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Elk of the Boreal Forest

Northwestern Alberta offers some of the finest wapiti hunting in North America.

Elk of the Boreal Forest
Brad Kercher, owner and lead guide for Brad Kercher Guiding and Outfitting, lets out a bugle while hunting last September. Brad has been guiding people for elk in Alberta’s Saddle Hills County for the past decade.

Walking down the old, overgrown two-track, a remnant of the original oil and natural gas exploration in the region, my guide, Brad, stopped suddenly and got out his cell phone to check his bearings.

“We’re going that way,” he said abruptly, pointing to our left. After walking the path for a long while, stopping ever so often to call, we suddenly made a 90-degree turn and headed deeper into the forest. Less than 300 yards later, we were into elk.

A resident of Saddle Hills County, Alberta, Brad Kercher is known as the Bush Elf to those who hunt with him. While most call him this for the way he positions his ears outside of his beanie so he can listen for elk, I quickly realized it was likely for another reason — his uncanny, almost magical, ability to put people on the animals, even when they’re barely making a sound.

Last fall, at Brad’s invitation, with an assist from the Alberta Professional Outfitters Society, I spent a week bowhunting elk in one of the more unlikely places to hunt wapiti in North America, northwestern Alberta’s boreal forest. Far from the Rocky Mountains and the foothills, in an area where farmlands meet the forest, we were archery hunting in the Saddle Hills. Jutting up from the flatlands below were these stunning, beautiful rock formations that hold dense woodlands and steep drainages, more reminiscent of the upper Midwest than what we would typically consider elk country here in the United States.

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The boreal forest of Northwestern Alberta is a little-known but high-quality region to pursue elk.

“It is a unique area…the reason we have hills up here is when the glaciers retreated, they ended up pushing the formation up,” said Kercher, owner of Brad Kercher Guiding and Outfitting. “They’re not truly hills, they’re actually glacial ridges.

“On top of that, the rivers and the creeks that are out here, it ends up being quite steep getting down into them, and it’s a great, diverse forest. We’ve got pines, we’ve got spruce, we’ve got alders, we’ve got cottonwoods, we’ve got poplars and it’s all mixed together and it’s actually quite thick.”

A Surprise Start

Since I’d been looking forward to this trip for two years, I thought I’d prepared well for it, shooting out to 40 yards, going over all my equipment, hiking daily and making sure I was equipped to handle almost any situation that might arise. However, shortly after arriving at camp, I realized I was not when I got my bow out and Brad directed me away from the targets that were out in the open.

“Yes,” he said, “you can practice shooting longer distances, but the first thing I want you to do is shoot at that target.”

Turning my head, I noticed a beat-up target 20 yards in the woods, with the vitals barely visible due to all the saplings, branches and leaves in the way. I saw only two tiny windows where I might be able to zip an arrow through, and stare as I might, those spots never got any larger. Brad, however, assured us this type of practice was essential since it’s much more likely we’d get a shot like this, at an elk that was 15 yards or less away in thick cover, than a wide-open one at an animal 35 or 40 yards away.

Origins of the Elk

An elk-hunting guide for the past decade, Brad originally came to the area northwest of Grand Prairie, Alberta, to hunt elk nearly a quarter-century ago. After seeing how good the hunting was, he worked as a guide for three years before starting his own business. Today, he offers both archery and firearms hunting for elk, as well as hunts for mule deer, whitetails and moose. Amazingly, in this game-rich area, all of these animals can be found in very close proximity of each other, with most trips from camp only a 30-minute drive one way.

It's important to know that hunting for elk in Alberta requires the services of a guide like Brad, but the huge plus is that you are guaranteed a tag through the outfitter’s allotment. Yup, no need to apply in a drawing or wait two, three or four years to garner enough preference points.

Brad said the elk were originally introduced to the Saddle Hills area in 1930s and ’40s, but it wasn’t until the late 1980s that the population really started to grow.

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“It took that long to establish the herd and then all of a sudden they really started replicating themselves quickly,” he said. “And then (Alberta Fish and Wildlife) came out with the tags and it’s actually been pretty phenomenal elk hunting up here. We have great numbers.”

Mid-September should have been approaching prime elk-rutting time, but the action over the week was a mixed bag. We had a few days where the elk were bugling well into the morning, as well as days where the woods were silent. Even so, either Jeremiah “Chappy” Caitlin — a wounded Iraq War veteran and U.S. Army chaplain who Brad also invited on the hunt — or I saw elk each day, pretty amazing considering the thick terrain we were hunting. What really blew us away, however, was the incredible amount of fresh elk sign — rubs, wallows, droppings — that we saw in the majority of the areas we were hunting.

“You can’t not see it…They put us on the right areas, with no help from the elk to find them,” Chappy said on day four of the six-day hunt. “It’s been impressive that way.”

Come Prepared

While it’s vastly different from the steep, rugged Rockies, hunting the Saddle Hills isn’t a cakewalk by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, a hunter should be prepared to walk up to 10 miles a day including up and down steep gradients as some of the hills top out at more than 3,000 feet in elevation. One hill we scaled to get out of the woods by dark was so steep there really weren’t even any game trails on it (Why did we choose this hill as our exit point, I wondered).

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The Saddle Hills, which climb to more than 3,000 feet from the surrounding farmlands, are home to thick forests and steep creek and river drainages that hold solid wapiti numbers.

Making the walking even more challenging is the tremendous number of deadfalls and blowdowns that you need to navigate, sometimes stepping over logs and downed trees every five yards. Throw in the prickly rose and other thorn-rich plants and you have an extremely challenging “walk” through the woods.

An oil and gas industry worker and consultant by trade, Brad said when he first started hunting the area, there were very few roads cut into the hills, and the ones that did exist were for removing logs from trees that had been timbered. Today, an overgrown network of trails off the main roads are used to provide access to the interior of the hills — deep, dark wooded valleys where the elk tend to spend most of their time. Part of the reason they remain open is due to Brad’s efforts years ago.

“There was a lot of 3-D [mapping in a grid pattern] work back here prior to my ever coming to the area and what I did is I went out and maintained those 3-D cutlines,” he said. “I tried to maintain the ones that were beneficial. They’d be on benches going up the valley, so you’d be able to sneak along that bench, get easy access so that you can walk.”

While the amount of ground you cover hunting the Saddle Hills is vast, leaving you tired and worn out by the end of the day, the reward for us was the incredible cooking back at camp, courtesy of Brad’s amazing cook, Margo. During our six-day hunt, we feasted heartily, including indulging in some homemade pies and desserts. In fact, on the first night in camp we had a meal that consisted of kielbasa, sauerkraut and pierogies, something that someone of Eastern European descent like me was greatly surprised and pleased to see. I certainly had not had that meal on my Bingo Card!

Setups for Any Hunter

Although hunting the Saddle Hills is indeed wrought with challenge, it’s worth noting that Kercher Guiding and Outfitting also has setups designed especially for bowhunters who may be older or who can’t get around well. Some of the parcels Brad hunts adjacent to farmlands are essentially flat, making for easy walking, and he also has hunters stand watch over wallows and springs/seeps if mobility is an issue.

“There are certain areas where we can set up treestands and blinds over licks for people who can’t do a lot of walking…,” Brad said. “We like to find a mineral lick, and what I mean by ‘mineral’ is you’ll see a sheen on the top of the water where they’re coming out of the top of the hill, then you know there’s more than just water coming out of there. We like to focus on that in the fall a lot.”

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Ryan Brain (right), along with dad Jeff, poses with the 5x5 bull elk he took while bowhunting with Brad Kercher Guiding and Outfitting. (Photo courtesy of Brad Kercher)

As far as hunting for elk, Brad said his overall success rate is about 65-80 percent depending on the year. While the odds are good you’ll get a shot at a wapiti, an archery hunter needs to come with the mindset that a realistic bull is likely one in the 300-inch range. That said, hunters can only harvest bulls with three or more points to one side in the area he hunts, so there is always the potential for a larger trophy.

“They’re absolutely huge body-wise out here,” Brad said. “I would say the average antler size that we take is between 240 and the 300-inch range, but we do have some 320s, 330s, 340s, 350s.”

About Those Elk

As for our week in Northwestern Alberta, the wapiti that we got into mid-week ended up being 3-4 cows protected by a young 4x5. With Brad mixing cow calls with bugles, the bull responded by coming in, replying with a barking sound that I hadn’t heard before. Brad noted the sound has a couple of meanings depending on the situation.

“One is it’s an alarm. If it’s coming from a female, she’s absolutely letting everyone know what’s going on,” he said. “Often, too, when a male does it, they’ll bark at another male that’s bugling or wants to challenge them. He’ll bark at them and then bugle right away. And he’s kind of letting you know he’s a little worked up.”

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This young bull elk responded to the call on the fourth day of the hunt before gathering up his small group of cows and departing.

Although the bull got to within 35 yards, it wasn’t the mature animal we were looking for and it eventually retreated, looking to rejoin its cows and move to another locale. Our week concluded without firing an arrow, but Chappy and I both saw enough animals, and had a wonderful time, that we are already looking forward to returning one day.

“My experience has been phenomenal, more wonderful than like an Idaho or Colorado hunt, because I tell you — trying to climb 1,500 feet or 2,000 feet (in the mountains) is a lot different than here,” said Chappy. “If felt like this was definitely much more achievable.”

Next time, with a little help from the elk, hopefully we’ll also achieve our ultimate goal — downing a big bull in the Saddle Hills of Northwestern Alberta.

Elk Hunting in Alberta

You can learn more about hunting with Brad Kercher Guiding and Outfitting on Facebook or by contacting Brad at 403-575-1002 or bradkercher1@outlook.com. For more information on hunting in Alberta, visit the Alberta Professional Outfitters Society.




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