JD's Kniktuk Outfitters - Hunting Alaska's Bristol Bay for Brown Bear
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The following article is from the Alaska Magazine "Fall Hunting Special"

Hunter's Luck
No matter how well you prepare, chance will play a role in the hunt.
By John Barsness

It comes in three forms, hunter's luck: Time, skill and sheer. The first compensates for the capriciousness of nature. As someone wise once said: "You won't get many moose while watching TV." This applies equally to grouse, mushrooms and all the other stuff we hunt for. That is time luck, being out there as much as possible.

Skill luck is often defined as when preparation and opportunity meet. This means at lease minimally mastering the skills that go into hunting. These include shooting, keeping warm and unlost, and knowing when your quarry frequents certain terrain.

Sheer luck you either have or you don't. We all know people with sheer luck, who always win the door prize, or shoot big deer from their front porch. Since I mentioned moose already, let's use them as an example. I live in Montana, where we have a moose-tag lottery. I have played this lottery since sometime in my teens. I'm now in my mid-'40s and still haven't won the door prize.

This doesn't mean I haven't gone moose hunting; on several occasions I've gotten to tag along. The last time was with my lucky Irish wife, who drew a Montana moose tag the first time she applied. After Eileen got her moose (half an hour after the season opened, naturally) I was privileged to serve as chief packer. This is much like carrying boxes of water-soaked encyclopedias through a tornado-flattened shopping mall. Oddly enough, it didn't discourage me from the moose-lottery.

Finally, after receiving my Montana moose money back for the umpteenth time, I bought a moose tag in Alaska. Despite what biologists tell us, I believe Alaska is where moose were made, whether by God or evolution or both. I also believe that God rested on the seventh day because on the sixth day, after creating Adam and Eve, he helped them pack out a moose.

Here is how you get to the real moose places in Alaska. First get out of Anchorage, then take a floatplane as far up a river as the plane can land, and then a boat as far up the river as a boat can travel and still be called a boat. Then make camp and hike up a hill and look for a moose.

In this case, we camped up a distant tributary of the Nushagak River, four days before moose season opened. "We" was me, several friends named Ray, Gary, Johnny and Myron, and two guides named Randy and Dick. As an excuse for hiking around in the hills, we each had a caribou tag. It turned out that Randy and Dick were also from Montana, though Randy had lived in Alaska for a decade. So we talked about elk hunting while we hunted caribou and looked for moose.

The hills we hunted formed a tilted horseshoe, with the open end down along the river. Each morning Randy and Ray and I would climb one end of the horseshoe, while the other four would climb the other end. We hiked at first through hummocky earth covered by bearberry and blueberry bushes, finally coming to a steep slope of flat gravel covered by wet caribou moss. We slowly climbed this, slipping occasionally on the moss.

In the morning there would be fog or low clouds over the hills, and soon after reaching the steep slope, we would strip off our jackets. By the time we reached the ridge of the horseshoe hills, we'd be sweating, but breathing so deeply that we could smell all of it, even over our sweat, the caribou moss and blueberries and river, and sometimes even the slightly acrid scent of caribou droppings on the trails that cut into the shoulders of the hills. Then we'd find a place to sit and look through binoculars and let the sweat dry. From up there we could see hundreds of miles of wild Alaska, empty of everything man-made. We were so far from civilization that the sky was even empty of planes.

By midmorning, the sun would burn through the clouds and fog, and we'd hike the undulating ridge, looking down into every draw and valley for caribou – or moose. When looking across the empty middle of the horseshoe, we often saw the other hunters, tiny particles of blue and green, so unexpectedly small that they made the hemisphere of Alaska within our vision seem even larger. Sometimes in those moments it seemed as if we could grasp infinity, that the hills and sky went on forever and we could truly understand "forever" for the first time. This was odd enough, but odder still was our sudden acceptance, indeed the comfort in the idea. It was so comforting that after eating lunch we could lie back on the caribou moss and sleep for a while, on hillsides where we'd recently seen grizzly bears.

The first day was warm and we didn't see many caribou. The fall migration from the hills farther north had just begun, and every warm day stopped the movement. But on the second day the clouds never did lift entirely, and we hunted in an erratic drizzle, finding little bands of caribou almost everywhere. Toward midday, we sat on our side of the horseshoe and watched the other hunters stalk some caribou in the valley below us. It was excruciating. From our vantage point, a thousand feet up the mountain, we could see three bull caribou feeding on one side of an almost barren knoll, and see Myron and Dick sneaking from stunted spruce to stunted spruce on the other side. They would stop and lift their binoculars, then walk bent over at the waist, then look some more. We assumed their binoculars were fogged, because the damn caribou looked to be right in front of them.

Finally, Myron raised his rifle. One of the caribou fell down, and then we heard the shot. We went down into the valley and helped cut up Myron's caribou and carry it down to the river. I carried the antlered head over my shoulders. Caribou antlers are made for this: Stand the antlers upside down, with the jaw pointing toward you, then swing the skull high over your shoulders and behind your back, so that each antler rests on one of your shoulders. A mature bull's antlers balance so perfectly you can hold them steady with one hand, carrying your rifle in the other. It looks pretty Pleistocene, and feels that way too, which far back in the Alaska bush seems quite appropriate.

We did that for four days: hiked into the horseshoe hills and shot caribou and packed them out. Sometimes we broke up the routine by catching a few silver salmon and grayling from the river, the salmon not silver this far from the ocean, but as red as the ripest apple along their sides, and as green as the ripest avocado on their heads. Sometimes we ate caribou tenderloin for dinner, sometimes salmon fillets, sometimes both. Sometimes we could almost persuade ourselves that days like this would go on forever, like the infinity of the planeless sky above us.

But moose season eventually broke up the idyll. You would think that hiking up mountains and packing out 400-pound caribou is hard labor. Well, you could think so if you'd never been moose hunting.

Ray and Myron had killed their caribou and left, the chicken-hearts. Johnny had also killed his caribou, one of those Christmas tree bulls with antlers like a small forest, but decided to stay and fish and watch moose hunters work.

Gary and I were the moose hunters. I don't know how Gary's days went, but mine started out not too badly, more like caribou hunting. We hiked into the horseshoe hills and glassed the area where I'd spotted a bull moose two days before, when it wasn't legal to kill him. I'd been looking through 10-power binoculars at spruce timber on a lower ridge and seen something white. Through the 40-power spotting scope it appeared to be a moose antler. Randy said baloney. Then the white spot turned red, and developed a long black snout. It was a bull moose, his antlers just stripped of velvet, bedded in the brush. The tops of his antlers were washed white by the rain, the undersides still red with blood. When he turned his head, the antler turned from white to red.

There'd been a cow bedded with the bull, and Randy thought the rut might be starting. With a ready cow, the bull would probably stay in the area, so at the first moose dawn, we hiked back up there and looked all morning with our long-seeing glass eyes. No moose. Not even a caribou. Not even any cool fog. By late morning the bugs had come out in the warm sun – not as many as August, to be sure, but enough that we had to slather generous amounts of insect repellant onto our faces and hands. Protected by DEET, we glassed some more and finally found the caribou, gathered like flies on the barren ridgetops of distant mountains, as high as they could climb into the sky-breeze to avoid the bugs.

It also became apparent that the moose rut had not begun, that seeing the bull with the cow had been merest chance. For the next two days, we climbed hills and looked down into alder swamps. We saw cows and calves and little bulls. Legal bulls had to have either three brow tines on one antler – the brow tines being the lower, forward-spreading part of the antler palm – or have at least a 50-inch antler spread, from farthest tip to farthest tip. We did not see a moose like this anywhere within half-a-mile of the river.

We did, however, see them two miles away. We'd see them early in the morning, easing out of small patches of spruce at the base of the far mountains: moose as large as Clydesdales, with antlers spreading 5 feet or more. One morning, we saw three big bulls wander out of the spruce to a pond, where one walked in and dipped his head entirely underwater to eat, while the other two sparred half-heartedly on shore. Then they walked another half-mile to a big swamp and disappeared.

Why didn't we go hunt them? If they were elk in Montana, Randy acknowledged, we'd be dressing them out already. But they were moose in Alaska, with two miles of muskeg separating us.

Muskeg is interesting stuff. In the wet places it is swamp; in the dry places, hummocks that are too limp to stand on and too thick to walk between. Between the wet and dry there are "floaters," ponds that have grown over with grass. Walking over floaters is like walking over a very loose half-acre trampoline, except you are not wearing gym clothes but hip boots, a 15-pound pack and rifle.

But by the third day, we were desperate enough to try it. We say two big bulls leave a patch of spruce and head for a swamp a mile away. It took us three hours to "hike" two miles of muskeg, because we got lucky. After leaving the river, falling through a swamp and wobbling over a floater the size of a football field, we found a long low ridge of hummocks leading directly to the moose swamp. We got there at 11 a.m. The moose had disappeared into the middle, and the swamp was too thick to swim and too deep to walk. After waiting an hour just in case the moose came out again, we stumbled and sloshed back through the muskeg to the river, then went back to camp for a late lunch and a nap.

The next day was the last day we could kill a moose and have time to pack it out before leaving. We climbed another hill and saw five big bulls come out of a spruce patch two miles away. We watched them, with no desire for another muskeg chase. Even if we caught up to one, the meat would spoil before we could pack it to the river.

After lunch back at camp, Randy took a nap while I grabbed my fly rod and decided that if I wasn't going to kill a moose, at least I could catch a salmon for supper. I walked up to the first big pool above camp and through my polarized glasses say a line of red-sided salmon near the head of the pool. I cast 50 times before one took the fly, and then I fought it for a long time before slinging the 12-pound fish into the shoreline gravel. I lay it in the shade of some driftwood, then tied on a dry fly and caught some grayling. fter the second grayling, I started feeling strange, and a little guilty for not filleting the salmon right away. So I carried it back to camp. Randy crawled out of his tent as I was sliding it onto the cleaning table.

At exactly that moment, I heard splashing upstream, and thought our other hunters must be returning. I looked up and saw a bull moose walking right through the pool where I'd been fishing two minutes before. "There's a moose coming down the middle of the river," I said. "Where's my rifle?"

Randy laughed. "Right," he said. And then he saw the moose. "Where's your damn rifle?" Luckily, it was lying on my daypack right next to the cleaning table, where I'd put it after returning from the morning hunt. I sat down along the bank and aimed at the moose.

He'd heard our voices and stopped in the shallow water just below the salmon pool. "Don't shoot him in the water," Randy hissed. I nodded. Randy looked at him through his binoculars. "He ain't legal," he said. "He doesn't have three brow tines."

"To hell with brow tines. Is he 50?" Randy looked startled. "Oh, yeah, yeah, I guess he is." The moose looked in our direction, then climbed the steep bank. As soon as all four hooves were on dry land, I shot him in the chest. He stood up on his hind legs like a bucking horse and fell over backward into the river, where he turned over twice, then lay still, half of one antler sticking out of the water. "Oh well," Randy said.

We decided to use Randy's jet boat to drag the moose across the river to a gravel bar, about 50 yards from the meat tent. I waded into the river from the camp side, while Randy maneuvered the boat upstream. As I stepped into the river and eased toward the moose, I could see something gleaming dull, like an opal in the water under the antler. I waded closer, feeling carefully along the bottom with my feet, and looked down to see the moose's eye, looking at me from under 2 feet of blue-black water. I stood there, feeling again that odd sensation of infinity I'd felt in the hills a few days before.

Except now this moose, this unlucky moose I had killed, had slipped into another version of that infinity, entirely separate from me and the alders and the sky, and the dark water washing over his gleaming eye seemed like the wall between our worlds.

And then Randy threw me a rope and I slipped it over the antler and we dragged the moose back into our world, to the shallows of the gravel bar where we could butcher his several hundred pounds of meat. Frequently during those five hours, I stopped to wipe the mosquitoes and blood away, and to wonder about luck. Which kind had this been? Part way through the job, the other hunters showed up, telling us that Gary had also killed a big bull, at just about the same time I had, up where I'd glassed the bull and cow a few days before.

And it was then I knew that the three kinds of moose luck can never be totally separated, that they are as intertwined as the sky and hills and river, and that each day on this side of the dark water contains as much luck as any we will ever live.

JD's Kniktuk Outfitters, LLC
PO Box 1403, Riggins, ID 83549
Darwin Vander Esch - Booking Agent
208-628-3256 • Cell: 907-843-1715
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