Postcards and Prairie Elk

By Darren Thomson

Darren ThomsonDarren Thomson
Alberta, 2008, DIY, Public Land

"Darren, we are driving north to Sask(atchewan) for duck hunting. We can see real cowboys herding cows from horses across the prairies. Along the road are lots of deer + antelope. See you soon. Love Dad"

As a boy growing up in eastern Canada, it was postcards similar to this from my dad’s annual western hunting trips that made me want to live and hunt in western Canada. Shortly after graduating from college in 1994, that dream became a reality.

Fast-forward to July of 2008. After a tenyear wait, we would finally be hunting elk in southern Alberta. We knew we would be drawn, so it was only a matter of which season we would get. We were thrilled to find out it would be the first season, which runs most of September.

After waiting ten years, I left no rock unturned in my quest to get a handle on our pending hunt. Taking information gleaned from several sources, I made three trips to the area over the summer to cover some ground and get a feel for things. In addition, my dad, Ken, arrived in Alberta in late August so we could set up camp a few days before the September 3rd season opener. We were also joined in camp by my hunting partner, Trevor, who came to help out for a few days.

It became apparent from my summer treks that we would need to get between their preferred feeding area and the river. I would glass the river valley in the evening and not spot a thing, but when my alarm would go off in the morning I awoke to mewing cows and squealing bulls. Since they seemed to come out during the night, the trick was going to be sleeping between their feeding area and their coulee escape routes leading to the river and back across to the far side of the river, which is closed to hunting.

During our scouting the day before opening day, we found what we felt was going to be a promising hunt in a different part of the zone. We opted to try our fortunes there, miles away from the area where I had been scouting. I hoped it wouldn't be a bad decision. Opening day came and went with our tags still in our pockets, and with word of two bulls being taken in the area we had scouted, both of which were rumored to be 350 to 360-class bulls. For a guy who had yet to shoot a bull elk and had set a goal of a 350 bull, that was one tough pill to swallow.

Darren Thomson

The evening of the second day found us on the breaks glassing across the river. With daylight running out, we spotted a herd headed to the river. Trevor figured there was still enough daylight left to make a play and that we might be able to catch them if they crossed the river before sunset. It made for one heck of a mad dash scaling down the steep coulee walls.

We got set up across the river and tried some cow calls. The bull was really fired up and began to thrash around in the water's edge. We played bugle tag, while the cows started to cross the river. Just as the cows reached the riverbank, the bull let rip with one nasty bugle; the cows turned right around and swam back to him. WOW - what a performance. Once the sun finally set we had quite a hike back up the coulees and to our tents.

On day three we awoke to a silent field. Not long after, we heard a shot ring out and then a number of cows and spike bulls filed past us and down the coulee to the river. We met up with the successful hunter, helped with some pictures, and loaded his bull into his truck. He was surprised he hadn't heard us shoot since he had seen a nice bull heading back toward the river, but we hadn't seen it. The third day wrapped up with us still looking for a bull, and Trevor heading back home.

This part of the province does not allow Sunday hunting, so we headed to the nearest town to restock our supplies. Over breakfast with my friend Jeff, he filled us in on a nice bull he had seen on Saturday evening in the area we had scouted.

Everything seemed to center on this one area, and every time I chose to hunt elsewhere it seemed like nice bulls were either seen or shot there. Sunday evening we were going to set up our tent, and come day five we were going to be back on the river breaks.

While preparing to set up camp I managed to get a good chuckle courtesy of a rattlesnake. We were headed back to the saddle when my dad nearly jumped ten feet in the air. Directly in front of him was a rattlesnake coiled up giving us a warning rattle. Needless to say, we decided we would be better off sleeping elsewhere.

While glassing the valley we saw a bull crossing the river in broad daylight, before the sun had even set. This had us heading to bed feeling like maybe our fortunes were going to change. It made for a restless sleep as we could hear bulls bugling and cows mewing and chirping all night long. Darren Thomson

We headed for our positions before sunup. We had agreed on a spot to leave my dad on stand, and I was going to head northeast. Even in the dark I could spot a large herd of elk in front of me already making their way toward the river. I made a dash to get in front of them. I was concerned they would head into the river breaks and make it across before legal shooting light. I could hear antlers crashing and a never-ending symphony of elk chatter. My mind was racing as I waited for the sun.

They angled northeast of me, so I had to scramble again to get in position. Once I was within 200 yards, I set up and had an opportunity to look over the herd. One bull easily stood out as "king."

Suddenly, I heard a shot ring out from my dad's stand position. Shortly thereafter, more elk headed down to join the herd. A bull with massive royals (even bigger than the bull I was watching) grabbed my attention. I looked back and forth, trying to compare the two. The new addition proceeded to trot right past the original bull, making my decision easier.

I had been able to watch everything unfold. There were cows calling and bulls bugling - it was a sight that will forever be ingrained in my mind. The bull I was watching rounded up cows, ran off other bulls, and at one point stretched his neck out and bugled. My heart and mind were racing, and I kept telling myself to wait for a clean shot.

Finally, he stopped and stared in my direction and then started rounding up his cows. He offered me a quartering away shot, so I steadied my rifle and squeezed the trigger. He dropped like a rock, and just like that, ten years of waiting and dreaming was over. What a rush and amazing experience.

I joined my dad and we went over to check out my bull. He informed me that he also had dropped a good bull - it looked like the real work was about to begin. After taking pictures and working on my bull, we headed over to my dad's elk to share some more hugs and also take care of his bull. It was a long day, but with the assistance of friends Jeff and Derek we were finally able to get both bulls taken care of.

This hunt far exceeded our expectations, and I feel fortunate to spend time hunting every fall with my dad. My dad's bull scored 345; mine ended up at 387-1/8. Who knew all those years ago that my dad's postcards would lead to a successful father and son DIY prairie elk hunt nearly 30 years later. Thanks, Dad!

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Darren, 36, lives in Calgary, Alberta with his wife Melanie. He looks forward to his dad's trips west every fall for their annual father/son hunt. In addition to hunting in Alberta, they have hunted a number of times in Wyoming.

DARREN'S EQUIPMENT: Rifle: Sako 75SS Finnlight .30-06 Scope: Leupold VX-III 3.5-10x40 Ammo: Federal Premium 180-gr. Nosler Partition Binoculars: Leica Trinovid 8x42 Spotting scope: Bausch & Lomb Elite 15-45x60 Camo: Cabela's Wolltimate Pullover Pack: Badlands Camera: Olympus Stylus 1020 Shooting sticks: Stoney Point Game calls: Elk Nut Chuckler, Primos Sonic Dome Double