[Note: The following was first published in the November 2012 Alberta Outdoorsmen.]
Copyright © 2012 Don H. Meredith
“Don,” crackled the walkie-talkie in my pocket, “there’s a muley buck just crossing the fence west of you. I think you can intercept him if you move that way.”
“On it,” I replied, rising from where I was sitting on top of a ridge overlooking a hilly pasture dotted with copses of wind-blown poplar. I cautiously moved southwest through the thin layer of snow to the next line of trees where I figured I could get a good look at the buck. On checking further west along the ridge I just left, I saw the sitting image of my camouflaged correspondent, Myles Radford. He was looking west through binoculars. I hastened to the trees.
I was in eastern Alberta with Myles and his father, Duane Radford. I had the only antlered mule deer tag and Myles and Duane were hunting white-tails. It was mid-November and it was obvious the deer populations had taken a big hit during the previous winter. Although we saw some deer, none of us had connected and this was the last day of our week-long trip. If I was to fill my tag, it had to be today.
When only one person in a group of hunters has a tag for a particular species, often that individual doesn’t see that animal but his partners do. That’s what happened a couple of days earlier, when the three of us were well away from each other. Duane sat down to watch over a couple of pieces of bush only to see a large 4×4 mule deer buck walk right up to him and pass him by. He informed me by walkie-talkie of the event, and I set out to join him, hear the story and try to track the buck, but to no avail. The buck had covered too much ground during the time it took me to get there. However, the event reinforced the reason why we were packing walkie-talkies—passing information about where the deer were.
Electronics have permeated every aspect of our lives, from how we do our work to our leisure activities. Hunters can carry a lot of electronics in relatively small packages, including small digital cameras, portable global positioning systems and cell phones,. Indeed, you can find all three functions in some so-called smart phones. However, all of these instruments have their limitations. All require charged batteries that need to be kept at least somewhat warm to function. Cell phones and GPS units must have access to certain radio signals that aren’t always available. That’s why outdoors people should not solely rely on these devices. Use of a map and compass and an alternate way of communicating with your partners is often necessary.
Walkie-talkies have been around at least since the Second World War. They are portable radio devices that send and receive signals on the same frequency or channel. Therefore, you cannot speak and hear at the same time as you can over a telephone. Like all electronics, they have become progressively smaller over the years, developing from large cumbersome devices to very small units that can easily fit in a pocket. There are several types of units, from very sophisticated ones used by the military and emergency responders requiring specialized frequencies and controls, through units used by amateur radio enthusiasts that require a licence to operate, to personal-use devices that can be used in home and recreational settings. The latter devices do not require a licence to operate and use special frequencies set aside by the government for public use. It is these personal-use devices that are most commonly used by outdoors people.
Personal-use devices range from so-called “toys”, designed for use by children, to rugged models with long ranges and special features. Toy walkie-talkies have low power, very short ranges and no channel selection. Higher end models have rechargeable batteries, a selection of channels, and privacy codes that block out background noises.
Most personal-use walkie-talkies transmit ultra-high-frequency (UHF) radio waves that generally travel on a “line-of-sight” course between correspondents. So, ridges, buildings, and thick stands of trees can limit their range. Generally speaking, the more expensive the unit, the higher the power and the longer the advertised range. However, one of the biggest complaints about these devices is that the advertised range often does not match reality. Typically, the highest rated walkie-talkies (brands: Cobra, Midland, Motorola, Uniden), have advertised ranges from 16 to 30 km (10 to 19 mi.). Those ranges are tested under ideal conditions without obstructions between the units. However, the advertised ranges do provide figures to compare the power of models.
One of the most convenient features of the high-end models is the ability to select among a variety of channels or separated divisions of the frequency spectrum. The channels allow groups of users to select channels that are not being used by other groups. Some models have channel scan features that help select the best channel for clarity.
Unlike amateur radio, walkie-talkie correspondence does not have agreed protocols outlining ways to properly transmit messages. Most transmissions are just the simple passage of information. However, if the group of users is large or you are competing with other groups on the same channel, an agreed protocol among the members of the group might be necessary to prevent misunderstandings. Typically, when wishing to contact a group member, a user begins with the recipient’s name followed by the sender’s name, e.g., “Bill from Joe” or just “Bill, Joe”. When finished transmitting it is customary to say “over” to indicate the stop in your transmission so the receiver can reply. When ending a conversation, a simple “out” is sufficient, e.g. “Joe out.” If other groups are using your channel, common courtesy should apply. Wait for the other group to finish its conversation before beginning yours. And remember, if you can hear them, they can hear you.
Fortunately, our group of three on that November day last year was not competing with others on our channel of choice. So, we could be informal.
When I arrived at the line of trees I paused to look over the pasture ahead of me, but didn’t see the deer. “It’s gone back north,” Myles informed me over the radio, “but it seems to be following a scent, and is now coming back east. Head north.”
I slipped out of the tree cover into a brush covered swale, keeping my eye on a line of trees coming from the northwest. Then I saw a set of antlers moving on the far side of those wind-bent trees. I kneeled down in the snow and froze my position behind a bush, hoping my camouflage would obscure my presence. The buck came around the last tree and paused not 50 metres away, almost as if he detected my presence but couldn’t figure out what I was. I slowly raised my rifle and squared the cross-hairs behind the deer’s right shoulder. Just as the deer decided to turn away, I fired. The deer staggered and then took off north. I found him about 10 minutes later piled up in small group of poplars. The radio buck was down. Although I shot him, it was definitely a group effort enhanced by our use of walkie-talkies.