feature By: RL Panek | May, 18
Nearly 5 miles into our wilderness walk, we finally hit fresh moose sign. “I think we jumped it,” Kaid said, as we circled a fresh bed, trying to determine which way it went. Suddenly, two paddles emerged 35 yards downhill out of the jungle-like vegetation. As the bull stood, we dropped to the ground, hoping that we would be forgiven for the rookie mistake we had just committed, all while trying to judge its antlers. Time stood still as we counted points on each antler. “Eight-by-nine, he’s got three points on the front, both sides. He’s at 35 yards, hold for 30?” I stood to draw my bow, and as I settled my pin upon its chest, the bull was staring into my soul. As if it were a dream, the story was about to play out before my eyes, as if God had given me the pen to write it myself.
There was just one problem: The bull was quartering to me. As I asked for one more step, the bull gave it to me. The moose was perfectly broadside at 30 yards but now swallowed in undergrowth – still no shot. After holding at full draw for more than a minute, the stalemate was getting intense. My arm started to quiver due to fatigue. I had voices in my head trying to persuade me to thread the arrow through a gap the size of an apple. Just one more step, that’s all it was going to take. Instead, the more than 40-inch rack whirled around and dove deep into the canyon below. I felt sick as I tucked the arrow back into my quiver. Kaid and I tried to shake off the encounter while trying to learn from it at the same time. It was September 16; we were 8 miles into national forest backcountry by way of horses and just let an opportunity slip on a “hit-list” bull.
As we continued to log miles on our hiking boots, the temperature started to climb. As 70-degree days set in, the moose activity became nearly stagnant. Bulls never left thick aspen groves, and with plentiful water in random seeps and ponds, the bulls never showed. After four frustrating days, we needed some help from Mother Nature so we decided to back out and save vacation days for later in the hunt. We would return the next weekend in hopes of the rut.
After recharging morale and hoping for cooler weather, we rode back into moose camp that consisted of a borrowed wall tent that had seen the tests of time. By looking at each hand-stitched repair in the canvas, the musty tent told stories of ember burns, deadfall and many hunting seasons. The above-average temperatures that we had experienced a week before had vanished, and it seemed as if Jack Frost himself had hand-delivered the snowflakes that fell upon the mountain. Even though we wanted to enjoy a fire at camp, we knew that time was better spent covering ground, trying to get a bull to answer to our calling sequences before darkness fell over the steep canyons. I grabbed the rifle and kept my bow in camp as we ventured into the sea of snowflakes.
A mile and a half into the jaunt, the two of us rounded a fold in the ridge; Kaid spotted a bull feeding out from a large group of trees 200 yards away. Having us fooled, the bull sported a narrow frame but a massive right palm and single front tines; an old regressed “dinosaur,” king of the canyon. Even though I wasn’t smacked with the instantaneous “shooter” judgement that I had with the “triple front” bull, it was respectable enough to study for 15 minutes. Finally I opted to pass even though my decision was met by Kaid saying, “Are you sure? I don’t know if I would let him walk.” We were puzzled at the lack of response to a calling sequence. The bull had acted as if it was deaf to our pleas for attention – frustrating.
Twilight was fading fast, so we ventured to camp and attempted to get a fire going to dry clothes through the night. We hoped that with a new day, the snowfall would transition back to the sunny skies we were accustomed to. A hunter can always hope for the best, but in this case the storm hung for 36 hours, piling up 4 inches of fresh powder. I learned that a spotting scope is only added weight when you don’t have the visibility to use it, as the blizzard robbed visibility for the next day and a half. We hiked nearly 7 miles throughout the storm and “primed” each pocket canyon with a cow-calling sequence. Thinking we would be able to coax a monster out of the abyss, we were yet again disappointed with no responses. We tried positive thinking, hoping the cold snap would send love-drunken bulls into a daze, but it never happened.
Monday brought a welcome break in the weather, along with a death march that lasted more than 11 miles, covering ground in the fresh snow in search of bull tracks and dark spots scattered across the open faces. Nothing – not a track, sign nor sound of a traveling bull looking for a companion. Our feet were wet from the day before, and I could see the flame of hope and excitement start to dim as morale progressively started to dwindle. We were averaging a moose sighting every 6 miles. Lone cows and raghorn bulls would show up from time to time through the optics, generally at a long distance, but nothing promising had been seen since passing up the dinosaur bull a few days prior.
When it rains it pours. We had just reached the ridge above camp when we heard a commotion down at the tent with the horses, and it didn’t sound good. Sprinting through the pines toward the noise, I discovered our lead mare was nowhere to be found, leaving the other two horses. Constant whinnys echoed through the canyon for hours as the horses were trying to coax the mare back to camp themselves, even though it didn’t work. Now what? I thought, as Kaid started saddling the two remaining ponies. What was supposed to be an exciting trip with off-the-hook rut action had just turned into a horse hunt that very well could end up at the horse trailer 8 miles away.
We were headed down the trail when, luckily, we ran into the mare on its way back up to the tent, as if it knew that we had made it home and it was time to get back to her post. With no rut activity and a bunch of expected pressure on the area due to a general-season, muzzleloader deer hunt, we decided to roll out the next morning. Hopefully after a few days, the pressure would decline and the rut action would pick up in what would turn out to be our final trip into moose camp.
On the first day of October we rode back into camp early that afternoon, crossing our fingers that the rut had finally come and bulls would be on the move. Kaid and I unloaded the horses and grabbed the rifle; we wanted to check the ridge and get on a vantage point about 1.5 miles from camp to see if anything had changed since the last time a mere five days ago. A survey of the land and a few cow-calling sequences revealed that not much had changed. In silence and frustration, we got up, slid on our backpacks and started back for the tent. Suddenly Kaid spotted a bull, and it was on the move. We couldn’t tell specifics on the size, but we knew the bull was mature.
The bull was across the canyon from camp about 1.5 miles away, moving across a bare sagebrush face – this was a problem. Throwing it into overdrive, we literally started running across the ridgetop to cut the bull off. We knew that it was only a matter of time before it disappeared into the ocean of deep pine draws. As we got closer to camp, Kaid let out a few whiney cow calls, and to our surprise they were met with the unmistakable umph of a bull grunt. We worked in tighter, both of us circling below the tent and setting up in a small opening with multiple shooting lanes. The moment of truth was near. Anticipation grew as I felt the breeze in my face, creating the perfect scenario. The bull was coming on a string and was answering every note that we were throwing at it.
As limbs crashed, I steadied up for the shot. Tips of antlers came over the rise, and to our disappointment, it was a juvenile bull. It was 15 yards away and hot. Still panting because of adrenaline and the mountain run we had just finished, we smiled, knowing the bulls were starting to talk. We waved the bull off in an attempt to keep it out of camp before it ran through the horses that were tied up just 150 yards up the hillside.
Kaid and I both agreed that the bull appeared much larger in the optics from a long distance, and that was disappointing until we looked across the draw. At 300 yards stood the bull we had glassed earlier, and we now realized that there were two different bulls in the same draw. The dominant bull stood broadside, both powerful yet graceful in its action, and its antler’s paddles seemed to glow in the evening twilight. Now working back up the hillside, I glassed the moose and instantly felt the shock value of it being a “shooter” due to the respectable palm size and its width of over 40 inches.
The moose was now on a mission to get to the top of the ridge; it had us pegged, and the bull of my dreams was trying to escape what was soon to be its demise. I sat down to steady the rifle as I prepared for the broadside shot. Step by step, I was waiting for a change in direction. Sure enough, the bull made a fatal mistake. As it stood broadside looking back at me, I touched the trigger off. In recoil I lost sight of the moose of a lifetime, but the hit was confirmed with the sound of impact. The beast took two more bullets until it expired within sight. As we reached it, we realized that fate had played its course, I wrapped my tag around the “triple front” bull that had slipped through our grasp on opening morning. We were ecstatic, yet grateful to have taken a bull that had commanded respect in its home range, as this bull did.
The next day, a casual, forecasted storm turned into an all-day event as if it was Mother Nature’s going away present. Caping and quartering the bull gave much insight to the giant animal. As knives dulled and fingers went numb, it turned to urgency to get the bull out of the backcountry as the snowstorm increased in size. Instead of making multiple trips and riding horses, Kaid and I opted to walk out and utilized extra saddle panniers to get the bull out in one 8-mile trek back to the trailhead. Once back there, meat could be cached in the horse trailer until we could extract camp the next day. With each step we took, the snow got deeper, but we also were closer to the finish line. When the corner was rounded and the parking area was reached, our bodies were tired, our minds rather frazzled. It didn’t matter. Eighty miles in boot tracks, 65 miles in horse rides, days of frustration, and when the last game bag was unloaded the feeling washed over me – we did it!
Every hunt has a behind-the-scenes support crew, and Ernie Millgate was that for us. He talked us into applying for the underrated unit and was always a phone call away when we needed help. Whether it was building us back up after being frustrated, giving us advice on how to play our cards or being the first one to take us into the nasty canyons where this adventure took place, we look back on this adventure as “Ernie’s fault.”
On December 4, 2017, Ernie was called home. This story is told in his memory. During the last conversation we shared, I asked the man what I owed him for his trouble on the once-in-a-lifetime roller coaster ride we endured. In true Ernie fashion, he simply replied, “Friendship.” Long live the legend.