The BAREBOW! Chronicles: Compound Trouble at Skinboat Lake
Dennis Dunn 09.16.14
As outfittter and bush pilot Greg Williams spiraled his Cessna downward, banking sharply to the right, my insides felt uncomfortable from the additional pressure, and my hands grabbed my knees in white-knuckled protest. I looked at Greg questioningly. His right arm shot in front of me, finger pointing out my window. “There’s a good bull standing down there in that old burn area,” he shouted, above the roar of the engine. “Look for the lightest-colored thing you can see, and that will be his paddles.”
Almost immediately I spotted the big moose 400 feet below us—stationary, magnificent, head craned, looking up at us (probably more in irritation than wonder). The word “paddles” was new to my hunting lexicon, but I had seized its meaning instantly. The hazy, morning sunlight was glinting off his broad, yellowish antlers, and the momentary image filled me with a certain awe. Quickly Greg pulled the aircraft out of its dive, and my innards groaned once again at being so forcibly rearranged. To my surprise, the bull stood his ground. As we regained altitude and winged our way on toward Skinboat Lake not many miles distant, I found myself thinking what a formidable adversary one of these big bulls was likely to be for an archer armed only with a bow and arrow. I could hardly wait for the adventure to begin.
It was the autumn of 1990. I had first hunted with Greg in 1984 for Dall sheep. I was quite impressed with his operation at Nahanni Butte in the Northwest Territories and resolved to book a hunt someday for moose in his area. Upon making my deposit a few years later, I scheduled the adventure for the middle 10 days of September.
* * *
Whereas one tries to be as quiet as possible and sneak up on one’s quarry with most every other major species on the continent, those tactics usually fail with moose. During the rut, bulls are almost constantly on the move, and their long strides, even at a walk, carry them along faster than any hunter can sneak.
At this time of year, a bull moose is the ideal game animal for the bowhunter—especially if he or she is willing to use really aggressive tactics. An archer needs to get close to the game, and what my experience has taught me over time is that the best way to get close to a trophy bull moose is to pretend to be one yourself.
I acknowledge that calling one in, by either grunting or imitating the sounds of a lovelorn cow, can work very well. And I do know that, occasionally, if you have spotted a bedded bull, it is possible to sneak within bow-range and dispatch him as he rises upon hearing the last little noise you were unable to avoid making. Naturally, any wind blowing will be of enormous help during that kind of stalk. However, before the snows of winter blanket the ground, calling in a bull is unquestionably the traditional method of moose hunting. Yet, if you really want to ramp up the excitement level further, I highly recommend the grunt-rake-thrash-and-charge method.
Here’s how it works. First, learn to make with your mouth and hands the basic, bull-moose grunt. It’s very easy to produce and simple to learn, without the need for any mouth-reeds or mechanical calls. Bull-moose grunts vary widely, just as human voices do. Thus any fairly-close imitation will be accepted by the bulls and cows within earshot as being the genuine grunt of another bull. If you’re in good moose country during the rut, just head right into their probable bedding areas, and don’t worry about how much sound you make. Sometimes, the more the better! I know this “breaks all the rules” when it comes to hunting most of the other members of the deer family, but with moose—providing you “grunt your way in” and make lots of noise as you go—it is a method guaranteed to produce excitement, and (more often than not) results! If you hear a bull grunt, respond in kind. If he starts thrashing brush with his antlers, you do the same using a stout stick. A small, shed antler or shoulder-blade works especially well for thrashing, or for raking the bark off a tree. These are things all bulls do as they prepare for battle, or seek to intimidate their competition.
Once you have a bull responding to you, either he will seek you out, or you must go to him. It is up to you to make something happen. If he doesn’t start coming toward you shortly after learning of your presence, grunt again, then move as noisily as you can 30 yards in his direction and grunt yet again. If he responds next by grunting or thrashing brush, you will know a close encounter and a possible shot-opportunity are shaping up. Should he continue to come in, just make sure you’re well concealed and force him to look for you. If he hangs up very long, you must again take the initiative. Break some limbs, rake bark, and then go charging right at him, while taking advantage of all available cover.
One caveat is very important here: your aggressiveness may be matched by that of your worthy opponent. Or it may not be. Yet, obviously, moose can be dangerous. A bull may be wanting to drive you away from the cows in his harem, or he may be sufficiently in a state of elevated lust to want to try to steal some of yours. He may wish to avoid a fight; or he may be seeking one. In either case, the grunt-rake-thrash-and-charge method has an excellent chance of eventually producing a “twang” from your bowstring.
A good Shiras bull may weigh as much as 800 pounds. A large Canada moose may go well over half a ton. Some giant Alaska-Yukon bulls are thought to weigh 1,600 pounds or more. Whereas a set of antlers 50 inches wide would be huge for a Shiras moose, a rack of that width for an Alaska-Yukon bull is regarded as smallish. A rack of 60 inches is considered of trophy-quality, but antlers 70 inches wide (and even 80 inches!) are possible. To think that they’re shed and re-grown every year boggles the mind!
* * *
My guide was waiting for me on the shore of the lake as the float-plane taxied up to the grassy bank. Behind him, beneath the overhanging limbs of some enormous spruce trees, I could see two mountain tents beckoning. Behind them, I could make out the ramshackle-remains of an old trapper’s cabin. Once all my gear had been unloaded from the plane, Greg said he’d see us in 10 days, wished us good luck, and soon was skimming across the water with enough speed to clear the trees at the end of the lake. As the Cessna droned off into the distance, the total silence of the calm autumn day settled in around us. It was time to get acquainted with my new guide.
Hunting in the Far North is often like that. Two people who’ve never met suddenly find themselves together in total wilderness, and completely dependent on one another for their mutual well-being. Since that is not a choice one would willingly make with just any stranger, the hunter must obviously be willing to place tremendous confidence in the outfitter. The vast majority of guides who’ve been assigned to guide me over the years have been wonderful people with a great love of the outdoors, a passion for the hunt, and a capacity to get along with almost anyone willing to share the wilderness experience with them.
I wish I could refer to my guide on this hunt by name, but it eludes me now, so many years later. Rather than attribute that to advancing senility, I prefer to think it got buried in the landfill of old memories because it was a common name like Tom—or Dick (Richard). I’m quite certain it wasn’t Harry. At any rate, what I do recall is that we got along very well, shared a lot of excitement together, and came extremely close to harvesting a huge, records-book bull. There were two days, in particular, that are definitely worth recounting here.
Directly behind our camp on the edge of the lake rose a steep hill, which a “perspirational” 10-minute hike allowed us to summit. Since it was the highest point of land on any side of the lake, the ridge-crest was a great vantage point from which to glass the surrounding country. There were several other, smaller lakes nearby, and Greg had told us that this was the time of year the bulls would be traveling from lake to lake in search of estrous cows.
On our second morning, we climbed “the hill” right after a predawn breakfast. Witnessing a beautiful sunrise is always a magical experience for a hunter, even a quasi-religious one at times. As my guide and I watched the deep orange orb of the sun struggle to lift its sleepy head above the slender, crimson clouds on the horizon, I felt profoundly at peace with the world. After a half hour of glassing, without our binoculars picking up on any moose near the shores of our lake, we repositioned to survey the nearest lake on the backside of our lookout ridge. Almost at once we spotted what we were seeking. A bull, a cow, and a calf were feeding a half-mile below us along the closest edge of the water. The bull looked like a dandy, and I was instantly ready to go after him. Tom (or was it Richard?), however, applied some brakes to my enthusiasm by suggesting we might be able to get the bull to come to us.
“You think he would leave his cow and come all the way up here?” I asked, with severe doubt evident in my voice.
“Well, they’re not monogamous,” Richard replied (or was it Tom?). “He just might like to have a second girlfriend!”
I observed with intense curiosity as my guide extracted from his daypack an old tin can with a long string attached. Knotted on the outside at one end, so it couldn’t be pulled through the tiny hole in the can’s bottom, the string passed through the middle of the empty can. With fascination, I looked on as Tom moistened the string with saliva, wetting down its entire 30-inch length. He then asked me to hold the loose end tightly and not let go, while he pinched the taut cord between thumb and forefinger and quickly slid them down the string all the way to the can. Richard explained that the low, hollow, croaking sound he’d just produced simulated the grunt of an amorous bull moose.
Almost immediately we heard a response coming from down by the lakeshore. Grunting as he walked, the magnificent North Woods monarch headed uphill in our direction, leaving behind the cow and calf. I was amazed at the spectacle I was witnessing. The bull’s long strides seemed to be taking place in slow-motion. His ponderous rack rocked back and forth, side to side, like a big teeter-totter on a fulcrum. Everything appeared slow-motion. My guide began raking the bark off a pine tree with a stout stick and then proceeded to break some heavy branches. With lightning speed, the still morning air carried these noises of challenge to our quarry. Instantly he stopped, listened, then lowered his head and absolutely pulverized a tall clump of willows. The stage was now set for serious engagement.
As the bull disappeared briefly into a swale of heavy cover, Tom produced a couple more “canned” grunts with his wet-cord trick. I guess you could say we sort of had him “on a string,” and it was just a matter of pulling in the long tether. Our setup for the impending close encounter was far from ideal, but it would have to do. We were located on a pretty good slope in the middle of a 12-year-old burn that had left standing a matchstick forest of charred, lodgepole-pine-trunks: no limbs, just trunks—hundreds of them, many leaning at bizarre angles. After the fire, not much had regenerated itself other than the ubiquitous, low-bush willows. Camouflage clothing and lack-of-motion would be my only cover.
Once the bull had approached to within 80 yards, he started circling to get our scent. When he was directly above us, he stopped—facing downhill at perhaps 50 yards—trying to spot his now-silent adversary. Ever so slowly I lifted my binos to my eyes and gasped, as the magnified image of his gargantuan headgear came into focus. It seemed as if the word enormous hardly did justice to his outsized antlers.
Failing to locate his challenger, the bull began descending the slope on my “downwind side.” At the moment he reached our exact elevation, he stopped, his nostrils flaring widely. As I watched him take in our scent, I expected him to spook or flee momentarily. Yet nothing happened. He simply stood there grunting and attempting to sort things out. My suspicion is that our smell was totally foreign to him. From my position, he now stood broadside only 35 yards away; close enough for a shot, to be sure, but a burned-out lodgepole-spar rose diagonally across his rib cage just a few feet from him—putting any shot in jeopardy.
At the bull’s next step forward, I quickly drew my arrow—only to have him stop right away, with another black spar splitting my view of his chest. I held my full draw for nearly a minute, but finally had to let down, resolving to draw once more and attempt a shot as soon as the bull recommenced his downhill travel. The wait was only a few seconds. I decided to ignore the several other tree-trunks right around him, and just hope my arrow could wing its way through one of the openings all the way to its target.
Unfortunately, I was not to be so lucky. Once the shaft was launched, it appeared to be headed for a perfect double-lung shot. At the last possible instant, however, the tip of the arrow embedded itself in the center of a blackened, upright, spar! Two inches left or two inches right, and the records-book bull would have been mine! Alas, it simply was not in my providential cards. I guess the contract should have been made in Hearts, rather than in Clubs or Spades. The bull had evidently wedged his body between two ebony spars, as I found his fresh track touching the base of the backside of the one that had stopped my arrow just shy of its mark. I suspect the hair of the bull’s rib cage was actually touching the far side of that very spar at the precise moment of impact—only four inches away! Maybe I’d forgotten to say my prayers the night before. Whatever the case, my hard luck continued to assert itself the following day in an even more suspenseful and disappointing encounter.
* * *
The time was somewhere around 4 p.m. Richard and I were spending the afternoon glassing the country around Skinboat Lake from the top of our lookout hill. Suddenly, my companion pointed out a bull moose in the deadfall timber, well beyond the far side of Skinboat. If anything, this one looked even bigger than the brute we had almost killed the day before. It was a good 1,000 yards across the lake, and he was at least 500 beyond the far shore. Tom and I scrambled down the hill to our camp as fast as we could and jumped in the boat that Greg had provided us. The row across was accomplished as quietly as possible, but the squeaky oarlocks made me wince with every stroke.
Finally, we reached terra firma, and the hunt was on! After we’d worked our way through the brush 150 yards or so away from the lake, Richard decided it was time to initiate his challenge. On this occasion, he eschewed the use of the can-and-string in favor of thrashing the willows and raking bark off a blown-down spruce. The response he got was sensational! Through our binoculars, we watched the bull gradually work himself into an absolute rage. Pretty soon he was using his powerful neck and antlers like a scoop on a D-6. His scoop, however, was spring-loaded! Deadwood debris of all sorts started flying through the air. Whole lodgepole-spars were uprooted and tossed aside. This was one agitated bull—or a master actor! Tom and I couldn’t see any cows around him, so he must have figured we had some, and he was fixing to come and get them!
And come he did! First, however, his intimidation cards had to be played in full. Once he figured his awesome display of power had sufficiently daunted his rival, the rush was on. There was certainly nothing slow-motion about this approach! He was 300 yards and closing fast. A few paces in front of us was a small clearing perhaps 18 yards in diameter. Tom urged me to set up quickly on its front margin, while he would retreat 50 yards to do some soft grunting under cover—all the while keeping me between himself and the oncoming bull. I barely had time to kneel at the edge of the clearing and nock an arrow before the bull suddenly landed in my lap.
The giant animal arrested his motion directly across the little clearing from me. Heaving hard, red-eyed, and drooling at the mouth, he was so ready for a fight it made my skin crawl! As I gazed upward from my kneeling position at his massive antlers rising 10 feet off the ground, for the first time in my life I was feeling truly intimidated by an animal. The bull’s eyes were looking right over the top of me, trying to find the “other” bull he couldn’t see. Since the wind was in my favor, and since I was wearing a camo head-net and camo gloves, I knew he would not likely notice me—unless I made some slight motion. I even attempted to forgo blinking. My bow was vertically upright, ready to shoot, with the lower wheel resting on the ground. And thus the static drama continued on hold for several minutes, with neither of us budging a millimeter. He simply had no idea I was on my knees there in front of him—even though we were facing each other directly, only 18 yards apart.
I found myself wondering if I could possibly come to full draw on him without triggering a charge. Did I dare take the chance? As I tried to screw my courage to the “sticking” point, I suddenly noticed that about five feet in front of the behemoth was a willow sapling rising to the base of his neck. No more than an inch in diameter, it nonetheless cut his brisket exactly in half from my fixed vantage point. Were I to attempt a front-entry shot directly into his “boiler room,” the arrow might well glance off the side of the sapling and be deflected into one shoulder or the other. The chance of merely wounding the bull was not one I was eager to take. The big fellow was already angry enough without my further inflaming him!
Waiting for a broadside shot seemed by far the more rational thing to do—if he would only turn! The standoff continued for several tense minutes, each of us searching for something we could not find. Then, suddenly, with no warning, the bull wheeled on a dime and trotted straight away from me. As soon as his motion began, I started my draw, but it was too late. By the time the wheels of my compound bow turned over and I lurched into my anchor position so I could then stabilize and take proper aim, his last rib was disappearing from view, leaving me with only a rump for a target. I never got the shot off at all.
The sense of disappointment was crushing, to say the least. So near and yet so far! While Richard and I made our way back to the boat, I remembered something my friend, Duke Savora, had told me the previous autumn. It had puzzled me at the time.
“Someday, Dennis,” he had said, “You’ll go back to traditional archery and hang up your compound for good.”
Not understanding the thinking behind his statement, I asked, “And why will I decide to do that?”
“Because someday you’ll miss your chance at a superb trophy animal simply because you won’t be able to get your shot off fast enough,” was the reply.
I reprocessed Duke’s explanation through my mind, and then it hit me: I had just lived through the precise situation he’d predicted! Had I had in hand that day, on the edge of the little clearing, a longbow or recurve, I’d have been able to slip my arrow in behind that last rib before it disappeared. There was no doubt in my mind that Duke had been proven right. His larger prophecy, however, did not come about till the fall of 2006—at which time I finally did retire my compound for good.
As things turned out on my first hunt for the largest of all the moose subspecies, Richard and I were not able to find, or call in, any other bulls during our 10 days at Skinboat Lake. Yet, in the space of just two days, we had shared enough excitement to last me for a year—or until I could return and try again someday. There was no doubt in my mind that during some future autumn, in the middle of the rut, I would be back (God willing) to that very lake, or one much like it. Was it just bad luck that had sabotaged my aspirations, or was it truly trouble generic to the compound bow? I knew I would find out, sooner or later, and I suspected the answer might eventually lead me back to traditional archery equipment.
Editor’s note: This article is the thirty-first of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from accomplished hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s award-winning book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks—join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work and purchase a copy on Dunn’s site here. Read the thirtieth Chronicle here.
Top illustration by Hayden Lambson