Close Calls on the Melozi River
by Marty Van Diest
As we circled above the wooded valley, setting up for a sandbar landing next to the Melozitna River, I inwardly doubted Bob’s enthusiasm about this hunt. Among the small rivers that flow into the Yukon River between the towns of Tanana and Ruby are the Tozitna, Nowitna, and Melozitna. The locals call them the Tozi, Novi, and Melozi.
The Melozi River flows into the Yukon almost directly across from Ruby and is unique in that heavy whitewater near the mouth keeps most riverboats from accessing the upper river. Back 30 years ago, when we were there, the hunting pressure was very light in the upper Melozi. I have heard that this has since changed.
Before Bob skillfully set us down on the narrow sandbar my doubts continued. I would have expected to see at least one moose in the clearings, riverbanks, and oxbow sloughs along the river. There were none. Still, Bob was convinced that this was a good “moosey” area, and we should be successful in harvesting at least one moose for winter.
I was the first of the three of us to land on the sandbar, so I began setting up camp immediately while Bob flew back to Tanana to pick up Steve and Vic. The little two seat Citabria airplane had to ferry each of us in one by one.
After all three of us were on the ground and had camp set up, with the late September evening chill setting in, I decided to hike around a little. We were not allowed to hunt on the same day that we flew in so this was just a scouting trip.
Straight back from camp was one of those oxbow sloughs that had at one time been the river bed. I sat down on the edge and just watched and listened … I heard and saw nothing at all. I decided to make some noise of my own and broke off a branch of a nearby spruce tree to begin raking up and down the trunk of the tree. Almost immediately a cow moose stepped out of the willows along the slough bank about 100 yards away and stared at me. After a few seconds a nice bull stepped out behind her. They stood side by side staring at me with obvious curiosity.
I backed away and hurried back to camp to give my report. I now shared Bob’s assessment and enthusiasm of this hunting area. It was indeed “moosey.”
Just then I heard a low “HUFF” out in the clearing.
We awoke at first light to a crisp frosty morning with ice beginning to form along the edges of the Melozi. Each of us went a different direction with an agreement to meet back at camp for lunch.
I went straight back behind camp toward the hills at the back of the valley thinking that I might get a vantage point from there. My way was blocked by swamps, however, so I circled back toward the Melozi. By 9 a.m. I stood at the edge of a large grassy meadow along the river. I cupped my hands around my mouth and made a series of bull grunts. I kept this up with five minute pauses between every series of calls. After half an hour with no success I walked the last 100 feet to the river and looked down over the cutbank to the water. I was standing about six feet above the river, and there was a two foot wide beach between the water and the steep bank. Ice was beginning to flow and I wondered how long it would be before the Melozi was frozen solid.
Just then I heard a low “HUFF” out in the clearing.
I turned back toward the meadow but the grass and fireweed was over six feet high and I’m only 5’6”… so, like Zacchaeus, I found a tree. Only the tree I found was a large cottonwood log lying in the grass about four feet from the riverbank. The log gave me just enough height to get my head above the fireweed and allowed me to see what looked like twin spruce snags sticking up above the grass about 100 yards away. After watching them it became clear that they were moose antlers and they were coming directly toward me.
I levered a shell into my Winchester model 94 32 special and waited. Standing on a log, barely able to see over the grass and fireweed, and firing off hand with open sights is not the most ideal position. So, I waited and let the moose come closer. It was still moving directly toward me at a fast walk with an occasional “HUFF.”
I could only see the antlers and the very top of its hump. At about 50 yards I tried my shot … and MISSED!
The bull immediately broke into a fast trot straight at me. It flashed through my mind that I might have time for a fast shot and then I was going to jump over the bank to avoid getting smashed. I just aimed between the antlers and pulled the trigger. CRASH! Down he went. I stood there with my knees shaking for at least a full minute after quickly levering in another round. He didn’t get back up. I counted my steps to the downed moose. Eight steps, then the finishing shot.
His antler spread wasn’t huge, about 45 inches, but I didn’t care. We were after meat and this was a very large moose. After gutting it I headed toward camp to get help.
After just a few hundred yards along the bank I found my way blocked by three cow moose and a huge bull. I expected them to move out of my way, so I yelled and waved my arms while continuing up the bank toward them. The big bull didn’t feel like getting out of my way. As he turned toward me I realized that this was by far the biggest bull I had ever seen. He had wide heavy palms that spread straight out to both sides, and he was waving them back and forth to make sure that I saw them as he walked along the bank toward me.
Believing that discretion is the better part of valor, I decided to stop challenging this big guy by walking toward him and stood still. Unfortunately, the rut was in full swing and this fellow didn’t care which direction I was moving in. He was determined to smash me or dump me in the river. As he started picking up speed I fired a shot in the air while noting the fact that my little lever action rifle held seven rounds in the magazine and I had just used my fourth.
Just like the first bull, a loud bang didn’t seem to register as danger in his big rutted brain. He immediately charged at full speed from about 50 yards away. I levered two fast shots, aiming at birch trees near him. At the second shot he veered off into the trees and I stood for the second time in one hour with shaking knees. The cows slowly disappeared into the woods and I tried to relax.
Then I heard Steve yelling from the woods in the direction the huge bull had gone, “Marty, is that you?”
“Yes,” I yelled back.
“Come back here and shoot this moose,” Steve ordered.
“I already shot one, you shoot it,” I yelled back as I made my way toward him. I saw the back end of the big bull disappearing as Steve was climbing out of a large spruce tree.
Steve had already killed a moose and had gone back to camp for help. Finding no one at camp he came back to his moose to take care of it by himself. He was trying to find it when he heard a bunch of shooting and saw a huge bull tearing through the woods. The bull saw Steve about the same time and chased him up the tree.
So now I wasn’t the only one whose knees were shaking. We wandered around the area looking for the bull moose while Steve told me the story of his kill. Apparently he spotted his moose about the same time the moose saw him. The moose started moving towards Steve, so he hunkered down in the grass. It kept coming closer while Steve lined it up in his scope. Finally, at very close range, he made out the eye in his scope and pulled the trigger. It dropped dead. This moose had 62 inch wide antlers and a very large body, but the one that charged me and treed Steve was much larger.
We spent the next couple days packing meat. Bob got another moose and a large wolf that had come down to the river to check out the moose kill sites. I had to ferry mine across the river in a ten foot long inflatable canoe. The Melozi was running with slushy ice by this time. It would be only a week or so before freeze-up.
We had a little free time between all the work and we spent it playing with all the other moose in the area. It seemed this was bull central and they were all in rut. We were calling them with bull grunts and by scraping a plastic oil can on the end of a stick on trees and brush. The oil can made a loud noise and was apparently very much like the sound of a bull scraping his horns on trees. At one point we were calling three bulls at the same time.
We saw a total of 17 bulls during the five days we were at that camp. It’s hard to say how many of those moose we saw more than once, but suffice it to say, I have not had a moose hunt like that one since.
By Marty Van Diest
Bio: Born in California in 1953, lived in Alaska since 1954. Raised in Holikachuk on the Innoko River and Grayling on the Yukon. Have been a commercial fisherman, fur trapper, missionary, school teacher, and real estate agent…among other things. Grew up with dog teams, snow machines, boats, canoes, and airplanes. Have lived in many places in Alaska, comfortably settled in Palmer. Couldn’t imagine living in any other state.
Enjoy this article, check out “May Day” by Marty Van Diest.