The following appears in the March issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY CHRISTOPHER BATIN
The historical feud between the Hatfields and McCoys can’t compare to the squabble in Alaska between the Shooters and the Callers.
The Shooters take moose at 275 yards because the only sporting aspect of game meat is eating it in meatballs and sausage during MLB or NFL games. Once a moose is down, they round up the four-wheelers to haul it back to camp, hang it, and start their card-playing marathon of all-you-can-eat moose steaks and free-flowing beer, whiskey, and man-cave talk. The shot and celebration is what they like most about moose hunting.
Their claim in the feud is that Callers are no-good, sneaky bandits who enjoy courtin’ their big bull moose away from them. Callers argue that it takes a variety of skills to harvest a moose, which is why they prefer the heady, thrill-seeking indulgence of enticing big bulls to come a callin’.
After four decades of hunting Alaska moose, I side with the Callers.
CALLING IN TROPHY MOOSE is not a sport for the faint of heart. It begins with a quest to learn the necessary skills while simultaneously acquiring enough toughness to embark on big game hunting’s most exciting rite of passage, in which hunters go head to head against the largest deer in the world. And what a deer! Big bull moose stand up to 7 feet tall at the shoulder, can weigh up to 1,800 pounds and sport racks that are wider than most men are tall.
The north’s fiercest predators – grizzly bears and wolves – are fearful of a prime bull. No predator in its right mind would challenge, face to face, a 70-inch, 50-pound rack with 28 palmed spear-points and two, massive, brow-tine shields. This headgear is supported by 80 pounds of intimidating neck and powered by two wilderness-toughened, 150-pound rear legs that push, gore and chase off similar, massive-bodied bulls. During Alaska’s moose wars, dominance is the reason for the rut.
Additional moose deterrents include two rear hooves, a single kick from which can smash skulls and break bones. When moose rear up on their hind legs for an aggressive frontal attack, the two front hooves become angled ax heads that slam down with guillotine force that can slice, dice and tear apart any aggressor. Cow moose use their hooves to defend their newborn calves each spring. Despite such a formidable deterrent, cows lose up to 50 percent of their newborns to hungry bears.
Standing face to face at 15 yards with an enraged, rutting bull – with nothing more than a moose call and rifle – is what separates the men from the boys in North America’s ultimate deer hunting experience. While whitetails, elk, mulies and blacktails are challenging to hunt, they can’t compare to a do-or-die challenge with a battle-ready moose in full rut.
The danger aspect is only one of the draws. Moose calling is the language of warriors. It takes skill to embrace the mindset of a challenger herd bull, and good hunters learn to become a dominant bull in thought and action. A dominant bull hunter uses scraping sounds and grunts as a taunt to challenge a bull into a showdown, or evokes a lonely, amorous cow call to fool the bull into thinking the hunter is a bull enticing cows away from the harem. And, of course, territorial calls announce you are the meanest, most virile bull in the wilderness.
Whatever call you use, you best have the guts and stamina to follow through with the challenge.
I REMEMBER A FLY-OUT drop-off moose hunt in Alaska’s remote Mulchatna River country. Using a variety of calls and challenges, I coaxed a 61-inch bull to leave his harem and meet me in a nearby valley to “teach me a lesson.” At 70 yards, the bull let out a roar that shattered the wilderness silence and raised my arm hairs to full mast. I responded with name-calling thrashes and grunts.
The bull swayed side to side, like a high-seas navy destroyer, its multi-tined rack zeroing in on me in a visual challenge to spar. The antlers on the rut-swollen neck twisted and yanked a 10-foot sapling out of the ground and flung it into the air as easily as if it were a blade of grass. Hail-like dirt clods pelted me as I stared him down. His eyes were now bloodshot orbs that bulged out of his skull and rolled wildly as he grunted his disdain.
I scraped again and grunted, “Wauuuggh! Waaauggh!” and pawed the ground. A snotty shower burst out of his nose and long ribbons of drool and saliva bubbled from his mouth. At 15 yards, pungent tarsal and urine scents stung my nostrils, which served to both simultaneously intimidate yet embolden me. It’s a hunting scenario where one can reach maximum heart rate by being absolutely still.
Images from previous moose hunts flashed through my mind, especially the hunter who faced a similar, 62-inch moose that we had called to within 12 yards. He missed the first shot, and then couldn’t shoot again because his leg was shaking out of control.
The adrenaline and euphoric rush often makes the details of these final moments a blur in the retelling, but my actions are predictable. Training kicks in, and I see myself not as a hunter but rather the dominant bull. I forget English. My mind is all moose. I become a rutting bull and gradually feel the rut pulse in my veins. Thoughts and feelings become guttural disdains, grunts, and roars. I stomp my legs and scrape a scapula on a branch; the taunts emphasize, “Leave now, or your hindquarter is mine!”
As a challenger bull, I am battling for dominance until either the bull attacks or bolts first, ’cause it sure won’t be me goin’ anywhere.
MY ARMS AND LEGS went numb, not from fear, but rather from the euphoria of battle with no safety switch, no end-game button, no wife calling me to dinner. I was in a place where even the brave dare not go, a metaphysical portal where courage is but a stepping stone to that higher platonic realm of absolutes, where the hunter becomes the hunt of pure energy that ebbs and flows with every breath.
Pressing against a tree to avoid detection, I reached out with a battle-worn scapula and scraped it against the tree, ripping and peeling bark to eke out “The Call.” I had issued an auditory and visual challenge to spar. The mud-caked hair on the bull’s back bristled to attention, and after pawing the ground a few times, he swung his rack back and forth like a sword-wielding samurai.
It was truly David versus Goliath: me with a 13-inch-wide scapula and rifle, challenging a rut-crazed bull that could trample, maim and kill me. It was time. I grunted once again, and the bull busted through some brush to my left. I bolted through the brush after him, weaving and darting like a heat-seeking missile. We both burst into a small clearing and stood in a face-off. I took the shot, and the warrior dropped. Our predator-prey dance was complete.
Learning to call moose effectively can take years of practice, and is perhaps the most dangerous time to interact with moose. But even when you botch a call, as I did the first time I tried talking dirty to a cow moose, the excitement can be electrifying.
My brother Bill and I were hiding near a lone spruce in an open field in the Alaska Range. In the distance, we watched a bull with 55-plus-inch antlers disappear into the brush. I moaned a lovesick cow call to draw him out. The brush exploded in a cacophony of snaps and crackles. I flipped off the safety on my .338 Ruger. Suddenly, an enraged cow moose charged out of the brush and made a beeline straight for us. A 6-foot-long ridge of erect back hair made her 7-foot height intimidating.
Bill and I bolted upright and pressed our backs against the small black spruce. The ground shook as muscular, stilt-like legs braked her to a stop. Her bulging eyes were blinded with jealousy, and her normally cautious nature and brain were temporarily disengaged. We faced extreme danger. She darted around wildly and reared up on her hind legs. I watched her axe-head-like hooves impact the ground with a thud, and slice size 14 craters into the tundra. Seeing that we were no threat, she ran off, not wanting another amorous cow to entice her lover bull. The experience left us thoroughly intimidated and a bit wiser.
Even after the bull drops, use caution. After taking a nice bull with her 7mm Remington Magnum, one hunting partner approached her downed trophy with me at her side. Her exuberance overpowered her sense of caution as she walked up to the bull. I caught a glimpse of the bull’s eyes looking back. I reacted by quickly grabbing her by the collar and snatching her back, just as the bull’s antlers slashed the air, missing her midsection and a possible disembowelment by inches. A single shot from my .338 finished off the ol’ boy, which was the lesson here. Learn to shoot a .338 or larger rifle and leave the lightweight firesticks for coyotes and blacktails.
Once your moose is dead, you can return to being human and unpack the whisky flask for a swig to calm the nerves, vomit, defecate or clean your pants. There is no shame in the aftermath, because if you have what it takes to successfully entice moose to come a callin’, you’ll have graduated from the most intense, big game hunting interaction that any North American hunter can experience.
BUT HERE’S AN ADMONITION: If rutting bulls are dangerous, Alaska weather can be even more unpredictable. After a week of blue skies and cool temperatures, I watched the alpine sky blacken over the Alaska Range. The temperature plummeted, and the wind screamed its icy fury. I finished the meat-bagging chores from a moose and caribou that I had bagged earlier in the hunt and scurried across the tundra to my two-man tent for warmth and protection.
Little did I know that I was about to experience what philosophers call “The long night of the soul.”
For the next eight hours, I used my back as a brace to keep the tent from becoming a suffocating shroud. Severe gusts bullied me to the tent’s center, and I kicked back repeatedly to anchor myself. A tent pole dislodged and sliced open the outer fly but I could do nothing. My back shivered against the onslaught of freezing rain and sleet. I dared not light my stove for heat, for fear the billowing tent would erupt in flames. On the open tundra, there are neither gullies nor forests in which to seek refuge.
Keeping my back rigid against such force exhausted me, and I finally gave in to the sleep of exhaustion. Hours later I awoke, startled to find myself at the center of the tent floor. The silence was eerie. I pushed out of the collapsed tent. A foot of snow had fallen and the wind had died. The radio reported that a severe Arctic storm had blown through Southcentral Alaska. Its 90 mph winds generated 20- to 40-foot seas that had sunk boats and kept a U.S. Navy aircraft carrier in a Kodiak Island port.
My caribou and moose meat had frozen solid, and took days to unthaw.
I climbed out of my tent and stood amid the silence. My emotions boiled victorious for having toughed it out, but I soon settled into a simmering peace.
I had a chore to finish.
At the moose kill site, I honored the bull by placing his head to face the rising sun, a shared symbolism of life after death. I placed a few strands of grass in his mouth to signify his last meal, and to serve as a reminder that all creatures live, die and become nutrients for life to renew itself again.
I thought about the bull and made my promise. When having moose steaks, roast or stew, I will recall my interaction with him. Yet the bittersweet twin of this euphoria is the sadness I feel for the millions of people who know nothing about the personality of the faceless factory animals they eat each day. The only interaction with them is the blood money paid for a portion of their butchered carcasses.
I’m also guilty of such sins, and yet, find partial redemption in interacting with the animals I hunt so I can feed my family, and embrace the wisdom learned from each trophy. Each meal teaches me lessons that embolden me to meet the challenges of everyday life head on.
If I’m knocked down, I’ll have what it takes to get back up and win, no matter the outcome. It is the way of the moose, and the way I must be in life, and in the wilderness.
I returned to my tent, confident that the warrior spirit of the moose and I would meet again one day in the vast wilderness arena among the stars. When that day arrives, the reunion of our two warrior spirits will be so grandiose that it will defy human comprehension.
Such an experience might even prompt a Shooter to reconsider his hunting style and become a Caller, because in the scheme of things, it’s the right and proper thing to do. ASJ
Editor’s note: Chris Batin is a 42-year Alaska resident, and wrote the foreword for and is featured in the new book, Alaska’s Greatest Outdoor Legends. He is also the editor of Alaska Hunter Publications and author of the award-winning, 416-page book, Hunting in Alaska: A Comprehensive Guide, which includes a detailed chapter on hunting and calling trophy moose. Alaska Sporting Journal readers can receive an autographed copy of these books from the author, with free shipping, by ordering online at AlaskaHunter.com, promo code ASJ.