Hunting Adventures: Elk Hunting, a Tradition

Clint-Alm-with-his-first-elk-2011-KananaskisI was born into a family of southern Alberta elk hunters. My grandfather, Viggo Norgard, was a Danish immigrant blacksmith who hunted the Porcupine Hills for meat and sport back in the 40’s and 50’s. In 1946 he killed a bull elk scoring 379, earning a place in B&C’s all time records. A few years later he took a big 6×6 bull scoring in the high 330’s in his favorite “Dry Coulee” west of Claresholm , AB. I remember as a little kid, staring in awe at those big heads on the wall at my grandparents home upon family visits.

His sons, my uncles Ken and Jack Norgard, were raised on wild game and learned to hunt “the hills” at a young age. They both put many elk into their freezers in the 60’s and early 70’s, so I guess I come by it naturally.

I feel very lucky to have hunted elk in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, in its heyday, when there were lots of elk in the eastern slopes of Alberta’s Rockies, and the hunting was world-class.

I’ve taken some nice bulls, including the one on my wall, from the Panther River, where the Browns and their hunters put so many big heads into the book. I’ve guided many hunters to their trophy bulls in the Red Deer River’s Ya Ha Tinda, the Clearwater River and also the Panther.

Young-Jack-Norgard-admiring-Viggo-Norgard's-elk-in-1946

Hunting is a tradition in this family - elk hunting circa 1946.

Things have changed. Today, elk are non-existent in the Panther and the migration of bulls from Banff Park doesn’t happen anymore. The Ya Ha Tinda winters around 15 per cent of the elk that it used to, and in the Clearwater, it is a struggle to find a legal bull. The reason for this drastic decline of our elk herd in the Eastern Slopes we’d best not discuss at this time (well maybe a little). I feel the people, elk and predators have been mismanaged by our new breed of managers, so far removed from the tradition of hunting, that they don’t have our best interests at heart. After all, if you trap and relocate over 1,200 elk from a wintering area, and leave the predators at full strength, nature’s balance gets upset.

The last time I hunted the Ya Ha Tinda area, lots of the elk cows wore big white collars and dangling eartags adorned many of the bulls. I was guiding a hunter and as we sat on the banks of the Red Deer River one morning glassing for elk, we noticed a lone bull making his way towards us for a midmorning drink. We both saw his orange eartag #86 and my hunter suggested to me that we carry on as he didn’t wish to shoot an elk with an eartag. It felt like we were on a huge game farm (enough said)

So in 2011 when my young son Clint mentioned he’d like to hunt elk, I was in a dilemma. Does he wait 10 years to be drawn in an area we are familiar with to have the opportunity to hunt what used to be? Or do we start looking elsewhere? Clint, who is 18, has been applying to hunt elk since he was 14, so had some priority points built up.

Winter conversations with hunting buddies Paul Pierunek of Sundre, AB, and Pat Sheehan of Carstairs, AB, resulted in their suggestion that Clint try hunting the Kananaskis Country of southern Alberta. Both having hunted there the previous year, felt he would be successful in the draw, and should have a good chance of getting his first bull elk.

Early summer online checks for draw results found that Clint had been successful in obtaining his first elk tag and would become an elk hunter this fall.

I’m kind of old school, and although we could have been hunting the farmland elk around home, I wanted Clint’s first elk hunt to be a traditional mountain hunt, with wall tents and wood stoves, pack horses and meatbags. After a couple of summer scouting trips, we found our new area to fit the bill nicely.

Our buddy Pat, took time away from his quest for a Bighorn ram to tour around with us and show us what he knew of the country and the excitement of opening day found us in a head on stand off with a nice wide dark antlered chuckling bull in a meadow not far from camp. Clint was off his horse and ready with his 280, but when the bull turned his head to catch our scent, we could see that although he was a 6×6, both G5’s were just a little short of legal length. Having had our morning rush, we mounted up and carried on, covering as much country as we could in the time we had. A few more elk were spotted in the distance, as well as a big white billy and a beautiful sow grizzly and her spring cub. A great start to elk season.

The Thanksgiving weekend of early October arrived, bringing cooler weather and a snow storm in the south. Vowing to hunt as many times as it took, we set up a bigger camp, as Pat’s son, Danny, who also had an elk draw, and their friend Lyle German would be joining us. It’s always a good time in a hunting camp with a bunch of guys telling stories, having the odd rum, tending horses and doing camp chores. We hunted hard, each going our separate ways, arriving back at camp late mornings to trade spotting reports, then back out mid-afternoon for the evening hunt. The cooler weather had made for better hunting and we were seeing more elk than our previous trip.

On our third day, Clint and I were returning back to camp for lunch when I caught a glimpse of a little bunch of elk up on a saddle about a mile and a half (mostly up) away. We just had time to get our spotting scope on them before they went into the timber. Bringing up the rear was a nice cream colored bull with good tops, and all of a sudden we knew what we’d be doing for the rest of the day. We continued on back to camp to let the other guys know our plans, grab a little lunch, our back packs and a hiking stick for the old guy for the climb to the top of the mountain where we’d last seen the elk.

Two hours later we were up over the ridge setting up across from a little grass patch where we thought the elk would later come back out to feed. It was a great afternoon with a breathtaking 360-degree view, but about 5:00 p.m. with no elk having materialized, we decided to go back up on top to have a look around. As soon as we crested the ridge top, we spotted our band of elk starting to come out to feed on the other mountain, 800 yards as the crow flies, across a deep canyon. We watched them for a few minutes and got a real good look at the bull. He was a dandy and Clint was as excited as ever I’d seen him. His only option was to drop down into the canyon, across a creek and up the other side below the elk as they fed on the hillside, while I stayed to watch things play out. I watched the bull through my binoculars for what seemed like a long time, and just as I began to wonder what was happening, he suddenly dropped and started to roll, and three seconds later I heard the shot rolling across the canyon. Then I spotted a young fellow with both arms in the air jumping up and down.

The hill was so steep that the bull rolled almost to the bottom of the canyon and piled up in a ravine just above the creek. I made my way down into the canyon and up to Clint, his elk and a great big smile.

Our daylight was fading as we took pictures and began our butchering task. We knew that getting the meat out would be a tomorrow job, so we quartered him and carried the four quarters as far away from the carcass as we could, caped the head, removed the loins, loaded our packs and made our way down to camp, arriving well into the night. Back at camp, everyone was congratulating Clint, including his mom Corinne, and sister Rayanne, who had come to the camp for a couple of days of hiking and to prepare a thanksgiving feast for us all in camp.

The next morning the girls were happy to help us retrieve the meat, so we led our pack horses up as far as we could get them, and carried on up, hoping that all was well and a bear hadn’t found Clint’s elk during the night. The meat was untouched and as we had left it the night before. We finished boning the carcass, loaded our four packs and made our way down the canyon bottom to our waiting pack horses. We made it back to camp the same time as the rest of our crew was returning from their morning hunt.

We had a good lunch together, said our thanks and good lucks, packed up our part of elk camp, loaded the horses and headed home. We had just experienced a modern day old time elk hunt with family and friends in a spectacular new area that we hadn’t hunted before.

Was Clint lucky to get a great bull on his first elk hunt? Maybe. Are we lucky to still have great elk hunting opportunities in Alberta? Absolutely.

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