It’s definitely not easy, but with enough planning, hardy sportsmen can enjoy the adventure of hunting our largest deer species without a guide.
The most common do-it-yourself big game hunt I’m asked about is elk, and until recently, mule deer were second. But over the past year, I’ve been getting more folks asking about DIY moose hunting in Alaska, pushing it ahead of mule deer hunting inquiries.
Back in the 1980s and early ’90s, moose hunting was of keen interest to
many hunters. Over the past few years, there’s been a resurgence of interest in hunting these massive members of the deer family. In this month’s Road Hunter column, we hit the road – or should I say air, or river – in search of what it takes to tackle a do-it-yourself moose hunt in Alaska.
MOOSE HUNTING IN Alaska requires a lot of pre-planning and work. Start by being honest with yourself, and others in your party (you don’t want to do this hunt alone), making absolutely certain your outdoor skills are to the level where you can survive in the wild under any conditions.
If bears, freezing weather, snow, mosquitos and being out of touch with civilization make you nervous, then a guided moose hunt might be more to your liking. The next consideration is to accurately pinpoint your level of health and physical fitness. Moose hunting can be extremely tough, especially when you get a bull down. Hiking across the tundra, through bogs, over snow and in rivers is the norm.
One recent moose hunt I went on with a buddy found us carrying waders, knee boots and hiking boots in order to efficiently negotiate the variety of mountainous and boggy terrain we’d have to hunt; we used all
three pairs of boots. Many people rank the physical demands of moose
hunting as the toughest of all Alaskan big game due to the tundra and water that’s often negotiated.
ONCE YOU KNOW you can physically handle a moose hunt, research the state and find a place to go. Thoroughly explore your options, making sure there are moose in the area you plan to hunt. Decide if you’re going on a river hunt or a mountain hunt, or maybe a combination of the two. On a river hunt for moose, you’ll likely get dropped off by an air charter in one spot, and picked up seven to 10 days later at another spot. Here, you’ll navigate rivers in a raft, so be certain you’re comfortable doing that with all your gear and 800 pounds of moose, per bull.
On a mountain hunt, you’ll probably stay in one camp that’s reached by bush plane, then hiking and glassing each day. If you get on a big bull, you might spike camp out for a few days. Make sure you can physically handle hiking in the terrain you’ll be hunting in, survive with minimal rations, and navigate in fog, snow and other conditions that may pop up.
As for gear, pack light. On my last 10-day moose hunt, I wore the same
outer clothes every day, and I wore some of those on my flight into Alaska on the commercial flight. I hunted in Dry-Plus waders every day, and took a medium-weight rain jacket, a few pairs of socks and underwear, thin gloves and a stocking hat, along with a couple base
layers, and that was it. You don’t need a lot of gear, but it’s got to be good quality.
If renting your camping gear from a bush service, insist on going through it all before it’s loaded onto your plane for the drop. In addition to the wrong raft frame being given to hunters, I’ve heard of rafts with holes in them and tents that didn’t hold up to high winds.
Some air services even pack all of your food for a hunt. This can be a big time-saver when flying out of remote villages with no stores, or very limited, pricey selections.
Make sure the food is what you want, and that it’s included. Perhaps the best piece of gear you can invest in is a satellite phone. If there’s an emergency, you want to get out. Sometimes simply surviving a remote hunt in Alaska means the hunt was a success; filling a tag can be secondary.
One packing tip that works great for me is putting all my gear into a single large dry bag. I then use three, 5-footlong LoopRopes to lash it to my pack frame. Now I can check it in as one piece of luggage with the commercial airlines, and use the LoopRopes and pack frame to haul meat.
EFFECTIVE MOOSE HUNTING comes down to gaining elevation and glassing. The goal is to spot a target bull, then figure out how to get to it. Cover as much ground as possible with your eyes, not your feet. You can walk several hours a day on tundra and through bogs, which is some of Alaska’s most challenging terrain to negotiate. If you do walk, get from point A to point B fast, as you want to spend time looking for game, not walking. If you can set up camp and glass directly from there, that’s ideal.
A spotting scope and stout tripod are a moose hunter’s best friend. I like a thick carbon fiber tripod, as it’s sturdy and light. A quality spotting scope is necessary to size up bulls to make sure they’re legal, and to plan a stalk.
A lot of hunters think they can float a river in a raft and bulls will be standing around every corner. These hunts can produce, but the number of moose that are standing just out of view is surprising. Spend some time glassing these river bottoms from an elevated vantage point and you’ll see more moose.
For a first-time moose hunter, the most surprising moment comes when they walk up on a downed bull. A big bull moose can stand over 7 feet tall at the shoulders and weigh 1,500 pounds. You’ll get about 700 pounds of boned-out meat off a big bull. If you’re going to have your
bull mounted, add at least another 150 pounds for the antlers and cape.
Be sure to have the proper tools to handle a downed bull. The same knife you use on deer will work fine, and be sure to have a sharpener. If hunting near water, having a one-man inflatable raft is a great way to pack out moose meat. If not, then make sure your pack frame is a good one.
Start with quartering the bull, then removing the backstraps, rib meat,
neck and brisket meat and securing it in game bags. All shank meat and
the tenderloins must also be taken. Alaska meat salvage laws are very
clear, and there’s no hiding a moose carcass from troopers patrolling from the air, so make certain to abide by the regulations and recover all the required meat.
Prior to finalizing your moose hunt, make sure you have a plan to get the meat out of the field, all the way home. A couple seasons ago, three buddies filled their moose tags. They weren’t planning on that much success, but it happened.
Six planeloads later, their meat was out takes place along the road system. These are usually meat hunts for small bulls, and some places require getting a tag through a lottery system. Where you stay and how you travel impacts these hunt costs.
Most hunters choose to fly out for their moose hunt and get dropped off. For an air taxi service to supply your gear – complete with tents, cooking gear and a raft – and haul you in and out of the field, along with your moose, the starting cost is around $3,500. The more the transporter provides, like food and survival gear, the more costly.
There are multiple transporters in Alaska’s hub villages, and they can be contacted for options and price quotes.
Then there’s the cost of getting the moose out of the field, packing it and sending it on to Anchorage or Fairbanks, then home. Those costs can total up to $2,000. If you want to ship the antlers and cape home for a mount, that’s another $800 or more.
The current cost of a nonresident hunting license is $160, and $800 for a moose tag. If you want to pick up a wolf tag, that’s an additional $60, and $350 for a wolverine tag. Always leave room for incidental costs. A do-it-yourself moose hunt can be one of the world’s most rewarding adventures. But moose hunting is far from easy, or simple, which is what makes it so appealing.
Nonresidents don’t have to hire a guide for moose hunting in Alaska, as is required when hunting brown/grizzly bear, Dall sheep and mountain goat. Moose numbers are doing well in Alaska, and the last two seasons have seen a tremendous success rate on monster bulls. If you’ve ever dreamed of hunting big bull moose in Alaska on your own, now is the time to live that dream.
Editor’s note: For signed copies of Scott Haugen’s best-selling book, Hunting the Alaskan High Arctic, send a check for $38 (free S&H) to Haugen Enterprises, P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489, or order online at scotthaugen.com. Follow Scott on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook.
Posted in Hunting Tagged with: Alaska, DIY, Moose Hunting
By Scott Haugen
1. Sonora Double – MEXICO
Known for big mule deer, Sonora also has solid numbers of Coues whitetails. They’re not as big as bucks to the north, but if you’re looking to double-up with a muley, this is a good option. Hunting is by spot and stalk, and flat ground is covered by driving in high-rack trucks.
2. Mule Deer Options – NORTHWEST
(Washington, Idaho, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming and Oregon)
Colorado is kicking out some monster muleys, but many are on private lands or require a lot of points to draw. Wyoming, Montana, Washington and Idaho offer multiple options with over-the-counter tags in some regions. Oregon and Southwest states that produce big bucks also require tags to be drawn.
3. Western Whitetails – IDAHO
Idaho is tops when talking big Western whitetails and lots of them. The northern half
of the state has loads of bucks, as do neighboring Montana and Wyoming. Eastern Washington and northeast Oregon are also producing great whitetails each year.
4. Columbian Double – OREGON
Columbian whitetails and Columbian blacktails can both be hunted in Oregon’s Umpqua River Valley (but not at the same time), near the town of Roseburg. Whitetail tags are on a draw or landowner preference ticket, while blacktail tags can be acquired over the counter.
5. Sitka Blacktails – ALASKA
Kodiak Island is tops when talking Sitka blacktails. Being dropped at spike camp is an option, as is hiring a transporter who will shuttle you around by boat. I like the latter, so new ground can be covered each day.
Posted in Hunting Tagged with: Alaska, Colorado, Columbian Double, Deer, Destination, Hunting, Idaho, Mexico, Montana, Mule Deer Options, Oregon, Scott Haugen, Sitka Blacktails, Sonoran Coues, Sonoran Mule Deer, Washington, Western Whitetails, Wyoming
[su_heading size=”37″]On Point With Bird Dogs[/su_heading]
Training Hunting Dogs
Story and photographs by Steve Meyer
[su_dropcap style=”light”]W[/su_dropcap]hile driving through the night to beat the sunrise over the hunting grounds that were still a hundred miles distant, our furry hunting partner was tossing and turning in the backseat, dreaming of coursing over harsh terrain and climbing vertical rocky outcrops for a bird he has found. Occasionally he would rise to press his soft muzzle on our cheeks to nuzzle and make sure all was well.
Moments after reaching the entrance to the hopelessly barren and ominous terrain where nature has somehow orchestrated the survival of birds, Winchester is long gone, only visible by the GPS screen communicating his location. A half mile distant, and about 800 vertical feet above, his body goes rigid; only his tail “feathers” blow in the mountain air. You would think he was cast in stone. Finally, after ascending to his position, I search for the small, fuzzy blobs of camouflage feathers that are surely there. Slowly I begin to doubt. I look again to Winchester for reassurance; he ignores me. I turn back and glimpse gray-and-white ghosts flying up the mountainside. Ptarmigan. Ah, no matter. Winchester has struck out again, up the mountain and is coursing the slopes with his head held high, a tireless hunter cast in the memory of his storied English setter ancestry. Moments in time.
Winchester holding point on a whitetail ptarmigan while I moved around to photograph. This bird was left unmolested; he was just too cooperative to consider shooting.
One summer day in 2010, Winchester bravely made the trip from his birthplace in North
Dakota to the Delta Airlines cargo office in Anchorage, Alaska, and forever changed our lives.
At seven weeks old he ran across the parking lot on his wobbly puppy legs and promptly pointed a songbird. After catching him, with the assistance of some friendly folks who were mesmerized by this black-and-white ball of energy, we immediately knew he was going to be special.
Pointing dogs are not your typical gun dog, and big running setters are, similar to their only serious competition in the gun-dog world, English pointers, incredibly gifted physical specimens that astound the senses with their prey drive and bird-finding ability.
The wide-open spaces of high country become theaters as their human hunting partners are mesmerized by the ballet conducted before their eyes. The edge of nowhere, places where few have been or will ever go, where even horses cannot climb, these magnificent animals unfold a drama that can find us sentimental gun-dog folks teary-eyed, and grateful for the front row seat to the show.
When Winchester showed up at the trap and skeet range at nine weeks of age he had already been exposed to gunfire in a way that convinced him it was a good thing. A fellow shooter asked, “What are you going to do with a bird dog in territory that has no birds?” It’s a common reaction we Alaskans with gun dogs hear. Most folks here are conditioned to the spruce grouse that are typically taken on the side of gravel roads where they come for grit to aid in digestion, and a dog is hardly required for success. Most hunters, even bird hunters in Alaska, don’t consider ptarmigan as a viable proposition for the gun dog. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game concluded with annual surveys that 90 percent of ptarmigan are taken via snowmobile during the winter months when they can be easily found and shot with .22 rifles or pistols. When they flush they don’t flush far, and some hunters follow the flock, shooting until none are left.
There is an exception to these standards: the whitetail ptarmigan. The smallest member of the ptarmigan family is also its wildest.
Whitetail ptarmigan inhabit country that is foreboding to any type of vehicle traffic, and they live where Dall sheep dwell, way up high. Just getting into these areas is an adventure in itself. If there is a perfect match for running gun dogs, it is this bird. Spreading out across the range they will inhabit a 2,500-acre mountain valley. Setters, with their physical gifts and ability to operate in cold environments all day long, are uniquely qualified to find the birds.
Christine Cunningham hopes to see a black bear emerge from a den on the slopes of the Kenai Mountains, in Alaska. Cogswell has her back.
Colt, nine weeks old, hitches a ride with Cunningham after a long climb (for a puppy) on his first hunting trip to the Kenai Mountains.
At six months old, Winchester was climbing into sheep country and finding whitetails as if he had been born doing it. Some gun-dog folks were critical of allowing Winchester to run around mountain country at such a young age. Worried that we might be doing something detrimental, we called the breeder to inquire. He laughed and said, “Yeah, most folks don’t get what these setters are about. As long as he is happy and wants to go, let him go.” After the first year of watching Winchester unfold in the field, I was certain that he exemplified the qualities of an extraordinary gun dog – a true once-in-a-lifetime prospect.
Before Winchester’s first birthday we had already decided another setter was necessary. In spite of their physical prowess, even the best of the best dogs cannot hunt in the mountains day after day. Winchester’s GPS collar showed his typical day in the high country covered 30 to 35 miles. So, with a dual purpose in mind, Parker arrived at the same Delta cargo office shortly after Winchester’s first birthday. Having come from the same kennel with equally magnificent bloodlines, she would be Winchester’s relief until she was old enough to breed, and then she would make more setters; two that would hunt with their papa into the foreseeable future. Best laid plans.
“If there is a perfect match for running gun dogs, it is the Whitetail Ptarmigan”
Winchester owning all he sees while hunting whitetail ptarmigan in the high country of the Kenai Mountains.
When Parker turned two the process of breeding started. Well, it could have started; Parker would have nothing to do Winchester. Parker was smitten with Red, our Irish setter who was neutered. For two cycles she avoided Winchester’s advances, and it seemed unlikely they would ever conceive, but just after her third birthday she came into heat again, and something changed because she was quite receptive. On June 30, 2014, the blessed arrival of the puppies quickly turned into a nightmare because Parker was having extreme difficulties. She was seen by the vet, who induced labor to get the process started. Her labor lasted for three days, bearing seven pups in the first 24 hours and then four more over the next two days. It was a very large first litter, with one stillborn and several extremely small. An emergency trip to the vet, lots of bottle feeding and hoping for the best wasn’t good enough; we lost five more. The last little one was a beautiful tri-colored girl who we held in our arms to comfort until she passed.
We aren’t breeders, and although we had prior experience with litters, this was different. These puppies were special; losing so many was heartbreaking and life changing. After that, any thought of letting the survivors go to other homes was unthinkable. Four boys – Colt, Hugo, Cogswell, Boss – and one little girl named Purdey would never have to leave their family. “Have you lost your minds?” people would ask. Granted, when you already have three chocolate Labrador retrievers (the duck hunters) and three setters it does appear to be a bit irrational. We had the good fortune of unique circumstances which allowed us to foster the relationships that are so important for four-legged hunting partners: my recent retirement coupled with enough space for them to run and grow, and an extraordinary love of dogs. Possible? Yes, if not a bit daunting.
Hugo jumps into Cunningham’s arms while playing.
Timing found the pups too young for real hunting when the season rolled around in fall. The experiences with all of our dogs have shown that a critical element in building a relationship is taking them out of their comfort zone and into the field, where they learn that you will always be there for them. Colt, because he looks so much like Winchester, went to the field first. At nine weeks old he rode in his first bush plane to a mountain lake that’s an ideal base to hunt ptarmigan from. Winchester had been injured earlier and could not make the trip, so we hunted with another fella who had a Lab and a setter. Colt ran the mountains with all his might. When he got tired he rode in a small backpack or my wife Christine’s game vest. He had the time of his puppy life, and the way he interacted with us showed the strong bond that trip formed. A few days later, Boss flew into Redoubt Bay with the Labs, and donned camouflage face paint to hide his little white setter face in the blind; he loved every minute. Cogswell, Hugo and Purdey all made overnight camping trips before they were three months old.
There may be something better than a setter puppy snuggled into your sleeping bag, but whatever it is escapes me at the moment. It is said that puppies that stay together, like ours
have, will form a “superbond,” and be less bonded to their people. That might happen, but for
now they are ten months old, and there is no question who they would rather be with. The difficulty is refereeing the fights over who gets to lay in the recliners with us because they won’t all fit – we’ve have tried.
The next chapter for these pups will be written this fall when they follow their magnificent father’s lead into the high country for the season opener. The moment in time when he points the first bird and all of his pups back him up will be the reward of all time. The trouble, the vet bills, the chewed items and everything else that comes with a setter family will mean nothing, and that moment cannot come soon enough. ASJ
(LEFT) That’s Red on the far left; in the back are Hugo and Winchester; in the middle is Purdey; and in the front row are Cogswell, Colt and Boss. They all hang out with us in the loft, and their attention has nothing to do with treats. Setters love to be sung to and they will sit and listen like little kids. (RIGHT) The puppies Boss, Purdey, Colt, Cogswell and Hugo, all named for gun makers, and keeping in line with Winchester and Parker, their parents.
Posted in Hunting Tagged with: Alaska, bird dogs, Breeding Pointers, Christine Cunningham, Dogs, English Pointer, hunting dogs, Steve Meyer, whitetail ptarmigan