September 8, 2013
It’s the 4th day of the 11 day moose hunting season for nonresident hunters and, so far, there are no 200 pound hindquarters hanging in the boat shed down the by the lake.
The guides all agree, as they do each year after the first few days of the season, that this is just practice time this early, that the real hunting and shooting opportunities come during the last few days of the season. The weather has been mild, and, with one exception, fairly dry.
Moose rut during September, when the bulls start to court the cows, even assembling a loosely-tended harem…yesterday between Dillingham and camp Justin spotted a bull with three cows in attendance. Just as it is at home with our white-tailed deer, the breeding season is largely brought to life by the length and angle of the daylight, called photoperiodicity. The same is true in the spring for other species like wild turkeys. Here in western Alaska, with our days still quite long (but thankfully getting lopped down by about 5 minutes each day), the rut will begin in earnest towards the middle of the month, and is generally enhanced by cold weather and sharp frosts.
Not sure about you, but my breeding generally is severely inhibited by frost. Go figure-
So moose hunting here, for nonresidents anyway, just gets better with each passing day. There are a lot of moose about these days, Justin sees a handful each time he flies back and forth to Dilly for fuel, propane and food. He also spends a fair amount of his time resupplying the spike camps and hauling gear for hunters who are either arriving or departing camps.
Opening day Larry, Marcus and his client eyeballed a bull for a long time, scratching their heads over the width of its rack. Alaska wildlife regulations require a ts rack. Alaska wildlife regulations ed a bull for a long time, agonizing over spends a fair amount of his time resupbull moose to have a minimum spread of 50 inches of antlers (or a brow paddle that has 4 defined points or tines on it) before it is legal game for a nonresident in this part of the state. I asked Phil once about this….sort of tricky, asking 1,900 pounds of sexually aroused moose to hold still while you run a tape measure across his eyes…he said the rule of thumb is an adult bull moose is about 10 inches between its eyes…so, using a head-on look at a bull, usually with binoculars or a spotting scope, you use that 10” measure and then extend it outwards towards the tips of its antlers….2 eyeball–to eyeball spans outside the eyes puts it in the ballpark.
Think about it, more than 4 feet of antler growing in about 5 months out of the skull of a bull moose. The head and antlers of a big bull probably weigh in the neighborhood of 125 pounds.
A really big bruiser can exceed 70 inches in spread. In the moose hunting lexicon, a big bull is a corker, a small bull or one with small antlers is a doinker.
Problem on opening day was the bull was down in blueberry thickets below them, working slowly through the thick stuff that shrouded most of the bull up to its neck, and it never gave them a head-on look. This is not one of the times where you say to the client, “heck, close enough. Take your shot.” That is when you walk up on the beast on the forest floor and, with each approaching step, the antlers shrink an inch, rather than increase. If it comes in under 50”, Ricky certainly has some “splainin” to do.”
Not sure how the wildlife trooper calls it here, we have not had such an instance during my tenure here in the kitchen…I suspect there may be a tiny bit of leeway, but probably not much. That is why the guide’s instructions are clear…if there is any doubt, pass it up. The legal implications for an error here trickle up and involve everyone….the hunter, the guide, the outfitter. I think the cook may be in the clear, but I do not want to find out.
Our hunters comprise an interesting mix. All told there are 8 combo hunters in or around camp this season. Two friends from Iowa are here together, young men in their 30s, one of whom is a distant cousin of Justin’s. They spent their first 5 days in the Togiak in a spike camp, where each shot a nice brown bear. They were moving today to a new spike camp up to the north east of our lodge to hunt for moose, and their guide, Ken from the UP, was moving with them.
Bob and Tom (yup, those are their names) came from the south…Bob is from Tennessee and Tom, from Georgia. They met somewhere years ago and have remained good friends and hunting buddies, and an unlikelier twosome of bosom buddies I have not seen. Bob is short in stature, perhaps 5’6”- wiry, in his late 60s or early 70s. He has a sincere grin on his face all day long. Tom is tall, probably 6’3”, in his late 30s, with a long frizzy red beard, and looks like a red-headed cousin from “Duck Dynasty.” He is also a friendly sort with a smile you think is there more than you can actually see. The one thing they share, other than their friendship, is the twang in their voices.
When Justin broached the possibility of sending hunters out to spike camps, Bob and Tom jumped at the chance. They evidently had done their homework and knew that their odds for really big bears went up a notch in a spike camp. The next day I loaded up Joe with food and he and Bob headed up to Kulik Lake to set up camp. Tom was destined to a spike camp where Lars was already holding down the fort.
Rain, fog and wind had backed up flights out of (and into) Dillingham early in September, so Tom had to cool his heels here at the lodge for a couple of days until Rick could take him out to join Lars.
On the second evening in camp, Bob and Joe watched a dandy brown bear working its way towards them on the gravel. At first sight it was about a ¼ mile away….an hour or so later Bob killed it at 25 yards with a perfect shot. The two worked from 10 pm until 3 am, skinning and packing it out back to camp. The next morning I heard a boat coming down river at 10, which told me that someone had been successful up stream. Joe had a wide grin, exceeded only by the one on Bob’s face.
With little sleep, a lot of work and almost nothing to eat, I handed Bob a towel, gave him the quick instructions on how to use the shower, and cooked up a breakfast for both of them. Joe finished the real work on the bear before carefully bundling the skull and hide in different bags and putting them in the freezer. They were head back up river by 3 pm to resume their hunt for a moose.
Our four other hunters are a family from Mexico City. A father and three sons, they bring a very different feel to camp. Fernando, or “Papa”, speaks very little English, so almost all of the conversation that involves the boys is in Spanish. The oldest boy, also Fernando, is in his late 40s. Next is Enrique followed by Alex.
They expressed no interest in migrating out to spike camps, choosing to remain in the relative comfort of the lodge. I could not get a read on how they regarded camp and its accommodations but I strongly suspect they have not enjoyed anything as rustic as Fishing Bear Lodge.
There was a little juggling at first with the guides to get the best fit for both hunter and guide and now the teams are established. Troy is guiding Papa, and is slowly getting to know him in spite of the language barrier. Papa likes to return to camp each day to warm up, rest, read and eat…as does Alex, who is the least interested in the moose hunting end of things, preferring to try his hand at fishing and attempting to bag a spruce grouse with a bow. The guides, who dislike running the extra gas and leaving new scent trails of human and fuel, are used to the routine now. Alex is paired with Ben from Montana.
Everyone has seen some moose, but they have been either cows or small bulls. Back to Larry and Marcus and Fernando, above Kulik, watching this bull work sideways below them through the thickets….trying to get a really good look to make the call on its antlers. Before they grasped the opportunity, though, the bull had plowed its way out of sight.
Enrique is hunting with Pat and Caleb, and they are babysitting a couple of bulls that remain call shy and bashful and are staying hidden. The guides know that this is a waiting game, especially this early in the season, but the clients do not have that experience to draw upon and are getting itchy.
The days for me are a combination of sleeplessness, intense activity and hours that stretch out between breakfast at 5:30 and dinner at 10:30. This morning was the first time I was actually awakened by the alarm, and I batted at it in the dark and knocked it off the table next to my cot. I struggled out of the sleeping bag and went to hunt it down to silence it so as to not wake up the rest of camp.
Each morning I stumble down the gravel, fire up the little generator and start my coffee routine. My moments to savor a cup are now postponed until breakfast is done, sandwiches are made and lunches are packed and gone with hunters in the pre-dawn darkness. I like to sit on the little deck in front of camp and watch the shadowy figures crunch to and from along the gravel, their headlamps bobbing and weaving through the dark, voices hushed and headlamps discreetly shrouded with a gloved hand when two forms meet to confab. We were treated to a cold, clear morning yesterday, stars out by the million, close to a frost.
I pull my wool Filson coat up under my chin, feel the canvas on the chair to make sure it is dry, and sit to watch the day unfold. I silently wish them all well as they clamber aboard the flatbottomed boats, clutching rifles and packs, puffed out in their lifejackets. I bark at Larry as he strides past.
“Good luck! Shoot straight, and often!”