By Lisa L. Price
Since discovering what western Canada has to offer deer hunters, Mike Ballew of Burnsville, N.C., has become obsessed with sticking back money for his annual pilgrimage. Photo Courtesy of Mike Ballew
You might get lucky in Alberta, weather-wise. A few archery hunters get to tell tales about sun-drenched afternoons, when they wear a long-sleeved camouflage t-shirt and carry a light jacket, just in case it gets a little chilly in the evening, and wear un-insulated rubber boots.
For the majority of hunters, however, weather challenges go hand-in-hand with an Alberta deer hunt. In fact, as it happened with Burnsville, N.C., hunter Mike Ballew, sometimes your hands can freeze to your bow.
But that could be a small price to pay to hunt in the land of giants.
Mike, 36, had been traveling to Alberta to hunt for four years. He'd arrowed a 146-incher there. His bowhunting friend, Dale Elliott, had taken a 157-inch specimen.
In 2003, Mike and Dale decided to break an unofficial rule of booking a guided hunt. They chose an outfitter who had never before hosted archery hunters.
"We went with Ken Steinhower of Alberta Native Guides, even though we knew he had only taken gun hunters before us," Mike said. "After talking to him, we felt that he would work with us, and not be against relying on us if we had suggestions about how to set up."
As the two arrived in Edmonton, the first thing they noticed from the airplane windows was the white ground.
"In Edmonton, they had 8 inches of snow on the ground, and we didn't think that was too bad," Mike said. "Then we got to where we'd be hunting, farther north, and the snow was 18 inches deep - 2 feet in some places."
Although it added a challenge, the snow also helped the hunters.
Photo Courtesy of Mike Ballew
"With all the snow, it was easy to find deer sign," Mike said. "I set up a stand about 100 yards from a scrape."
At first, the temperatures were reasonable, what you'd have almost anywhere hunting big northern deer. The mornings were frosty, and temperatures rose above the 30s during the day.
But that quickly changed. Soon, temperatures hovered at zero. But deer activity was terrific.
"I saw a lot of deer in three days, including five bucks that would make the record book, from the minimum up to about 160 inches," Mike said. "But it was still hard to stay on stand."
On his second day of the hunt, Mike planned to stay up in his treestand for 10 hours. But at the seven-hour mark, he recognized the symptoms of hypothermia in his own body and went back to camp.
The next day, with temperatures below zero, he knew staying out all day was impossible. He took a planned midday break to warm up, and headed back out to a different location, a fixed-position stand tucked into a large spruce tree.
Mike could have made a few bucks of the green kind during lunch.
"Those Alberta guys loved my accent," he said. "Sometimes they actually offered to pay me to sit there, read the paper to them and tell hunting stories."
Mike was ready for the weather when he headed back out to hunt.
"I was wearing socks with warmer pockets, pack boots, a thin layer of Scent-Lok, goose-down insulated underwear and heavy wool bibs," he said. "But even with all that, when it's below zero degrees, it's still hard to sit."
Mike set out some buck lure and climbed into his stand. Soon, he saw things that would take any hunter's mind off the cold. He'd been watching deer moving in and out of an alfalfa field to feed, digging under the snow, when two big bucks came onto the scene.
They were about 150 yards away and not interested in feeding. Instead, they started to fight, and other deer appeared in response to the noise the bucks made.
That included one huge buck, whose line of travel appeared to be perfect.
"But it took its time coming toward the fight," Mike said, "which took it by my treestand where I could get a shot. By the time the buck reached me, which took half an hour, my hands were frozen to the bow. I didn't think I'd be able to shoot."
Mike and his guide elected to trail the deer the next day. They easily found it by honing in on a pack of ravens that had located it first.
Mike is hooked on hunting deer in Canada. He's visited and taken deer in both Alberta and Saskatchewan. He particularly liked this Alberta hunt because he was semi-guided; he put up his own treestands.
"I've been hunting since I was 12 and have always dreamed of going to Canada," Mike said. "From North Carolina to Alberta is a long way, but my advice to other hunters is to start saving, because you'll never regret the trip."
Official Score: 177 2/8"
Composite Score: 198 6/8"
-- Reprinted from the October 2006 issue of Buckmasters RACK Magazine