November 04, 2010
Hunting Big Game
Shiras bulls are relatively small, even a trophy animal like this one. They can hide like pheasants before and after the rut. Even when animals are tough to spot, Shiras moose tracks betray their presence.
A gagging cough exploded from nearby bushes, setting me on my heels and standing my hair on end. Before my heart could complete its flip, oak brush was popping and hooves were thundering across freshly crusted snow. Antlers flickered behind a heavily needled spruce. Then the forest was quiet.
Such was my introduction to Utah's Shiras moose. Seven months before, I had jogged down my driveway and discovered a State of Utah letter atop my pile of mail. I ripped open the envelope. Sure enough, I had drawn the permit I'd applied for during more years than I cared to count. Now, on another morning that same year, I was discovering how tricky November moose can be.
All three varieties of North American moose make the same irritating alarm cough, but few hunters have heard it. Only non-rutting, thoroughly spooked moose seem inclined to warn the world -- a fact I became painfully aware of as my Utah hunt progressed.
Shiras moose, sometimes called Wyom-ing moose, are found only in the Lower 48 states -- Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, Washington, and Colorado. They are the smallest of the three moose varieties, seldom weighing over 1,000 pounds and seldom growing antlers more than 45 inches wide.
In spite of their size, Shiras moose are still magnum animals requiring magnum shooting gear. On this hunt, I was using a 75-pound compound bow with arrows weighing more than 600 grains. The combo generated about 65 foot-pounds of penetrating energy -- a decent setup for an animal with slat-like ribs and a massive torso.
Broadheads for moose are most im-portant of all. A high-friction head will squander arrow energy on impact, so I favor cutting-nose designs. Excellent choices with traditional fixed blades include the Zwickey Black Diamond, Magnus Snuffer, Bear Razorhead, and Satellite Titan. New-generation mechanical heads with slide-back blades like the popular Rage two-blade also penetrate well and cut a large hole. For moose, I dislike mechanical heads that butterfly open from the front, or fixed-blade heads with large nose cones or other penetration-impeding components. Such designs might be okay for deer, but they lack the deep-slicing nature required to penetrate half a ton of hide, muscle, and bone.
At 1,000 pounds, the Shiras moose might be America's littlest moose. But I had always wanted a trophy of this variety. I previously had taken a smallish "paddlehead" on a bowhunt in Wyoming, but the thought of finding a mature bull thrilled me.
A bull moose of any variety is one of my favorite animals -- large, tasty, and surprisingly wary. Oh, spectacular antlers add to the appeal. During the late-September and October rut, moose can act like dummies. But they tend to be more skittish at other times of year. They can hide well in spite of their magnum bodies, disappearing in willow patches and timber stands like dark-gray puffs of smoke. All you find at times are their eight-inch tracks in snow or mud.
To the uninitiate, Utah might seem like the last place to look for a quality bull moose. But this state bulges upward near its northeast corner, rising from arid flats, broken buttes, and the Great Salt Lake toward high, rough, and heavily timbered Wasatch and Uintah Mountains. These ranges teem with elk, mule deer, black bears, mountain lions -- and Shiras moose.
Late-fall moose habitat might surprise first-time moose hunters. Many people view moose as bog-trotting animals that spend their time up to their chins in lily pads and willow brush. But fall moose are most often found in high mountains among rocky ridges, sagebrush slopes, and timber-choked canyons. The moose sometimes live higher than the elk.
My Utah bull was nearly 50 inches wide, with decent palms and ample points per side. The bull scored well for the record book, and fulfilled my dream of taking a mature trophy Shiras.
MY FIRST MORNING in Utah moose country was a disaster. I had chosen my hunting area with care -- a roadless tract of U.S. Forest Service ground recommended by resident biologists. A friend of mine had horses to help me transport meat, so daylight found me trudging deep in the boondocks along a snow-covered trail. Four miles from the pickup, I found the boxy tracks of moose crisscrossing the path. The sign seemed to be fresh.
Minutes later, the trail entered a basin where sagebrush slopes, aspen stands, evergreen brush, and strips of oak spread before me. Draws fanned away like filaments in a spider web, watered by merrily bubbling streams. Three miles uphill, spruce trees neatly framed the scene. If moose heaven existed, this was surely it!
Almost immediately, a paddlehead moose appeared 200 yards away. Seconds later, three bigger bulls and five cows popped into sight. Antlers flashed as I shed my pack, dug out my spotting scope, and sat down to glass. Soon I had counted 38 moose, including 16 bulls -- all within a mile of my perch. One had the wide rack and well-developed palms of a trophy, but aspen obscured my view. My rump was half frozen, anyway, so I stowed my scope and hiked uphill for a closer look.
Thirty minutes later, the moose des-cribed at the start of this story coughed his thunderous alarm and ruined my day. I followed his huge track to a grass-covered knob and discovered that moose took their warning calls seriously. The hills were alive with running moose! I spent the rest of the day dogging the big bull's track through crunchy snow and brush. I never caught up.
Being a glutton for punishment, I had compounded my problems by setting my sights on a standout bull. Utah moose permits can be drawn only once in a lifetime, and I wanted to make the most of my tag. If necessary, I'd hunt all month to find a whopper.
The average mature Utah bull has antlers 35 to 40 inches wide, with six or seven points per side. Run-of-the-mill racks have six-inch palms with single brow spikes projecting above the nose. By contrast, the antlers I wanted would measure 45 to 50 inches wide with nine or more points per side, palms at least eight inches wide and 25 to 30 inches long, and double or triple brow tines up front. Antler bases would measure seven or eight inches around. Such a bull might beat the gun hunter's record book minimum of 155, and would certainly smash the archer's minimum of 115. I was dead set on such a
During the week that followed my embarrassing debut, I combed six drainages known for trophy bulls. A local game warden gave me some tips on where to go. Sightings varied wildly from area to area. One long hike was a bust. Another day, I saw 18 decent bulls. Two animals showed promise, but both had serious flaws. The antlers on one were close to 50 inches wide, but five points were broken off and the palms were only six inches wide. Another bull had 10 points on one side and 12 on the other, with nifty five-tine brow formations. But the spread was narrow and the palms were skinny as a rope.
Contrary to common belief, moose spend most of their time in rugged mountains more commonly associated with mule deer and elk. Hunting can require strenuous hikes and long hours of glassing.
One morning, a 7x7 juvenile bull mistook me for a rival and dropped his head to charge. I set the new World Record for leaping deadfall timber while looking over my shoulder. A few seconds later, the testosterone-soaked dummy realized I was not another bull and trotted away, coughing in alarm. I was learning to hate that sound.
DAY 19 BROKE CLEAR AND COLD, the stars fading from a cloudless azure sky. I entered the basin I had hunted on the very first day, hoping against hope the big coughing bull might still be around. According to my field notes, I had seen 138 Shiras bulls -- nearly eight per day -- but not one with a great spread, good palms, plenty of points, and decent brow formations.
The basin lay under rain-softened snow. Fresh moose tracks, droppings, and beds littered the ground. I was raising my binoculars for the first look of the day when antlers clattered behind me. I nearly fainted. Four nice bulls walked out 50 yards away. The last one in line was a keeper -- great spread, good palms, and plenty of points!
I nocked an arrow and tiptoed down the trail. The animals were feeding, crunching, and rattling through chest-deep willows and oaks. The big moose turned and angled toward me. I pulled out my rangefinder. Forty-two yards. The bull milled behind a tree, nibbled a bush... and stepped into the open. I drew my 75-pound bow and planted the 40-yard sight pin high behind his shoulder.
A split-instant later, the broadhead smacked his ribcage, disappeared, and rattled through the bushes beyond. The bull wobbled and pitched on his bulbous nose.
Explosive moose coughs shattered the silence. Animals crashed everywhere, fleeing for their lives. They stood at a distance and bellowed some more.
I pulled out my knife and started to work on the moose. One bull wasn't making noise anymore -- the beauty with my Utah tag attached. With a 49-inch spread, 10-inch palms, nine points per side, and awesome triple brows, that moose was certainly worth waiting for. He later scored l443„8 Pope and Young points, placing him in the top half of the archer's record list. Suddenly, the grating alarm calls from the other bulls around me were music to my ears.