In the Saddle
Sparsely populated region has plentiful big, rut-fired bull elk, plus plenty of other game
I stand frozen, afraid to even twitch, my eyes the only thing I allow to move. Somewhere to my south is a bull elk. I know he’s less than 100 metres away, as I could feel his last challenging whistle reverberate up my spine. North of me is another rut-stirred bull. He, too, has betrayed his location with an equally blood-curdling bugle. Judging by the sound, he’s even closer, likely less than 60 metres away. Yet no matter how hard I squint through the thick mixed-wood forest, I can’t see either bull. Next to me, standing equally statue-like with bow in hand, is guide Logan Dolen. Knowing the elk are nearly in our lap and closing ground, but not being able to see them, makes the scenario all the more exhilarating.
Now the forest has gone deathly quiet, as if all of nature is holding its breath in anticipation of what will happen next. It’s a game of chicken. Unfortunately, Dolen and I blink first, unable to withstand the suspense any longer. We take just one step forward, in unison, and the immediate crashing of trees to the northwest causes us to turn in time to make out the antlers of a huge bull as he storms away through the brush, a mere 30 metres distant.
As if choreographed, similar sounds erupt south of us a second later, a signal the other bull has also recognized our trap and is exiting furiously, stage right. Dolen and I look at each other, our faces betraying an odd mix of awe and disappointment, before breaking out in laughter. The jig is up, at least for today. But the excitement of being up close and personal with two mature bull elk is more than worth the frustration of knowing our impatience blew the opportunity. That’s elk hunting in a nutshell, but here in northwest Alberta’s Saddle Hills County, we know more opportunity awaits.
A hunting paradise
To fully understand just what an outdoorsperson’s paradise Saddle Hills County has become requires you to step back in time 100 years, to when the area was first being settled. The Edmonton, Dunvegan and British Columbia Railway opened up much of Alberta’s Peace River region for settlement, but upon its completion in 1916, the rail line had completely ignored the area that is now Saddle Hills County. Partly as a result of that, today a mere 2,200 residents are spread across the county’s 5,800 square kilometres, with no cities, towns or villages to be found. The largest cluster of people, in fact, is huddled in the hamlet of Woking, which boasts a mere 100 residents.
By some measures, I suppose, the region never reached its full potential. But if your vision of paradise includes vast tracts of native forests and numerous cool rivers and creeks, with few people and limited agricultural, forestry and petroleum activity, then Saddle Hills County is a must-visit destination. For outdoorspeople, there can be few more appealing places.
Saddle Hills County welcome sign
It had been 20 years since I’d last hunted the Saddle Hills. Back then, I was after whitetails and mule deer, and the abundance and diversity of big game I saw left a deep impression on me. So, when the opportunity arose to return last season to hunt rutting elk with well-known outfitter Mike Ukrainetz, it was simply too appealing to pass up. While I’d never hunted with Ukrainetz, I’d known him for many years, and his reputation for providing a first-class hunting experience was no secret.
I arrived at Ukrainetz’s lodge early on a mid-September afternoon. The timing was perfect, with the local elk sure to be fully into the rut. Camp was near deserted when I pulled in, as all of his guides and hunters were in the field, many of them hunting elk, while others pursued moose, mule deer or whitetails.
By the time I settled in and grabbed a bite to eat, however, they started to return, full of stories of exciting morning hunts. As is typical in big-game camps, especially early in the fall when the days are long, most of the hunters headed to their rooms for a nap after a hearty lunch. In the meantime, the guides attended to the never-ending chores that make their three-month guiding season an exercise in stamina.
It was 6 p.m. before I headed out with Dolen, a twentysomething local whose family farms in the county. Guiding isn’t his primary occupation, even through the fall months—he only guides for Ukrainetz when an extra hand is needed in camp. The fact that Dolen wasn’t a full-time guide didn’t concern me in the least, though. From our first conversation, it was clear he was a hunter through and through, with the focused mind of a predator. And given he was a local resident, I was confident he knew the lay of the land and local game movements as well as or better than any guide from outside the county could.
Mid-September anywhere at this latitude is resplendent in fall colours, but never more so than here in the Peace River valley. It’s difficult not to be mesmerized by the kaleidoscope of colours that greet you as you travel the county roads, a palette of reds, yellows and oranges the likes of which have to be seen to be fully appreciated. So, as we talked and got to know one another while driving to our evening hunting grounds, my face was pressed to the glass more often than turned toward Dolen. It was a little rude, perhaps, but forgivable, I hope, given the natural distraction competing for my attention.
Fall colours in the Saddle Hills
Eventually, after reaching the end of a gravel road providing access to both an oil well and a grain field, we parked and prepared our gear. To our south was a heavily treed creek valley, while to our north and east lay a series of agricultural fields separated by fences and natural treelines. With a slight breeze from the southeast, the conditions were ideal for hunting our way eastward.
Before setting out, Dolen went over the game plan. We’d walk the field edges, pausing occasionally for him to call, most often mewing like a cow elk and hoping for a response from a randy bull in search of companionship. Periodically, he would also bugle, a no-holds-barred challenge to any resident bull willing to defend his harem from an intruder. The recently harvested field we edged along had been sown with peas, and given the abundance of scat accumulated along the game trail that skirted it, numerous black bears were feasting on the leftovers—more evidence of the region’s diverse game.
Guide Logan Dolen calls a bull
After walking and intermittently calling for a couple of kilometres, we opted to sit in a 50-metre-wide finger of bush that separated two fields and begin to call in earnest. Bull elk in the Saddle Hills are not especially large when compared with those in the southern foothills. In these parts, a 300-inch bull is pretty good. But what they may lack in size, they more than make up for in numbers; populations are large and growing, thanks in no small measure to the combination of quality cover and plentiful feed. So every time you call, there’s a legitimate expectation of getting a response.
Elk materialize from the trees
Game, even as large as elk, have a way of suddenly materializing from out of the trees. One second a field is empty, the next there’s an elk standing in it. And that’s just what happened to us, but in our case, there were four elk—a cow, two calves and a bull. Even though they were 800 metres distant, from our vantage point the bull appeared to be worthy of closer inspection.
We made several attempts to call him across the open field with a succession of cow calls and some occasional bugles, but he was having none of it. At one point, the bull exhibited traditional wallowing behaviour, pawing the dirt at his feet, urinating into it, then lying down and rolling around on his back. It was clear that his cow was prime for breeding and he wasn’t about to abandon her—a bird in the hand, I suppose.
We watched the elk for a full 20 minutes before they slowly walked back east and out of view. Immediately, we were on the move, hugging the treeline for cover as we took the long way around the field to where we’d last seen the elk before they moved off. After a full half-hour, we reached our target destination, a corner with thick brush to the south and east, and open fields to the north and west. Protected by the cover of the trees, we soon found them, about 400 metres due north in another pea field.
Fresh elk sign
The shot angle and distance were more than I was comfortable with, so Dolen began to cow call. The two calves responded immediately, running straight towards our hiding spot, closing to within 50 metres as they searched for the cow they were certain they’d heard. At one point, we were sure they had us pinned. With the wind in our favour, however, we were able to outwait them, and soon they wandered off, apparently having lost interest.
For reasons we couldn’t fully discern—who knows what goes through the mind of a bull elk—the bull unexpectedly deserted his cow and followed after the calves, albeit well behind them. He soon closed to within 150 metres of our lair, and although I couldn’t see him, Dolen could, so he elected to cow call in hopes the bull would move into my line of sight. Instead of responding favourably, however, the bull held up completely, clearly nervous.
At this point, I had no choice but to move or we’d risk the agitated bull clearing out. Reluctantly giving up my spot, I manoeuvred to the other side of Dolen, from where I could see the bull, now at about 120 metres. I didn’t wait. My offhand shot took him through both shoulders, but it took another round before the tough 5x5 would go down. It was 8 p.m., with a half-hour of legal light still ahead of us. I’d been hunting Saddle Hills County for all of about an hour and a half.
The author’s 5x5 bull elk, taken on the first evening of his Saddle Hills hunt
Sometimes, it all comes together as though it had been planned exactly that way. Dolen called in to camp for reinforcements, then we began the task of field dressing the bull. Although he was a 5x5, we estimated he was just two and a half years old. He was in beautiful condition, fat and healthy, and would be absolutely wonderful on the dinner plate.
By the time Dolen and I finished prepping him, Ukrainetz and the crew from camp had arrived. They were able to drive across the open fields right to where the bull lay, so loading him up was about as easy as it gets in elk country.
Back at camp there were backslaps all around. Another one of the hunters had also tagged a bull, so we hung them side by side to cool in the night air before retiring to the lodge for a nightcap. While I didn’t feel the least bit cheated, the drive home would be four times longer than my hunt had lasted, so I wasn’t particularly interested in heading home at first light. Fortunately, Dolen invited me to accompany him on a bowhunt the next morning. I gladly accepted, as it was far too soon to leave this game-rich area.
So, it was shortly after first light that Dolen and I found ourselves between those two mature bulls, each screaming their dominance while our calls teased them toward a confrontation. Yes, the hunt eventually went sideways, but I don’t think either of us was particularly disappointed. Rutting elk at close quarters represent the apex of the big-game hunting experience, and you would rather repeat it than end it quickly. Besides, Dolen would surely get more opportunities before the season was finished.
As for me? I can only hope that, someday soon, I’ll be back in the Saddle again.
Hunting editor Ken Bailey travelled north from his home in Edmonton to hunt the Saddle Hills.
Hunting the hills
Saddle Hills County is located in northwestern Alberta, approximately six hours driving time north of Edmonton. Nestled along the south bank of the Peace River, the county’s western boundary is the B.C. border, with Highway 2 forming the eastern perimeter. Highway 49 is the only major east-west thoroughfare.
Big game is both diverse and abundant in Saddle Hills, with hunting opportunities for black bears, elk, moose, mule deer, white-tailed deer and wolves. Meanwhile, waterfowlers will appreciate the many thousands of geese and ducks that stop in each fall on their southern migration, and the forests are rich with ruffed and spruce grouse for wingshooters.
Non-resident big-game hunters are reminded they must use the services of an outfitter-guide to hunt in Alberta. I hunted with Mike’s Outfitting Ltd. (www.mikesoutfitting.com), but there are several other reputable outfitters offering big-game and waterfowl hunts. You can find them all through the Alberta Professional Outfitters Society (www.apos.ab.ca).
Hunters must also gain permission before hunting on private land in Saddle Hills County. You can get a municipal landowner map from the county office at the intersection of Highways 49 and 725, or through the county website (www.saddlehills.ab.ca), which is chock full of information and advice for visiting hunters. By and large, the county’s landowners are welcoming of hunters who show respect for the resource, on both private and public land.