Fifty-Inch Minimum

The words “unmitigated disaster” spring to mind.

[by Terry Wieland]

THE TRAIL OUT OF CAMP LED THROUGH A TANGLE OF PINES SKIRTING THE RIVERBANK. Moss, perpetually soaked and matted with pine needles, muffled the hooves. The only sounds were the creaking of saddles, the rattle of bridles, and the horses’ breathing in puffs of steam.

The Nenana River wound its way through the valley in a skein of tributaries, flanked on both sides by the snowy peaks of the Alaska Range. In September, with the water low, the river sought only the deepest channels, and from the air they looked like sparkling ribbons.

At ground level, however, the riverbed—a mile wide in places—was a deceptive expanse of hard flats , sudden banks, slippery gravel, and, occasionally, quicksand. Riding back across late one afternoon, Colton and his diminutive mount, Smurf, suddenly plunged flankdeep in a patch of what appeared to be solid ground. With a three-foot bank in front, immersed to his tail in the back, Smurf plunged once, twice, three times, going deeper with each plunge but gaining a bit each time until he was able to dig his hoofs into the bank and haul himself out.

Colton was wet to his knees and Smurf stood with his sandy flanks heaving. My horse, Berry, a solid strawberry roan with a finely honed sense of self-preservation, pulled back the instant Smurf went in. We watched the struggle from a safe distance, and then picked our way around the quicksand. Getting et by bears ain’t the only way to die in Alaska.

The first morning out, Colton and I rode a couple of miles upriver toward the glacier, then crossed the wide riverbed to climb into the mountains on the other side. From camp it didn’t look all that far. It never does. We could easily see where we’d be hunting, but it was a three-hour ride each way, and the river crossing was the least of our worries. Tougher by far was picking our way up through the timber along a path that was a trail in name only, consisting, in roughly equal parts, of mud, sharp and slippery rocks, downed trees, and rattling creeks, all angling sharply upward.

We were a camp of moose and grizzly hunters, although that particular camp also accommodates Dall sheep hunters earlier in the season. By late September, however, the upper peaks were clad in snow. Where we broke out of the timber onto the lower slopes, the snow was knee-deep, wet, and clinging. We left the horses with their heads down in a brushy draw away from the wind, and ventured out to look for moose.

THE ALASKA RANGE STRETCHES FROM EAST TO WEST, 100 miles south of Fairbanks. When you’re driving toward it, it resembles a line of wolf ’s teeth with its snowy peaks glinting in the sun.

The range is famous for its moose, and the Alaska game department decrees that any bull taken must be a minimum 50- inch spread. That’s four feet two inches wide. The particular subspecies here is the Alaska-Yukon, largest of the various moose that occur in North America, from Newfoundland in the east, across Canada, south into Idaho, and northwest onto the Alaska Peninsula.

Size is all relative. In Newfoundland, a 50-inch moose is huge, a hopeless dream; in Ontario, it’s an extremely fine trophy. But in the Alaska Range, it’s merely the legal minimum.

The game department backs up its dictum with severe penalties. Shoot an undersized bull, and they fine hunter and guide $3,500 each, as well as confiscate the animal. Needless to say, the subject of trophy estimation gets a good workout around the table in the cook tent. Back in camp, we had a half-dozen heads taken by clients this year, ranging in size from the low 50s to the mid-60s. The widest was a 64-incher taken the week before I arrived.

Moose antlers are as individual and varied as a fingerprint. Some are complex, some are boringly simple; some are deep-dished, others wide and flat. This is where an arbitrary trophy minimum like a 50-inch spread perverts the spirit of trophy hunting, where the goal is really to take old bulls, past their prime. A really old bull may be very heavy, complex, and deeply dished, but no longer terribly wide, while a young bull in its prime may have a great, flat spread of antler. These aren’t the bulls that should be removed, but they’re the ones the game department says you must take.

These are generalities, and any regulatory requirement will have limitations, but they do begin to dominate your thinking. Instead of asking, “Is that an old bull that’s had his day?” you ask instead, “Is he legal?” When the answer is “Gee, I just don’t know. He’s sure close,” hunting for trophy moose becomes a whole new ball game.

ON THE EDGE OF THE RUT, as we were, about the only way to hunt them is to ride high onto a mountainside, settle in, and wait quietly, hoping to spot a bull when he comes out into the open from the lower-slope timber.

The alternative is to depend on pure dumb luck, such as riding around a bend in the river and running into an old bull that’s lost his way. I’ve had it both ways, and the former is vastly more dependable. So Colton and I found ourselves high on a windy slope, huddled in the snow, watching. Around noon, we spotted a lone cow, 400 or 500yards below, browsing quietly in a patch of brush.

Another way to hunt is by calling, which sometimes works very well and other times not at all. Every moose caller has his preferences. Some use a commercial plastic call like a megaphone, others use the old-fashioned birch bark; still others simply cup their hands and grunt, mew, whistle, and moan. Some set up a continuous racket while others like to call once or twice, then withdraw into coy silence.

Colton cooed, and the cow’s head swung around. We froze until she returned to browsing. I’d set up a tripod and spotting scope with a camera, in the hopes that I might get a good picture if a bull came along; meanwhile, we glassed, measured distances for our own edification, discussed the practical killing range of a .358 Norma, and otherwise whiled away the hours.

Early in the afternoon, a half mile away across the ravine, we spotted the antlers of a bull moose rattling the shrubbery as he made his way out into a clearing. Against the snow, he was black as coal, long-legged, with the weight lifter shoulders that make moose so impressive. He began pawing a bed, circling, arching his back and urinating into it, circling and urinating some more, and finally lying down.

Having completed the romantic preliminaries of a moose in the rut, our bull settled in to await results. “Too bad that doesn’t work with girls,” I whispered.

“You’ve never been in a Wyoming cowboy bar.” Colton was studying the antlers, mentally calculating.

“Think he’s big enough?”

“I don’t know. He’s sure close to fifty.”