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Mark H

My first hunt with Kettle River Outfitters dates back three years to the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. A time when travel restrictions dictated that if I wanted to bag a bigger bull elk than the one that currently occupied space on my trophy room wall, it would have to be hunted close to home. For years I had been looking for a trophy bull elk hunt that would not leave my bank account in shambles. I found such a hunt with Kettle River Outfitters. Not only was the hunt priced right, but they offered additional species and individual cabin accommodation. How much better could I have it? With visions of big bulls rattling around in my mind, I booked a seven-day hunt for the third week of September with Melvin Kilback, the owner of Kettle River Outfitters.
A prime rut hunt, one would certainly think so, but on this given year, not so. As they say, “that’s hunting – there are no guarantees.” Thankfully Melvin, having the depth of character that I had gotten to know, suggested he would work out a deal for me on a Shiras moose hunt the following fall. Having taken many a Western Canada and Alaska Yukon bull, but never a Shiras, and knowing the difficulty of drawing a moose tag in this area, that offer certainly captured my attention. The winter months saw us working out the details for a late November hunt. But this part of my saga did not end without some action as I did take a whitetail buck at last light on the last day of my hunt.
I arrived at camp on November the 18th amid a snowstorm. By morning a good four inches had fallen – absolute perfect conditions for the first day of my hunt. Well before dawn we headed for the mountains, where we began to slowly work our way through a series of connecting cut blocks. The first of which revealed a cow and calf to be followed that morning by several other cows and calves but no bulls. The afternoon was a repeat, lots of moose sign but nary a bull to be found. In total we saw at least 11 moose that first day – very encouraging despite the lack of bulls. But what capped the day off was a big whitetail buck that crossed the road in front of us. Unfortunately, in a no-hunt zone. This buck was a Saskatchewan-type buck with tall, massive antlers that probably scored over 160. Bummer! Certainly, the best whitetail buck I had seen in BC.
The following day we changed course and headed for an area where Melvin had taken three bulls the previous year. On the way in we encountered so many deer tracks that I was beginning to think we were travelling through a preserve of some kind. Tracks crossing the road, walking down the road, it didn’t matter – every 50 yards or so there was another set of tracks. Awesome! But they soon began to peter out once we left the low country. As dawn broke, we found ourselves surrounded by premium moose pasture, large open cut blocks with sufficient forage to keep any moose in fine grub. But despite hours of glassing and traversing every trail, we did not find a single moose track. That afternoon we headed back to where we’d started out on day one and spent the last few hours sitting in an elevated blind with a wide peripheral view of the cut block where we had seen several cows and calves the previous day. Nary a moose showed up, but on the way out we encountered a limited-entry-draw hunter who had spotted 15 moose that day but, once again, not a single bull.
Day 3 began much as day one, with a fresh snow fall of a couple of inches. How could conditions get any better? So, Day 1 Mountain became our target area once again, but this time to a new area north of where we had previously hunted. Our first stop and glass revealed a lone cow to be followed by a couple of others. Still no bulls but Lady Luck finally kicked in. We had no sooner stopped to glass a cutblock about a kilometer and a half north of us when I located four moose near the bottom end of the block. Surely one had to be a bull – but without a spotting scope we could not tell. Optimism reigned supreme as access to the area was restricted by a decommissioned road. No time wasted in decision making here! We headed straight for this cutblock and despite having to navigate at least a half dozen access obstacles, we finally broke out of the timber near the upper end of the block. From there we slowly began to work our way toward the bottom end. We had travelled but a few hundred yards when we encountered two cows that casually watched us pass by. While this indifference reassured me that the moose in this block had been undisturbed, I began to wonder if these were two of the four moose that had brought us here. Fortunately, that proved to not be the case as, when we rounded the next bend, all four, including two bulls, were right where we had last seen them. One bull with uncharacteristic black antlers was facing towards me at 250 yards but the problem was that the second bull was right behind the first facing in the opposite direction. No chance for a shot until they moved, which they appeared in no hurry to do. That was until I set up my shooting sticks. This achieved more than the desired result as they immediately bolted for the nearby timber, but thankfully after a short 50-yard run the black antlered bull stopped to look back. A fatal mistake.
That morning Melvin must have had a premonition we were going to bag a bull because for the first time he had packed a huge spool of rope and a snatch block. Both of which we used to haul that bull off the mountainside. No undertaking for the faint of heart, but it worked! Within a couple of hours, we had that bull roadside.
But why the black antlers – because they were still in velvet. The answer to why, in cattle rancher’s lingo, it was a “steer.” No antler rubs or rutting behavior for this bull. An ideal bull to remove from the population as a non-contributor to the future of this moose herd. A unique but perfect end to my hunt. The meat from this bull is the best I have ever sunk a fork into.
Unfortunately, there is a sad ending to this hunt. Just a few days later, Melvin’s wife Tami, called to let me know that Melvin had passed away. I was more than a little shocked as, from my perspective, Melvin personified the quintessential outfitter. He consistently had dozens of irons in the fire but handled them all with ease while ensuring hunters and staff were taken care of. No easy feat. Thankfully, at Melvin’s passing, Tami picked up the gauntlet and took over running the outfit. Which leads to chapter three of this tale, a whitetail and mule deer hunt in early November the following year.
I have a confession – I’m addicted to deer hunting. I have hunted them all over the globe and when it comes to smarts, nothing can top a whitetail buck with some age on him. They are crafty devils, and this hunt is about one such deer.
Here I must introduce my guide for this hunt, Robert Mattes, whom I had gotten to know on previous hunts. He is just my kind of guy, a former logger who is tough as nails and just loves what he does. An avid hunter himself, whether it is guiding for sheep, elk, moose, or deer, he puts his heart and soul into every hunt. His response to my early arrival in camp about sums it up. “Let’s go hunting.” And this after having already successfully guided sheep, elk, and moose hunters that year.
Once again weather was determined to play a role in this hunt. The unseasonably warm and dry conditions we encountered that afternoon led to nary a deer sighting, this despite the quality of deer habitat we traversed. Early the next morning we headed for a series of interlocking cut blocks well north of camp. As darkness gave way to the early morning rays of predawn light, we began to slowly work our way through each of these blocks. They turned out to be some of the finest deer habitat you could find anywhere. Once again, the lack of snow and warm conditions gave us the fickle finger as we only encountered a couple of whitetail does that simply tail-flagged us at 300 yards, and disappeared. Meanwhile we did find one encouraging sign, a fresh buster-sized rub on a lone tree. Robert’s response was most apropos. “Would we ever love to find that buck.”
Late that morning we headed for the snow-covered high country looking for a mule deer buck but all we found were a few tracks. It appeared that all the mule deer had already migrated to lower pastures. So that afternoon we switched tactics and headed for a mountain top stand where several good whitetail bucks had been caught on a trail cam. Enroute, we spotted six mule deer does and despite extensive glassing we could not locate a buck that might have been lurking nearby. My three-hour vigil on this stand was a bust as nary a buck showed, but exactly as the meteorologists had predicted, it started to snow. Finally, a break in the weather!
By morning we were looking at six new inches of snow, which certainly appeared to have had an impact on deer movement. We had barely left camp when a couple of whitetail does and what appeared to be a mature buck crossed the road in front of us. I spent the first couple of hours on a new stand peering out into the falling snow, to no avail, as our only company was a busy red squirrel. The rest of the morning was spent traversing about every trail on that mountain and while no bucks were spotted, we did find a number of does and a small herd of cow elk. For the afternoon we switched gears and hunted numerous cutblocks where I had seen a lot of deer sign the previous year. Although we spotted a few mule and whitetail does, the bucks eluded us once again.
The following morning when I asked Robert what was on the agenda, his reply was no surprise. “We are heading back to the cutblocks we hunted the first day, there just has to be deer there – it is just too good of an area.” I could not have agreed more. Surprisingly, we were the first hunters to hunt the area since the snow fall. This and the 10 inches of new snow certainly heightened our level of optimism, only to be bolstered by all the tracks we encountered in every block. But the question that continued to haunt us was, why weren’t we seeing more deer?
By the time we had traversed all the blocks down to the river, I estimated that we had encountered the tracks of a 100 different deer. It was becoming evident that these deer had become nocturnal and were bedding up in nearby woods during the day. This assumption necessitated a bit of a change in strategy, so en route back up the mountain we began to check out every bit of standing timber more closely. The decision paid off almost immediately as we had just left the block containing the big buck rub when Robert suddenly stopped the side-by-side and grabbed his binoculars. Within seconds I heard those fateful words I had been waiting to hear. “There is a really big buck bedded down there.” My problem was that the bush was so thick that despite working my way around the outside of the side-by-side, I could not find a clear shot. Realizing my dilemma, Robert suggested that I come all the way around to his location as he could still see the buck. This solution, while the correct one, meant I would have to shoot offhand down a very narrow shot lane where only a portion of this buck was visible. But time had run out as this buck decided that he had enough of my maneuvering and jumped to his feet, ready to depart for destinations unknown. It was now or never. At the shot the buck disappeared like a wisp of smoke in the wind. Thankfully, the sound of a few crashing tree limbs signaled he would not go far.
One look at this great buck and a number of observations immediately jumped to mind. First, this was most likely the buck we had fantasized about finding, the one responsible for all the bark removal on the aforementioned tree. Second, he had broken off both of his brow tines in the process. Third, he appeared to be at least 5½ years old. Four, his left ear was about torn in half, no doubt an old battle scar. Fifth, this was a big-bodied buck with a pre-rut swollen neck, and, last, who knows how many hunters this buck had avoided over his lifetime. Knowing the location of his home range I would not hesitate to conclude many. What a buck!

Kettle River Double Header. Fall 2023. Vol. 34 Issue 3

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