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Moose

Yukon Moose Ends Long, Painful Curse

by Curt Wells   |  November 30th, 2017 0

How deep was the water? I wondered. Could I jump out of the boat, dog-paddle while holding my bowstring in my teeth, and not cut the string? Maybe I could swim underwater with my bow in one hand, rise up like Rambo, and take the shot?

Drunk on testosterone, a massive bull moose was using long, effortless strides to cruise the shoreline at breakneck speed. After scent-checking a cow, he abandoned her like she was the ugliest cow in the Yukon. Oblivious to the boat and its four human occupants, the bull was getting away. I was desperate. Drowning was a risk I was willing to consider.

Outfitter Don Lind, of MacMillan River Adventures, was maneuvering the boat while guide Steve Cross cow-called. The bull kept steamrolling along, then casually turned up into the bush and disappeared. It was only Day Two of a 10-day moose hunt, but it felt like an opportunity lost. And I had good reason to be pessimistic.

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This 59″ Yukon bull brought my moose curse to a merciful end. It will take awhile before this bull moose-induced smile will fade.

This was my eighth moose hunt, and I had yet to kill a legal bull. My list of unsuccessful moose hunts included trips to Manitoba, Newfoundland, and Alberta. Then came my fateful 2008 Alaska hunt. I spent 20 days hunting moose with my mentor and then-Editor Dwight Schuh in an area that required a bull moose to have four brow tines, or be at least 50 inches wide. To make a long, painful story short, we spotted a bull and judged it to be over 50 inches. Dwight called the bull up out of his bed right to us. I made a perfect 51-yard shot, and the bull expired on camera. I was busting out all over with excitement over taking my first moose. Then we measured the antlers. They were only 49 inches wide. I used our satellite phone to self-report the incident. We paid $600 to fly the moose into Fairbanks, and the wildlife troopers cited me for the taking of a sublegal bull moose, confiscated the antlers and meat, and fined me $500.

I lost a lot of sleep over that mistake. But we published the story, “Almost Moose,” in the March/April 2009 issue, and we aired a television episode telling the whole story. I took responsibility and made no excuses. Although the pain of that incident has subsided, it will never completely go away.

On the last day of a second moose hunt in Newfoundland in 2013, a good bull got away when my arrow deflected off a branch. Next stop — the Yukon. My 2014 hunt with Yukon Big Game Outfitters was derailed by a blizzard, with 15 inches of snow and temperatures in the single digits. It shut down the rut, and made the mountain slopes so crunchy I couldn’t get close to a bull. In 2015, I went back to the Yukon to hunt with Don Lind at MacMillan River Adventures. My guides and I cruised the river for 10 days, but it was warm and the rut nonexistent.

I caught a nasty bug on one of my flights and was sick and coughing for most of the hunt. On the tenth day, in three inches of fresh snow, a bull finally answered the call and strolled in to 27 yards. I was at full draw, waiting for the bull to take two more steps for a clear shot, when he caught our wind and slowly walked away. I was devastated and began to think maybe it was time to give up on moose. My moose jinx had devolved into a moose curse!

Then, in the spring of 2016, Don Lind invited me back. He was determined to help me kill the moose curse. I wasn’t sure I could take the abuse, or the cost, of another failed moose hunt, but I couldn’t pass up another chance to get it done.

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All of MacMillan River Adventures’ boat-based moose hunters fly into this base camp on Earn Lake before being shuttled by smaller floatplanes to various camps on other lakes and rivers. Such travel is all part of the adventure.

Pressure is something all of us deal with, but it was compounding for me. I was feeling the normal pressure we all experience, plus the pressure of hunting for television — a cameraman following your every move, and an entire production company counting on you to finally kill a moose. And then there’s my boss, Publisher Jeff Waring, who gave me yet another green light. I needed to kill a moose for Jeff.

Staring out the window of the turbo-charged Cessna Caravan, I was in full daydream mode, wondering if this would be my last crack at a moose. When the plane’s floats kissed the surface of Earn Lake, I snapped back to reality. It was good to see Don and his wife, Jackie, again, and meet my guide Steve Cross. Steve is a regional superintendent of the Fish and Wildlife Enforcement Branch in Alberta, who takes vacation to guide moose hunters. I was in good hands.

As the seven other clients flew off from basecamp to their camps on various other lakes and rivers, I sat at the table in the cabin patiently waiting my turn.
“Curt, you’re staying here with me and Steve on Earn Lake,” Don said. I didn’t react, prompting Don to say, “You don’t look too excited.”

“Not true,” I quickly replied. “I don’t guide the guide. If that’s your plan, just tell me where to stow my gear.” I trusted Don’s judgement completely. Basecamp it was.

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Outfitter Don Lind makes moose music while guide Steve Cross glasses the shoreline of Earn Lake for rutting bulls.

The first morning, September 25, followed an overnight rain. It was clear, calm, and the air was Yukon fresh. The mirror-smooth lake surface offered little resistance as the boat skimmed the 10 miles to the far end of the lake. With the wind and sun caressing my face, immersed in true wilderness, I pondered my good fortune, humbly asking myself, How is it I keep finding myself in such magnificent places?

As Don eased back on the outboard’s throttle, we coasted into the last bay on the lake. A half-dozen pintails launched off the water, a beaver slapped its tail in alarm, and a bald eagle watched it all from the top of a scraggly dead spruce. We drifted in indescribable silence for several captivating moments before Don put his moose call to his mouth and wailed like a lovesick cow. We were moose hunting!

An hour of the most intense stillness you can imagine followed, so we went ashore, hiked up a game trail past one of Don’s trail cameras, and called for another hour or so. Nothing. On the way out Don pulled the memory card, which revealed video footage of a huge boar grizzly, three wolves, and a lynx. We were definitely in the Yukon.

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Don Lind called and decoyed this younger bull in from the far shoreline to only 13 yards away when it turned and walked into the bush. The decoy was very effective.

Both the morning and evening hunts were quiet, but Day One ended with the blissful realization there were nine more to come. I was feeling weirdly optimistic.
Day Two was more eventful. Shortly after sunrise, I spotted a cow and calf browsing on a short bluff along the lakeshore. As we studied their movements, a big bull walked right between them, barely giving the cow a second glance. Nevertheless, we were in hot pursuit. It’s almost impossible to keep up with a bull moose, and even though we beached the boat well in front of the bull, he was already past us by the time we broke through the willows trying to intercept him. It was during this encounter that I fantasized about jumping into the lake in desperation.

The next morning continued our string of warm weather, putting a damper on moose movement at midday. We did slip up on a cow with twin calves and a borderline bull bedded in the dark timber near shore. I could have legally shot the bull at 41 yards from the drifting boat, but I told Don and Steve I did not want to shoot a moose from the boat. Just a personal choice. The afternoon turned windy, and we saw only a single cow that evening. Back in camp we got word that two bowhunters had tagged bulls, including a bowhunter from Spain and Hoyt’s Randy Walk.

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On the third day of my hunt, we got word in base camp that Hoyt President Randy Walk arrowed this unique bull at another camp.

I could never have predicted the events of Day Four. The slow mornings continued, but that evening Don and Jackie decided to use a second boat to cover the opposite side of the lake. Later that evening, Steve decided we should hike up to a small lake just over the first ridge. It was a gorgeous, picturesque place that should have harbored a rutting bull. But none answered Steve’s call, so we hiked back to the boat.

“I think we should run down to the grass flats before we quit,” Steve said as he pushed off the boat.

I looked to the west and was skeptical. “I’m not sure we have enough daylight left to make something happen,” I said.

“Well, let’s just quickly buzz down there and look,” Steve insisted. “It’s only a couple miles.”

The yellowish emergent grass that grew in the shallows of Earn Lake was a popular moose hangout. Just as we came around a point and could see the grass flat, cameraman Austin Shaffner pointed to the south and said, “Isn’t that a bull moose over there?”

A large set of antlers hovered above the willows about 20 yards from the water’s edge. A cow moose, apparently in estrus, was standing in the shallows. I looked nervously at the sunset, but Steve was committed to making a play on the bull. Even though shooting hours end one hour after sunset in the Yukon, we operate by camera light, which always ends before legal light in the evenings.

Steve navigated the boat 200 yards downwind, quietly nosed it into the weeds along the shore, carefully stepped out, and grabbed the Montana Decoy. Austin and I fell in behind Steve, and we started walking along the shore straight at the cow with the “Moose Rack” decoy held high. While the cow studied us, the bull was content to thrash brush, his massive collection of antler occasionally rising above the willows and betraying his location.

When we closed to just 30 yards, the bull spotted the smallish antlers of the decoy, raked some willows, and then strutted out into the open. This was the same bull that got away from us on Day Two!

The bull seemed to ignore us, and didn’t even make eye contact, which was good because I was a mess. The weight of seven failed moose hunts hung in the air like a thick fog. Weeks of preparation, travel, expense, and hard hunting conspired with a long list of misfortunes to turn the pressure up to levels I hadn’t experienced before. Lots of people count on you when you hunt for television and I bear that weight willingly, usually without problems. But as the bull walked out of the willows, turned, and walked straight away I thought, Oh no! Here we go again.

I drew my bow, but the relative calmness I usually feel before a shot was absent. I was not alone in my moment of truth. My mind should have been empty, but it was not. Instead of thinking, I got this, I feared it was going to unravel as it had so many times before.

Steve kept waving the decoy and the bull finally turned slightly to his right, giving me a hard quartering-away shot at about 27 yards. I felt this was my only chance before the cow lured him into the bush. I released the arrow, and the Lumenok appeared to disappear exactly where I had aimed. The bull spun to the left and just stood there curiously opening and closing his mouth. I tried to nock another arrow, but my trembling made it a challenge. I fully expected the bull to drop right there, five yards from the water’s edge. But he held on, then turned to the left, broadside. That’s when I decided to follow the rule of “keep shooting when given the opportunity.”

I drew another arrow, and at the precise moment I let fly, the bull bolted into the willows and it hit him back. My moose curse was still in full effect. The bull bolted into the willows then turned back toward us. Maybe he thought it was time to assault this young bull that was somehow stinging him. Now he was at 25 yards, and I got another arrow snapped on my string. Then something strange happened that I can’t explain. I was suddenly calm and focused as I drew the string to my anchor, aimed carefully through some broken willows, and delivered a perfect arrow into the bewildered bull. I was loading yet another arrow when Steve saw the bull crash to the earth.

Both Steve and I thought the first shot was perfect, but it wasn’t. Somehow I had pulled the shot, hitting the bull in the neck. I’m not proud of that shot, but I kept shooting. Dead is dead.

Then the wave of emotions hit me. The moose curse was dead! Even I couldn’t mess up that opportunity at a magnificent 1,500-pound Alaska/Yukon bull moose with classically shaped antlers 59 inches wide. I gave thanks to those who helped me finally realize my seemingly impossible dream. All my family and friends were pulling for me to finally get a moose. I knew Jeff would be pleased. And then there’s Don Lind of MacMillan River Adventures, who went out of his way to get me back up to the Yukon. And Steve Cross, a guide who wouldn’t take the easy way out and go back to camp for supper. It finally came together because of many people, including all the outfitters who worked hard to put a moose in front of me. They were simply powerless against the curse.

Steve used his InReach device to let Don, who was just across the lake, know the curse was over. He and Jackie rushed across the sunset-bathed lake surface. There were a lot of hugs to go around. Standing there in the dusk admiring such a magnificent animal, sharing the thrill of the hunt with great people, will always stand alone in my collection of hunting memories.

I never imagined how sweet the death of a curse would taste. And in the end, I didn’t even have to dog-paddle with a bowstring in my teeth. Make no mistake, if I’d thought it would have worked, I would have tried it. Instead I was gifted with a second chance at a bull moose. Or was it my eighth chance? Or tenth? It’s hard to keep track when you’re cursed.

Author’s Notes:
On this moose hunt I was shooting a Hoyt Carbon Defiant at 68 pounds with Easton 6MM FMJ arrows, Muzzy Trocar broadheads and Lumenoks. Total arrow weight was 518 grains. I also used a Spot-Hogg sight, Nikon optics, Mossy Oak camo, and the Moose Rack decoy from Montana Decoy played a huge part in our success. We spent the following six days calling moose and I could have shot four more bulls, all inside 15 yards. All were fooled by the decoy, and fortunately none were larger than my bull. If you would like to experience a moose-hunting adventure in the Yukon, contact Don Lind at MacMillan River Adventures,
(780) 536-5554, yukonhuntingoutfitters.com

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