“Dennis,” my guide whispered in my ear, “I think you’re going to have to go in on him on your own. He doesn’t seem to want to budge, and none of my grunting, cow-calling, or brush-raking has succeeded in getting any response from him at all.”
I could hear the frustration in Eric’s whisper. The two of us were standing just inside the edge of the last pocket of alpine spruce right at timberline, and we felt certain that within 100 yards of us, buried in the timber, was the bull moose we had spotted earlier that afternoon from a mile away.
“He may well have some cows with him,” continued Eric, “and that could explain why he’s not willing to reveal his presence.” As he motioned me forward, urging me to leave him behind, his final whispered words were, “Good luck, amigo! Just be sure to watch for a bright patch of white or yellow between the branches of the trees up ahead, because that is likely to be part of an antler-palm. And stay acutely aware that you may have to avoid more than one pair of eyes.”
Eric Umphenour had become a good friend. Many years prior to this latest adventure, he had guided me on two consecutive spring grizzly hunts on the coast of Norton Sound, some 30 miles southwest of Unalakleet, Alaska. The second of those hunts forged a great bond between us, because it produced a great 28-year-old boar.
Although I’d arrowed a 50-inch moose back in 1998 with a different Alaska outfitter, the bull had only possessed two brow tines per side. Partly because of that, and partly because I had taken him with my compound, once I finally made the decision in 2006 to hang up the compound for good and return to my roots in traditional archery, the goal of harvesting a true, trophy-quality, Alaskan giant with a stickbow jumped right to the top of my bucket list.
Achieving that dream was proving anything but easy, however. Long before the modest success in 1998, I had been on two unsuccessful hunts for the same species in the Northwest Territories. Then, in 2012 and 2014, I made two hunts for Alaska-Yukon moose in the Yukon Territory. Each was a great adventure, but each ended without a moose. In the winter of 2015, it occurred to me that Eric Umphenour just might be able to offer me the opportunity I was seeking. A phone call determined that he had one spot left for a moose hunter in September of 2016, and I booked it on the spot. His base camp for moose was located 80 miles due south of Fairbanks, on the very edge of the Alaska Range, and I knew the scenery was going to be absolutely spectacular throughout the hunt.
The events described in the opening paragraphs of this present story occurred in the afternoon of the eighth day of a ten-day hunt. Time was running out, and I was beginning to think that success was going to elude me once again. Eric had found several good, mature bulls for me, but none of my final stalks had quite worked out. At the very beginning of the hunt, he had explained something to me that I found interesting. “Believe it or not,” he told me, “in this part of Alaska—unlike the other major moose areas of the state— cow-calling has almost never proved effective, even at the peak of the rut. I have no idea why that is,” he continued, “but the only thing that has worked pretty consistently for me has been to rake the brush or the bark of a tree with a stout stick or moose scapula.”
Indeed, my guide had raked in one young bull which we estimated to be a three- or four-year-old, but as he came in above us and then stood broadside to me at 12 yards trying to figure out why I didn’t exactly look like another bull, I chose to pass on him, knowing that he was not what I was looking for.
Now, on that eighth afternoon, no wonder Eric was feeling frustrated. Not even his use of the moose scapula had produced any result. As I turned around and gave him one last look before heading deeper into the woods, he gave me the thumbs up, and I knew it was all going to be up to me to find the bull and kill him with one of the cedar arrows Suzanne St. Charles had custom made for me.
A light rain was falling, making the moss on the forest floor even quieter than it would otherwise have been. I felt good about my chances and confident that my equipment was up to the challenge. At my draw length I was pulling 60 pounds, so I felt pretty certain I had what I needed to get the job done. Little did I know that I was about to receive some divine assistance in the realization of my goal.
Taking extreme caution with every step and scouring the maze of branches in front of me for a patch of bright yellow or white, I knew my senses were on high alert, and I was ready for action — with an arrow already on the bowstring.
Suddenly that patch of white was there, and the image of a mature bull materialized before my eyes. As I studied him carefully through my binoculars and the interstices between the leaves, twigs, and branches, I noticed the head of a cow just off to his left. Then two more pairs of dark brown eyes appeared just to his right. This was not going to be easy, as I judged the distance to be still a good 45 yards away. Eight eyeballs versus two were not odds that increased my confidence.
By using one tree after another for visual cover, however, I gradually managed to decrease the distance to something under 30 yards. The last big spruce I was able to use for cover stood 25 paces from my quarry. Close enough, I thought. This will have to do. Not wishing to give myself away by attempting to use a rangefinder, I came to full draw and stepped out to the side far enough to clear the tree. At that precise moment, the broadside bull decided to shed the rainwater on his back and shook himself like a bird dog exiting a lake. The distraction was most welcome, and I let the arrow fly with a hope and a prayer, knowing that none of the four moose was yet aware of my presence.
As I watched the arrow rise and then descend toward the bull’s rib cage, I was thinking, “a perfect double-lung shot!” Yet, as the arrow continued to drop, and drop, and drop, my spirits began to sink along with it. Then—thwack!—that awful sound that bowhunters hate to hear. I couldn’t believe I had shot so low, but there was no mistaking the sound of my broadhead impacting the elbow bone right in front of his heart. The bull immediately whirled and ran out of sight in two seconds, leaving my arrow lying in the grass not 10 feet from where it had struck him.
Thoroughly disgusted with myself, I slowly trudged backward to reconnect with Eric and retrieve my daypack. Meanwhile, he hustled forward to see what he could see. A minute later, I suddenly heard a whistle and pulled my eyes off the ground to see Eric motioning me to come quickly. When I rejoined him, he was holding my arrow in his hands.
“Your arrow appears to be missing the broadhead and a bit of the end of the shaft,” he pointed out. I immediately snatched a fresh arrow from my bow-quiver and compared its length to the one Eric had just handed me.
“You’re right,” I said. “Two inches of shaft are not there.”
“Dennis!” Eric suddenly exclaimed, startling me with the intensity in his voice. “I just saw your bull bed down in the open tundra about 150 yards out. You must have struck something vital!”
Studying the stricken animal through my binoculars, I realized the good Lord had decided to lend me a helping hand. The bull tried once to rise to his feet but collapsed back into his bed. A minute passed, and then I could detect no further sign of life.
Eric walked up, extended his hand, and the handshake turned into a big bear-hug. The drama had ended happily, but the work was just beginning. Both of us were eager to skin the moose and find out just how my arrow had managed to take its life. Once the hide was off and the chest cavity opened up, the autopsy only took a few seconds. The heavy broadhead, backed by the weight of the heavy shaft, had smashed through the elbow bone and continued three inches into the moose’s heart, before backing out and being thrown clear as the bull made his swift departure.
Mysteriously, despite extensive searching we were never able to find either the broadhead or the short missing piece of arrow shaft, within the chest cavity, or on the ground at either end of his death run. We concluded that the point of the broadhead had penetrated no more than six inches beyond the hide, but that the bull had not been able to survive the incision in his heart.
As I raised my eyes skyward to give thanks for this long-held dream fulfilled, I spotted motion on the barren hillside above. Perhaps 300 yards distant stood the three cows, wondering why their paramour was not following their lead. As I thought about the huge challenge I had finally overcome, I could only hope that all three of the cow moose had already been impregnated by their departed Romeo. In a few short months, a whole new crop of spring calves would be born, and the cycle of life would start all over again.
Equipment Notes: Dennis hunted with a 60-pound Whitetail Hawk recurve by Steve Gorr at Cascade Archery. His custom shafts were tipped with 225-gr. Tuffheads, for a total arrow weight of 750 grains.