Recently I returned home from an excellent hunt in Alaska for AK Yukon moose. We’ve been booking moose hunts on the Peninsula for years, but the wolves and bears are really hammering the moose calves out there, so the number of moose tags available each year has dwindled down to just 2 moose/year. We get a lot of inquiries about moose, so I decided to go on an “exploratory” hunt in search of an area where we could send our clients for a reasonable shot at a big bull. After talking to an outfitter early in 2010, I decided I’d try and get a couple of guys and go up there to try the area for myself. Being on a fairly limited financial budget, I elected to take the “outfitted” option vs. a guide. I knew having a guide would be beneficial for a wide variety of reasons, but I simply couldn’t afford having one. The outfitted hunt is not your typical “float hunt”. It requires 2 guys to hunt in a camp, but you save nearly $10,000 off the cost of the guided hunt, which put the hunt in my financial reach. While doing this hunt without a guide presents its challenges, I felt comfortable enough with my hunting prowess to give it a try. I got a longtime hunting buddy on board and we booked the hunt last September.
The area requires you to draw a permit, so we put in as a party and both drew the tags for our 1st choice unit (Unit 23). Our hunt dates were originally planned for September 10-20, but my hunting partner found out his friend was to get married on September 10, so the earliest he could come up would be the 11th, making his hunting start as last as September 13. The season in this unit closes on September 20, so I elected to go up early on my own and hunt a few days before he got there to give us a better chance at shooting 2 bulls (I was worried we wouldn’t get 2 bulls in just 7 days of hunting). I moved my hunt dates up to fly into camp on September 8, starting on the 9th. We got to the lodge on the 8th, went through “orientation” and I flew out to camp that afternoon. The flight to camp was only about an hour and a half, most of which was over the hunting unit so I was able to see a lot of different country on the flight in. When we got near the lake I was supposed to land on, we decided to make a wide circle around the area to see if we could see any bulls from the air. Sure enough, there were 3 big bulls, all within a mile of my camp. We landed, set up camp and the pilot flew on to another camp, leaving me out there alone. I still had about 4 hours of daylight left in the day, so the anticipation of the next day’s hunt was in the front of my brain for sure. I cooked dinner and had an excellent view of an Alaskan sunset, then hit the hay.
The next morning, I got up before the sun came up and put on a pot of coffee. I went out to take a wizz and decided to do a little calling before the sun came up. After calling a few times without any replies, I went back in the tent to check the coffee. I was messing around with the coffee pot when I heard what sounded like a bull thrashing his antlers on the alders. I stepped outside my tent and sure enough, probably 500 yards from camp I heard a bull. By the time I got dressed (I was still in my long johns when I was calling the moose) it was getting light, so I hurried down to the river bank that was a few hundred yards behind camp and set up for my first calling sequence. Almost immediately after calling I got not one but two separate bulls to answer! I was pretty pumped, especially since both were on either side of me and working my way. The wind was in my face, so it looked like I was going to be right about where the two bulls met each other. Trying not to be too aggressive, I wanted to keep the bulls headed towards me so I grunted every once in a while. The bull to my right was coming straight in, but the other bull started working in front of me from the other side of the river, probably 200 yards into the alders where I couldn’t see him (I hadn’t laid eyes on either bull at this point). The bull coming from my left made it past me without me seeing him and was raking trees now, basically calling the other bull off the river and up to him. I decided that since the one bull had made his way past me I would move about 100 yards down river to the next bend so I’d have the best chance at seeing them if they hit this small oxbow in the river. Just about the time I got to that point, the bulls met somewhere around 200 yards from me (still out of sight) and started sparring. Not an intense fight, but it lasted probably 3 minutes. I let them break up and gave them about 10 minutes to cool down, then started grunting softly, maybe one grunt every 5 seconds or so in bursts of 3 and 4, then waiting a few minutes and doing the same thing. One of the bulls fired up, first grunting a couple of times then grunting with every step. I heard him walking in the river and knew he was just on the other side of the oxbow from me so I slid back into the alders a couple of feet and got set up on the sticks. Right about now my heart is pumping because this bull is less than 100 yards from me, just beyond the bend and the mixture of fog and the thick vegetation, I still can’t see him. He quit moving for 5 minutes or so, so I wasn’t sure if he was still there or had moved on so I let out two soft grunts and here he came. I first saw the alders moving about 70 yards from me, then saw the tips of his paddles as he was raking the trees. He came in doing the “cowboy walk”, grunting with every sway of his head and slamming his antlers into every small alder bush he came across. At this point I had a decision to make. I went to Alaska with a goal of a bull with big fronts and over 60″. Here I am, 9:15 am on day one of what was supposed to be a 12 day hunt, and I’ve got a bull (that by my rough estimates was right in the neighborhood of 60″ with long brows and what looked like around 15 points on the left side) standing 25 yards from me directly across the river. I hate to say it, but I considered passing this bull. I’d seen some of the monsters the area produced and knew that with the extremely limited pressure that there were bound to be some giants in the area, the weather was perfect and the rut was already kicking in. I had to ask myself -“Is this a bull you would pass on day 10?”. After thinking it over for what seemed like 5 minutes, the bull was losing interest and beginning to work up the river bank across from me. When he was walking perpendicular to me, I grunted and he looked at me, showing me that his left palm was past the mid-way point of the hump on his back thus confirming that he was at least 60″ (I’d also used the 10″ between the antlers rule before this). I’d be crazy to pass this bull, so I put the rifle on him and squeezed the trigger. At the shot, he just took about 5 steps into the alders and stood there. “No way I missed, he was 25 yards from me!”. He stood there for probably 60 seconds without moving, then starting coughing, alerting me that I’d hit him in the lungs. All I could see was his rack, and with the brush being so thick right there I didn’t want to chance a shot. I grunted at him a few times, finally getting him to move just enough to expose the hump on his back. I put one at the base of the hump and he went down like a (literal) ton of bricks. 9:30 AM, Day one, my first Yukon bull down.
I hadn’t even been in camp long enough to inflate the boat, so I had to go back to camp and carry the rolled up boat back to the river and pump it up with a foot pump. By the time I got the boat inflated and across the river an hour had passed since I shot him so I’d calmed down quite a bit. I floated across to where he was standing and quickly found him about 15 yards from the river, laying in a small ravine. Immediately I realized I’d made the right decision because I wanted a bull with big fronts and his were considerably longer than I thought. I didn’t have a measuring tape on me, but knew my rifle was 47″ so by my estimates he was somewhere between 61-63″.
Where he was when I found him:
(He ended up measuring just north of 62″ wide, I’ll take it any day for a first moose):
I took a bunch of photos using a tripod I’d brought and then began the long CHORE of cutting a moose up alone. I know some of you guys have done it, but Jesus maneuvering a 1600 lb+ animal by yourself is about as tough as it sounds.
I literally had to cut his entire left side off before I could even flip him over. After cutting him up and packing a hind quarter and some ribs, the pilot came in and helped me pack him (thank god). By the time I got back to camp with the bull it was after 11:00 PM, nearly 14 hours after I shot the bull. I was exhausted, but it was worth it. After 18 months of planning, 3 days of traveling and only 2 hours of hunting, I achieved my goal of shooting a 60″+ Moose. Better lucky than good I suppose.
PART 2 – SKIP 5 DAYS AHEAD WHEN MY HUNTING PARTNER ARRIVES IN THE CONCESSION
After shooting my bull on day one, I basically just stayed within a half mile of camp, keeping my ears open for wolves howling, hoping they would find my kill. Unfortunately, after 4 days they didn’t find the kill and I knew today was the day my hunting partner was due to arrive. I called Joe on the Satellite phone to see what my next move would be and he informed me I needed to pack up camp into my boat and float 12 river miles down river to meet Sean, my hunting partner, on a gravel bar where they could land the Cub. No big deal, except Joe’s camps are WELL stocked. I had 2 rubbermaid containers full of food and cooking utensils, one cooler full of food, a propane stove, a wood burning stove, 2 cots, all of my personal gear, and still had the moose rack and cape. I didn’t think I could fit it all on the boat, but after 8 trips from the tent to the boat hauling loads of gear, I squeezed the last items in and just sat on top of all the gear.
I pushed off, and literally right across the river a legal bull stood up and ran about 40 yards, turning to look at me and pausing long enough for me to snap this photo on my point and shoot camera. 6 brows on the right, but just barely 50″. Going to be a good bull in a few years for sure.
We wouldn’t have shot him, but it was good to see moose again after staying off the river for 4 days(I had originally thought that Sean was coming into my camp to hunt so I tried to stay away from the river where all the moose seemed to be).
Floating down river alone on a loaded raft into a head wind isn’t too fun, but it’s all part of the Alaskan experience so I was soaking it up. Because I had the moose on the front of the raft, it kind of acted against me with the wind so I ended up having to paddle basically the entire 12 miles. Interestingly enough, as I was floating I saw a total of 6 bulls, all of which were legal by brow tine definition and 5 of which were 50″-55″. ALL of these bulls saw the moose rack on the front of my boat and immediately went into “cowboy” mode, walking along side the raft and grunting at me. I snapped this photo of another bull, but decided to put the camera up after this because the boat kept wanting to turn sideways on me, which could have dumped me and all the gear out. I figured I knew what a moose looked like, no use taking any more photos.
After a few hours of floating, I finally met Sean and the supercub down at the gravel bar. It was nice to see people as I’d been without contact since the pilot came in to pick my moose up the day I shot him. Long days alone were actually nice as I got to really get some thinking in, and with my bull in the “salt” on day one, it was pretty relaxing. We set up a mobile tent on the gravel bar and the settled in for the day. Sean saw my bull and was pretty impressed, and even more impressed that I saw half a dozen bulls just floating down river to him. He’s moose hunted 3 times prior to this, once in Alaska and twice in Canada, and seen a total of 6 bull moose. I shoot a 62″ bull on day one and see 6 more just floating, so he’s pretty jacked up at this point. To say his first night in camp was restless would be an understatement, I don’t think he slept.
The following morning, we woke up before dawn and began getting dressed for the day. Sean was out of the tent before I was even out of my sleeping bag, so I knew he was ready to go. I told him to just call from camp to start off with to see what was in the area. Just as I stepped out of the tent he said he heard a bull grunting up river, answering his calls. We got our binos and guns and walked about 30 yards from the tent to where we would have a better view up river. As I turned my head to listen for the bull, I looked up on the hill across from us and spotted another bull about 500 yards away up on a hill. We could tell he was at least decent, so we started cow calling and he came in on a string. I snapped a ton of photos of him walking in, here are a few. From over 500 yards to about 10 yards, this is how well they were responding to calls:
We assessed he wasn’t a shooter for this area, probably mid-50’s but kind of spindly, but he was still coming. I could hear the other bull grunting and raking trees up river, so we were a little worried we’d spook this bull if he got too close or crossed the river and blow the other bull out of the area. He came across anyway…
As soon as he crossed the river, Sean looked where we’d heard the other bull grunting and saw him standing there looking at the other bull from about 200 yards. We grunted, and he came in thrashing every tree he came across. As he worked his way down the bank, it was pretty apparent that this bull was MUCH larger than the first bull. I knew he was wider than my bull, and knowing my bull was 62″ I figured this bull to be 64-65″ with wide and long palms. A definite shooter, right? Not exactly. Sean was hesitant to shoot the bull on day one because of my successes and what we’d seen. I did about everything I could to talk him into shooting, but Sean decided he was going to pass and take his chances. Here are some photos of that bull, would you have passed on a non-guided hunt after 3 unsuccessful moose hunts? Sean’s a die hard, and he wanted a bull with big fronts. This bull wasn’t weak up front by any means, but didn’t have the brows mine did so he passed him. Keep in mind we are standing 30 yards from the tent, ON the airstrip where a plane could come pick the meat up. It would have been a nice and easy pack, but Sean decided to pass…
After that, we actually saw 4 more bulls that morning, so Sean really wasn’t too worried about his decision. We even had another chance at that big bull that evening and again Sean elected to pass. This time he was a little hesitant to pass him, but still stuck to his goal of shooting a bull over 60″ but with giant fronts (We knew length of tines has nothing to do with B&C score, he just wanted a certain bull and was prepared to pass up big bulls to get it). That night in camp, after a day of letting it stew around in his head, Sean said “I messed up. I should have shot that bull. I’ve got to find THAT bull now…” I laughed at him, saying we had him across the river from the airstrip and now we’ll probably shoot him 2 miles down river 500 yards into the brush, but I said I was willing to help pack and we decided to hunt him.
We hunted him for 2 full days, going back to camp for lunch and nothing else without another sighting. Sean was beginning to feel bummed out at this point, realizing the likelihood of him seeing that bull again was very low. Sean began to get a little restless, so I decided we should move on, telling him that if there’s one bull like him, there’s probably a few more (This area produced 2 of the largest moose taken in Alaska just 2 years ago, so I knew there were better bulls there). We floated down river, hunting a bit and seeing some bulls but nothing that could compare to the one he’d passed. It’s day 4 of his hunt now with just 3 days left in the season, so he’s starting to feel the weight of his decision.
I decided instead of floating all the way down to the last known airstrip so soon, we should pull over and camp for at least one night in an area that, from the map, looked like it had a ton of oxbows in the river so looked very “moosey”. It’s noon, it’s foggy, and we’re tired. We pulled the boat over and quickly set the tent up on the gravel bar, but left all the gear in the boat because we wanted to wait for the sun to come out to dry everything off. Sean was understandably restless at this point, way past second guessing his decision to pass that bull and in the regret stage. As silly as it sounds, THIS RESTLESSNESS POSSIBLY SAVED OUR LIVES.
We had not seen a single moose between the hours of 10:30 am and 6:00 pm. Warmer than average temperatures probably contributed to this as the bulls were definitely rutting hard, but here we are at around 1:00 pm, both dead tired, and Sean decides to go call moose. I told him to go ahead, really wanting to let him clear his mind and just try. It looked like it was going to start raining, so I told him I’d hang back at the tent and unload all of our bags and cots and put them in the tent. Sean went downriver along the alders and I began unpacking. I got everything unpacked and was finishing setting up my cot when I heard Sean coming back to the tent, kind of half whispering “Greg! Greg!”. My first thought was, “No shit, he actually called up a bull mid-day!” I poked my head out of the tent only to hear him say “Greg, there’s a grizzly working downwind of us, you may want to get out here in case he gets into the alders and comes towards the tent”. “Shit, well keep an eye on him and I’ll put my boots back on and grab my rifle”. Sean agreed and walked to an open area of the gravel bar so he could see the bear. Sean said the bear was a few hundred yards away and just walking, so I sat on my cot and put my boots on. After tying one boot and starting on the other, I heard Sean yell loudly “HEY BEAR! HEY BEAR!”. I grabbed my rifle and threw a 4th shell in and jumped out of the tent.
THE CHARGE – (THIS ALL TOOK PLACE IN LESS THAN 30 SECONDS)
It was apparent by the tone of Sean’s voice that the proverbial “shit” was about to hit the fan when I heard him yell “Hey Greg!”. Sean’s a very calm, confident hunter. He’s hunted Alaska multiple times, was an apprentice guide on the Peninsula for 2 years and has been around TONS of bears. I knew something wasn’t right when he yelled at me, so I ran towards him, keeping a safe distance between me and the brush line (I still couldn’t see the bear). Sean kept yelling, slapping his gun, kicking rocks and waving his arms, but was slowing backing back into the water. When he backed about 10′ back into the water, he took a knee (later explaining that Ronnie Crous told him he took a knee on the now famous Botswana lion charge so he could be at eye level with the cat and have less of a moving target. Smart move). I was only 15 yards from Sean and still couldn’t see the bear, so I stopped and shouldered my rifle, keeping my head above the scope and on a swivel.
Just then, I heard it. It sounded like a faint “thud” of a large animal’s feet moving quickly, but I STILL couldn’t see the damn thing. I looked to where I heard it and the bear burst into my view at a DEAD RUN, locked in on Sean. At this point the bear is at 30 yards and running at a speed I thought only capable of a thoroughbred chasing the triple crown. I put my head down and got him in the scope at the very moment Sean shot the bear. The bear was 14 steps from Sean at the first shot As soon as he shot the bear took a barrel roll forward to about 10 steps and looked up dazed. I picked him back up in my scope, his gigantic head and beady eyes basically filling my field of view, but because he rolled in towards Sean, the shot was a little too tight for me to shoot. I’m sure some of your know that in moments like this your brain is working a million miles an hour, and mine was working at that speed and some. I decided that if the bear made any sort of movement towards Sean that I would shoot him (My muzzle was clear of Sean, but it was only about a 4′ window and I didn’t want to risk it unless I absolutely HAD to). The bear instead rolled back and turned towards the tent, trying to get away from whatever the hell just knocked him in the dirt. Sean quickly shot again, putting one somewhere through the midsection and rolling the bear again into the alders and out of our sight. We moved along the bank towards our tent to get in the boat and safely across the river, keeping a close eye on the area the bear went. We could hear him thrashing around and growling very loudly, but no longer could see him. We waited in safety for probably 30 minutes after the last time we heard him, and decided it was safe to come back across the river to end the ordeal and try to ensure the bear was dead and not wounded. When we got over to the other side of the river, we could easily see the bears running tracks heading towards Sean, where the bear had been rolled by the shot, and where he ran back towards the tent and entered the brush. The problem was, we couldn’t find a single drop of blood. Not good. Anyone who’s hunted up there knows that Alder brush along the river banks is THICK, comparable to the long grass in Africa except much more difficult to walk through due to the complex root system you’re trying to navigate with your feet. With visibility at about 10 feet, it makes for a tense follow up. I decided to grab a pocket full of rocks from the gravel bar to throw at him if I saw him (ensure he was dead without having to poke him) and we entered the brush. Not having any blood to follow and no tracks were visible, we just went shoulder to shoulder and slowly walked forward. After about 15 yards of walking, Sean saw a small patch of brown to the left and stopped me with a “tssst” sound. Sean raised his rifle and I threw the rocks, hitting him with both of them with no reaction. We approached the bear and he was done, just 10 YARDS behind the tent.
Your mind starts thinking about all the “what if’s” for sure. “What if Sean had shot the bull on day one, we wouldn’t have been here”, “what if Sean hadn’t SEEN the bull on day one, he wouldn’t have been as restless”. “What if we had both decided to hang out at the tent”. A lot of things go through your head. Whatever it was that actually made Sean leave the tent mid-day to go call moose, I’m glad he did it. Had we been in the tent or sitting in chairs around it, we probably would have been in deep trouble. Neither of us was too shaken by the ordeal, both obviously had adrenaline pumping like crazy but I never really felt “scared”. Excitement would be a better word, and a little remorse for a bear that we had no choice but to shoot. We took a ton of photos of the scene, called fish and game and were told to skin the bear, get its skull and float 6 miles down to an airstrip where they could come pick it up.
Sean with the Grizzly, this is where he fell but we obviously cut some brush and moved him for the photos.
We skinned him carefully, packed up camp and headed off. Sean did a quick measuring of his skin and came up with 8’8″, a true giant of a grizzly. This was later confirmed by fish and game when we gave them the skin and skull, in addition to them measuring his skull at 24 5/16″, nearly a half inch into the all time record book for Boone and Crockett. Just a gigantic old bear.
We floated 6 miles down the river to a gravel bar we knew the cub could land on and set up camp. Both of us smelled like a bear, so we decided to change and start dinner. It was about 7:30, so we still had a couple hours of good daylight left so I started calling moose from camp, hoping to get a bull to show up or at least move closer for the next morning’s hunt. I heard a bull answer my cow calls about a mile away, so I started raking a tree with the lid to one of our rubbermaid totes, imitating a bull raking his antlers on the brush (That lid was probably the best call we had in our arsenal, it carried the sound a long way and sounded very realistic. Gotta use what you got on hand out there!) Sean was still changing, but I could tell the bull was moving in on us. He was raking trees and grunting like crazy, so he sounded pissed. I’m standing 10 feet from the tent, Sean is sitting down pulling his hunting pants on over his sweat pants and we’ve got a bull closing in on camp fast. From the sound of his antler raking, you could tell he was a good bull. I kind of had to convince Sean to get ready because he thought the bull was farther away (he’s got terrible hearing from shooting a lot as a kid), so Sean stood up literally seconds before the bull came into view. I could see his paddles coming so I knew he was good and wide, but couldn’t see his brows to completely see what he looked like. When Sean looked down to jack a shell into his gun and turn the scope power down, the bull broke the brush at 50 yards directly across the river from us. I could tell he was a great bull, so without hesitation I said “Shoot that damn bull!” Sean grabbed for his binos and I said “Don’t look, just shoot him!”. Sean shot him in the front shoulder, nearly bringing him down in the water (would have been terrible had he fallen in the river) but a second shot quickly knocked him down safely on the river bank. The bulls head fell into the brush, so Sean had literally no idea what he had just shot. We gave him 5 minutes and got in the boat to go take a look, of which the whole time I was messing with Sean saying “I know he’s over 50 inches, and he’s got pretty decent length and a folded right palm”. Realistically, I knew he was over 60″, knew he had gigantic fronts with some non-typical type trash on both sides and a huge folded palm on the right, but after he passed that big bull early in the hunt I figured I should mess with him. I did start telling him he was a big bull, but I don’t think he was going to feel any better at this point until he saw it with his own eyes.
We crossed the river and Sean said “Man I hope you’re right, I’m going to be pissed if he’s 50”. We walked up to him and immediately Sean said “Whoa! You’re off the hook!”. He was pleased with his bull, I was pleased with the fact that we only had to pack the bull 10 feet to the boat. We were camped on the landing strip!