The BAREBOW! Chronicles: Grunt, Rake, Thrash, Charge, and Twang!
Dennis Dunn 10.15.14
The title I’ve chosen for this story dramatizes the fundamental difference between bowhunting for moose and bowhunting for virtually every other North American big game species. Although I had hunted both Canada moose and Alaska-Yukon moose more than once in the early- to mid-1990s, none of those hunts proved successful—largely, I believe, because I kept trying to use the tactics of stealth and cunning that had served me well on all the other species I’d previously hunted. I have to admit to having been a slow learner in the Moose Department. Gradually, I learned that during the rut making more noise is better than making less. As long as you stay out of sight of your quarry, the more aggressively you rake or thrash the brush, the better your chances of success will usually be.
I have been fortunate in being able to harvest two Shiras bulls by using the tactics summarized in the title of this story. Both were taken in the state of Utah, where the moose habitat in late September and early October contains fall foliage that I suspect rivals anything New England, Eastern Canada, or Banff National Park ever offers. In bright sunlight, the vivid colors seem to be more than the eyes can take in. The oaks, maples, and willows sport every shade imaginable of green, yellow, orange, red, scarlet, crimson, and vermilion as they mingle randomly with the dark green conifers and the nearly-snow-white trunks of the golden aspen trees. Add in the cerulean blue sky overhead, and the beauty of the autumnal landscapes becomes almost surreal. Hunting moose in such an environment is hunting at its best.
My first Shiras moose hunt took place in early October of 1997, on a high mountain plateau southeast of Huntsville. I was the only moose hunter in camp; all the other hunters there were rifle-hunting elk—by far the dominant species in the area. The moose seemed not nearly so plentiful, but by the fourth afternoon, my guide and I finally located a good bull that looked as if he might be approachable, come evening and the “turn” of the thermals.
We were hiding out on top of a sagebrush ridge, looking directly toward the sun, and watching a Pope and Young bull, a cow, and a much smaller “satellite” bull move about in a 50-by-50-yard patch of oak and willow-brush on a nearby ridge some 500 yards distant. For most of the afternoon, the three stayed out of sight. However, every once in a while, one or more would pop into view for a few seconds, or make part of their blackish forms visible to us through the colorful foliage. Twice, we saw the big bull run the “bullwinkle” right out of the oak patch, yet each time the frustrated, younger bull would eventually worm his way back in, and out of sight. On one occasion, the big bull chased the cow out into the open, and then ran her around in a circle right back into their trysting-cover.
With so little shade around us, it proved to be a long, hot afternoon—albeit a fascinating one. About an hour before sundown, we noticed a distinct shift in the wind direction. It was time to make our move. Or was it? We suddenly spotted a respectable bull coming up through the open blue sage from the valley below. He appeared to be walking straight at us. Fully exposed, and having nowhere to hide, we sat down to see what would transpire. As he came closer, I took my camcorder out of my daypack and began to film the event. At a mere 20 yards, the bull stopped and stared at us intently with his head lowered. As the videotape shows, my guide—sitting 15 feet closer to the moose than I was—slowly turned to look back at me, and I was stunned to see a look of terror on his face. That unsettled me far more than the propinquity of the bull!
The remarkable stare-down lasted several minutes. Finally, the lovesick creature must have concluded that we were not likely to be able to satisfy his needs, so he turned and walked slowly off down the slope, never looking back. Yes, to be sure, bull moose in the mating season are known to do incredibly stupid things, but little did I know that evening that this particular bull’s stupidity was going to get him killed the next morning.
By the time our unexpected visitor had departed, we realized we needed to hustle, if we were still to have a chance at our big bull. The unstable trio had left their daytime oak patch and moved laterally over one small, wooded ridge, then crossed to a second one. In 20 minutes or so, my guide and I had closed to less than 100 yards of the considerable ruckus going on above us. I then told my guide I wanted him to stay put and let me go in alone and try to find the bull we both had agreed was a real “shooter.” He actually seemed rather relieved at my request.
However, when I started moving uphill, grunting and thrashing the bushes as I progressed, I looked back once to see him roll his eyes, and I realized I was now totally on my own. After covering some 50 yards at a rapid pace, I placed an arrow on the string, knelt to the ground, and grunted very softly—twice. I waited. Seconds later, I heard a branch break not far above me. My position was on the very edge of a natural “causeway” through the surrounding brush that led straight up to the ridge crest—whereupon, like a big orange resting on a tabletop, the sun was preparing to drop out of sight. Looking up into the brilliant, vermilion light made it very hard to see, but I suddenly spotted motion near the top of my shooting lane and realized the bull I was after was standing broadside, silent as a statue, looking downhill in my direction. Unsure of the distance due to my impaired vision, I slowly raised my bow, drew to anchor, and (after holding perhaps too long launched my feathered shaft with a hope and a prayer.
Thunk! The bull jumped forward and was instantly out of sight. Somehow, for some reason, (perhaps I had plucked my release as my fingers cleared the string), my arrow had struck my quarry well left of where I’d been aiming (and higher). I had a clear vision in my mind’s eye of the arrow disappearing through the middle of the bull’s neck. Indeed, I soon found my arrow stuck in a tree a few yards behind where he’d been standing as I shot. Apart from a bit of grease smeared from one end of the arrowshaft to the other, the aluminum arrow was intact and still perfectly straight. There was virtually no blood sign on it at all! I was mighty disgusted with the shot I’d made, but I was greatly relieved to learn that the bull’s wound was altogether superficial.
My conviction on that score was confirmed later in the evening as my guide and I joined up and hiked back to our truck in the dark. A nearly-full moon had risen shortly after sunset. A half-hour later, our diagonal, uphill course had taken us almost to the last ridgetop where the vehicle was parked. Suddenly, we heard the loud sound of hooves on rocks just behind and above us. In amazement, I turned my head right to look straight uphill, and less than 40 yards away trotting parallel to our path was the odd trio of moose we had been focused on all day. In the moonlight the sight was awesome. The big bull was out front, still very much in charge, with antlers silhouetted against the sky, and the little one was still tagging along in third position. They passed us by in a hurry and never even seemed to notice us below them.
Once we were back at the cabin that night, a discussion about the “wounding” ensued with Fred John, the outfitter, who (at that time) was leasing the hunting rights to the large ranch we were on. Between my guide and me (and with the arrow as evidence), we pretty well convinced Fred, in the end, that the bull I’d shot at was going to be just fine. He did give me permission to continue hunting the next morning, but his one request was that we try to find the same bull I had wounded, and that I try to finish him off. I knew the bull didn’t really need “finishing off,” yet I also knew I was more than happy to try.
An hour after dawn found us glassing the same set of small basins where we had seen the three moose the previous day. In no time at alI, we found the trio feeding in the next basin over from the Basin of the Moonlight Trot. I made mention to my guide that the big bull appeared as healthy as ever, and he nodded in agreement. Since we had nearly a mile of ground to cover before I could have any chance of “horning in” on the action once again, we decided to “make tracks” while the morning feeding session was in full swing.
On this day, for the first time that I had noticed, my guide was carrying a rifle. Roughly 200 yards shy of the big grove of maples and oaks into which the moose had fed (and where they were noisily rummaging about) I stopped to catch my breath. We had been hiking hard. The much younger guide was perhaps 50 yards ahead, and he disappeared over a rise just as I noticed a big, black blob coming fast through the vegetation that choked the bottom of the swale below me. As he emerged into the open and started up the slope toward me, I quickly recognized him as the bull I had filmed the previous evening.
This time, however, he didn’t stop at 20 yards. Not even at 15. At around 12 yards, I felt intimidated enough to put down my camcorder and pick up my bow. Just before starting to film this new episode, I had fortunately thought to place an arrow on the string. Our crazy standoff—at 10 yards, if you can believe it—lasted about one minute, until finally this medium-sized bull was distracted by the grunts and breaking brush on the hillside above. My antagonist suddenly decided the real action was elsewhere and went trotting off in the direction of the commotion. I was half expecting to hear a rifle shot ring out, but the only sounds that assailed my ears were more gruntings, rakings, and thrashings. I suspected that one bull, at least, was headed for a thrashing of a different kind, and there was no doubt in my mind as to which one it would most likely be.
In short order, I caught up with my guide, and I could see there was serious tension in his face. His very first moose hunt, I thought to myself. His first with a bowhunter, at any rate. There was some kind of circus going on right above us, and I was eager to take advantage of the hurly-burly and get into the arena, where I might well have a good shot opportunity at my quarry of the night before. The guide offered to cover me with his rifle from below. I thanked him, and, as I started up toward the big grove of trees, I smiled to myself, and then realized I felt a bit sorry for him.
Out of sight, in the thick trees above me, there was an absolute riot unfolding—two, in fact! A riot of fall color, and a riot of frenzied, moose-rutting activity. Because the wind was coming in from the side, I wasn’t too worried about the quartet above me picking up my sweaty, human scent. In what undoubtedly proved to be a mistake, I decided to make things even merrier by introducing the presence of a fourth suitor for the lone cow’s attention. Grunting my way into the “thick stuff,” and beating the bushes with a stick as I charged up the slope, I discovered my masquerade had proved too successful, much too quickly.
Without warning, all hell broke loose right in front of me! This black, tank-like object suddenly came hurtling directly at me through the brush, its blades lowered to ground level. Just moments before, I had thrown down my stick and nocked an arrow. I didn’t have any time to try to sort out which set of antlers was coming at me—they looked plenty big was all I knew! All I could do was draw and wait for the imminent moment of truth.
When the bull broke into the open 15 yards from me a second later, he put on the brakes, realizing I didn’t look anything like what he was expecting. My lack of antlers sobered him up in a hurry. This was, after all, the third time we had come face-to-face in less than 24 hours. However, I hadn’t focused on his identity yet; I was concentrating only on the exact spot where I wanted to place my arrow. I was looking for the broadside shot, but he wheeled away from me too rapidly and began trotting down a woodsy lane that fell away to my right. At 33 yards (which I paced off later), this bull I was now committed to killing stopped and glanced back at me—giving me a stationary, rather severe, quartering-away shot. I didn’t hesitate. The lane was clear of intervening brush, the light was good, the arrow was away, and the aim was true. It took him just forward of his left hipbone, burying itself to the nock.
His short death-run took him downhill a bit, then in a tight semicircle to my right, and he expired not 50 yards behind where I was standing when I made the lethal shot. Not surprisingly, I guess, he was the middle-sized bull. Not the one I would have preferred, but I felt very grateful for the chance to take such a fine, representative Shiras moose. Also, I was looking forward to finding out how his meat might compare with what I had just brought back from Alaska two weeks earlier. Since moose is the very leanest of all meats, wild or domestic, it would not be accurate to say that my wife and I were going to be “in Fat City” for the next two years, but our larder certainly was going to be more than full.
I knew it was unlikely that the 12 points and 36-inch spread to my bull’s antlers would be enough to meet the minimum score for entry into the Pope and Young Records, but I didn’t care. It had been a great hunt, a grand and exciting adventure, and I knew with certainty (God willing!) that someday I would return to Utah to bowhunt Shiras moose again.
As we hiked out to the truck to go get help for handling the meat, my rather dazed but happy guide came forward with a confession:
“Dennis,” he said, “I heard the twang of your bow when you shot, and through my binos I saw that arrow-nock sticking out of the bull’s hip as he ran off. I was afraid you had just wounded him!”
“Angle is everything,” I replied. “The broadhead probably ended up somewhere very close to his heart. As you saw, it was a quick, clean kill.”
Next came the real confession—the one I’d been waiting for: “You know, I have to be honest. I guess I didn’t actually believe an arrow could kill a massive animal like that.”
I nodded and smiled and kept on walking—perhaps with just a bit more strut in my step. Not to mention a warm, wonderful feeling of euphoria in my head and heart. Could hunting really get any better than this?
The poem displayed below was written by the author (in iambic pentameter) during the course of the hunt described in this story.
Why We Hunt
Across the vale, five hundred yards away,
There lie, completely hidden from our sight,
Three bulls and one lone cow who’ll likely stay
At ease that way until the dimmer light
Of evening makes it safe to leave the oak
And scrubby brush that form their hideaway.
From time to time, a soft, low grunt or croak
Arrives upon the breeze to let us lay
Aside our fears the moose have left unseen.
Occasionally, a furtive patch of black
Will show us where our quarry just has been.
The cow’s in heat, the yearly rut is back,
And all the bulls are sparring in their lust
For breeding rights that take a heavy toll.
The biggest bull possesses quite a rack,
Which ‘mongst his rivals causes fear, not trust.
“She’s mine!” he snorts, “But come and take a ‘roll,’
If any of you should decide you must.”
Though estrus has arrived, the cow’s not yet
Quite ready to be bred. Her perfume spreads
Around the glen, but just one bull will get
The much-prized chance to mount her when she “beds.”
The smaller, satellite bulls know their place
And stand around with aspect most forlorn;
They won’t beard “Mr. Big” right to his face,
For no one wants to get a thrust of horn.
The heat of afternoon wears on — and down;
The golden aspen leaves are doing a jig,
As autumn breeze …. turns wind …. turns gale-force clown.
It’s been two hours or more since “Mr. Big”
last showed himself. Now suddenly the cow
Explodes from cover! Guess who’s right behind?
The lesser bulls pop up and wonder how
Their luck will ever change, or when they’ll find
A lady-friend that they also can mind.
Soon all are on a different hill amidst
A panoply of yellow, orange and red.
The antlers of the big bull seem to list
To starboard as he follows …. blindly led;
Led by his nose, and by testosterone:
At this one time of year his guard is down.
So, too, the wind, as evening comes apace.
‘Tis time, at last, to make my move alone;
The guide will stay behind to watch the race
Through ten-power glasses he just bought in town.
It is a race against the fall of night,
Against the brush, against the steep incline.
Then all at once I’m THERE, just as the fight
Gets going. And now at last the turn is mine —
Limbs breaking all around — to grunt and thrash
The brush as well …. to pull him right in tight.
My bow in hand …. the arrow nocked …. a flash
of horn …. the charge begins. With all my might
I draw and shoot …. then hear a heavy crash!
On busting out, the big old bull (thank God!)
Had turned aside. My life or his …. How odd,
I think …. the deed is done, the trophy won,
But I could have been the unlucky one!
I wouldn’t choose to say that it’s been “fun”;
“Exciting,” yes, but “humbling” gets the nod
Above all other words. To be a part,
A primal part, of Mother Nature’s ways
Is WHY WE HUNT …. with body, soul, and heart ….
To make more bearable our urban days.
Editor’s note: This article is the thirty-third 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 thirty-second Chronicle here.
Top illustration by Hayden Lambson