Alaskan Alces, By David Gutschmidt

The yearly ritual of receiving “unsuccessful” notifications from various states’ draw systems is not something I look forward to, but to a certain level, it is something I have come to expect. This year after receiving the all too familiar news my good friend Luke Giesey asked if I wanted to join him for a fall moose hunt in Alaska. Luke had an idea of an area, so I told him I was in and we started planning our trip. In addition to Luke and myself, I asked Alex Nero to join us. Alex had accompanied me two years prior on a mountain goat hunt and was happy to tag along for the adventure. Alaska is a great state for hunting opportunity as it allows non-residents to hunt moose, caribou, deer, and black bear without the use of a guide. Factor in that much of the state has over-the-counter tags and the vast amount of public land, it becomes clear why Alaska is a top destination for hunters.

Throughout the summer, we finalized our travel plans and prepared for the trip up North. Since no one in the group had been to the area we were planning to hunt – we read as much as we could and listened to anybody willing to give us advice. Luckily, we knew several people who had hunted Alaskan Moose and they were happy to share insight and lessons learned. Alaskan Moose (Alces alces gigas) is the largest subspecies of moose found in North America, with mature bulls able to reach weights of over 1,600 pounds. The physical size of an Alaskan Moose, hunting a new area, and being alone in the wilderness all present unique challenges – and those challenges are what makes Alaska such a lure for adventure seekers. As the months went by, we prepared as best we could and looked forward to the trip ahead.  

Fast forward to September, Luke had spent a week pre-scouting and familiarizing himself with the area prior to Alex and I being dropped off. Once we arrived, I made the introduction between Alex and Luke (they did not know each other previous), and then Luke began giving us a recap of what he had seen as we set up camp and organized our gear for the weeks ahead. For the hunt, Luke and I each had a moose tag while Alex was carrying a black bear tag. I was using a rifle for this hunt; contrary to Alex and Luke who were both bowhunting. The terrain we were hunting was mountainous with large valleys of muskegs, willows and marshes; all of which were blanketed with thick cover. In our preplanning, we had hopes of locating vantages where we could glass, but it became apparent that the majority of our time would consist of navigating into different muskegs and openings where we would hope to call a moose in. Ideally, this hunt would coincide with the peak of the moose rut for Luke and me; and Alex would be able to find a black bear along the way. That first night we all retired to our tents with high hopes and excitement for the days ahead.  

The following morning, Alex, Luke and I took off together from base camp and began to call for moose. Because I was planning on hunting for two to three weeks, I did not have high expectations for the first morning. However, less than a mile from camp we had just finished our descent to the valley floor when Alex, who was in the back whispered sharply “moose!” It’s interesting how talking while hunting works, everybody whispers and talks very slow, but as soon as anybody sees an animal, they whisper in a sharp tone and everybody knows to freeze. In this case, it worked as Luke and I both froze; and then tucked in behind some brush, with the bull unaware of our presence only 60 yards away. 

Most of Alaska has requirements that for a moose to be legally harvested, its antlers must meet a specified configuration. In the area we hunted, this requirement was either two or more brow tines on both sides, three or more brow tines on one side, or a total width of over 50 inches. If a bull meets any one of these three requirements, then it is a legal bull. Though we were within 60 yards, we never were able to confirm with certainty that this bull was legal. The bull was only about 40 inches wide (so did not meet the 50-inch requirement). On one side of his antlers we were confident there were two brow tines, but the other side did not have an easily defined prominent main bay – so neither Luke nor myself felt confident enough to shoot. The bull kept feeding for a full five minutes, but his brow tines were only visible for a few seconds during that time. We tried a variety of cow calls and grunts, hoping he would turn his head or move closer– but we could never make the verification of a legal bull and he eventually moved on.  

After the encounter with the bull, we all re-assured each other the right decision was made since we couldn’t confirm with certainty that the bull was legal. But at the same time, we all knew that this was possibly a missed opportunity. It’s human nature to blame oneself, so I began to question if I did enough research or looked at enough brow tine photos prior to the hunt. Perhaps if I had been more prepared, I would have been able to confirm the bull was legal and capitalize on the opportunity that presented itself. That night while I was laying in the tent, I wished I would have watched the “Is This Moose Legal?” Alaska Fish and Game video a few more times…

The day after the encounter started like almost all the days in Alaska, rain. The weather never dampened our spirits, we all knew what we signed up for – so sparing a joking comment or two we suffered through and kept covering ground. Most days we would all separate and check out new areas, spike out, or two of us would pair up depending on the situation. The terrain was more mountainous than expected, so we were able to gain elevation to observe the muskegs as we called. My strategy was to call and wait and then wait some more. In the reading I did leading up to the hunt, many articles spoke about the patience required for calling moose, some authors said it can take a moose up to two days to cover the ground when responding to a call. Since I was a new moose hunter, I assumed everything I did was wrong. I compared this feeling a lot to calling coyotes, whenever I would leave, I would kick myself for not staying long enough. And when I did stay all day, those times I would I assume I picked a poor spot to call from. It’s hard to say what was right or wrong but these are the thoughts that occupied me as I searched for a legal bull. In reality, as long I was out there trying, success could strike at any time.

In the next three days, we only saw cows, calves and a few bears. On day five, Alex and I were sitting on a rise two miles from camp trying our luck with cow calls. Within an hour of calling Alex spotted a lone moose. We could tell right away it was a bull that would be borderline legal, it was 700 yards away and heading towards us. We only were able to glass it for a few seconds before the bull entered a patch of thick trees where we would lose sight of it for about 300 yards if the bull stayed on its course. It seemed like it took that bull FOREVER to cover the 300-yard distance before he was visible again. I would estimate that after losing sight of the bull, nearly 90 minutes passed before it finally emerged from the thick trees. Once the bull was relocated, Alex and I were able to study the bull as he slowly worked through the brush towards us. Of course, that morning I decided to leave the spotting scope in the tent to save weight – lesson learned for the rest of the hunt. The bull took its time working toward us while we cow called, eventually, he was within 100 yards and we were able to confirm with certainty using our binoculars that the bull was not legal. The bull had long single brow tines, so I named this bull “Triceratops.” The bull approached to within 60 yards before Alex and I decided to slip out and head back to camp. I was feeling recharged after having a close encounter!

The next day Luke and I took off in the same general direction of the encounter with Triceratops. After a morning of calling and still hunting a valley, we headed to the same spot where Alex and I saw the bull the day prior – where I planned on explaining to Luke the previous day’s events. When we arrived at the vantage Luke let out a cow call and right away, he saw two moose. It was a cow and a calf, and within a minute that same bull from yesterday, Triceratops joined the cow and calf. Luke and I watched the three moose for 30 minutes as they headed away from us across a marsh. I had the spotting scope out and was capturing some photos as they fed and wandered about. Since I had seen the same bull in the same spot two days in a row, I wasn’t expecting another bull to be in the immediate area – I was wrong. 

As the three moose were heading out of sight, I let out a single cow call to try and turn them one last time when Luke said, “Bull – next class up, he’s close!” Luke motioned to where he saw the bull 350 yards below us. Fortunately, we were both in a great position to watch the bull and take a shot if we could verify the bull was legal. I handed Luke the spotter and pulled up my binoculars to begin evaluating brow tines. The bull would move in-and-out of sight through the brush, there were times we would lose him for 45 seconds and then have another 10-second window to evaluate him. He was in no hurry, slowly weaving through the brush, now 330 yards below us. Luke soon said “Legal, no doubt” – I remember asking him a second time if he was sure; he replied, “Yes – 100 percent.” By this time, I was already behind my SAKO 85 Kodiak rifle and waiting for the bull to present a broadside shot. I remember looking through my scope at the brow tines one last time before I moved the crosshairs above the vitals preparing to pull the trigger. The .338 Win Mag was zeroed at 200 yards, so for a 330-yard shot I held at the top of the moose’s back, shooting a 225gr bullet, the bullet would drop 14.5 inches before impact. I was very steady, locked on the target and slowly squeezed off the shot…    

Miss – I could tell by the sound (or lack thereof) that I had missed. At first, I couldn’t believe it because I was so steady, and everything felt right. Then it hit me, literally, the wind. Maybe I had just become so accustomed to it during the hunt but there was at least a 25 mph to 30 mph wind blowing. I compensated and aimed further back on the bull (as the wind was blowing the same direction the moose was facing) and squeezed off another shot, smack¸ definite hit. The bull wobbled and disappeared into the brush where I lost sight of him. Luke still had the bull in the spotter and thought he saw it go down after about 15 yards. The brush and trees were so tall and thick we could not verify the bull was dead, so we talked over what happened and nervously waited to go investigate. When 30 minutes had passed Luke and I headed down together to recover the bull – just as Luke saw it, the bull dropped 15 yds from where I shot it. As soon as I laid eyes on the moose, I verified it had the legal brow tines – and then I finally started to relax and take in the size of the animal!  

Having Luke there with me made it even more memorable and rewarding. Almost a year ago to the day I was with him on an archery elk hunt in Wyoming. I was tucked in behind a Montana cow decoy as Luke called a good 6-point bull in to under 20 yards and arrowed it. I was just as excited that day in Wyoming as I was walking up to my moose in Alaska. For me, being able to experience these moments with great friends is what really makes it special. Luke and I took a few photos and began quartering the moose. All the butchering and packing out went smooth, Alex showed up after we had one load out and helped us pack all of the remaining meat back to camp.  

Unfortunately, the rest of the hunt didn’t produce as much excitement. We never experienced the peak moose rut for which we were hoping, perhaps it was the slightly warmer temperatures that fall or the dates we chose were just too early. Whatever the case we had a great time, every day we saw wildlife and were able to experience a part of Alaska that was completely new to us. With moose meat now in all our freezers, it’s a trip we will remember for a lifetime.

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Posted by Nolan Osborne