Rutting bull moose are masters at making you feel very small -- or very big.
My friend Doug Erickson and I opted to hunt Alberta's draw rut hunt in late September, when we could call bulls within bow range. The Honey Hole bull at left responded aggressively to Doug's calling and gave me an easy shot at close range. However, I had promised myself to hold out for a Pope and Young bull, and I decided this guy would fall a little short. So I shot him with my camera rather than with an arrow.
The huge bull had stopped behind a big aspen tree, looking for that amorous cow and her young boyfriend that were supposedly here somewhere. His nose flared, taking in large amounts of air, and his massive rack moved ever so slowly side-to-side as his eyes searched for the other moose.
He had gone completely quiet now, in stark contrast to his loud, steady grunting and bush-crashing only moments before. Knowing it was only a matter of seconds before he would figure something was wrong and bolt, I sneaked a peek around the tree I was standing behind. He was less than 20 yards away, his head completely screened and his lung area wide open. I came to full draw, eased out from behind my tree, and settled the top sight pin behind his front leg, in the middle of his chest.
Doug Erickson and I had come to this part of northwestern Alberta on the advice of our good friend Gavin Craig, who had hunted here for many years. I wanted to get a good bull moose with my bow, one that would make the Pope and Young record book, and this area held all the key elements to do just that. Doug and I had committed two weeks during the first part of the rut draw season to accomplish our goal. In much of Alberta, bull moose have been on a two-part draw system for a number of years. The first draw runs from September 24 through October -- the rut. The second draw encompasses November.
I had hauled our holiday trailer in several days before Doug's arrival and made camp in a central location that would afford us good road access in case the weather turned bad. From here we could branch out to different areas and never over-hunt any one spot. On several scouting trips during the summer to some of the secret spots Gavin had shown me on maps, I found springs, mineral licks, beaver dams, old cut blocks -- and lots of moose sign.
On our first morning, we hiked into the Honey Hole, a spring that seeps out of an aspen hillside into a willow muskeg and then drains into a small creek that winds through old cut blocks and big timber. In short, it's a moose paradise, fully deserving the name Honey Hole.
As the thin line of daylight first appeared on the horizon, a bull grunted from up the hill. Doug and I smiled at each other, and off we went down an old cutline, closing the distance quickly as the bull continued to grunt.
In the dead-still air, I let out a long, mournful cow call. The bull answered immediately and was coming hard, grunting at every step. As Doug and I moved toward him, cow-calling, we could hear willows slapping his rack. He seemed to be getting more excited and quickening his pace.
I set up to shoot slightly ahead of Doug, and as the bull got closer, Doug grunted softly and lightly raked a willow. The bull bellowed and came straight at us, and as he stepped into the clear at 25 yards I started to count points on each side -- seven on the left, eight on the right. He had decent width, easily 40 inches, but his palms were not long or wide.
As the bull searched for this cow and her companion, I determined he was not a Pope and Young record book candidate and stood quietly. The bull, confused now, circled to scent-check the area. The last we saw of him, he had crossed the cutline 200 yards behind us and kept on going.
Mother Nature continued to cooperate, giving us ideal weather -- cold nights, frosty mornings, no wind, and clear skies. Over the next four days we called in two other small bulls that gave me good shot opportunities at 15 yards or closer. As an official P&Y measurer, I had put the tape to lots of moose antlers and had made notes on what it takes to make the minimum of 135 for Canada moose. Neither of these would qualify, so I did not shoot.
On the morning of September 29, we hunted an area with mixed cut blocks, mature timber, and lots of moose sign. At first light, a bull responded immediately to our cow calls but wouldn't budge. We surmised this fellow already had a girlfriend and didn't want anything to do with us. He eventually moved off and left us standing there wondering what we were doing wrong.
After our traditional afternoon siesta, we decided to head to an entirely new area for a change of scenery. Driving to an old well site that skirted the side of a big ridge, we ended on a point overlooking a huge valley. We were just getting our gear ready when Doug froze.
"Did you hear that?" he whispered. As we stood in silence, listening, we heard a soft crack from the bush and glimpsed the flash of antlers and two black bodies slipping through the timber. "Must be a cow and a bull," Doug muttered as we scrambled to grab our stuff.
Hoping to head them off, we ran down the old road and looped through the brush to where the hillside started to rise sharply. We stood and listened intently for any sound that might indicate their line of travel. We had no idea how big this bull was, but we had nothing to lose.
After a few minutes, I bull-grunted softly. Nothing. I made a low, mournful cow call.
Same results. We moved farther along, cow-calling more intensely. Still nothing.
Now I really ramped it up, making loud cow calls, breaking brush -- a cow on the move being harassed by a small bull. After this long series I had to take a break and get my wind. Simulating two moose in love is hard work.
Suddenly, from off in the distance came a faint grunt. Then another, and another. A new bull was on his way.
Doug pulled back, quickly setting up our moose decoy. I moved off to the side to a small clearing in the willows where I hoped to intercept the bull. While Doug cow-called intermittently, the bull never slowed, coming straight at us and grunting with each step, brush slapping his antlers as he pushed his way through.
Suddenly, he emerged into the opening, grunting and strutting, and what a sight -- huge palms, points everywhere, and wide antlers!
That's when he stopped behind the big aspen and the woods became completely quiet. As he looked for the amorous cow and her young boyfriend that were supposed to be here, I stepped out from my hiding place and settled the top sight pin behind his shoulder, right in the middle of his chest€¦
Instantly, he whirled and took off. I couldn't believe it. He must have caught my motion.
Quickly I bellowed, and he stopped about 50 yards away.
Able to see only the tops of his palms, I motioned to Doug to rev it up, and he resumed cow-calling, raking brush, and stomping around. Silently, the bull started to circle.
As Doug continued, the bull stood looking his direction and then smashed a bush. He smashed it again. I thought we might now have a chance, and when Doug let out a soft bull grunt, the monster couldn't take it anymore. He tucked his chin and came, brush flying. He was on a mission. As he passed me at 12 yards, I was at full draw, waiting for him to step into the shooting lane.
Before the hunt, I vowed to hold out for a bull of Pope and Young proportions, and I was not disappointed. We called this old battler in twice before he gave me a 12-yard shot.
When he stopped in perfect position, the arrow was on its way. At the impact, the bull spun and Doug stopped him with another series of calls. The bull grunted and turned to come back. When my second arrow struck home, the moose charged out of there for good. I stood listening intently for any sound. Doug slipped up beside me, and we just looked at one another.
Seconds later we heard the crash.
The bull was as big in body as in rack. He had a huge scar on his forehead below his eyes -- possibly from battles the previous fall. As with every animal I harvest, I felt a true sense of remorse and nothing but the utmost respect for the animal. In silence, I paid tribute to one of Mother Nature's most magnificent creatures. We spent all the next day getting him out of the bush and to the processor.
After a home-cooked meal and hot shower, Doug and I, along with another friend, Darrel, returned with hopes of getting Doug a bull. While Doug stayed up top to explore a bit of country prior to the evening hunt, Darrel and I hiked down into a valley to look for a large black bear we had seen earlier in the week. Darrel and I never found the bear, but when we met Doug, we found him all smiles.
"Bull down!" he said.
As he explained, he had walked to the top of an oil pipeline just to look around when he saw a bull moose standing there -- and a good one. Doug ran back to the truck for his bow, but when he returned, the bull was gone.
When he cow-called, bulls on either side of the pipeline responded immediately -- and started to come! The first was a small bull and Doug spooked him off at 10 yards. But the other bull was still coming, and when he stepped out and walked right up the pipeline, Doug shot him at 30 yards.
The bull ran about 50 yards and fell over. Doug's bull was a battler, with a stab wound behind his ribs, holes in his flank, and hair missing. He came looking for another battle and found his ultimate match this time!
Brent Watson currently serves as president of the Alberta Bowhunters Association and as an official Pope and Young Club measurer.