September is best known throughout Alaska as moose season. The time when good luck and plenty of effort can yield a winter’s worth of meat. Having less luck than I’d hoped this season with caribou, I set out a few different times during September in hopes of finding a moose.
I floated with my friends Jake and Claire for a day on the Chatanika River. None of us had floated this section of the river before and we were interested in checking out a section away from the road. We stopped at points along the way, looking for fresh sign and for any moose. Nothing was to be seen except some tracks. Nonetheless we enjoyed the opportunity to float on one of the last few warm days amidst the fall colors.
About a week later, I went to the Tatalina River with my soon to be brother-in-law Ed and again my friend, Claire. We blew up our packrafts with great anticipation. We had heard of a neighbor who hunts the river each year by canoe and finds success. There are no power boats in the area because of some logs jams so we were looking forward to using the packrafts. Around the first bend we encountered our first log jam. No problem, we got out of our boats, picked them up and walked over to the other side. 50 yards later we encountered the next one. And another 100 yards after that. Our hopes quickly deflated and we were befuddled as to how anyone could get a canoe down here, much less back upriver with a bow full of moose meat. After about a mile of floating, we left the river hoping to find some meadows and clearings with a vantage point up high. We found good habitat, but along with it were a plethora of 4-wheeler trails and human activity. Each time we thought we had found a decent spot away from others and in good habitat, we would inevitably come across a 4-wheeler trail or hear the sound of a motor coming in our direction.
We pushed further down the river and made camp, hoping to put some distance between us and others. Walking around the forest, we moved quietly and made calls in clearings. Before dusk we heard the call of another cow. A pleasant reminder that there are indeed moose in the area. The next morning, we floated further downriver, rounding each bend with the hopes of seeing moose on the bank. No such luck. We made more calls on the river and on our hike back to camp, with no response. We decided to pack up and made our way back to the car empty-handed early afternoon.
Joe, Jake and I had plans to head out to the flats for a few days near the end of the season. This was where I had gotten my first moose so hopes were high that we’d have some good opportunities. Our friend Cam was already out in the area as well as an older duo. Cam had been watching a large legal bull with 2-3 cows for a few days that had not been responsive to any calls. We watched a large opening from a viewpoint on a hill above, scanning for a glimpse of the bull ourselves. The next morning we left in Joe’s boat, floating around sloughs, creeks and lakes, hoping to come across something. We saw plenty of ducks, Trumpeter Swans, and signs of moose. But no bulls showed themselves during our travels or in response to our calls.
I spent the evening with Cam at the big viewpoint, looking for any sign of the bull. About 30 min before nightfall, we saw him. He was about ¾ mi away from us and we debated the merits of chasing after him then versus the next day. We hesitated too long and soon found ourselves back on the trail to camp, excited for what lay in store in the morning.
The next morning brought about snow and a thin sheet of ice on the water. Cam and the older duo went over to where the bull was the previous night while Jake, Joe and I headed back up the hill to our vantage point. Within about half an hour the bull came into sight once more. Cam appeared to be about 300 yards out and we could see him looking through the scope of his rifle, but otherwise not much action happening. He left there and we were left wondering what was happening since the older duo still remained at their original spot. Unbeknownst to us, Cam had a clear shot at the bull at 180 yds but was not able to shoot due to camp politics… He decided to separate, try to get closer and kill the bull himself.
¾ mile away, we were still watching the bull, unsure of what was happening and if Cam was going after it or not. I was eventually persuaded to descend the hillside and try my own hand. I made my way through the tall grasses and swamp, guided by directional signals from Jake and Joe back on the hill. In front of me was a familiar looking dense stand of birch saplings. Jake and Joe signaled me straight ahead. Beyond this was where we had last seen the bull.
I loaded a round into the chamber and slowly made my way into the brush. Take a few steps, then stop for a couple minutes and listen. About 10 minutes later, I made it through the 30 yards or so of brush. I made a bull call and raked some brush. Immediately, I heard a response no more than 40 yards away on the other side of some spruce trees. With my heart beating through my chest, I tried to find a good place to position myself for a shot. If the bull came through the brush now, I’d be no more than 10 yards away. I continued to hear noise as he appeared to circle me and I repositioned myself. This dance went on for the next 20 minutes or so, until I found myself straining to hear any sounds and having difficulty deciding whether they were due to wind or brush. I soon came across Cam and we went back to another vantage point. We learned later that the bull had spooked with his cow, running across an open meadow towards Jake and Joe who scrambled to put themselves in position. The bull ended up eluding them as well and escaped across the water to some distant meadow. Jake, Joe and I would not see another moose for the remainder of our trip.
3 strikes and I’m lacking moose meat for the winter. As I write this, the season has closed and it won’t be until a winter hunt, that begins in ~2 weeks, where I’ll get another chance. In a way this scenario is preferable. The winter hunts occur when the ground is frozen allowing for far easier travel on foot and the possibility to use a sled for any potential hauls. Regulations are often less strict than in the normal season and usually allow for any antlerless moose to be taken. However, the quotas for these hunts are usually very low, around a couple dozen animals or so. We will see what the coming weeks hold.