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Hunting The Chinook Winds

Mule Deer and Greenheads Will Keep You Busy on the Prairies of Southwest Alberta

We army-crawled up a hill and peeked over. The big buck was still bedded and was now 175 yards away. A younger buck stood nearby. Does milled about. The focus of our buck’s attention — a hot doe — was a few feet away from him.

“Are you comfortable taking a shot at a bedded buck?” said Nathan Mason, a guide with Three Rivers Outfitters in southwestern Alberta.

“Yes, but let’s wait and see if he stands,” I said.

The Chinook winds come from a westerly direction and go up and over the Canadian Rockies. On the way down the eastern face of the mountains, they speed up and dry out.

I am not sure Nathan heard me. The Chinook winds were ripping in from the southwest. Then again, he didn’t need to hear me. I was in the driver’s seat now. He had led me to this dandy buck, and it was up to me to call the shot and finish the job when I felt the time was right.

Even though it was a very manageable distance, I preferred not to shoot the buck while he was bedded. The vitals are compacted by the buck’s body and the target gets smaller. No point in rushing a shot on a fine, mature prairie mule deer. As I watched the buck in the scope, I expected him to stand up at some point during the morning. But what happened next was not expected. 

CONFIDENCE IN GEAR CHOICES

To this point, all had gone as smooth as it possibly could have. It was the first day of a three-day deer hunt with Three Rivers Outfitters in the southwest corner of the province, just a few miles from the U.S. border.

When I took my gun out of the truck to sight it in, it was shooting 1/2-inch groups. The Franchi Momentum Elite was chambered in 6.5 PRC, a super-slippery .264-inch diameter 143-grain bullet that is pretty much the same one that is used in most 6.5 Creedmoor cartridges. The difference is, the PRC, or Precision Rifle Cartridge, has a larger case and is faster than the other 6.5 by about 200 feet per second. That speed means an even flatter trajectory and even less wind drift for the already aerodynamic bullet. Like the Creedmoor, this PRC bucks the wind.

Atop my rifle was a Steiner Predator 4. I have a lot of experience with Steiner optics, but recently got this scope for this hunt, and was not familiar with this brand-new model of the Predator series. Before the hunt, I talked at length with my guide about the three options this rifle and scope combination gave me:

1) Drop-compensating reticle with windage sub tensions

2) Dial turret for longer shots, if necessary

3) And the old standby, that is, getting as close as possible so that I could use the crosshairs and hold high. That’s possible because of that extremely flat-shooting cartridge. With the 6.5 PRC in this rifle, there is only a 6.4-inch drop at 300 yards with a 200-yard zero, according to Hornady’s ballistic chart. At 400 yards, it’s only 18.2 inches. The diameter of a mature mule deer vitals is about 15-20 inches. That means you could hold dead-on the top of the deer’s back at nearly 400 yards and still have a point of impact in the lungs. Target shooting before the hunt bore this out.

After driving across the border into Alberta at Sweet Grass, Mon-tana, the Franchi Momentum Elite with a Steiner Predator 4 scope was shooting 1/2-inch groups and needed a slight tweak on el-evation to strike the point of aim.

It’s good to have that many aiming options in your back pocket. You never know what you’ll have to ask of your hunting tools when conditions change, or your target does the unexpected.

Nathan and I are both hunters, as opposed to shooters. That is, we both put a high priority on sneaking as close as possible to our target and beating his superior eyes and nose. That was important to both of us. Some folks like to talk of how far they shot from. We share an affinity for how short the shot was. Perhaps neither style is wrong. They are just different ways to appreciate the ethical harvest of game. 

Earlier, as we glassed-up this buck from a half-mile away, we decided that it would be best if we could stalk within 300 yards of the prairie deer. Then I could use either the drop-compensating reticle or just use the center crosshairs. But it was good to know that we could also use the turret to move that crosshair to the right location to shoot 400, 500 or more.

However, in this wind, that was really not an option. But the capability for the shooter, gun, cartridge and optic to achieve those distances if, for some reason, I needed to, gave me solid confidence in the gear and my ability to ethically harvest a buck at a long range.

Nathan had confidence in the optic as well.

When I took the rifle from the case, his eye widened.

“Wait, are we talking about a Steiner Predator 4? That’s what I shoot! Oh, we’re golden, eh?” said the Canadian.

“Yes, we are … eh?” I said.

A HOT MINUTE

The sun was at my back. The wind in my face. The crosshairs floated on the torso of the bedded buck. We’d wait it out. It was 8 a.m. on the first day of my deer hunt. We had three more days to make it happen. No hurry, no worry.

My gear was top-of-the-line. My confidence was through the roof. My personal best muley was bedded 174 yards away and there was little chance they’d spook in this wind, unless something unusual and unpredictable happened.

Unusual and unpredictable are common in nature.

For apparently no reason, the hot doe suddenly sprang off into the Chinook wind, hopped a three-strand fence and sent all the other deer into a frenzy. Maybe she saw a chance to escape all the attention. The young buck clipped off after her. The does circled, necks stretched, ears up and looked to follow.

It’s amazing how a 300-pound deer can stay out of sight on the prairie. But once you get closer, you can see the undulating landscape gives them plenty of hidey-holes out of the wind and out of sight.

My buck was as surprised as I was.

“He’s up!” said Nathan.

The 12-point, 275-pound deer went from bedded to standing at alert like an alarm went off. Quickly, I put the crosshairs to the smooth area behind his shoulder, checked to make sure no doe stood behind him and breathed out. I timed my trigger pull to my respiratory pause.

I heard the sweet, hollow thwack that indicated the bullet found lung. I jacked another round just in case.

The buck turned and fled but staggered. Before I pulled the trigger a second time, it dropped and rolled onto its back with its nose and eyes skyward. The T-2s stabbed into the ground like tent pegs.

I looked up in gratitude for the guide’s skill, the gear’s performance, the beauty of the Canadian Rockies and the ancient Chinook Winds. And then I happened to look to the west and saw Chief Mountain, a monolithic ancient granite formation that First Nation people say is a warrior looking to the sky. That’s when I bowed my head in profound gratitude.

This was one of those slices of time that we live for and hope we’ll never forget.

Like Stan Potts, I “needed a minute.” I reflected on where I was and what just took place and all the people who helped me arrive at this moment.

I had just successfully harvested a fine buck. Everything came together beautifully. I’d have organic meat to share with family and friends, and a rack to remind me of this perfect day. 

This massive prairie mule deer was tending a doe in late November when a shot to the heart ethically killed him within moments. Photo by Chiam Loyd @chiam_films

WATERFOWL AS A PRIMER

While that day was perfect, the few days before were not far from it. Before this deer hunt, my buddies and I had experienced Alberta duck and goose hunting at its best. Ryan Bassham and I were guests of the gun manufacturer Franchi and the optics manufacturer Steiner. Both wanted to show off their new gear. We were in the right place at the right time.

Rich soil and consistent spring rains create a fertile prairie in this corner of Alberta. Hunters can expect to see flocks of hundreds of mallards descend on their spread in November. In the same location, you can also bring in pintail, wigeon and a number of other puddle ducks. Those flocks will be mixed with geese — giant, lesser Canada plus snows, Ross’ and speckled bellies as well.

Outfitter Hunter Jarvis of Chinook Waterfowl wanted to see if we could get our eight-person limit on dark geese. That was the goal for the morning. Light geese, mostly snows, on the other hand, would be the bonus. It was very unlikely we’d hit that light-goose limit — 50 per person per day. But we’d take all the snows we could, which would be doing our part to help manage this species whose population has soared above management goals in recent years.

Guide Hunter Jarvis, left, of Chinook Waterfowl and author John Geiger who used a Franchi Momentum Elite, with greater Canada goose, a lesser and a snow goose.

The warm, dry Chinook winds swept down the eastern face of the Rockies. The geese would be making their final approach from the northeast. Thankfully, a thick fog prevented the sun from exposing our position as the geese committed, and that fog meant the geese did not get a good look at our spread until it was too late.

As the sky lightened, the honking and cackling in the area was unbearable. It’s a most delightful sound. It got louder and louder. Closer and closer. Through the mist, we finally saw the source — a line of 100 or more giant honkers with cupped wings suddenly appeared right over us like an intimidating air force.

We watched them through the mesh of our layout blinds and waited for the guide’s call: “Take ’em boys!”

We shot well. We grounded at least a couple every flight that came in. Lines of geese poured into our spread and into our laps. Some shooters got doubles, others a single, but always at least one goose folded and plummeted to the prairie. It was an astounding start to a day that would be one of my best waterfowling experiences ever, and the beginning of a week that would culminate in the shot at that mature prairie mule deer.

If I would have done anything differently, I would have chosen a tighter choke sooner. My Franchi Affinity Elite 12-gauge came with three chokes with .720 -, .710- and .700-inch constrictions. We shot Migra shells, which were stacked with No. 2 and 4 steel. The.710-inch choke was deadly for first shots, but just wasn’t tight enough for the second-shot chances. But that one’s on me.

Despite my misses, by 10 a.m., all of us limited out on dark geese. That’s eight per person, a mix of cackling geese, lesser Canadas and giant honkers. A good amount of snows fell to our 12-gauges as well. We didn’t expect to reach that 50-per-person limit anyway. But we enjoyed the “Alberta avalanche,” as we called it. That was when a flock of more than 200 snows would swirl and glide to us from high in the foggy sky.

Like two exclamation points, we dropped two banded geese: a honker and a lesser snow. A gentlemanly group, no one hunter claimed the birds, although we all celebrated the good fortune. The guide had the solution. He found a goose down feather, stuffed it deep into a spent shot shell, collected four other empty shells and asked us each to pick one. Buddy Bret Maffett picked the winner, and then again with the second round. We changed his name to “Lucky” for the week.

Later at camp, we entered the band info into reportband.gov and saw that the honker was at least 20 years old and was banded at Tuktoyaktuk at the top of the Northwest Territories. The snow was at least 6 and got its bling across the Beaufort Sea on Banks Island.  

It was a pleasure to be able to report the bands as a group. We all jumped on Google Earth to see these lonely banding outposts near the North Pole. We talked about how our recovery information helps wildlife researchers learn more about bird behavior. And how that informs wildlife managers who can then make regulatory decisions based on science.

The group shot two banded birds on one morning. Reportband.gov indicated that the honker was at least 20 years old and was banded at Tuktoyaktuk at the top of the Northwest Territories. The snow was at least 6 and got its bling across the Beaufort Sea on Banks Island.  

After that goose hunt, we picked up the dekes and headed for a different field a few miles away. We set out a good 200 greenhead decoys with a few honkers, snows and sprig sprinkled in. Then we grabbed a few takeout pizzas and ate on the tailgate of a truck in the middle of the wind-whipped prairie. The skies cleared and the winds blew from the northwest. That was perfect for our bright afternoon set. The sun was at our backs. I was thinking nap.

Sometimes you wait a long time before the birds get up, see your spread and give you a shot. This was not one of those days at all. Within moments of slipping into the comfy layout blinds, a flock of bright greenheads wheeled, cupped up and dropped in.  

We saw the greenheads lit up like traffic lights in front of us. But the poor ducks couldn’t see any details on the ground, and that gave us a big advantage. Again, the Chinook winds were a godsend.

Just like the morning shoot, guide Hunter Jarvis of Chinook Waterfowl knew where the X was. His young Lab, Hank, performed like champ. 

The five of us — Ryan Bassham of Montana, Bret Maffett of Virginia, Jordan Egli from Colorado, Ivan Ponce of Texas and myself from Georgia — ended the day limiting out on Central Flyway greenheads to add to our goose limit that morning. Bret and Jordan had gotten this group together on behalf of the companies, Franchi and Steiner, so we could check out and use their latest gear.

The next day, Hunter’s research and scouting again put us on another X. The wind had switched and was now blowing snow at 40 mph from the east. Temperatures hung around 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Hot Hands were dealt like a deck of cards among gamblers.

The Chinooks may have abandoned us, but the geese still had to eat. Like Day One, the honkers, cacklers and lessers poured in, wave after wave. Snows visited our spread as well. We limited again on darks and had a few bonus snows and Ross’ before lunch.

Hunter Jarvis of Alberta (from right), Ivan Ponce of Texas, Bret Maffett of Virginia, Ryan Bassham of Montana, Jordan Egli from Colorado, and author John Geiger from Georgia, became fast friends during our Day 1 morning limit of dark geese in an Alberta cornfield. 

That afternoon, it nearly killed us to leave the ducks and geese alone. We needed to sight-in our rifles before a short ride west to Pincher Creek and the base of operation of 3 Rivers Outfitters. Hunter’s father, Corey, would take us from there. He and Nathan put us in front of dandy mule deer at the base of the front range of the Rockies with the Chinook winds blowing in our faces.

Southwest Alberta has a lot to offer, like a classic Canadian Rockies backdrop, skilled guides and fertile grasslands that support abundant game. The combination puts this corner of the province on the map. Once you get a taste of these attributes wafting on the Chinook winds, you’re bound to come back.

MYSTERIOUS WINDS

What are the Chinook winds, and do they help hunters?

The Chinooks start over the Pacific and push over the Canadian Rockies from the Pacific Northwest and British Columbia. They dump their moisture in the high elevations, and then sweep down the eastern side of the majestic mountains. They warm up as they descend from the cold heights, and then pick up speed as they spread across the hills and grasslands of Alberta on toward Saskatchewan. 

As a result, there is relatively little snow in this part of Alberta. And when it does snow, the high winds quicky evaporate it. The Blackfoot people of the area call the wind “the snow eater.” The Chinooks also cause world-record temperature variations. According to the American Meteorological Society, the winds drove the temperature from minus 54 Fahrenheit to 49 degrees in 24 hours. That’s a change of 103 degrees. 

They’re named for the Native American Chinook people who lived near the mouth of the Columbia River. 

For hunters on the east side of the Rockies, the Chinooks mean high consistent winds that don’t swirl. They’re a blessing when you’re trying to get close to the elk, mule deer, bear and wolves that live in these parts. —John Geiger

Geiger is Managing Editor of Safari Magazine

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