November 19, 2010
Past mistakes prove to be the secret to success on this third try for an Alaska bull.
As the tiny bush plane bounced off the tundra and disappeared into the distance, the ringing phones and pressures of daily life melted away as I contemplated the tranquil beauty of this place. In the bottom of a wide valley stood a sturdy dome tent, tucked up against a willow thicket. This would be my home for the next week.
As a builder of traditional bows, I have limited time and finances, but I wasn't letting that stand in the way of fulfilling my dream of taking an Alaska moose. While a guided hunt was beyond my budget, a self-guided effort could provide opportunity while recharging my batteries and cleansing my soul. Two previous trips had been wonderful experiences, but I had not accomplished my mission. Making this trip even more special, I'd be able to field-test my newest takedown recurve with carbon-backed limbs, which I'd developed and refined over a period of nearly two years.
That first afternoon, I started out on a brief scouting trip. Less than 200 yards from the tent, the sound of a branch breaking under my foot caught the attention of a bedded bull. I heard him stand and start rubbing his antlers. A soft voice grunt brought an instant response from him, and I could hear him approaching, grunting with every step. He got within 20 yards, before stopping to demolish a small tree that stood between us. The excitement was tremendous, but was tempered by the knowledge that I couldn't hunt until tomorrow. Like a ghost, the moose melted away into the spruce thicket along the creek.
Sleep did not come easy that night. As I lay there tossing, a grunting bull thrashed and polished his antlers in the willow thicket mere yards from my tent. This was already a great adventure!
My solo adventure began when a bush plane dropped me off on a remote airstrip. It took me three trips, but I finally accomplished my mission of taking an Alaska moose with my recurve bow. My bull had a 54-inch antler spread.
I left camp the next damp, gray morning in fog and flurries of sleet and snow. It was over a mile to my chosen lookout. The hike over the uneven tundra went slowly, but I spotted two cows and a paddlehorn bull along the way.
Sitting under a spruce tree that grew along the overlook, I glassed the valley and quickly located two big bulls far up the valley, much too far away to pursue. Further glassing revealed a good bull in the 55 to 60-inch class with three cows in a strip of willows. A small bull approached the cows and was quickly and violently driven off by the larger bull. The big bull bedded down and was soon obscured in a fog bank. Perhaps this might be my opportunity for a stalk. But when the fog lifted 45 minutes later, the bull stood and moved away with the herd. There was no point in even trying to get closer. Finding no more bulls, I decided to move on.
Snow-covered peaks and glaciers provide spectacular views.
What more could a hunter ask for than a cozy country home — on a view lot, no less?
During the flight in the previous day, I'd spotted a decent bull in a small basin on the ridgetop. Deciding to see if he was still in the area, I began the climb to the top. On previous trips, such a move would have been foolish. The huge size of an Alaska moose severely limits how far you can pack it. Since landing areas are limited, your realistic hunting area can be quite small. On earlier hunts, this fact had forced me to pass up opportunities on legal bulls. This year, however, I'd done some networking upon arriving in Alaska and had discovered an outfitter friend with horses at a camp just a few miles down the valley. All four of his clients had already filled their tags, so packhorses would be available. This was an amazing bit of luck, and it greatly expanded my hunting area.
The climb to the ridge was steep, and it became even more challenging when I encountered a treacherous area of wet talus. The ridgeline was covered with willow brush ranging from knee high to chest high, with some patches of brush reaching 15 feet tall. As I worked my way along the ridge, a thick cloud of fog settled in over me. Unable to spot the basin, I continued on until the slope of the land suggested I might be getting close.
I crawled under a spruce and waited for the fog to lift. After an hour, I was feeling damp and cold and considered building a fire. But before I could do that, the clouds lifted just enough to reveal two cows and a calf feeding in the shorter brush. Soon I heard the sounds of a bull raking his antlers in the willows. I wanted to get closer, but the cows would surely spot me. Finally, as the cows and calf fed away, I moved to intercept the pursuing bull, and when I stopped at a narrow corridor in the brush, I spotted the bull coming right at me. Apparently he'd heard my approach and thought he'd run off this rival.
Alaska law prohibits hunting on fly-in days, so I could only photograph this bull on my first afternoon. But he got my adrenaline pumping!
Kneeling behind some brush, I put an arrow on the string while studying the bull's headgear. The brow tines didn't have four points, but the antler spread exceeded the 50-inch width needed to be legal, and the palms looked good. He was now within 25 yards and looking bigger with every step. The bull rocked his antlers from side to side as he looked for the intruder. Seeing no movement, he turned broadside to check out his cows.
On a previous hunt I'd passed up a similar opportunity and ended up going home empty handed. But this time I had invested too much work and time to make that mistake again.
This is one of the valleys I hunted on my do-it-yourself adventure. A sight like this will stir the heart of any bowhunter craving close encounters with giant bulls.
This was a fine animal, and I'd be proud to put him on my wall -- if I could make the shot.
The 63-pound recurve came back smoothly as I concentrated on a spot behind the bull's shoulder. The arrow disappeared into the spot, completely penetrating the massive chest. Spinning 180 degrees, the bull let out a mighty bellow as he looked for the attacker. That's when I sent a second arrow toward his heart, but the arrow struck bone as the bull stepped back. Still, the heavy arrow penetrated his shoulder and stuck eight inches into the bull's chest. As the bull hobbled forward, favoring his broken shoulder, I sent a final insurance arrow tight behind his shoulder. The bull took a final step forward and pitched onto his nose.
A sudden snowstorm turned September into winter, and I had to quit hunting long enough to warm up.
You can't really appreciate how big these animals are until you have a bull down. Stretching 10 feet from hoof to antler top, this bull was more than I could move by myself. So I took him apart, piece by piece. It was quite an undertaking, but it all added to the memory of the moment.
To avoid the slippery talus slope, I looked over other possibilities and decided to head directly for my outfitter friend's camp down a creek-carved draw. Like most things in Alaska, it was much more difficult than it appeared, and in hindsight it was a poor choice. By the time I reached his camp at dark, I was soaking wet and exhausted. A hot meal and a warm sleeping bag worked wonders on this old body.
The next morning was crisp and beautiful with blue skies and sunshine. My friend's two daughters, Mary Ann and Sarah, brought in four big horses while Art, Matt, and I walked back to the moose.
In Alaska, just getting from one ridge to another can be a major undertaking. The distances are far, and the walking is never easy.
From an opposite ridge we were able to view the meat and see that no bears had discovered it. Three hours later, we arrived on the scene with the horses, and after a relatively short time cutting the ribs from the spine and cutting off the antlers, we were packed up and heading out. The girls took great pride in tying everything down just right, with the antlers on top so nothing would shift. Without the horses, this job would have been nearly impossible. The girls had ridden these horses 100 miles cross-country to camp, and would make the return trip a week later. They knew what they were doing. As I watched them ride off toward camp, I finally had the feeling that I'd accomplished my mission.
Custom bowyer Neil Jacobson is the owner of Bear's Paw Bows. He and author Marcus Nichols live in Lakeside, Montana.
Author's Notes: My moose had a 54-inch antler spread. I have not had him officially scored. I used Beman MFX 340 arrows with 100-grain brass inserts and 150-grain Magnus Stinger four-blade broadheads. My 63-lb. Bear's Paw recurve was a prototype with carbon-backed limbs and a machined-aluminum riser. The new model is now available to the public. Penetration with this setup was exceptional. The first arrow severed a rib and passed completely through the animal.
For more information on Bear's Paw bows, contact: Neil Jacobson, PO Box 577, Lakeside, MT 59922; (406) 844-0287; www.bpbows.com.
A nearby outfitter sent his daughters and their horses to pack out my moose for me. Talk about living right!