November 04, 2010
No amount of rain, wind, or mud was going to stop these Saskatchewan bowhunters from getting their moose.
Murray (right) called sporadically to keep the bull's attention, and when the moose presented a fleeting broadside shot, my longbow did the rest.
With less than 30 minutes remaining in the archery moose season, it seemed like I would be hanging my unused tag on the Christmas tree. As I listened to the realistic horny-cow moose calls issued by my hunting partner, I reflected on all the adversity Murray and I had faced in this less-than-stellar week of Saskatchewan moose hunting.
The relentless wind and frequent torrents of rain had finally subsided the day before. With ideal calling conditions, we finally experienced encounters with a couple of randy bulls, but neither of them came close enough for our traditional-style bows. In my mind's eye, I could still see that big bull standing broadside in the clear at 40 yards. When the cow that accompanied him realized that something wasn't right and headed for a safer destination, the trophy-class bull abruptly followed her; quickly disappearing with long, ground-covering strides that corresponded to the sinking of a pair of hunter's hearts.
My mournful reverie was interrupted and I was snatched back to the present by the distant grunt of a rutting bull -- or was it just wishful thinking? I looked quizzically at Murray, pointing in the direction of the sound I thought I had heard. He shook his head, indicating he hadn't heard anything. I motioned for him to call again, put my bow down, and cupped both hands behind my ears to accentuate any distant sound. Seconds later I heard the distinctive "uurgh" of a rutting bull a long way off. Murray cow-called again. A long, silent minute ticked by. When the bull called again, it was obvious he was coming -- and closing the distance fast!
Our original plan for that fall was to hunt a remote fly-in river location in the extreme northern part of Saskatchewan, nearly at the NWT border. A dry summer in the region caused water levels to drop considerably, and the air service was leery about landing a floatplane on the river. Even though I knew the area contained some tremendous bulls due to nonexistent hunting pressure, I'm also aware that scared pilots live the longest, and I deferred to their judgment.
We opted instead to hunt a region about 400 miles south of there that we both knew well. Referred to as "the hills" by locals, this land is a huge expanse of uninhabited, heavily forested wilderness that harbors whitetail deer, elk, Canada moose, black bears, and a host of furbearers, small game, and bird species. We decided to hunt the last week of the archery moose season, which ended on September 30. The region had received nearly 10 inches of rain over a weeklong period in mid-September, and the weather forecast wasn't looking good for the duration of our hunt.
The gnarly trails leading into the hills are usually fairly easy to travel by quad, but they were a real quagmire this year. It was a genuine mud-fest getting to our intended destination, about nine miles back in.
After setting up camp, we decided to check out a nearby river. By the time we returned to our camp at dark, it had started to spit rain. Within a couple hours it turned into a heavy downpour that would ultimately last for 24 hours. To add to our misery, my formerly always-dry tent sprung a leak, resulting in soaked gear and sleeping bags.
My hunting partner Murray makes moose music.
It was raining so hard the next day we would have needed scuba gear to go hunting, so by noon we were headed for my home to dry out and regroup. On the way out, we noticed some fresh tracks heading toward a large clearcut near our camp. We were determined to return when weather conditions improved.
Rather than camp in a leaky tent, we decided to drive to the hills each morning. No moose responded to our calling attempts and the afternoons found us working the clearcut where we had found the fresh sign. The cut was about three miles long and contained a small creek, which was dammed in several places by beavers, creating some good-sized swamps.
Fresh sign revealed the presence of moose in the area, but none were sighted or came to our calling. "When it calms down and clears off, we'll get 'em" was Murray's oft-repeated mantra whenever I asked, "Are we having fun yet?"
By noon on Friday, the wind had finally died down and the skies were clearing. When we arrived at the clearcut, we hiked to the far side and tried some calling. Bulls often take their time coming in to the call, so we've learned to give each location a substantial amount of time before moving.
At one point when relocating, we emerged into the open and spooked a young bull that had obviously been coming to check out the girl he thought he had heard. As I dejectedly watched several hundred pounds of excellent eating motor across the open cut, Murray, the eternal optimist, grinned and said, "It's great to see that the calling is finally working. Cheer up man; the fat lady ain't singing yet."
The sun was sinking low in the sky when we reached our next destination. We spent a few minutes letting things settle down after our arrival because it was tough to walk quietly through the soggy, logged-over area. It was Murray's turn to do the calling. When he started to raise the birchbark call, we heard the nasal-toned bawl of a real cow moose coming from about a half-mile away. We headed in her direction, figuring, at the very least, she would likely attract the small bull we'd encountered earlier.
When we were about halfway to the noisy cow, I thought I heard a large branch snap in a grove of trees about 100 yards from us. When I grunted like a bull, I got an immediate answering grunt and then heard the distinctive sound of a bull thrashing a tree with his antlers. We tried to advance into range, but the bull appeared at the edge of the grove before we made it there. I was pinned down pretty much in the open for several minutes as the bull demolished several small spruce trees just beyond our effective stickbow range. The agitated bull appeared not to notice me, but the cow that walked out of the grove beside him did, and she abruptly turned tail and trotted away. The bull turned and followed her, ignoring our calls.
The other cow was still bellowing, but the game was soon called on account of darkness. Nearing the end of a very tough and often discouraging week of hunting, we had finally experienced some good weather conditions and were suddenly into the moose in a big way, but only one day wa
s left in the season. I hated to leave the hot moose action and wanted to stay overnight in a nearby warm-up shelter but knew that if I didn't go home, my wife would likely be worried. Murray decided that he would stay and try some early-morning calling at the clearcut; I would come back in by ATV at midday and meet up with him.
DURING THE NIGHT, strong winds had returned. At noon, I fired up my quad and eagerly raced the nine miles to meet up with Murray and get a report on his morning adventures. Murray covered a fair bit of ground, but hadn't seen or heard an animal. We opted to check out a natural mineral lick we knew of a few miles away, but even though fresh tracks showed some recent activity, our calling efforts were unrewarded. Late in the day the wind started to die down and we decided to head back to the swamp where we had encountered the moose the previous day for "one last kick at the cat."
I've killed a fair number of animals in the late stages of hunts and try to hunt as hard and as optimistically during the last hour as I do during the first, but I must admit the last thing I expected was to hear that bull coming toward us on the other side of the swamp. We were set up in a small cluster of trees about 50 yards from a grove of mature spruces that shielded a beaver dam at the edge of the swamp. It was obvious the bull wouldn't come straight at us across the deep swamp but would likely come through the shallow creek below the beaver dam.
Murray and I quickly agreed on a strategy. I would head for the grove near the dam and ambush the moose as he came by; Murray would stay put and call, keeping the bull's attention away from me. It was a great plan, except that we grossly underestimated the bull's speed. When I got halfway to the grove, the moose was already close to the beaver dam, running hard and grunting pretty much nonstop. I hunkered down in the long grass behind the only cover between me and the spruce grove -- a spindly little birch sapling that had a grand total of about five yellowed leaves still clinging to its puny branches. I grabbed an arrow from my hip quiver, placed it on the string, and came up on one knee just in time to see the bull emerge from the trees. He was coming on the run and almost directly at me; if he stayed on course, he would likely pass within a few feet!
The beast halted about 10 yards away and eyeballed me for a few long moments. Murray gave a soft cow call and the bull looked over toward him but offered me only a quartering-to shot. Several minutes ticked by interminably; I was doing my best to "be the birch" and not to shake (too noticeably). Murray called sporadically, effectively keeping the bull's attention away from me, but I could almost see the wheels turning in his rut-addled brain -- "I definitely hear a cow, but I'm so close I should be able to see her. Hey, wait a minute -- something's not quite right here....."
The bull's suspicions were confirmed when the slight breeze shifted from Murray to him. The moose abruptly turned to leave, presenting me with a fleeting broadside shot. Almost involuntarily, my bow arm came up, the string touched the corner of my mouth, and a split second later the arrow buried deep behind the bull's massive front leg.
Other moose I've taken never went very far or very fast, but this bull went smoking back the way he came so quickly I could hardly believe my eyes. I lost sight of the bull when he ran into the spruce grove, but Murray had a better view from his position and saw him enter another patch of trees about 200 yards away.
Slipping and sliding in the mud, we hurried to the patch of trees. Murray went in the thicket to search for the bull and I checked along the edge for blood or tracks leading in. Almost immediately I thought I heard something gurgle quite loudly off in the distance. A few seconds later I heard it again, along with some brush breaking, and then all went quiet. I summoned Murray and pointed in the direction of the sounds. "C'mon, I think I just heard him die way over there." We soon found the bull piled up -- stone-dead -- about 100 yards from where Murray had last seen him.
I could fill several more pages recounting the misadventures we had getting half a ton of swamp donkey out of the muddy hills that night, but I'll only say the old moose hunters' adage "The fun's over when they hit the ground" was never more accurate. A little adversity often makes for the most vivid and satisfying hunting memories, and you can bet your favorite skinning knife that Murray and I will be back chasing lovesick bulls with our stickbows next season, come Hell, high water -- or mud!
Author's Notes: My equipment on this hunt consisted of a Martin Savannah 55-lb. longbow, Easton 2117 arrows, G5 Montec broadheads, Helly Hansen raingear, LaCrosse rubber boots, and a Can-Am ATV.
Murray Selby's tools of choice included a Bob Lee 60-lb. recurve, Easton 2117 Legacy arrows, Muzzy 4-blade broadheads, Rivers West raingear, LaCrosse rubber boots, and a Can-Am ATV.
The author is an outdoor writer and topnotch guide from Carrot River, Saskatchewan.