“Well here he is.”
I turned to my buddy Frank and his dad, Hugh. Hugh had his pre-1964 Model 70 Winchester .30/06 sitting on the canoe paddle we used to rake brush. The bull moose’s guttural growls grew higher and higher in a continuous cadence that was interrupted only by the beating of the brush and his antlers echoing off the spruce trees he was crossing – and straight towards us.
Less than 50 yards from our tent, we stood beside a clump of birch saplings, peering through a tangle of pecker poles, a still-standing grove of black spruce trees that had been stripped of their limbs and of their bark by a forest fire. We had barely finished setting up camp when I first heard the bull raking its antlers several hundred yards away. Now we had him come on a channel.
I saw one of his wooden paddles pass through an opening in a thick grove of trees, maybe 150 yards away. It pushed effortlessly through the wood, and when it emerged, its broad antlers swung back and forth. Every soft grunt we made echoed a steady stream of grunts and sniffles. The bull was closing in, and we needed him so Hugh could fire through the tangle of burnt trees. I held a fabric moose decoy to challenge the bull. He would expect to see his challenger and normally the sight of a pair of white wooden paddles will suck them in like a tractor beam – some hunters even lure bulls with a pair of white 5 gallon bucket lids. It did not work.
The bull was only about 200 feet away and its antlers stretched wider than Frank’s binoculars could see. Frank could clearly see the bull while kneeling, but Hugh had no shot from his position. The bull stopped, looking in our direction, then slowly turned and took a step towards the sound of another bull raking its antlers to our left. Trying to provoke the bull, I took a few steps, growling and rocking the decoy back and forth. He spooked, only running about 20 yards but behind thicker cover. Then he simply walked away towards the other bull.
The bull that narrowly escaped was good, and we estimated he had antlers 58 inches wide. But the missed opportunity did not dampen our spirits much. It was our first night at moose camp, and this is the kind of action we were planning for the next 10 days.
The next day brought a steady shower; on the third night we had another blow. To hunt moose in this little corner of interior Alaska, we depend almost entirely on call. The area is home to many moose, but it is swampy, brushy, flat, and generally difficult to traverse. We call for several hours each morning and evening from the same location, using an elevated stand for better views and shooting opportunities in the 6-foot dwarf birch and alder brush.
That third evening, a bull entered silently. Frank spotted the bull, which he placed between 52 and 54 inches wide, coming from about 300 yards away. Hugh got ready. We let out a few defiant grunts, and the bull began to growl steadily towards us, and we were already hanging on the meat rack in our minds. Instead of heading towards us, the bull went around us and behind a screen of burnt wood, which prevented a good shooting opportunity.
The bull’s attention on us seemed to fade, and I remember thinking, He’s not coming, he’s going to cross the track. A well-marked trail bisected his direction of travel, and I had a good chance of hitting him before him, potentially giving me a 150-200 yard shot as he advanced openly. But we wanted Hugh to take the shot, so I put that notion aside and tried to turn it around with a limp cow call.
The bull did not return. In fact, that would be the only bull we would call for the rest of our 12 day trip. It was not for lack of bulls. We heard bulls almost every call session, often multiple bulls. They just wouldn’t come. We would hear a series or two of grunts from a bull, which normally results in a long talk and close encounter with a bull moose in mid-September. Instead, they would just keep quiet. There are myriad excuses and speculations an unsuccessful hunter can throw around – especially moose hunters – and I always find myself in a fog of disbelief in which we couldn’t even call a young bull in love after the first two days.
I can’t blame the wolves or a harsh winter because the moose were there. All I know is that they weren’t acting or reacting like they normally do. They were in heat, chasing cows and fighting – we could hear and glimpse what was going on all around us. We were pigeonholed to call this place. And the call just wasn’t working.
Second riddle and regret
Moose hunting is usually boring, until it’s not. Starting a journey with near-instant action gave us every reason to relax and let the hunt play out as it would. How did we know that the first bull would be the only bull that would respond as expected? We couldn’t, but every burning day Frank and I replayed the close calls we had.
I started to wish I had gotten a hundred yards away from Frank and Hugh as the first bull came. Surely that would have drawn him another 10 or 20 yards and allowed Hugh to get shot. Frank began to wonder if, seeing the bull hang up, he should have shot it through the gap in the trees he could see. I wondered if I should have run to the trail and tried to shoot the second bull as it ran through another patch of woods, or tried to chase it on foot, looking like a bull trying to challenge it – a tactic that sometimes works.
We should have done this differently, or that. Something, anything, could have made the difference. I think the second guess is something most hunters experience. Although it’s no use, one day you’ll wish you had zigzagged when you zigzagged.
But as Frank often says when we talk about what we wish we had done on a hunt, “You can wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which one fills up quicker.”
Ah, make decisions
If there’s one characteristic I’ve found the most effective hunters possess, it’s the confidence to make sound decisions in the heat of battle, stick to it, and strike while the iron is hot. These hunters seize the opportunity when it presents itself. This is especially necessary for DIY hunters.
Most of the decisions you make during a hunt will, of course, directly affect the outcome of your hunt. I therefore hope that you will learn to always make the right choices. The truth is, however, that the best you can do is make these decisions based on the information you have and your experience. Even if you do everything “right”, sometimes your efforts still won’t work.
I’ve found that there’s usually something I can learn from missed opportunities, but also that weird things happen sometimes. My confidence that we were going to kill at least two bulls didn’t even start to dwindle until the last days of the hunt. My years of moose hunting experience and our first two encounters indicated that we had nothing to worry about. There was still time. Even now, knowing that we didn’t kill anything, I can’t say I would have done anything differently based on the information we had at the time.
An empty meat pole stings a little more for many Alaskans (including me) when it comes to moose. Meat from other hunts is a bonus, but moose is a staple. Some people pack their freezers with caribou, deer, or elk. I like those, but things get scarce in the spring without moose in the freezer. Once cut and wrapped, storing a good-sized bull Alaska moose is roughly equivalent to two or three large bull Rocky Mountain elk. A bull will keep my family meaty for much of the year, and normally we can each take one home.
As always, moose camp was a fantastic experience and a chance to relax, nap and sit in the still chilly air, straining to hear every bull growl. Some mornings and evenings it’s so quiet your ears are ringing. When you hear a bull growl in the silence, it’s exhilarating.
There are little things we plan to do differently next year. Maybe we tweak our take-off location slightly, add some fiberglass to reinforce our canoe paddles that we use to rake brush (and inevitably break every year), and maybe find a flatter place to the tent.
We plan to hunt the same way because it works almost every time. Every year we alternate rounds as the first shooter, and the following year I’m up. After this season, I will only do one different thing next year. If I’m going to shoot a big bull that’s hanging in a tangle of burnt toothpicks, and Frank tells me he’s got a clear shot, I’m going to say, “Drop him.”
Hanging meat is more important than killing one myself. While the past years have brought many opportunities, nothing is guaranteed, and every bull that disappears into the bush is one that won’t be in your freezer.