Jana hunted with Melissa Simpson through the Alberta government's Hunter Host program (www.mywildalberta.com), which allows resident hunters to host a non-resident alien hunter every three years. Tim Ewing is also an avid bowhunter and owner of Back Country Butchering in nearby Cowley (403-628-2686).