As hunters, we are optimists. We’re confident that this is the year that the 10-point buck will walk under our stand, we anticipate hearing an elk bugle through the timber, and we know it’s just a matter of time before we spot that big ol’ ram while glassing. I am no exception, and every year I feel like it’s going to be my best season yet. Of course, I’m usually wrong. However, the stars aligned in 2020 and I ended up filling all six of my Big Game tags here in Alberta.
Here are six tips that led to my best season yet! I hope they’ll do the same for you:
GET IN SHAPE – In late May I was in Southwest Alberta when I spotted a black bear. I had two hours of light left and the bruin was a long ways away – down 700 ft of elevation, across a river bottom, and straight back up the other side. I wasn’t sure I could get there in time, but I had to try. I was sweating bullets by the time I got to the valley bottom, and my legs filled with lead as I scrambled up the other side. With the sun setting I managed get to within 80 yards of the bear. I took a moment to catch my breath and calm my nerves before squeezing the trigger.
Being in good shape allows you to hunt in cooler places, capitalize on opportunities, and generally enjoying hunting more (because let’s face it, being sore sucks!). And you don’t need to be able to bench-press a fridge or know what ‘HIIT’ means to reap the benefits. A simple exercise routine of jogging, hiking stairs, or lifting weights can make all the difference.
KNOW YOUR GEAR – In early September, I was 50 km deep in the Rocky Mountains and woke up to my tent sagging from a wet snowfall. I spent the next week hiking up steep slopes and sitting on glassing knobs searching for sheep. Many days were cold, wet, and windy. Despite the conditions, I was warm, dry, and my feet were comfortable for 14 straight days in the backcountry. On day ten, we spotted a band of rams and ended up packing out a beautiful eight year old bighorn.
If I had not been familiar with my gear and known what
it could and couldn’t do, I certainly would have been forced to leave the mountains before I had a chance at that ram. Knowing the capabilities and limitations of my shelter and clothing helped me pack perfectly. Test your gear in the offseason so that once hunting season begins, there won’t be any surprises that cause you to miss opportunities! An area often overlooked is food: there’s nothing worse than realizing mid-way through a hunt that those protein bars you got on a smokin’ sale taste like sawdust.
PLAN WELL – I had five days booked off in mid-September for a solo elk hunt. The timing was perfect as the rut was in full swing! Just two hours into my first day out, a bull came screaming in to 25 yards. I wasn’t able to get an arrow in him, but later that day another bull responded to my bugles. After I made a few cow calls to pull him in close, he turned broadside and dropped within 100 yards of my arrow passing through him.
Hunting is never easy, but you can give yourself an edge by planning your hunts when animals are most active. This almost always means hunting during the rut – like I did for the elk. Equally important is getting the green-light from both your spouse and boss for the trip. Make it easy for them to say “yes” by asking early (I’m talking months early), getting all those pesky house projects done before you go, and offering to work overtime before or after your trip.
PUT YOURSELF IN A POSITION TO GET LUCKY – October moose hunting in Northern Alberta had been a bit of a bust. It was rainy and it was cold. Worse than that though, after five days of hard hunting we hadn’t seen a single moose. If I’m being honest, I was ready to call it quits and head home. But I decided to try one more spot across the lake. Immediately after letting out a cow-call, I heard that beautiful and unmistakable ‘grunt’ of a bull. Then I saw flashes of his silver back through the pine trees as he charged towards us. The bull stopped broadside at 75 yards and dropped only 10 yards from the lakeshore where we could load him into the canoe.
It’s easy to think I just got lucky on that hunt. And I absolutely did get lucky. But, to get lucky you first need to put yourself in a situation where that can happen. Do the hard things to give yourself the best chance of success: hike to your stand in the dark; stay out glassing till last light; explore new territory; and resist the ever-tempting urge to head home early. The more time you spend hunting, the “luckier” you’ll get.
SHOOT STRAIGHT – I was out in November for Whitetails on farmland that looked incredible, but just didn’t hold many bucks. At first light I caught a glimpse of a doe slipping along a fence line with, to my delight, a big bodied buck hot on her tail. But, with the way the deer were positioned I only had a frontal shot opportunity. Not ideal, but I knew I could make it. I settled the crosshairs, exhaled slowly, and squeezed the trigger – the bullet hit perfectly and dropped the buck in his tracks.
“It’s easy to think I just got lucky on that hunt. And I absolutely did get lucky. But, to get lucky you first need to put yourself in a situation where that can happen.”
That was the only buck we saw during the trip. In hungry country like that, it’s imperative to make every shot count. My best suggestion to increase your accuracy and confidence is to use a small caliber rifle. Many hunters assume they need a large caliber, and it too often comes at the cost of them flinching from the shoulder-crushing recoil and deafening blast. If you’re worried a small rifle isn’t enough to get the job done, consider that the only rifle I used this season was a .243, and none of the animals ran more than 30 yards from where I shot them (yes, that includes the moose and bear).
HAVE FUN – I was thrilled to be spending a warm November morning with my Dad watching a herd of mule does through the spotting scope. We had coffee in the thermos and were relaxing, chatting, and reminiscing while hoping for a buck to show up. While basking in that amazing moment I noticed movement from behind us — a big buck wandering by at 20 yards! I whispered to my Dad to look, and then whisper-yelled at him to put down his binoculars as the deer was right there. He saw the buck just as I dropped it within spitting distance of us.
That morning was so much fun and I won’t forget it anytime soon. Hunting is full of that type of comradery, adventure, and moments of pure excitement. It can also be demoralizing and challenging. Throughout it all, I continuously remind myself to be thankful for every minute, to soak up the beauty of creation, and to have fun.
If you only take away one thing from this article, make it this; enjoy every moment in the field. If you do that successfully, then regardless of what you bring home there’s a great chance that this season will be your best yet!
Jay Bryant is a fifth generation Albertan who lives in Edmonton, with his (very understanding and supportive) wife, Emily. Jay describes himself as an ‘Experience Hunter’ – always looking for the next great hunting adventure. You can reach him with any questions at: [email protected]
By Jeremy Bryant