The bull was legal, I was confident of that. Even from three quarters of a mile away we could see his spread, the blood red horns. Freshly rubbed velvet hung in dark brown strips like Spanish moss in a southern oak tree as the moose slowly raised and lowered his head, rubbing his antlers in the thick alder patch. And just as important for good hunting, although the days were warm, the nights were cold n’ crisp. It was good weather for gather’n meat. It was our first year in the Alaskan Bush, and we didn’t have much more than a roof over our head, so getting winter’s meat was a top priority. This bull looked like he was made to order and I wasted no time in closing the gap on him…
My faithful wife Pam with our then nine-year-old son, Aaron, and our brother-in-law, Joe, who had come up to see where in the world we had moved to, sat on the top of what we had come to call “Bear Point.” They waited and watched as I cut the distance on the bull. Two feet are quieter than four, less is better when stalking meat so I opted to go for the moose alone. For us it was not about horns, not about hide, not about a kill … it was and always is … about meat. Food for the table.
We grew up hunting, anything from gray squirrels, quail, and blacktails in the mountains of California, to mule deer, elk, antelope, sheep and goats in Montana. Hunting moose was new to us, but stalking is stalking. All animals hear with their ears, see with their eyes, smell with their noses, and sense with their brain. Like humans, some excel in some areas and are weak in others. You learn as you go…we do, and the animals do as well.
This moose was pretty easy. As I crested a small ridge within four hundred yards of him, he was bedded down with his butt toward me, head away. I slipped down through an open area watching his head for any movement, but seeing none I continued cutting the distance till at about a hundred and seventy five yards I could get no closer. I slid from a downhill crawl into a sitting position, quietly slid a round in my .338 mag, steadied both elbows on my knees, set the crosshairs of my six-power scope just below the base of his horns…and slowly squeezed the trigger.
Assuming we’re not talking about defending against a charging grizzly bear, the blast of the rifle is always a little bit of a surprise (assuming you “squeezed” the trigger properly). You know it’s coming but are not sure of the exact instant when. With a bit of follow through, you learn to get a bit of a site picture before the recoil of the rifle readjusts everything you have been looking at. As the rifle shot busted loose I saw the moose’s head drop without a flinch. You know you did everything right when the moose never knew what hit him. In a millisecond it was over and we had our winter’s meat.
With this moose and most others the first reaction from us is always the same; happiness, we have meat, plenty of it, well fixed for winter. Although this was twenty years ago I recall well, how without getting up I gave Pam, Aaron and Joe a thumbs up from the long distance separating us. It was the sign I knew they would be watching for through spotting scope and binoculars, indicating for them to head back home a mile and a half away to pick up the backpacks, an axe for butchering and to return my way.
The second emotion has been the same for years. As you get up and start heading toward the downed moose … there is always a bit of remorse. Here is, or was, a living animal whose life you have taken, who was just out minding his own business, and well, you ended it all. It is always a mixed feeling, one that takes a bit of adjusting. Killing an animal is not taken lightly, but a necessary deed nonetheless. We always give thanks in a humble sort of way, though it never seems like enough.
The last emotion while walking up to a downed moose, is the feeling of dread when seeing what can be fifteen hundred pounds laying there … and thinking, “OK, here we go again…” It can be rather daunting knowing you have a huge animal laying there before you that needs to be gutted, skinned, cut into back-packable pieces, THEN, all those pieces have to be packed home. Many times it’s two days hard labor. Although at the time this was our first moose the emotional rundown was pretty much the same, except when it came to butchering and packing. We had yet to truly experience just how much bigger an Alaskan moose was compared to one of the many elk we had taken outside of Alaska. Seeing the animal in front of me, I had a fairly good idea … this was going to be a bit of a chore. So, I started to work.
By the time Pam, Joe and Aaron arrived, I did not have much done. I had bled the bull and started opening him up to remove intestines, and to no surprise found that a bull moose, while having the same body structure of a deer, or elk, was several times bigger and one person alone dressing one out has their work cut out for them. With Pam, Joe and Aaron on site in a few hours we had the moose butchered, eight pieces skinned clean and several loaded on to pack boards. If my memory serves me correctly it was the second day that we got the last load home and hung in our meat house.
I do recall Joe, being a fair size piece of meat himself, had a lot less trouble handling the heavy hindquarters than I did. At one point while packing home I was in a small bog, slowly sinking, the hundred and sixty or so pounds of moose meat helping me sink deeper … Joe grabbed my arm and with some effort on both our parts, pulled me out. We all hauled meat, it was a lot of work, like twice as much as an elk that we were used to. But once it was all home, hanging and sacked to keep the flies off, we had meat, good meat, there would be no worries for eatin’ this winter.
As the years have passed we have taken many moose, while all are valued, none were as important as those early ones, we depended on them. We learned that how far we were willing to pack a moose kinda depended on how hungry we were. Years ago I recall a lean year when I was chasing a moose over two miles from home below us, and thinking, “What am I doing down here? This is a four day pack to get one home…” I then continued on with the hunt, because we needed meat. On the other hand, I recall just a couple of years ago, with a fair supply of meat on hand and plenty of grub stocked up … Pam and I watched two bulls just across the lake from home. We thought … “We’ll wait till the weather cools a bit more,” which was just an excuse not to shoot one. We didn’t need it that bad, or the exercise either.
The perfect moose? No question about it. Once, we were looking for meat, and also had a lodge full of guests. Pam, always first to rise, came into our bedroom and said, “The bull is coming down toward the lake…” (we had been watching him several days pushing two miles away from us, too far to pack). I fired out of bed, partly dressed, grabbed my rifle and with half buttoned clothes flapping in the wind ran out the door for the North Fork ridge to cut him off.
Long story short, I tipped the bull over three hundred yards from the lakeshore (which means…THE BOAT). In short order all of our guests were on site …”Whoa is he ever big!”…” How much does he weigh?”…”How are you going to get him over to the boat?” …”Can I help?...” It took me half a second to reply, “I’ll have to think about it a bit ... OK.” We had folks skinning who had hardly ever held a knife, had people packing meat who had never had a backpack on, let alone with a load of meat. The whole moose was home and hanging by three that afternoon. An easy moose. We loved it.
We have taken some easy moose, some tough ones. Some so good (usually the early pre-rut ones) they melt in your mouth. A good moose is really fine eating, butter ball fat. There is not much better than fat, slow cooked moose ribs. On the other hand, take an older bull into the rut…a lean mean fightin’ machine…and the meat will last you forever. Pam gets pretty creative making an old bull into real food. The one thing for sure, whether consistent moose, easy or hard moose, fine eating or tough, we do appreciate them all. But the fine ones are easier to swallow.