Chasing Mammoths in the Alaskan Wilderness
September 30, 2019
Nothing is quite as right as losing oneself to Alaska's wild country in pursuit of a monster DIY moose.
It was a land vast and empty, and sighting the giant moose burned adrenaline through me. Flashing whitely below the canopy of evening fog, his antlers cleanly bracketed his massive haunches, leaving a significant gap between hip and the inner edge of his paddle on each side. Long tines flung wide.
Mentally suppressing the urge to shout, “68 inches!” I lowered my knee-jerk estimate to a measly 65 inches. A big, big bull, and though it stood far off in a cloud-shrouded saddle it was in huntable country.
The Land of the Giants
Moose populations are typically estimated in square miles per animal, instead of animals per square mile. They’re solitary, rather than herd animals. Wolves, grizzlies and the harsh environment weed out all but the hardiest, and as the rut kicks in bulls become territorial, spreading thinly across the vast landscape.
That’s not to say that once found, they’re hard to spot. Alces alces gigas, as Alaska/Yukon moose are known amongst those of scientific bent, are the largest deer species currently inhabiting the planet. Mature bulls typically stand seven feet at the shoulder and weigh 1,400 pounds or more. For perspective, Alaska moose are taller than the Budweiser Clyesdale horses and can be durned near as heavy.
While moose are very callable, they’re often slow to respond. Big palmated antlers channel sound like a satellite dish channels frequency, enabling mature bulls to hear calls from up to several miles.
The massive bull had given me the slip shortly after dawn. Crawling slowly out of my tent, I glassed the basin, in case a moose had moved in during the night, before easing up the ridge and into our observation tree.
It was grizzly country, and we’d seen three in the time since Tok Air Service’s crack bush pilot and owner Zack Knaeble dropped us off. My hunting companion, Neal Emery, and I had 10 days slated for our DIY moose hunt. Emery and I had planned to hunt together, but Neal needed to regroup and sort out his footwear. I went alone, taking almost an hour to cross 900 yards of hip-deep tundra hummocks laced with heavy, moss-black evergreen undergrowth and alders.
Choosing the Right Tools
Every step was a battle won, which is part of why it took so long. The other reason was bears. By all accounts, they don’t like to share their blueberries. Knowing there wouldn’t be time if needed, I worked the bolt of my Winchester Model 70 and chambered a .375 H&H handload.
Customized by Lex Webernick of Rifle’s Inc. with a match-grade barrel, his petite Quiet Brake II, and handmade carbon-fiber stock, the Model 70 weighs only 8.75 pounds with my 2-10x40mm Nightforce NXS scope mounted—light for a .375 H&H but beautifully balanced and sub-MOA accurate.
Not only is a mature bull moose literally seven or eight times as big as a 200-pound whitetail buck, they have slow nervous systems. Rarely are they flattened by even a large-caliber bullet, unless it impacts the spine. That’s not to say they’re hard to kill; they just don’t admit death quickly.
Scandinavian hunters have been cleanly killing their elg—a smaller sub-species of moose—with heavy-for-caliber bullets out of the 6.5 Swedish Mauser for over a century, but savvy hunters of the Alaska-Yukon variety tend to opt for bigger cartridges. And for good reason: Big northern bulls can be over 30 inches deep, broadside. Should you need to rake a big bull skulking away through the alders hip-to-shoulder, typical deer bullets fired from your favorite deer cartridge just aren’t right for the job.
I charged the Model 70’s magazine with 300-grain DGX Bonded handloads, packed a handful of 250-grain GMX loads in the Galco ammo carrier on my belt, and felt well prepared for disgruntled grizzly up close, moose and caribou to 450 yards and wolf somewhat farther.
Critical Gear list
A Game of Patience
Mid-morning the second day, I climbed several hundred feet up through the cascading rocks to a vantage point. Hunkered beneath the brow of a schoolbus-sized boulder I glassed the afternoon away.
For two days the valley was empty. Dawn and dusk I crossed the valley, waded the creek, and scraped diligently for an hour or two with the bleached caribou shoulder blade I’d found.
The fourth evening the basin came alive with moose. Almost as soon as I began my calling routine I glassed up the tremendously wide bull on a distant ridge, two adolescent bulls on another ridge, and now was attempting to hold it together as guttural grunts resonated across the basin, steadily closing the distance.
When the bull appeared the ivory whiteness of his antlers drifted above the stunted pines, so high and so massive that I felt as if a momentary warp distorted my vision. A gnarl of tines drooped off the left side.
The wide bull in the cloud-shrouded saddle forgotten, doubt about whether two giant bulls would inhabit one basin blown to shreds, I dropped my binocular, raised the .375 H&H, and found the antlers in the scope.
When attempting to kill a monster buck or bull you shouldn’t look at the antlers, but I couldn’t see anything else. Drifting whitely above the stunted pines at 200 yards, they oriented the bull better than the rhythmic grunts but gave me nothing to shoot at. I flicked the safety off.
Impossibly big, the black form flickered briefly through the evergreen understory, then suddenly revealed in stark outline. The crosshair found the bull’s shoulder, and that lovely Winchester spoke its piece.
With a lunge the bull was behind a sprawling alder bush, where he stopped, frozen, nostrils testing the breeze. All I could see was his ponderous, bulbous nose and heavy antlers. Confident in my shot but cautious, I watched, another round chambered.
The antlers drooped, swayed. Attempting to turn and flee for the wooded sanctuary from which he’d come, the bull reared, towering above the small Christmas trees, and crashed over backward. Neal’s victory whoop reached me from the valley; he’d watched the whole thing play out.
An unfathomable volume of gratitude, awe, and respect washed over me as I knelt beside the broad antlers. Nothing comes close to a hard-earned giant hunted and taken in truly wild country.
My bullet had taken the bull squarely on the shoulder and passed completely through, demolishing the vitals. Late into the night we skinned and quartered, laying moose meat out to cool in game bags before heading to camp. I fell into the welcoming warmth of my sleeping bag at 2:20 a.m.
Rain blew in the next morning, settling grimly over the valley and rattling aggressively against the blue-tarp lean-to we erected over the kill site. Tired and sore, we boned every shred of meat off the carcass (legal in that unit and required by the bush pilot).
Eleven 50- to 70-pound meat sacks finally packed to the airstrip, exhausted but jubilant.
There arethose that disagree, but for me, really effective moose cartridges start with the 7mm magnums—and the various .30s and .338s are much better. When aggressive bears are a potential problem, the .375s are outstanding.
Whatever cartridge you choose, pair it with a tough, controlled-expansion bullet that is heavy for its caliber. The smaller the caliber, the more critical this is.
For this hunt, I chose Hornady’s new DGX Bonded soft-nose dangerous-game bullets, which feature a robust tapered jacket and core-to-copper bonding, combining controlled expansion with excellent weight retention. They flawlessly drive deep and straight, wreaking havoc on vitals and bones. My handload pushes them at 2,550 fps.
I zero my go-to .375 H&H handload (a 250-grain Hornady GMX at 2,740 fps) at 200 yards. To my delight the 300-grain DGX Bonded load punched the center of the 100-yard target without changing the scope settings. The two loads provide a perfect combination of close-range authority and longer-range ability.
That 250-grain GMX is surprisingly effective on steel all the way to 1,000 yards. However, impact velocities fall below GMX-expanding speeds at half that distance.
Hornady DGX Bonded
- Caliber: .375
- Ballistic Coefficient: .275 (G1)
- Weight: 300 grs.
- MSRP: $45/50 bullets
One Last Shot
Our last hunting day came overcast, warm, and still. Gathering gear and meat we headed for the far canyonside, climbing high into a rock slide, where we set up for the day beneath a clump of sheltering alders.
Time crawled. We napped, glassed and seared caribou steaks over alder-wood coals. Clouds lowered and puffed pellet-like snow across our cheeks, and the valley below was ghostly still until dark began to fall. With nothing to lose, I climbed onto a rock and gave several lonely cow calls.
Shooting light almost gone, I began to gather my gear. Neal took one last hard look around, and physically twitched when he looked far down to our right. “Moose!” he whispered. “It’s a bull!”
Crouching behind my spotting scope, I trained it on the meadow. Broad antlers silhouetted against the yellow meadow grass, long tines fringing the palms clear around the back of the paddles. “It’s a good bull,” I responded.
Neal was already settling into position behind a flat boulder, bipod deployed and his coat wadded beneath the toe of the stock. “How far?”
I ranged the moose, then, unbelieving, ranged it again. Apparently massive black bodies can appear much closer than they really are. “611 yards.”
Neal’s response was the crisp clicking of his Leupold VX-6 HD turret dialing up, and seconds later his custom Remington 700 boomed. I saw the bull lurch even before hearing the whuck of a solid hit.
I watched, marveling, as the big bull locked up, broadside, refusing to go down. All their lives, whether battling wolves, grizzlies, or frozen rivers, moose know if they go down they die. Nothing else in America can refuse death like an old bull moose, and I love them for it.
Dead on his feet, shot squarely through both lungs by Neal’s first 175-grain ELD-X, the bull stood. Neal fired again, and again. After all, we were testing bullets. Each time the sound of a solid hit drifted back.
Swaying finally, the bull crashed into the yellow-grass tundra.
Late into the night we boned meat into Kuiu game bags. Staggering into camp at 1:40 a.m., we JetBoiled and squabbled over the last raspberry crumble Mountain House dessert, living the day over, not yet ready to give up the excitement and give in to sleep
In 10 days, we’d seen four mature bull moose, and we’d shot two of them. We’d seen grizzlies, we’d feasted on moose, blueberries and grayling, and we’d proved that our middle-age bodies are still capable of hauling 100-pound packs over tundra. Our food was almost gone, and the pilot had just texted via my Garmin inReach that he couldn’t get in to pick us up on schedule due to incoming weather.
Muddy clothing and boots stripped off, we stretched, groaning, into our sleeping bags.
This was Alaska. We wouldn’t have it any other way.