Canmore Bow Zone

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The land bordering Canmore, Alta., known as WMU 410, is rugged and steep, but is home to some of the best mountainous, archery-only opportunities in North America

The town of Canmore, Alta., is located along the Trans-Canada highway, 100 kilometres west of Calgary, and is home to some of the best bighorn sheep bow hunting in the world.

The people and animals in wildlife management unit (WMU) 410, otherwise known as the Canmore bow zone, live a quiet peaceful life anywhere from the low-winding Bow River flatlands to the many towering peaks of jagged rocks surrounding the town. WMU 410 has a bow and arrow only constraint.

There are many species for residents to hunt, ranging from a single stalk just off the highway to a multi-day expedition to the far outreaches bordering Banff National Park.

Established in the 1970s, the Canmore area was the first bow-and-arrow-only WMU in Alberta, originally called zone 8. Bow hunters around the world now know this area as the Canmore bow zone, because it allows non-residents to bow hunt bighorn sheep during the November rut.

The area has played host to several big-name archery hunters over the years, such as Jack Frost, Chuck Adams and Warren Strickland. Any archery grand slammer will know of the area, like Greg Bokash who completed his grand slam in November 2008. Calgary resident Tom Foss, another grand slam sheep guru, banded with his sons, Adam and Cameron, to hunt sheep in the area over the past 15 years.

The first non-residents to bow hunt for sheep were Fred Bear, Glen St. Charles and Chris Kroll, guided by Alvin Guinn, in which Chris killed a world-record rocky mountain goat. Mountain goats still inhabit the area, but hunting is no longer permitted for them within the WMU. Moose, although rare, elk, mule and white tail deer can be hunted, but the area is best known for chasing bighorn sheep.

The hunt isn’t for the faint of heart though; many top-notch bow hunters, such as Warren, consider it ultra-extreme sheep hunting taking place in rugged, vertical terrain. It’s physically and mentally demanding on bow hunters.

Back in the early ‘80s, Chuck and guide Rod Collin were among the first ever to spend a week tenting in view of motels, and a plethora of other hunters with spotting scopes, with temperatures hovering around -40 at night to highs of -25 during the day.

“That was a horrendously tough hunt. I would not even go so far as to say it was fun the whole time,” stated Chuck when describing his greatest hunts. His experienced guide, Rod, claimed those were the most brutal sheep hunting conditions he’s ever endured.

Today, outfitters have set up wall tents with stoves, in prime locations a day’s hike from town. Supplies are flown in for multi-day hunts, ranging from seven to 21 days, so high-paying clients only have to endure the treacherous hike through windy, snowy, frigid temperatures. The reward for braving the harsh conditions is a chance to observe and possibly take a world-class bighorn sheep in their native rutting habitat. All of it – the history, the brutal conditions and the animals – are what makes WMU 410 such a special place.

There is no doubt the zone is unique and special, but it doesn’t come without its share of frustrations. For starters, figuring out the WMU boundaries and other areas off limits to hunting is more work than any other zone I’ve ever hunted. I waited nine years to draw a bighorn ewe tag for the zone and when I first started planning my hunt, I needed four different maps, plus Google Earth satellite imagery, to enter the legal areas worth exploring into my GPS. The WMU boundaries aren’t simple like a primary highway – they use all sorts of landmarks, such as the height of the land between two drainages, Indian Reserve and National Park boundaries, power lines and shorelines.

Upon understanding the perimeter, I focused my attention to the no hunting area within the zone, either private, such as golf courses and the Nordic training facilities, or town of Canmore land.

Finally, hunting sheep is prohibited within buffers from landmarks like highway 1A and cement quarries, which sheep love for the minerals, tuffs of grass and safe living.

These animal sanctuaries preclude pursuing these animals. Some September mornings, the large elk herd symphonies are heard, but safely from the golf course, which is off limits to hunting. Other days, you can drive along highway 1A and see some nice bighorn rams tending to ewes on top a roadside cliff. A common hunt is to glass mountaintops and ridges from down low, along the highway, waiting for a bighorn to make his way into view. Unfortunately, by the time you see them they’re usually headed for safe living conditions, within 800 metres of highway 1A, and you may never have a chance to hunt them.

Escaping to the backcountry allows hunters to shun these annoyances, but only to be replaced with others. The sheep are all found throughout.

“They are where you find them,” is a statement sheep hunters often say.

During November, out-of-province clients and the 50 lucky Alberta residents, whose names were drawn for a bighorn ram special license, are the only ones permitted to hunt sheep, plus a few ewe tags. Conversely, during September and October, limitless over-the-counter sheep licenses are available to any bow hunter. Some Alberta resident hunters that have drawn their bighorn sheep tag also use the services of the outfitters, but the prices are just as steep as the mountain ridges.

Besides the obvious competition between hunters, Canmore is a recreational Mecca for climbers, hikers and photographers. You’ll often find these people along the main trails, but getting off the beaten path will gain you some space to hunt. The three large, main sheep hunting areas are the Exshaw and Cougar Creek drainages and Pigeon Mountain, but there are many hidden honey holes that hold sheep throughout, so finding your own space isn’t that difficult. Camping on Pigeon Mountain can be challenging because of the lack of water supply, but bow hunters arrow rams there each and every year.

The key to successful sheep hunting is to “make the best of every opportunity you get,” says long-time outfitter and guide Rick Guinn. Late season day hikes up Pigeon Mountain can be very productive for bighorns, deer and elk if large amounts of snow have accumulated.

The elk hunting in the area these days is a fraction of what it used to be in the ‘80s. The reason for this isn’t conclusive, but from what I gather expanded no-hunting zones, hunting pressure and increased predators such as grizzly bears and cougars have all contributed to the challenge. Elk in western North America have become smarter over the past 20 years, with many more hunters hunting and calling them, and Canmore is no exception.

Jim Hole has spent 30-plus years hunting and guiding elk in the Canmore bow zone and has taken bull elk using a variety of methods: slipping in quietly on stalks, ambushing from a treestand, challenging the herd bull by calling aggressively at ground level and calling passively from a concealed location.

Jim states, “These days, Canmore elk are educated and it’s advanced bow hunting.” The bull elk trophy quality is excellent, but the elk are very crafty and are used to avoiding people and poor-calling hunters. Most elk are found down low to one-third of the way up the mountainsides. It seems the elk have studied the maps as well, because you’ll often find them safe within no hunting zones.

Hunting through the forest in WMU 410 is fascinating. Bow hunting pioneers have hunted here for many years and the evidence can be found around any intersection of game trails by looking upwards – I’ve lost count of the number of decrepit treestands I have found.

I’ve only heard the stories of how great the elk bow hunting was back in the day, but evidence of elk kills are found among the forest floor in elky-looking areas. My first elk hunts there proved challenging and I actually saw and heard more elk when I was hunting sheep than when we were targeting elk, but the elk were there – tracks don’t lie.

To effectively hunt the Canmore bow zone, you need to be in top physical condition and most of us don’t have the luxury to have the Rocky Mountains in our backyard so training at home is the most effective and best use of time. Studying maps and satellite imagery to gain a solid understanding of no-hunting zones is essential and will naturally steer you towards good habitat, excellent glassing vantage points and water sources, however you’ll need to scout these locations to hone in on precise locations. A GPS isn’t required, but it certainly makes planning your hunt easier.

As for the forecast, you should expect mountain weather, so anything’s possible: snow, hail, rain, sun, wind and considerable temperature ranges – sometimes all within the same hour. November hunts are the most excruciating and produce miserable weather and brutal hunting conditions, so bring quality clothing and gear. Bow hunting in snowy sub-zero temperatures shouldn’t be taken lightly. Test your gear and shooting capabilities in these conditions before you start your incline trek.

As for accommodations, Canmore boasts some of the most luxurious accommodations in Alberta, if that’s your type of hunt. You could glass the mountainsides from your balcony and race up the mountainside when you see a legal ram. But at the other end of the spectrum, hunting expeditions carrying lightweight gear is done all the time. For myself, I wouldn’t dare execute a multi-day hunt in November without a tent with a stove. The thought of coming back to camp with wet gear and not having a place to dry it out isn’t for me. Mid-range motels and hotels also exist for those who want to get up before sunrise and drive to the trailhead.

Canmore offers plenty of quality hunting opportunities for Alberta residents of all levels with over-the-counter tags. Elk, bighorn sheep, deer, some moose and game bird seasons are bountiful during the fall.

I didn’t hunt Canmore until I drew a bighorn sheep ewe tag and it was a fantastic place to start sheep hunting. My partner and I decided on a few extended weekend hunts during September in the backcountry and studied the maps, trails and satellite imagery to find multiple places to hunt. Talking with other experienced hunters from the area also helped. All of this pre-scouting research paid dividends on the third day when a lone ewe came into view from my glassing location. I was able to close the distance to 33 metres and let an arrow fly. The hit was right on target and she only went a short distance before tumbling down a couple rock ledges to her final resting place. My partner and I packed her off the mountain that same day and returned the next weekend to hunt the elk we saw and heard. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the same success elk hunting and but saw lots of elk sign – just all the more reason to go back.

WMU 410, the Canmore bow zone, is a special place, full of history, hidden honey holes, pristine animals and challenges that will crush the ill prepared. Walking the same ground as many bow hunting icons, along with seeing the evidence of average Joes that pioneered hunting from trees, really makes you think when you’re waiting to find your special animal. Often, while hunting game trails, I would find great spots usually with an old, unsafe treestand and I could visualize someone in a plaid red jacket and wool pants sitting there watching me.

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