Story from Brian Watkins
Standing up to 7 feet at the shoulder and 1650 pounds, Alaskan moose are the largest member of the deer family. To hunt one from a mountain top; one has to be partially insane. Add three miles of packing, and you could be considered completely insane. Making that your plan for two moose gives you Courtland and myself, Brian. This is our 2014 Moose Hunt Story.
We began planning our 2014 fly-in moose hunt in June by contacting Zack Knaebel of Tok Air service after a recommendation from a few reputable hunters that I know Typically you don't start planning a fly-in hunt like this only a few short weeks before you plan to hunt, but luckily Zack still had one opening available, and we had him pencil us in. After a few phone calls back and forth, it was immediately apparent that Zack was a class-act, and would be the right guy to give us the hunt of a lifetime. We discussed what we wanted out of this moose hunt and decided on a specific spot, which ended up being in Alaskas game management unit (GMU) number 12.
Summertime activities flew by in the twinkling of an eye and August turned the page to September on the calendar before we knew it! For the prior few weeks, all required brainpower was either spent thinking about moose hunting, preparing gear for moose hunting, or talking moose hunt strategy with anyone who would listen. We watched every moose video ever made, every night, practiced cow calls in hotels, at work, in restaurants; everywhere. Going through gear lists seemed like a daily task and all of this preparation only fed the fire that burned inside before it was time to go.
Arriving in Tok on September 6th meant that we had an entire day of downtime before our scheduled departure on the 8th. What to do with a whole day? How about laying the framework for next years hunt!
6 AM on departure day came as the sun cut across the horizon, casting an orange hue over the mountains, while the early morning September air gave a small bite as to what was to engulf the landscape in a few months. In another instant, I found myself watching my buddy go wheels up in a Supercub.
When flying in a 'cub', as they're known in Alaska, there is only room for one passenger and generally about 50 pounds of gear. Court was the first to leave and I was right behind him, arriving to our destination around 1PM.
Since it is illegal to hunt most big-game animals in Alaska on the same day you have been airborne, we made ourselves busy by setting up camp, followed by a quick scouting of the area, which meant several hours behind binoculars and the spotting scope. On a few short hikes around camp, we immediately started finding shed antlers from bulls who had rid themselves of their headgear in previous years. This, along with seeing not game-trails, but 'Moose Highways' cut through the wilderness meant that sleeping well that night only meant dreaming of moose.
The crisp morning air is still yielding to temperatures nearing 60 degrees by noon. Not spotting bulls in the morning hours means the only thing we can do during the heat of the day is to sit and glass, hoping to see the ever elusive ear-twitch, or to make out an antler tine among millions of branches.
By 7:30 PM it was still not even close to being legal for us to harvest a moose. However, temperatures were starting to drop and across the valley, a bull that will later be known as “The Ghost” appears sky-lined atop a far ridge. In all his majesty, we only see his antlers swaying back and forth as he crests the ridge, and we lose sight of the bull. Though hot during the day and only early September, we decide to have some fun and try bull grunts and scrapes to see if he would respond in any way. After some time, The Ghost appears out of nowhere, about 1200 yards away. He acknowledges our calls by assaulting some nearby brush with his antlers, but keeps his distance and moves up the valley. Dusk comes, and we are pumped for our first legal day of hunting.
Alarms go off at 5 AM on September 9th, even though neither of us slept a minute the night before, despite hopes for deep sleep dreams filled with big bulls. We are up and glassing for moose. It’s brutally cold and windy, sitting still in the valley. As the sun makes its summit, we finally gain a little warmth. By 8:15 AM we’ve had enough. Nothing is moving. We’re cold, hungry and were hoping to spot at least a cow! We decide to hike back to camp for some hot oatmeal.
As we come over the hill above camp, my eyes wander up the valley floor. Bull! Court is a few second behind me and has yet to see the monster standing broadside just above us. I drop to a knee and immediately decide he’s a shooter. I yell back to Court to take the shot. He gets into position next to me and lets the bull have all 220 grains out of his Ruger 300 Win Mag. The bull swings his head around and is down in an instant. At 241 yards, the bull of any hunters’ dreams is down...and less than 4 hours from when the alarm went off!
The valley lights up with excitement. Only a hunter can feel the euphoria from a successful hunt. It’s an explosion which resides inside your heart that unleashes when everything comes together. The only thing to do is yell and jump around like you’re in second grade gym class.
Court has been hunting moose for ten consecutive years without harvesting one. His persistence in moose hunting has finally paid off. He’s accomplished a bucket list hunt that few get to check off. There is no way to contain the excitement. The adrenaline rush succumbs to the realization of packing this enormous ungulate 2 miles with 600 feet of elevation gain. Long jobs often begin with the press of a trigger.
For the rest of the day, we butchered the moose and take two meat loads of 60 pounds each to the airstrip. With three hours left of daylight, we glass for another moose. Nothing to be found for the evening. After a long day of work, we decide to forgo the 5 AM wake-up call and zip up the sleeping bags.
At 9AM on September 10th, I unzip the tent and take a quick peek at the valley before making another days run at hauling moose meat to the airstrip. I spot a handful of bulls, nothing seriously worth pursuing. Besides, we already had a job to complete, but before breakfast, I woke up my hunting partner and we had some fun with the bulls, putting sheds on our heads and posturing toward the moose for a response.
We take three more loads from Courts’ moose to the strip. Packing moose can be miserable work as it seems that every step is on top of a tussock, trudging through snow, or fighting the willows. Every pack-load hurts more and takes longer. At the end of the day, we start a fire to dry our gear...from sweat. He starts dinner and gets warm water to clean up with while I head out to glass. As I get ready to start cow calling, I spot movement. A wolf sneaks along the edge of a creek below camp and briefly pauses. It’s enough time to gauge the yardage between myself and my new target, and press off a shot. My bullet finds its mark after 294 yards of flight, and I drop him dead in his tracks. Not a bad reward for a days work!
The next morning, Court sleeps in to catch up on rest. After all, his job is done, right?! I still needed to punch a tag, so I'm up at 7:30 AM to start a session of glassing. Within minutes, I spot the bull we saw the first day...The Ghost.
The bull was bedded down at the moment, the wind was in our favor, a creek was nearby to help mask our noise, and the situation was looking promising. After waking up court, it looks like we can use all of the aforementioned 'tools' to close the distance to about 200 yards for a shot without being in the bulls line of sight. While making the half-mile stalk, our anticipation builds. As we lean over a rock that will give us the perfect shot, there was no moose to be found. Somehow The Ghost had given us the slip. I begin to wonder if this bull was a figment of my imagination...even though we had photo evidence!
The morning of September 12th began at 7 AM with our daily dose of glassing the mountains. I spot two bulls right away, but they are on the furthest ridge I can see, which is too far to give chase. Court decides to do some scraping while I glass to see what’s around. With the luck of the Irish, I spot a quick flash of antler in the willows through my binoculars. I run to grab the spotter to get a better look at this bull. In that short time, the bull has disappeared. I figured it was The Ghost slipping me again, but the glassing persistence pays off as I move my glassing spot about 100 yards and my eyes meet the moose of my dreams through my binoculars.
This time Court watches the bull religiously as I make the stalk. We come up with hand gestures so he can tell me what the bull is doing as I close distance. I walk the creek bottom, downwind from the bull. Worn out from packing Courts moose, I'm moving slowly. I circle the base of the mountain on the other side from the bull, to minimize the chance of a blown stalk. Halfway, Court gives me the sign that the bull is still where we first saw it. At this point, the stalk is mine to blow.
Circling to backside of the mountain from the bull, I take off my shoes so I don’t make noise and strip down to my base layer. My base layer is black, so I look like another moose shall this bull see me. I range him at 370 yards, but I know I can get closer. After making my to the next ridge, I range him at 220 yards. I drop to a knee and SNAP! A dry branch snaps, and in my head it might as well have been as loud as a gunshot! The bull swings his head around and sees me. Couple my 'bull fever' with knowing that something had to be done quickly, I finally connect with the animal as he starts to move on my third shot. I make my way toward the moose and quickly dispatch it, sealing the deal on harvesting the largest animal of my life! If you've never been beside an Alaskan bull moose that is laying on the ground, its sometimes hard to grasp just how big they are! The stalk was 1.78 miles, making it my longest to date.
The explosion of excitement bursts out of me again and I let out a long "Wwwwwwoooooooo!" It isn't The Ghost, but it is a dandy! Court is half a mile away from me and we are screaming back and forth with happiness. Big Bull DOWN!
It takes another day and a half to pack the moose 3 miles back to the strip. We stayed one more night and got to enjoy the valley one more time. It was bittersweet to leave such a beautiful place, but we were able to with three magnificent animals. Courts moose is 57” wide, and mine is 60”.
Now, it’s time to start planning sheep hunt 2015 and complete my Alaska Big Game Registration Tag Slam...as I like to call it.
For the hunt of a lifetime; Call Zack Knaebel with Tok Air Service. He’s extremely knowledgeable, funny, and charismatic. He will get you on the hunt of your dreams. Tell him Brian Watkins sent you. (907) 322-2903
I so enjoyed your story! You made me feel like I was right along with you for the hunt!! Congratulations on your success and thanks for sharing your story!!