Hunting the Big Boys: Five Steps for Moose Success
by Paul D. Atkins
I could see the bull long before I got to him; he wasn’t a monster, but he was legal and respectable nonetheless. It was also the last day of our seven-day hunt and probably the last chance I would have at taking a bull during the season. He didn’t seem to be in a hurry, but getting to a spot where I could get a shot would be the tricky part.
Alaska moose are very big animals. Big bulls can weigh close to 1,800 pounds and stand seven feet at the shoulder. With all that height also comes the sheer mass; big-bodied and a skeletal structure that is built like a tank.
I’ll be the first to say that moose hunting isn’t the most difficult hunt in the world. Here in Alaska it sometimes seems like they’re standing on every corner or behind every willow, and if you think I’m kidding just go to downtown Anchorage sometime. Even here in rural Alaska they aren’t that hard to find, but finding the right one, the glorified 60-inch-plus bull, may prove more difficult.
When I first arrived in Alaska back in the 1990s getting a moose with archery gear was my number-one priority. Sure, everyone wants to shoot a caribou or two, but a moose, the largest of the deer family, was the pinnacle of any trip to the tundra.
After spending most of my life bowhunting whitetails in the Midwest I decided to move up here and pursue other big game, and like most who venture north, I came to the conclusion that moose would become my whitetail. What I didn’t understand at the time was how much different hunting moose and hunting deer can be. For sure there are ton of differences, the terrain, the enormity of the animals, the idea of shooting something that big and then getting it back to camp, or how much more aggressive you have to be. It took me several years to figure it all out, but through a lot of trial and error here are five things you need to consider. And while my focus was bowhunting, most of these tips apply to rifle hunters as well.
Where to Go
Moose can be found in almost all of Alaska, from the Colville River on the Arctic Slope to the Unuk River in Southeast. There are some parts of the state, however, such as Kodiak and many of the smaller islands, where moose do not exist. If you are thinking about a moose hunt then you probably need to start looking at one or more of the many river drainages that are known to support solid populations. Water attracts moose, but food supply and female companionship is the keyto finding big bulls. Anyplace that that has a high concentration of willow and birch plus riverweeds and a she-moose or two will be a prime location. Rivers such as the Noatak and Kobuk here in the Northwest to the Kuskokwim and Yukon or in areas of the Kenai Peninsula—each can be a great place to find the bull of your dreams. I have hunted them all and it would be hard for me to pick one particular area, as all are great choices.
But wherever you plan to hunt, don’t expect to find the new world record standing on the bank; you’ll have to work at it. Alaska’s rivers tend to go on forever and braid off in many directions, creating a lot of small pockets that a moose can hide in. Also, depending on the area you’re in and how far you want to go from camp, the hunting can be endless. Big country and the long days of September offer hunting 12- to 14 hours per day.
I have found that if you get off the river and hunt the low-lying willows and the occasional open spots you will have the best chance at taking a good bull; plus it can provide about as much excitement as a hunter can get. Watching a big bull stroll out at 10- to 15 yards is quite the experience.
Depending on whether you hunt with a bow or a rifle, the equipment you need will differ very little on a moose hunt. Let’s start with bow hunters.
These days archery equipment has become so advanced that just about any setup will get the job done. Top-of-the-line bows such as the new BowTech Experience, Hoyt Spider or Mathews Creed practically shoot themselves, but choosing a bow is only part of the equation. It still takes a ton of practice and confidence, which will become vital when that big bull steps out.
Whichever you choose the state does require that a bow have a minimum of 50 pounds draw weight and a broadhead with at least 7/8 cutting diameter.
Choice of broadhead is probably one of the most important aspects when it comes to choosing your archery setup for moose. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who recently changed their policy, now allow mechanical broadheads to be used on moose. However, this doesn’t mean you should use mechanicals on something as big as a moose. Moose are built like tanks and their ribs are put together like steel shingles. To successfully get an arrow into a big bull, let alone a pass-through, cansometimes be a tough task and most mechanicals will not perform as well as a replaceable or solid head. Penetration is the key and a complete pass-through is always desired. The last thing you want to do is wound an animal because of broadhead failure, especially on a giant moose.
There are hundreds of broadheads to choose from, but when you’re miles from home and that bull of your dreams steps out you better make sure you have chosen the right one. I have found that solid one-piece heads do the best job. I personally like the Muzzy Phantom, the G5 Montec and the Steel Force Premium in particular. These broadheads perform and fly like darts from just about any distance. I’ve taken moose with all these broadheads and all have been either a complete pass-through or almost pass-through, which resulted in quick, clean kills.
If you choose to go the rifle route you will need to take into consideration the caliber necessary to take down a ton of muscle and bone. Most seasoned Alaska hunters have their favorite caliber and will argue with you at long length about which is the best and why. Here in the Arctic, for example, I have seen just about every caliber imaginable used during a moose harvest and most have worked. However, if you’re looking to bag a monster and want to eliminate a long tracking job, then the proper choice of caliber, ammunition and the type of rifle you bring needs to be carefully thought out long before you board the bush plane.
When bringing down something as big as a moose, where shot placement and knockdown power are key, I would highly recommend something in the.300 caliber range. Personally I use a .300 WSM combined with a 180-grain Winchester E-Tip, AccuBond CT or XP3. This caliber does a fantastic job, and with proper bullet placement will bring down the biggest and the baddest of the tundra. I would also recommend a rifle that is stainless and comes with a synthetic stock. Both can cost more than a blued rifle with a walnut stock, but when it comes to hunting the rigorous Alaska bush, where rain, mud and willow-choked thickets play hell on your equipment, then paying a little extra for a rifle that can handle these situations and come out looking good is well worth it. Other calibers to consider, in my opinion, are the .338 and .375. Both pack a ton of knockdown power, and if your combining your moose hunt with bear, then one of these calibers may be the
Choosing to hunt with a bow or a rifle is a personal decision, and really when it comes down to it, is just a small part of the equation. The key to your success is to be able to locate your bull and then be able to effectively place an arrow or bullet in the boiler room and bring him down cleanly and quickly. One thing for certain, whichever you decide, it will be a memory you will not soon forget.
After you have selected your rifle or bow setup and have things dialed-in it’s time to choose the rest of your gear. With the ever-increasing cost of baggage, a hunter needs to choose his or her gear carefully.
You will of course have a rifle- or bow case, and I suggest you find something big and as light as possible. In the latter case, a big bow case can be stuffed with not only your bow, arrows, releases, broadheads, binoculars, rangefinder and a small accessory kit, but can hold a lot more clothes than you think. With airlines charging more and more for baggage these days, a big case will not only save you money, but allow you to take extra gear that will be needed on the hunt.
You will always need to bring a good set of raingear for an Alaska hunt. I have hunted moose every September for the last 15 years and on each and every one of those hunts it has rained. Your raingear should not only be waterproof, but durable, comfortable and more importantly, allow you to move (draw your bow) with no restrictions. I personally use Sitka Gear, but Cabela’s Dry Plus and Russell APX work great as well.
Fleece layering is another must-have, plus several pair of socks and some type of camp shoes. You will also need a good set of waders if you plan to hunt moose. River crossings are sometimes endless and will require something past your knees. Waders are not my favorite, but they
Besides the bow- or rifle case, I have learned that dry bags work great for the rest of your gear. Dry bags are tough and come in several sizes, plus they weigh practically nothing. Necessities, such as clothes, toiletries and game bags will fit nicely inside and stay dry outside the tent.
All moose look big and sometimes it can be tough to determine size on smaller bulls, but when a monster, those that are in the 60- to 70-inch range steps out, you will know it.
I have tried many hunting methods on moose and have had some success with each, but it does take persistence. Using good binoculars and spotting scope, and then finding a high vantage to glass from is probably your best bet. Once you’re in the air on route to the area where you will be hunting you will need to make some decisions. The pilot will land where he can, but it’s been benificial in my experience to make a few passes and have him drop you off in an area that has a high point or at least a few hills. Moose are hard to see in the dense willow at eye level, but glassing from a hill or other rise in elevation will provide a great place for you to get a better view. Once you’re there and locate some moose, breakout your scope to get a closer view.
Another technique is to take off from camp using spot-and-stalk. As always, you will need to pay close attention to the wind, as what moose lack in speed they make up in smell. Moose have huge noses that are not only good at smelling bears and wolves, but hunters, too.
Bull moose are also very responsive to calling, whether it’s from a commercial call or a homemade job like a funnel. The technique is very similar to using a whitetail doe grunt and trying to draw in big buck. By mimicking a cow moose, big bulls will usually respond in some manner, looking for a cow in heat. I have rattled in bulls using nothing more than a pair of sticks, but have also used a set of small moose sheds. When the rut is on, bulls will respond to just about any noise; hunters need to be careful as rut-crazed bulls can and will become
Ideally you should move slow and take your time; this combined with a little calling can be a very effective technique, especially during late September. Hearing a big bull come crashing through the willows to your call and then step into range is an unforgettable and sometimes intimidating experience.
Hunting moose doesn’t require a guide here in Alaska and most tags can be obtained through a pretty liberal drawing held each February. Guided hunts can be quite expensive; so most hunters take the do-it-yourself option.
Seven- to 10 days on the tundra with bow or rifle in hand is not only the ultimate adventure, but also true a test of your hunting skills. But like all hunts in Alaska it’s not for the weak of heart and can be tough, bordering on the extreme at times. Finding and taking that bull of a lifetime can and will be the highlight of the hunt, but getting 1,800 pounds of him back to camp and then back home can be a different story.
In addition to that a hunter has to be ready for all that a hunt like this has to offer. Whether it’s constant rain, mosquitoes, an upset bush pilot or the ever-constant threat of bears, you have to be prepared and have the brains to get things done. I would highly suggest you invest in a satellite phone and a good GPS. You never know what can happen and the security they provide will make the hunt that more enjoyable.
On my hunt that opened this story, I could see the bull standing on the edge of a riverbank with his nose stuck in the water. To cut the distance, I decided each time he put his head down I would weave in and out of the willows until I could get within bow range. My hope was that he wouldn’t venture back into the willows where there would be no chance.
With each dip of his head I made a move and the bull stayed in place. This worked until the final reading on the rangefinder said he was broadside at 43 yards. Carefully drawing the bow, I hoped to place the arrow right behind his shoulder. At the release I knew it was good, and as I saw the fletching disappear, I wondered if he would go into the water or turn to the willows.
Either way, now the work would begin.
Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer from Kotzebue, Alaska. When not bowhunting his home state of Alaska, you can find him hunting throughout North America and Africa. He teaches at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, Chukchi Campus.
Alaska Moose Particulars
If you’re a resident of the state you only need to buy a hunting license and pick up your green Moose Harvest ticket. Some areas in the state, however, do require a resident to draw a permit in. Non-residents must apply and draw the tag outright. The application period for drawing an Alaska moose permit is during the month of November and December. Applications once could be done through the mail, but no longer. They must be done online through the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s website.
A non-resident must first buy a hunting license for $85. This is quite cheap compared with the cost of other non-resident licenses and application prices in the Lower 48. An applicant will get three choices, 1st, 2nd and 3rd; so make sure you do your homework when it comes to choosing the area you want to hunt. Look at record books (if that is your thing) to see where the big bulls are being killed, or contact an area biologist through the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. They live in that area and know exactly what the moose populations are and the success ratios from years past. They can be contacted at www.adfg.state.alaska.us.
Whether you decide to go alone or hire a guide, you will have a great time hunting for moose. If you do decide to DIY, you will also have to think about gear other than that mentioned above. Tents, food, cooking gear, game bags, frame packs and an assortment of other needs will have to be addressed. There are a few outfits here in the state that actually rent gear and will be happy to set you up with all the necessities that will make your hunt a success.
Also you will need to hire yourself a transporter to get you to and from the field. Again you will need to do your homework and find somebody with a lot of experience and a pilot that knows the area; remember your life is in their hands, both in the air and on the ground. Whoever you choose you will need to plan this far in advance, as the good ones tend to book early and often. Check the pages of Hunt Alaska magazine for numerous advertisers who can assist in this area.