November 04, 2010
A perfect shot always feels good, but it doesn't always produce a perfect ending.
"Dwight, I think I almost see a moose€¦€¦"
As fog cut visibility to near zero one morning, Dwight called constantly, hoping to catch a passing bull'sattention, as I stayed ready with my bow. At our bush camp, we used a large tarp to build a lean-to that doubled as a cozy kitchen and living room. Our sleeping tents are out behind.
"You see an almost moose? What's an almost moose?"
The sarcasm in Dwight Schuh's voice was quite evident. We laughed about that phrase, "almost moose," and it became one of those jokes that crops up frequently in any hunting camp. When we thought we saw something, but weren't quite sure, we figured we saw almost caribou, almost bears, almost wolves -- and almost moose.
Little did we recognize the irony -- or realize that almost moose was not as funny as we thought.
Although Dwight and I have worked together for many years, this was our first hunt together. Usually we're off in opposite directions, but when Dwight called to invite me on a do-it-ourselves moose hunt in Alaska, I did not hesitate.
After months of planning, we arrived in the mountains south of Fairbanks, where we connected with licensed transporter Stan "The Mule Man" Niemic, who hauled us to a predetermined campsite. Immediately, we set about camp chores as if we'd been hunting partners for years, building a lean-to and table for the kitchen, cutting firewood, pumping and hauling water, erecting tents. Within hours we'd crafted a comfortable, secure bush camp.
This hunt was for Bowhunter Magazine TV, but to keep things streamlined and economical, we had talked our way out of a cameraman. We would videotape ourselves.
The next day we sat on a mineral lick torn to shreds with moose tracks and trails. In early afternoon a young bull appeared at the top of a nearby ridge, and with some coaxing, Dwight called the bull within eight yards. Again, we determined he was sub-legal, and we just took pictures.
Although I've hunted mountains across North America, I was a bit intimidated by this venture. Always known as a serious hiker, Dwight has taken up marathon running in his old age, and in 2008 he completed a 50-mile race in Wyoming's Bighorn Mountains. As a flatlander from North Dakota, could I hope to keep up?
To that end, I spent the summer working my legs and lungs hard. The only "mountain" near home was a highway overpass, so that's where I trained. By the end of summer, my weight had dropped to 208 pounds, the same weight I'd carried on my first elk hunt back in 1983, and now I could cinch my belt down to the second hole, my "winter" hole. Only the last "summer" hole remained. That's not bad on my 6-foot, 5-inch frame. Still, I wondered€¦
On Day One we hiked 13 miles up and down high ridges mined with ankle-twisting tussocks. That evening, while massaging my sore feet and looking for ways to lighten my 40-pound daypack, I made a confession -- or plea.
"Dwight, I'm not sure I can take 17 more days like today."
"Yeah, me either," Dwight said. Welcome words!
In subsequent days, we mercifully spent more time glassing than hiking. Early in the mornings we climbed straight up a ridge out of camp, but then we spent the days glassing from high vantage points. The scenery was spectacular, the weather was nearly perfect, and we spotted moose.
On day four, we watched two distant bulls posture and display their antlers to one another. When the larger one walked away, the other turned in our direction. Since I had never taken a moose, Dwight deferred to me as the shooter, and I blinded-in by a spruce tree as he started calling and rolling camera. Within minutes the bull stood within bow range, and even though I would have shot any legal bull, I could not shoot this one. To be legal in our unit, a bull had to have either four brow tines on one side, or an antler spread of at least 50 inches. This bull had neither.
On Morning 10, as we sat on a peak and the rising sun turned the sky pink, I silently pondered the scene. Back in 1981, when I started bowhunting, I read everything available on the subject, including Bowhunter Magazine, which included many of Dwight's articles. In my mind, he was a bowhunter's bowhunter, and I started emulating him by bowhunting all sorts of game and writing about it.
Each morning we climbed to the tops of high ridges and spent hours glassing the vast tundra and brushy creek bottoms, as I am doing here. The bull above is one of many "almost moose" we called within bow range. Based on a span of 18 inches between ear tips, we estimated this bull's antler spread at 47 inches.
Incredibly, 27 years later, we sat next to each other, glassing for bull moose. The significance of the moment, and the long road leading to it, were not lost on me.
My trip down memory lane ended when I saw three bulls in a valley so far away they looked like black ants -- and that was through 10X binoculars. Knowing what was coming, I timidly pointed them out to Dwight.
"Okay, I see them," he said. "We can be there by this afternoon."
"That's what I was afraid you'd say," I mumbled. "I'm going to get less-powerful binoculars€¦"
After slogging across the tundra for several hours, we reached the valley at 4 p.m., and Dwight called the biggest bull within 24 yards. Unfortunately, our effort proved for naught as the bull had only three brow tines -- and an antler spread we estimated at 47 inches.
That trek brought us close to Stan's main camp, so at sunset we stopped in to swap stories with a local outfitter and his clients. Hearing our "almost" tales, the outfitter took pity on us. One of his clients had shot a moose, and he was going to take a Yamaha Rhino in the morning to retrieve the meat and antlers.
"If you guys want, you can ride to the top of that ridge with me, and I'll pick you up in the evening," he said. We jumped at the offer.
Thus, morning found us bouncing up the ridge, and we hadn't gone far along the top when the outfitter stopped the Rhino.
"There's a bull," he said, pulling out a spotting scope and tripod. Taking turns studying the bull, we could see he had only three brow tines on each side. But was the antler spread 50 inches? Unwilling to make the final judgment, Dwight shrugged his shoulders.
To me the bull looked like a fine animal, but as a novice I wasn't positive.
Finally, the outfitter said, "That's a legal bull."
That was good enough for me. Who was I to argue? I would make the stalk. As he had the previous 10 days, Dwight followed behind me with the video camera.
After sneaking a half mile down the back side of the ridge, we noticed the outfitter on the horizon, giving us hand signals. The bull had bedded farther down the valley.
Finally relocating him at a distance of 110 yards, I was contemplating my next move when the moose stood and started walking up the valley. Dwight gave a couple of grunts, and the bull turned uphill toward us. He was coming!
As he reached our elevation, I ranged the bull at 69 yards -- too far. But when he stopped to tear up a spruce tree, I scampered 15 yards closer. Suddenly the bull stopped raking, caught me in mid-stride, and lumbered away. Still running the camera, Dwight had the presence of mind to call, and the bull stopped cold.
Quickly I ranged the broadside bull at 51 yards, drew my bow, and released. The arrow hit exactly where I was aiming! It was as good a shot as I have ever made. The bull ran 50 yards and collapsed.
My first moose! Dwight gave me a sincere "man hug," and we heard congratulatory whoops from the ridgetop. I know of no greater feeling than success, and 11 hard days of hunting made it doubly sweet.
As we approached my downed bull, I pulled out a piece of cord in which I had tied knots 50 inches apart. Stretching it across the antlers, I was speechless.
They were short.
Our transporter used a Yamaha Rhino to haul our gear to a predetermined campsite. After taking this magnificent animal with one of the best shots of my life, I felt as if I'd been stabbed in the chest with a machete. I had no doubts about the width of his antlers but was wrong. Judging moose on the hoof is difficult for both rookies and veterans. If in doubt -- don't shoot!
Feeling like someone had stabbed me in the chest with a machete, I tried every angle to get the knots to stay inside the antler spread. My best attempts, based on Pope and Young measuring methods, still left the antlers an inch shy of the required 50 inches.
Shocked, Dwight and I sat there, numb with disappointment. To be honest, I was angry, not because I had trusted someone else's judgment -- anyone can make a mistake -- but because I had just taken a magnificent big game animal with the best shot of my life, on camera, and now, because of an inch of antler spread, I was supposed to be ashamed of it.
That hurt. It hurt bad.
Immediately, Dwight and I went into recovery mode, skinning and boning the moose.
When the outfitter showed up with the Rhino, he was stunned and apologetic.
"I will tell the troopers I told you it was a legal bull."
That was a stand-up offer, but ultimately I was responsible. I had released the arrow, and I would do the right thing.
Once we got the bull to the top of the ridge, I dug out our satellite phone and called Alaska Fish and Game to report the situation. After getting the moose back to camp, we called an air service and booked a special bush flight to fly the meat and antlers to Fairbanks. When it arrived, my friend Pete Buist met the plane and delivered the moose to the Alaska Fish and Game Troopers.
A couple of days later I called Pete and learned that ADF&G had seized the moose and would cite me. I was devastated, and over the last five days of our hunt, as we worked to get Dwight a bull, I could not get the situation out of my mind.
We called in a couple more bulls, and Dwight passed on a seemingly legal bull because he was not positive a fourth brow tine was longer than it was wide. For obvious reasons we were neurotic about making a mistake. During the last two days of the hunt, we saw two clearly legal bulls, but they evaded us. Not all rutting bull moose are as stupid or aggressive as some people would have you believe!
The season closed on September 25. The next day we flew to Fairbanks, and Pete drove us straight to the Troopers' office where I told my story and pled my case. Dwight came along to shoulder some of the responsibility.
The trooper said he understood, but he had to treat me just as he would any other hunter. He could not give back my moose, but because I had recovered the entire animal, turned myself in, and handled the situation ethically, he would recommend a reduced fine and a lowering of the charge from misdemeanor to minor violation.
The trooper handled himself professionally, and I have no complaints. On October 24, when I appeared in court by telephone, the judge commended me for my honesty and agreed to the reduced charge and a fine of $510. Things could have been much worse.
Still, having such a wonderful experience and beautiful animal tarnished by this outcome remains painful. Never have I knowingly committed a violation of any kind, and I still lose sleep over this one. To any of you who have trusted me and expect better of me, I apologize for my mistake.
On the positive side, I had a great hunting experience in the wilds of Alaska and I got in amazing shape, under 200 pounds! In fact, to keep my pants up I ended up having to cinch my leather belt well past the "summer" hole and into the newly punched "Dwight Schuh" hole.
Finally, this experience gave me two hopes: One, I hope other hunters will learn from my experience. Two, I hope someday to complete my quest for a bull moose. If that chance
ever comes, I guarantee the next one will not be an almost moose.