September 19, 2023
“Do you see him? Right there on the ridge—he’s bedded.”
My rangefinder measured 300 yards. Lindsay steadied his rifle despite his adrenaline pumping from the difficult stalk. Our hunt was coming together. He squeezed the trigger. CRACK! The loud, familiar report of the muzzle brake rang in my ears, yet the buck remained bedded. Lindsay quickly cycled another round. CRACK! My eyes searched for the bedded buck through my binocular. The tall tines that had once sat up distinctively were no longer visible. The bullet had met its mark.
When you think about hiking in the dark to hunt whitetails, most minds imagine quietly making your way to a treestand. This hunt was a far cry from that. My friend Lindsay McQuaid and I were hunting the Badlands of Southern Alberta where deep, winding gullies stretch for miles, seemingly endless. To be in position for glassing at first light, a 4 a.m. wake up was required. The early departure gave us ample time to hike several miles across the grassy flats which led to the edge of the river breaks that we were sure held deer. As the glow from the sunrise appeared on the horizon, we slipped over the edge of the breaks and found our perch for our morning glassing session. The sweat from the hike quickly became torturous as the five-below breeze bit through our clothes, chilling us to the bone. We each added layers of clothing to withstand the motionless hours of glassing.
If you walked the Canadian Badlands 75 million years ago, you would have found subtropic temperatures, lush ferns, tall redwoods, and creatures much larger than white-tailed deer. Stretching from Drumheller to the Saskatchewan border and south to the United States, the Canadian Badlands are a 35,000-square-mile region formed by wind and water erosion. The force of mother nature shaped this place into a network of deep gullies, colorful canyons, barren slopes, and striking rock formations called hoodoos. Lush grasslands can also be found throughout the area, and coulees made from flowing rivers cut through the landscape. All of this helps make the Badlands home to a diverse group of animals, including whitetail.
The vast, open nature of the broken ground allowed Lindsay and I to glass miles for grazing deer. Every dark moving spot gets our adrenaline going. Every deer we would spot at a mile away was by default a buck—even though we had no chance of distinguishing between buck or doe. With each deer spotted, we methodically made a catalog of their movement and location. Half a dozen deer stood out from the rest. We kept careful track of each, watching them through our optics as they made their way from the river up into the breaks to their bedding areas.
Six prospective bucks quickly became five, and five became three. As it so often goes in hunting, these bucks were bedding around does, or in the safety of countless obstacles that made it impossible to stalk within range. Some just up and vanished as many wily old bucks do. The list of shooters was dropping fast. We stayed persistent; fingers crossed that one would remain in a stalkable location.
THE THERE WAS ONE
From our glassing perch atop a coulee finger, we spotted a big buck—the biggest we had seen all morning. He also happened to be the only buck that was in a stalkable location. He was the closest buck to us. "Close" was relative. We watched the buck through the spotter, which easily closed the mile long distance between us. Although we felt close, the rough terrain and deep coulees offered no easy approach for a stalk.
It was early in the day and deer were still moving, actively feeding and chasing does. Typically, we wouldn’t start stalks during this time because it is just asking to bump an unsuspecting deer. It could even result in pushing deer towards our target buck—ruining the whole stalk before it even begins. We both agreed that we should wait.
THE BADLANDS BUCK
Our patience lasted only a few minutes before we had talked ourselves into starting the stalk. Why? It was the rut and it was possible that another buck could cruise in to try and steal his does. This could potentially bust him out of the area or even send him traveling to the next province.
We shed our layers of warm clothing and loaded our packs.“It shouldn’t take that long,”I thought to myself. “Maybe half an hour at a good pace.”But, as we dropped down the draw behind us to get to the valley floor, we hit snow—waist-deep snow. Unfortunately, we had no other choice but to push our way through, unless we wanted to risk skylining ourselves and busting the buck before we got close.
We fought the deep snow through the draw until we finally made it to the rolling grasslands where we kicked it into high gear to cover the remaining distance. After what seemed like an eternity, we were slowly creeping around the last bend that would put us in sight of where we had last seen the buck.
We quickly found him—bedded in the spot we had left it, but there was a problem. His body was angled in a way that left little clearance above the ground and a hard opportunity for a shot. We were in the wide open and if we tried a stalk to a new position, there was almost no chance we could do it without being detected. We were stuck.
Lindsay had to take the shot. He steadied his rifle and crosshairs while I ranged the deer. His position was 300 yards from us. The rifle cracked. The buck didn’t flinch. A miss. Lindsay quickly cycled another round and controlled his breathing for his second chance. CRACK! The buck’s tines—that were once distinctive through my glass—disappeared at the report of the rifle. The Badlands buck was down.
We quickly realized that this whitetail was one of the largest bucks we had ever taken in the area. His large typical frame stood out against the white snow, and the character from its multiple brow tines only added to the buck's appeal.
Our adrenaline couldn’t keep the cold from biting at our bones, so we made quick work of quartering the buck and loading the meat into game bags. Not only did we have many miles to hike, but we were also at the bottom of a deep river system with steep, mountainous sidewalls that offered no easy escape. The snow drifts in the bottom that we had busted through just an hour earlier had now warmed with the heat of the sun. The extra weight on our backs pushed us through the icy crust of the drifts, making the hike even more strenuous as we made our way through the draw. The frozen earth turned to mud as we made the steep incline to get ourselves out of the draw, and onto the rolling prairie.
Lindsay had shot his Badlands buck at ten in the morning. An hour later, we had the buck quartered and loaded into our packs. But we didn’t make it back to the truck until the evening. Our mission for a Badlands whitetail had finally come to an end. A cold beer, laughs, and scheming about what the next day of hunting would bring filled the camp as we stood around the tailgate admiring the hard-earned antlers and venison that lay before us.
The next day, we did it all over again. But that’s a story for another time.