“Here he comes.”
I turned to my buddy Frank and his dad, Hugh. Hugh had his pre-64 Model 70 Winchester .30/06 rested atop the canoe paddle that we’d been using to rake brush. The guttural grunts of the bull moose were getting sharper and louder in a continuous cadence that was only interrupted by the thrashing of brush and his antlers pinging on the spruce trees he was plowing through—and right toward us.
Not 50 yards from our tent, we stood beside a bundle of young birch saplings, looking through a tangle of pecker poles, a still-standing thicket of black spruce that had been stripped of their limbs and bark by a wildfire. We were just finishing setting up camp when I first heard the bull raking his antlers several hundred yards away. Now we had him coming on a string.
I saw one of his antler paddles pass through an opening in a thick patch of trees, perhaps 150 yards away. He effortlessly pushed through the timber, and when he emerged, his wide antlers were rocking back and forth. Each soft grunt we made was echoed with a steady stream of grunts and snorts. The bull was getting close, and we needed him close for Hugh to get a shot through the tangle of burnt trees. I held a cloth bull moose decoy to challenge the bull. He’d expect to see his challenger and, normally, the sight of a pair of white antler paddles will suck them in like a tractor beam—some hunters even decoy bulls with a pair of white 5-gallon bucket lids. It didn’t work.
The bull was only about 60 yards away, and his antlers stretched wider than the field of view of Frank’s binoculars. Frank could see the bull clearly while kneeling, but Hugh didn’t have a shot from his position. The bull stopped, staring in our direction, then slowly turned and stepped toward the sound of another bull raking its antlers off to our left. Trying to provoke the bull, I took a few steps, grunting and rocking the decoy back and forth. He spooked, running only about 20 yards but behind thicker cover. Then he simply walked off toward the other bull.
A Misplaced Confidence
The bull that had narrowly escaped was a good one, and we estimated him to have 58-inch-wide antlers. But the missed opportunity didn’t dampen our spirits much. It was our first night in moose camp, and this is the kind of action that we anticipated for the next 10 days.
The following day brought a steady downpour; on the third evening we had another close call. To hunt moose in this little spot of interior Alaska, we are almost completely reliant on calling. The area holds lots of moose, but is swampy, brushy, flat, and generally tough to move through. We call for several hours each morning and evening from the same spot, using an elevated stand for a better view and shooting opportunities in the 6-foot-tall dwarf birch and alder brush.
On that third evening, a bull came in silently. Frank spotted the bull, which he put anywhere from 52 to 54 inches wide, coming from about 300 yards. Hugh got ready. We let out a few provocative grunts, and the bull began grunting steadily back to us, and we were already hanging quarters on the meat rack in our minds. Instead of beelining for us though, the bull skirted around us and behind a screen of scorched timber, which prevented a good shot opportunity.
The bull’s focus on us seemed to disappear, and I remember thinking, He’s not coming, he’s going to cross the trail. A clear-cut trail bisected his direction of travel, and I had a good chance of reaching it before he did, potentially giving me a 150–200-yard shot as he stepped into the open. But we wanted Hugh to take the shot, so I set that notion aside and tried to turn the bull around with some soft cow calling.
The bull didn’t come back. In fact, that would be the only bull we would call in for the rest of our 12-day trip. It wasn’t for lack of bulls. We heard bulls almost every calling session, often multiple bulls. They just wouldn’t come. We’d hear a series or two of grunts from a bull, which normally results in a long conversation and an up-close encounter with bull moose in mid-September. Instead, they would just shut up. There’s a myriad of excuses and speculations that an unsuccessful hunter can spin up—especially moose hunters—and I still find myself in a fog of disbelief that we were unable to call even a young lovestruck bull in after the first couple days.
I can’t blame wolves or a hard winter because the moose were there. All I know is they weren’t acting or responding as they normally do. They were rutting, chasing cows, and fighting—we could hear and catch glimpses of this going on all around us. We were pigeonholed into calling in that spot. And calling just wasn’t working.
Second-Guessing and Regret
Moose hunting is usually boring, until it isn’t. Kicking off a trip with near-instant action gave us every reason to relax and let the hunt unfold as it would. How were we to know that first bull would be the only bull that responded as we expected? We couldn’t, but with each day that burned away, both Frank and I replayed the close calls we’d had.
I began wishing that I had set myself back a hundred yards from Frank and Hugh while the first bull was coming in. Surely that would have drawn him an additional 10 or 20 yards and allowed Hugh to get a shot. Frank began wondering if, upon seeing the bull hang up, he should have just shot him through the gap in the trees that he could see. I wondered if I should have run over to the trail to try and shoot the second bull as he crossed into another patch of timber, or tried to pursue him on foot, sounding like a bull trying to challenge him—a tactic that sometimes works.
We should have done this different, or that. Something, anything, might have made the difference. I think that second-guessing is something most hunters experience. Although it serves no practical purpose, someday you’ll wish you’d zigged when you zagged.
But as Frank often says when we talk about what we wish we’d done on a hunt, “You can wish in one hand and shit in the other and see which one fills up faster.”
If there’s a characteristic that I’ve found that most consistently effective hunters possess, it’s the confidence to make sound decisions in the heat of the moment, to stick with them, and to strike while the iron is hot. Such hunters seize opportunity when it arrives. 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. So hopefully you’ll learn to consistently make the right choices. The truth is, though, that the best you can do is make those 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 is usually something I can learn from missed opportunities, but also that weird things just happen sometimes. My confidence that we would kill at least two bulls didn’t even start to dwindle until the final few 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’d have done anything differently based on the information we had at the time.
An empty meat pole stings a little bit more for many Alaskans (including me) when it comes to moose. Meat from other hunts is a bonus, but moose is a staple. Some folks pack their freezers with caribou, deer, or elk. I like those just fine, but things get sparse by springtime without a moose in the deep freeze. Once it’s cut and wrapped, putting away a good-sized Alaska bull moose is roughly equivalent to two or three big Rocky Mountain bull elk. One bull will keep my family in meat for the better part of a year, and normally we can each bring one home.
As always, moose camp was a fantastic experience, and a chance to relax, nap, and sit in the still-cold air, straining to hear the faintest bull grunt. Some mornings and evenings, it’s so quiet that your ears ring. When you do hear a bull grunting in the stillness, it’s exhilarating.
There are little things we plan on doing differently next year. Maybe we adjust our calling location slightly, add some fiberglass to reinforce our canoe paddles that we use to rake brush (and inevitably break each year), and maybe find a flatter spot for the tent.
We plan on hunting the same way because it works almost every time. Each year we alternate turns as first shooter, and next year I’m up. After this season, I would only do one thing different next year. If I’m planning to shoot a big bull that hangs up in a tangle of burnt toothpicks, and Frank tells me he has a clear shot, I’m going to say, “Dump him.”
Getting meat hanging is more important than killing one myself. Even if years past brought plenty of opportunity, nothing is guaranteed, and every bull that disappears back into the bush is one that won’t be in your freezer.