Despite the single digit temperature, the small outboard motor came to life on the second pull. I let the 50 horse power Yamaha water jet engine warm up for ten minutes before shoving our 20-foot aluminum skiff off into the fog-engulfed river. I navigated slowly, making my way through the shallow water by memory and bumping along the exposed rocks as the first crimson rays of sunlight crested the nearby hills. It was opening day of the archery moose season in Alaska, and I was back guiding magnificent hunts. The previous three years, my buddy, Tim, had gone home empty-handed, but not this year. I was determined to make it happen. I also knew that there was a good chance that I could connect on a moose, as well. We were heading towards a glassing knob four miles upstream from which we could scout for moose in the area.
As I slowly navigated the skiff upriver, Tim was sitting on the bow glancing from side to side, trying to detect movement along the willow-choked riverbanks. Tim Higgs and I have hunted together several times before. Tim’s last hunt with me was a Dall sheep and caribou hunt, during which he took a beautiful 36” ram and an excellent caribou that narrowly missed the Boone and Crockett record book. I recalled the day, two years earlier, when Tim had moose hunts on his mind and booked this trip for us. He was so excited then. I bet he thought this day would never come. I know I did.
I gently idled to a tree that we had used the day before to tie up the boat while scouting. The ride took twenty minutes longer than normal due to the fog, but we still had plenty of time to make the 400 yard climb before we had good glassing light. Tim hopped onto the riverbank with the bow rope in hand, as if he had done it a hundred times before, and tied off the boat. We donned our packs, grabbed our bows, and headed up the hill.
About halfway up the hillside, we heard a bull grunt, followed by the unmistakable sound of antlers on brush. The bull was no more than 600 yards in front of us, but with the low blanket of fog, we could only guess how big he was. Tim looked at me with a smile. “Should be a good morning,” I whispered.
We continued to the top, took off our packs, and waited for the fog to clear. We listened through the calm, cold, autumn air as our mystery bull continued to destroy everything in his path. Our eyes were intently focused where our ears thought the bull was, hoping to catch any movement. The sun was still a few minutes from its unveiling, when the north wind chilled my face. The bull’s only means of protection was about to disappear. I gave a bull grunt and raked some brush with an old paddle from where I was sitting. The bull immediately grunted back with every step he took in our direction. “Maybe I called a little too soon,” I told Tim. “Will he climb the hill to us?” he asked.
They will occasionally, but they usually wait for a visual before they do that. The bull came about 100 yards closer, stopped, and commenced destroying a tree, when another bull grunted. Tim nocked an arrow and was ready if a shot presented itself. Though it seemed longer, not more than two minutes passed before we could see the two bulls. They were 20 feet apart, and 50 yards below us, on the edge of a slough. By now, the butterflies had taken flight in my stomach, but Tim was unshaken. He was ready with his bow in hand, waiting for me to size them up.
“The one on the right is the biggest,” I said. “Well, the one on the left is huge! How big is the other one?” Tim asked, seemingly in disbelief.
I held my response as the bulls met head-on and began sparring. I made sure Tim was comfortable with his position, and gave a cow call. The bulls seemed to forget one another and looked directly at us.
“The one on the right is nice. He’s a solid 63 inches, with four brow tines on each side. He might go 65. The left one is about 60. What do you think?” Tim asked.
With any other hunter, I would suggest taking him, but there are bigger bulls here and this is only the first hour of a 10-day hunt.
“I never tell a hunter not to shoot a legal animal, so I am leaving it up to you,” I said. While we sat for a minute and debated taking one of them, the two bulls milled around the slough in front of us, in no hurry to go anywhere. Then, I spotted another moose a mile away. I quickly put my spotting scope on him.
“Your question is answered Tim. This is the bull you want. Take a look.”
“Holy cow! How big is he?”
“He’s definitely 70 inches, but he’s a mile from the river and moving away from us,” I said. I made my loudest call, and raked some brush. The old warrior heard me, stopped for a few seconds, but continued on his way. I had already forgotten about the bulls in front of us when Tim said, “I would have never guessed that those two bulls could look small.”
We hunted the next five days for that bull, and never laid eyes on him again. In fact, we saw only two other bulls despite the cold and seemingly perfect weather. One was in the high 50 inch range, and the other about 60. So, after the morning hunt on the sixth day, we packed our light camp to re-locate to a different drainage.
We navigated slowly downstream through the rocks and ice chunks, which had been getting larger and more numerous. A mile below our old campsite, our progress was severely hampered by a 300 yard ice jam. We realized then that if we didn’t get to some faster water today, we would be hiking out.
Luckily, the water was just under hip height. I was able to walk in front of the boat and chop out the ice with an ax. It took us 30 minutes to chip through those 300 yards. I was ready for a rest when I fired up the motor and resumed our trek. We came to four more ice-jams; luckily, we were able to break through with the boat by leaving it in idle, driving our paddles through the ice, and paddling our way through. This was why we chose to get a boat with a jet motor. The water was too deep to wade in.
We were relieved when we came to faster waters. We continued down the main river for two miles, and then came to the mouth of a shallower, but faster drainage. The cold, dry weather didn’t help our cause, as we had to get out of our boat and pull it over to more than a dozen shallow spots before we reached our pre-determined campsite. By 7:00 pm, we were tired and irritable (me, more so than Tim) and ready for sleep.
We quickly set up our tent on a small gravel edge and paddled across the river to get a view from the adjacent hill. Before 8:00 pm, I spotted a small bull. A few minutes later, Tim spotted a bull in the timber. We finally saw enough antler for me to identify him. It was the same bull I saw on the previous hunt. I knew, or so I thought, how to get him.
We immediately ran down the hill to the boat and paddled across the river. With only one hour of daylight left, we quickly stalked to within 100 yards of the bull, when we came to a frozen beaver pond. I knew we would break the ice if we tried to cross it, so I pulled out the boat paddle and went to work. I followed with two bull grunts. The bull grunted in response, followed by multiple cows!
“He’s got cows. He’s going to be tough,” I told Tim.
The experienced moose hunter knew exactly what I was talking about. Suddenly, a branch broke. Through the willows, we could see a moose coming, and Tim was ready. What we thought was a cow turned out to be the small bull we had spotted earlier.
With day light fading, we heard a bull grunt 300 yards behind us in the timber. We cautiously approached through the loud spongy tundra, calling and raking brush with every step to mask the noise of our movement. We stopped when we came to the edge of the timber he was in and waited quietly. At dark, we quickly slipped back to our tent, which was only a quarter of a mile away.
The next morning found us atop the same hill across the river from our tent; the same frost glistening from the foliage, and the same stiff north wind hitting us in the face. Again, we heard two bulls in the timber, but we could never catch a glimpse of them. We decided to wait them out until evening. Finally, at 3:00 pm, Tim and I simultaneously spotted a moose. It was a cow.
Then, I spotted an antler, and two more cows came into the small opening. The sight that followed in the next few seconds was all we needed to confirm that he was our bull. Tim immediately suggested that he walk across the river to a gravel bar where moose had been crossing, not four yards from the moose, and wait as evening approached. I agreed. Tim found a suitable spot, and I stayed on the hill to watch. By 7:00 pm, having neither seen nor heard a moose, I decided it was time to make something happen. I walked down to talk to Tim. “The moose are in the same five acre willow thicket we last saw them enter. We can either go in there, try to call him out, or I can try to drive them to you. It is so thick in there that if we do get close to them, we will probably only see hair and maybe a flash of antlers. This wind is perfect, but we have to do it now before it dies down”.
“Then let’s try the drive,” Tim said without hesitation.
I immediately took off, crossed the river, and started looping around the moose. I cursed myself for forgetting to leave my boat paddle with Tim. In less than five minutes, I was in perfect position. The moose were somewhere between Tim and I, with a ten mile per hour wind blowing directly from me to them.
I paced back and forth, spreading my scent through the willows. I had just begun to enter the willow thicket, when the herd exploded through the willows! It sounded like they went about 75 yards towards Tim and stopped. I eased closer. I busted the moose again. This time they split up; some of moose went west, but I could tell by the antlers hitting the brush that the bull went east.
I ran, trying to get upwind of the bulls, pushing them towards Tim, but the bull broke out of the willows and into the tundra flat. Seeing this, I instantly gave my loudest bull grunt. The bull stopped and looked back. He started to leave again when I grunted once more, and waved my cursed boat paddle in the air. The bull turned and faced me. I hunched over, grunting with every step, waving the paddle as I stumbled through the tundra. I knew I wasn’t going to win an Oscar, but I was able to get around and upwind the bull once again. He smelled me and whirled around to the south.
“Here he comes, Tim!” I yelled at the top of my aching lungs.
I was running in Tim’s direction when I heard the twang of his bow strings, and the whack of his broadhead hitting the bull. I kept running for another 20 seconds before I heard “YEHAHHHH!” I plowed through the willows and came to the river directly across from Tim.
“Where is he?” I asked. “He’s 20 yards to your right. I think he’s big!” Tim exclaimed.
I walked to the bull. “Tim, he’s not big, he’s huge! Get over here and check him out.” Tim was about half an inch from filling his hip boots, but he made it to his bull.
“He’s awesome! I wasn’t sure we were doing the right thing by pushing him, but I knew we had to do something different, and it paid off big time,” Tim said.
We told our stories to one another, of what happened, and how we both wondered if it would actually work. We took pictures, and then skinned and butchered the bull. It took us a little while to get to the quarters, and then head back to camp, and we need to take our time given the terrain and the fact it was dark. We were back in camp after midnight, and we weren’t in bed till much before two.
The next morning, after a breakfast of steak and eggs, we loaded Tim’s quartered bull on to the boat, along with all of our other stuff from camp and headed downstream. The 14 miles to base camp was an adventure, to say the least. The rock infested river would normally be an adventure, but with the ice in the water it made the danger all the more dangerous. Additionally, we still had time to stop and set up another spike if we saw signs of another good bull. Without all the obstacles, we could have gotten down the river in under an hour; however, with the moose, the ice, and the rocks it took over seven hours to make it back to camp. We stopped along the way to check out different spots that we thought might hold some nice bulls, but none answered our calls so we continued downstream. On numerous occasions we were out of the boat breaking ice and dragging the boat behind us. I would not have attempted the journey with such a heavy load with any other hunting friend, but I had confidence in Tim.
Later that evening, after we shared a meal with the other hunters in camp, and washed it down with a couple of cold beers, we shared the story of our hunt before heading to bed, knowing that we had made memories to last a lifetime.