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 with Rob Miskosky

Learning As We Go.

We’d been traveling from our lake lot near Athabasca up into WMUs 350 and 511 where rifle seasons were open. The miles were beginning to pile up on my truck but this year was no different than any other—if you want to hunt with a rifle prior to November 1st and you live in an urban centre like Edmonton, you have to be prepared to put on the miles.

We were making the daily trek across the Athabasca River into farther north WMUs to try and fill a couple of my 14 year old son’s deer tags, and he had a pocket full—a general mulie and whitetail as well as his supplemental tags that allowed him to take two does. The year prior he had filled three of his tags but this year was proving to be a lot tougher. He’d had some good chances but young hunters often make mistakes and Dakota is no different. A dropped bullet into wet snow allowed a nice doe the opportunity for escape while a young forkhorn mulie just wasn’t going to wait any longer. But we were having fun and finding new areas to hunt, including a beautiful area along the Athabasca River Dakota named the Eversong Woods—a name taken from his favourite computer game, World of Warcraft. A game that dad forks out $14.99 US a month for—at least now I had something to show for my money, well, a name anyway.
We had found some good sign and well-used game trails when we were scouring the bush so up went a couple of my Treebark trail cameras. We had to see what was going on off the beaten quad trails. Dakota likes to sit in cover in the forest rather than spend countless hours on the back of a quad, and I agree with him—there is much more to see on foot rather than rubber tires, especially when deer hunting.

Dakota and his perfect-shot button buck.
WMU 350 is well-known for producing big deer and elk are common along the river and in areas where farmland borders good cover. Both mule deer and whitetails are on a general tag here so our odds were increased from our regular WMU where mulies are on draw only. I held the elk tag but as Dakota so bluntly puts it, “You’re a crappy elk hunter dad, so the elk are pretty safe.” I countered, “If it wasn’t for my guiding you wouldn’t have filled any tags last year.” I had to remind myself that we hadn’t managed anything yet this year and my role still hadn’t changed; I’m a mentor and a guide wrapped up into a dad who has given away his hunting time to teach his young son. The sacrifice is a big one and the job is tough, but I’m happy in the role. Just watching his excitement when a deer is spotted is exciting in itself and I’m sure I’m the guy getting buck fever while he stays calm.   
With trail cameras set we headed back to Athabasca and returned home to Edmonton. November 1st was right around the corner and Dakota was excited about the prospect of missing school to go hunting again. We would have three days to hunt and then we would be back home for just four days before we would return the following week for a six day hunt.
For the first three day hunt our plan was to head back up into WMU 350 to check the cameras and get in a little hunting at the lake in WMU 510 that would now be open. It was a good plan; unfortunately rain had decided to play a big part in those plans and consumed most of our Saturday, the first day we had to hunt. October had been a strange month weather wise and now the early part of November was proving to be no different. Rain had turned to wet snow and then the weather took a colder turn and turned the forest floor into a bowl of cornflakes—walking with a young hunter in tow is tough enough to try and keep quiet but walking in this stuff was brutal.
Several images on the trail cameras showed that both whitetails and mule deer were in abundance—at least at night, but nothing seemed to be moving in daylight hours. And the elk were nowhere to be found again, proving Dakota’s theory that my elk hunting prowess has its shortcomings.
Dakota always has a ton of questions when we’re hunting; showing that his interest in wildlife and the outdoors is strong. For that I can only be grateful because many of his friends at home are what I call concrete-jungled—having little or no interest in the wild outdoors. But Dakota needs to know everything about wildlife and why they do what they do. “Deer and elk aren’t stupid. They don’t like the rain any more than you or I do,” I explained, when he wondered why the deer were only moving in the dark. “It’s too cold at night to rain.”
Back at the lake things weren’t any better. There was very little sign of rutting activity and the deer—even the does—were practically non-existent. But we visited regular haunts and checked familiar trail cameras to stay in tune with what was happening just a short distance behind our place at the lake. We needed a plan for when we’d return for his last trip of the year but prospects weren’t looking that great. Our little place in WMU 510, much like a lot of areas in the province, for one reason or another seemed to be lacking in deer. We had a chance at another doe but a fallen tree foiled the opportunity. The doe was attainable but it was another lesson in using cover and moving into position that had yet to be learned. I was beginning to realize that every situation is different when you’re a novice hunter even though many situations are the same and what I would take for granted had yet to be learned by my young apprentice. Teaching is tough, especially when the teacher is learning how to teach at the same time.
Our return to the lake marked the beginning of our six day hunt and the first day Dakota chose to sit in one of our treestands. He was tall enough now to climb into the stand, something he hadn’t been able to do the year before. And now we had a ruffie kicking up the forest floor like no tomorrow while occasionally making straight up jumps to grab some delectable leaf or bud that towered a full four or five inches over its head. Dakota and I watched the comedic show from the treestand; a full 15 feet above. With our focus on the antics of the grouse neither of us were aware of the young 4x4 buck making his way to our stand from the same direction we were looking; we just weren’t looking forward enough and the sounds of the grouse were closer. Then the louder sounds of the buck suddenly grabbed my attention and I whispered to Dakota that a buck was coming right at us. We were caught by surprise as the young buck stopped directly below our stand, nose up, sniffing the breeze. The grouse carried on minding its own business less than three feet away from the buck; neither was bothered by the others presence but Dakota and I were frozen, unable to move without being detected by the buck who was now looking directly up at us. Then he put his head down and disappeared completely beneath the floor of the treestand. I motioned to Dakota to get ready as the buck was about to reappear on the other side. Unfortunately for Dakota, the buck reappeared at exactly the spot I hoped he wouldn’t – between two thick poplars that covered the deer’s vitals… and then we were busted! The young buck heard a young, heavy foot on the treestand floor and bolted a very quick 30 yards out before stopping. Eyes met eyes and the young whitetail buck quickly disappeared in a flash, and then the discussion and teaching process began anew.
The next day my young hunter made a perfect 50-yard freehand shot on a button buck that stared at us from the top of a small ridge. I knew the deer had been hit well but I encouraged my anxious hunter to wait for a good 10 minutes before we climbed to the top of the ridge to find a good blood spray. The young buck had left the perfect blood trail for tracking and the teaching process started again.
We hunted hard for the remainder of Dakota’s last trip of the year to no avail but he was happy nonetheless and now has some fine venison steaks stashed away in the freezer at home. In this, his third year hunting, he has five deer to his credit so I think he’s learning just fine.

For myself, I have the last 10 days of November to hunt and I’m looking forward to it with much anticipation. My guiding is done now and I have a happy hunter at home. But I know there will be times when I’m hunting alone that I’ll look behind me to see if my young prodigy is following, only to smile to myself and wonder why I miss all those questions. ■

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