Somewhere down there, in the marshland and spruce thickets, was a moose.
I was on a trail running along a ridge above the marsh. I shut off my Honda Foreman and waited fifteen minutes or so, until the engine stopped ticking as it cooled, then waited five more minutes. I got off the ATV and took my rifle out of the case and started walking slowly and quietly down the trail. I found a good vantage point, cleared my throat, and let out the first call. I was supposed to sound like a cow in need of a boyfriend. In my case, "supposed to sound" is not an incidental expression.
My hunting buddy Jon insisted there was a good bull down there; he'd heard it grunting in answer to his own bull grunt. Jon is a serious moose-hunter who gets his moose every year. So when Jon talks moose, I listen. I especially listen to his critiques of my moose call. When I make a call around him, his critique typically goes like this:
"Ha, ha, ha! Ho, ho, ho! He, he, he!" He usually doubles over or slaps his knee while he delivers it. "You sound like a man crying for his ma!"
So I'd learned to make my calls discreetly, out of human earshot. Still, I had some faith in my calling because I'd once called in a nice bull half a dozen years before. I figured there was always the chance of finding a moose with a strange, exotic taste in girlfriends, who was mentally unstable, or who had a sense of humor.
But that evening I called off and on until dusk without finding my miracle bull. When it was too dark to see I got on the ATV and went back to camp. I'd driven to our moose-camp near Talkeetna that day (Saturday) and was planning to stay until the season ends on Thursday, September 25. My camp is in a real nice place above a little lake. On clear days, you can see Mt. McKinley to the north beyond the lake; and on clear nights the stars of the Milky Way shine through the overhanging birch trees. I was camped there all by myself because work demands had made my son cancel his plans to join me. My camp was about a mile by ATV trail from Jon's new cabin. Last year he'd capitulated to the demands of a new wife, built the cabin, and quit camping out in the woods near me.
Well after midnight I heard the rain pattering on the fly of my tent, and the rain kept up the rest of the night. I'd planned to get up early, but I tend to be easily discouraged about getting up early; I stayed snuggled in my bag, listening to the rain, until about eleven o'clock. Then I got up and ate a leisurely brunch. It was still raining and I was too late to make the prime hunting hours just after dawn. So I moved my folding chair out under the tarp I'd hung in front of my wall tent and opened a good book.
The rain stopped around noon, but I decided to wait until four o'clock or so before setting out, leading into the prime evening hours for hunting. I kept reading my book. I go on these moose hunts every year mostly to commune with nature and get in some quiet reading time -- or so I tell my wife, family, and Jon in the years when I get skunked.
At a chapter break in the book I decided to get up and practice my cow call some more. I walked a few feet from under the tarp and let loose a mighty, "Mmmmaaaa!" I did it a couple more times. "Mmmmaaaa! Mmmmaaaa!" Then I went back to my book, a Longmire novel by Craig Johnson. For about an hour I would get up every five or ten minutes and let out another "Mmmmaaaa!"
I became engrossed in the book, and forgot to call for about fifteen minutes, when I heard a sound on the hill above me. It was right next to the ATV trail we used to climb the hill, so at first I thought it was Jon or one of his sons walking down on foot. Then there came the unmistakable hollow sort of rattling sound that moose antlers make going through trees and brush. And I saw the dark form of a moose and the broad flat palms of bull antlers. In this heavily-forested country we hunt, a hundred yards is a long distance. This moose stopped about seventy-five yards away when he heard me get up out of the chair as quietly as I could. Moose don't have great eyes, but their ears can triangulate in on the slightest unnatural sound.
Oh, no! My rifle was still in its Kolpin case mounted on the ATV. Moving slowly I opened the case and tried to extract the rifle without making noise. Of course, it got stuck, and I had to tug it harder and harder to get it free. Then the top cartridge in the magazine got jammed as I tried to slide the bolt home. After a couple of decades, I finally had a round chambered and raised the rifle to my shoulder. I was holding Old Methuselah, a Ruger M77 in .300 Win. Mag., which I had some custom work done on; Methuselah had never missed a shot I'd taken on game (knock on wood).
I knew that bull was ready to spook any second, and if he did all I would see would be a brief glimpse of his hindquarters disappearing into the brush. As quickly as I could I set up an offhand shot with the crosshairs on the bull's neck and squeezed off. I didn't feel the recoil, but the muzzle blast set the tarp flapping and the sound numbed my left ear. The moose collapsed in a heap, rolled until all four legs were in the air, then rolled back down on its side. I could not see the bull but saw the brush and grass waving as he kicked out his life on the ground.
I closed in slowly. The moose was still kicking, and I didn't trust him not to jump back up. I could smell him now and see him on the ground, one hind leg still jerking but his eye open and fixed in death.
I went back to camp, fired up the ATV, and drove it in close to the moose, where I could use the winch to hoist one massive hind-leg in the air. Then I called Jon on the cellphone and asked him to come by with the meat wagon, if he was free. He had just woken from his afternoon nap, but agreed to come.
Jon showed up with a husky, strapping son, whom I eyed with approval. Just what we needed for hoisting moose hindquarters into game bags. But Jon seemed a bit irritated and confused. "Wow, that's a big one!"
"Biggest one I ever shot," I said.
"Did you call it in? With that call of yours?" he asked, disbelievingly.
"Yeah, I was sitting over there under my blue tarp, and. . . ."
"Stop! I don't want to hear any more."
Jon was mooseless so far, and he usually bagged one early in the season. I could tell that his world had gone surreal, the foundation of his sense of reality had been shaken. He gets up at six am, while his buddy sleeps in, then bags a moose right in front of his tent? How much can you expect a man to handle, anyway?
It took the three of us about four hours to get that bull butchered and in the meat wagon. Most of the time, Jon kept shaking his head and muttering under his breath.
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