Even for a veteran bowhunter, the sight of a bull moose — on the hoof or on the ground — inspires awe.
I've taken several Alaska-Yukon moose, including this dandy 14x15 bull.
There is something special about moose, the largest antlered animals and the second-biggest-bodied critters in North America. Only the American bison has a beefier torso than a mature Alaska-Yukon moose. You have to experience a bull moose up close and personal to know the excitement. Such an encounter gives true meaning to the expression "a moose of an animal."
Moose are surprisingly difficult to bowhunt. I say "surprisingly" because these beasts often get a bum rap from archers who have never seen, let alone hunted, these magnificent animals. Moose are merely oversized deer, with the same caliber of senses as those of whitetails and muleys. If bull moose seem dumb at times, it's only because they live in remote places seldom visited by man, and because they're hunted during the rut, when mature bulls can be frighteningly belligerent and aggressive.
In places like Quebec, Canada, where moose are hunted hard each year, they become incredibly wary. Even in far-flung locales like Alaska and the Yukon, moose can be skittish and hard to hunt. With wolves chasing them on a regular basis, moose must sharpen their survival skills early in life — or they don't survive.
When I first saw the flash of a giant moose antler in Alaska a number of years ago, I knew from experience that the stalk would not be easy. One wide antler palm flickered again, a small but crystal-clear image two miles away. Then the rack rotated, reflecting light from both antlers like polished tabletops. My 10X binoculars snapped into focus, and I was staring at a very large moose.
Planting my fanny on the ground to survey the situation, I knew full well this might be my only chance at such a bull. I had seen a number of "paddle-heads" the past few days, but nothing to compare with this.
Mature Alaska-Yukon moose present a startling sight. Big bulls stand 7½ feet high at the shoulder and weigh up to 1,600 pounds. Mature bulls have antler spreads of 55 to 70 inches, 10 to 14 points per side, antler palms 12 to 16 inches wide and 35 to 45 inches long, and antler bases 7 or 8 inches in circumference. A rack of such dimensions will exceed the Pope and Young minimum of 170, and might eclipse the Boone and Crockett minimum of 224.
Probably the hardest part of moose hunting is finding a good bull. Moose are easiest to locate during the rut in late September/early October because they're constantly on the move then. At other times, when they hole up in dense cover, they can be almost impossible to locate.
I scanned the hillside around the bull to locate other moose and plan an approach. I would have to drop 1,000 feet, scale an aspen-studded slope, and then get sneaky.
As I studied the far side of the canyon, the bull entered a spruce thicket and disappeared. I piled off the mountain at a ground-gobbling trot. Moose rise periodically to feed and wander, and I wanted to get close before the bull could give me the slip.
It was early September, and I was in Alaska's Wrangell Mountains. One week before, a bush plane had dropped me a half-mile from a cabin owned by an outfitter friend of mine. The pilot was scheduled to return in two weeks. I was hunting on my own, but my pal had agreed to provide horses for meat packing. Alaska-Yukon moose quarters average 300 pounds apiece, and the de-boned meat alone can scale 600 pounds. I wasn't keen on backpacking all that weight, a near-impossible feat complicated by the possibility of encountering grizzly bears.
Alaska allows do-it-yourself hunting for moose by nonresidents, but I recommend caution — even if you have three or four buddies to help pack out the critter! If the meat spoils or a big bear nabs the carcass, you will be out of luck — and possibly in violation of wanton waste laws.
Always arrange for meat salvage by pack stock, boat, or ATV before you begin your hunt. In the two other places where Alaska-Yukon moose reside — the Yukon and the Northwest Territories — laws require nonresidents to hire a guide. Given the size of northern moose, professional meat-salvage assistance can be a godsend.
After clawing through neck-high brush and wading a crotch-deep creek, I climbed toward a spruce snag that marked the location of the moose. A breeze swept up the canyon, taking my scent away from the bull. Because moose have tremendous ears, I wore super-quiet clothing.
Some gun hunters question the wisdom of hunting moose with bow and arrow. The late Jack O'Connor claimed he had never seen a bull moose downed with a single rifle shot, but I've found moose relatively easy to drop with archery gear. The key is using a heavy bow and a high-energy arrow tipped with a streamlined, deep-penetrating broadhead — and putting the arrow through the heart or lungs.
Several years before, I had shot a large Canada moose with my 73-pound compound bow and a 600-grain aluminum shaft. With an arrow through the heart, that bull had gone down almost instantly. I was shooting a similar setup on this hunt, so I wasn't worried about a quick kill. If I could just nail the big moose above me, I'd have another great rack to hang on the other side of the fireplace.
The spruce snag loomed above me, pointing at the sky like a witch's claw. I stopped to rest and glass the thicket where the bull had disappeared.
A silver-sided cow moose strolled out 200 yards away. The jug-headed animal nibbled a bush, turned the other way, and lay down with her ears above the brush. I settled down to wait. The rut had barely begun, but the bull was not likely to leave the cow. His antlers were already stripped of velvet, the last two nights had been cold, and his mating urge was bound to be on the rise. If the cow stayed where she was, the bull would probably move my way.
Two hours later, the cow stood and an antler glinted as the bull lumbered into view. I took a deep breath. His rack was everything I had hoped for — 12 points on the right, 10 on the left, palms about 12 inches wide, and a spread pushing 60 inches.
Ducking behind a ridge, I circled below the moose and slowed to a snail's pace. The bull's antlers appeared 75 yards away, rolling this way and that as he cropped willows and other tasty browse. The cow was out of sight.
I eased ahead one slow step at a time. The wind was drifting crossways to the moose. I tiptoed along a cut between tight walls of brush.
Suddenly, the cow trotted out 40 yards above me and
stopped to stare in surprise. The bull bolted, his massive rack swinging from side to side. I drew and swung the bow, frantically judging the range. The bull skidded to a halt and turned his head to gawk. The 50-yard sight pin found his rib cage, and I let the bowstring go.
The arrow disappeared against the forest wall and clattered beyond the moose. The bull trotted into the trees, smacking the trunks with his rack. He did not act as if he was hit. The cow charged through the thicket ahead of him. Then everything went quiet.
I trudged uphill, my heart sinking with every step. I'd never seen a moose that big, and might never see one again. With these thoughts running through my mind, I almost walked past my arrow in the grass. Hallelujah! The shaft was covered with bright-pink blood.
The trail was easy to follow — saucer-sized splashes of red against a field of green. The moose was piled up 100 yards away, sliced through both lungs just above the heart. Stout archery gear had done the trick.
I danced all over the hillside. When I calmed down enough to handle a knife, I started the awkward job of field-dressing the bull. I was thrilled with my Alaska-Yukon moose, but with almost a ton of bone and brawn on the ground, I knew the hard work had just begun.But looking at those giant antlers, I could not think of a better way to spend the next 24 hours!