By Dennis Dunn
For an hour-and-a-half, at least, I had been stalking him. “Stalking” in the most aggressive manner possible! Every time I would grunt, thrash the brush, and run right at him — using all possible cover — he would move out ahead of me, staying just beyond bow-range. True, on two occasions in the early stages of the encounter, he had approached to within some 30 or 35 yards, but he had hung up in places where I could see only the tops of his antlers; then, after a while, he would silently steal away, forcing me to put the rush on him again. Even though I had managed to keep the wind in my favor, the pattern repeated itself over and over — until I finally gave up and headed back toward the truck.
I guess that’s what caused the tables to turn. Evidently, the handsome Shiras bull moose didn’t appreciate being suddenly ignored, because now I was the one being stalked. Or maybe this fellow just wanted to put the fear of God in me, so to speak, so that I wouldn’t ever come back to harass him and his cows again. I now knew, for sure, that one of us was going to die, and I felt reasonably confident it wasn’t going to be Yours Truly.
The above scenario never would have unfolded had it not been for a chance meeting in a San Antonio taxicab 19 months earlier. I had traveled to Texas for the 2005 Annual Convention of the Foundation for North American Wild Sheep. So had Clint Menke of Huntsville, Utah. At the conclusion of the wonderful three-day affair, which raised over a million dollars for expanding and enhancing wild sheep habitat, Clint and I shared a cab to the airport, and he gave me his business card. It turned out that he manages the hunting program for the Rocking HR ranch, a 29,000-acre private property in the beautiful Wasatch Mountains of Utah. The place has abundant Mule Deer, Rocky Mountain Elk, and Shiras Moose, and it just happens to share a common border with the famous Deseret Ranch, which is owned by the Mormon Church. It also shares a common boundary with the private ranch where I had harvested my first Shiras bull nine years earlier.
Since I had promised myself that I would one day return to Utah for another moose hunt, it didn’t take me long, once I got home, to call Clint up and book a hunt for the fall of 2006. To be able to bring the meat home, should the hunt prove successful, I decided to drive rather than fly. Clint met me at the entrance to the ranch, mid-afternoon, on September 28. I knew the rut would be well under way, and I was really excited at the prospect of being part of that amazing ritual once again. In the course of the 14-hour drive, spread over two days, I had turned the steering wheel over to an educated knee every couple of hours, so as to free up both hands for practicing my bull-grunting and cow-calling techniques.
Our accommodations consisted of an old, well-renovated cabin up on the very top of the high mountain plateau that was the heart of the ranch property. Most of the game lived in the many canyons coming off the top of the plateau in every direction. As had been the case nine years earlier, the mountainsides were on fire with the riot of autumn colors. The wildly-commingled shades of nature’s paint-pot seemed even more outrageous than I had remembered. I’ll never forget one large maple tree in particular, which all by its lonesome sported individual branches of different colors. Some branches bore only leaves of a verdant green; some carried leaves only of a rich, golden yellow; others, only orange vermilion; and still others, only scarlet red! All in a single, solitary tree!
For my first evening on the mountain, Clint took me to one rim of a huge canyon on the north side of the ranch. Using our binoculars and a spotting scope, and looking across to the east with the sun at our backs, we counted no fewer than 12 moose that emerged from cover to feed during the final hour of daylight. Many were cows and calves, but there were also several decent-sized bulls. We returned to the cabin after dark, encouraged by the numbers we had seen.
It was then that I met Jesse Shupe, the 20-year-young guide whom Clint had decided to assign me for the week. Jesse had grown up nearby in an avid hunting family. He’d taken his first deer at age eight, and by the time he started guiding professionally at age 17, he had been a part of several dozen successful deer and elk hunts. As for moose, he admitted to having little experience with them, but he was clearly eager to gain more, and he seemed most excited about guiding a bowhunter. I was to be his first. He asked if I would teach him how to bull-grunt and cow-call, and I assured him I would.
The next two mornings and evenings were spent glassing across canyons, always with the sun at our backs, in an effort to locate a really good, mature bull. The idea was that, once we found a bull I definitely wanted to go after, we would plan the right strategy for the right stalk — depending on his location, the terrain, and the time of day. If, for example, we were able to put our selected trophy bull to bed, so to speak, as the veil of darkness settled over the landscape, then our plan would be to hike down or over to his bedding area before dawn the next morning. Once we knew his general whereabouts, avoiding giving him our “wind” as we moved in would become the greatest challenge. Indeed, our first two attempted stalks quickly turned into nonstarters because of the fickle winds.
Well before sunup on October 1, the third morning of my hunt, Jesse and I spotted a nice bull across the canyon from us. He was tending two cows, but he shortly fed into an area where we no longer had a view of him. Thinking that we might be able to see him better from a position farther down the ridge we were on, we hopped back in the truck and started to proceed down the narrow, winding dirt road. When Jesse suddenly hit the brakes hard and killed the engine, I knew he had just seen something significant that was much closer.
“Look over there!” he said, pointing. “There’s a real shooter bull bedded about 60 yards away. Look right through the middle of that little clump of aspens. You can just see part of the tops of his antlers above the brush.”
My first attempt to spot him with the naked eye yielded me nothing, but as soon as I got my binos involved, I was able to identify part of one palm. Then the bull turned his head slightly, and suddenly the whole frame of his wide rack popped into focus for me. “Whew!” I said. “That’s one heckuva nice bull!” As we quietly opened the doors of the truck and exited, I noticed right away that the breeze was not blowing in a good direction for us. “He’s likely to get our scent any minute,” I whispered.
Sure enough, before we could even start circling around to our left, the bull rose from his bed and began walking in a straight line to our right. He stopped for a while, turning his head in our direction, eyes unseeing. Next, he proceeded forward a few paces, lowered his head, and started plowing the ground in front of him with the brow tines of his antlers. That’s a good sign, I thought to myself. He’s in a state of mind where we can probably fool him. Then, for no apparent reason, the bull broke into a trot and disappeared into heavier forest-cover.
By now, Jesse had practiced enough to get his bull-grunt down really well. I told him I thought it was time to put the rush on this bull, and asked him to try to stay about 50 yards behind me as I moved forward, and to break some brush noisily every so often. His further instructions were to make a series of two to four grunts, three to five seconds apart, every few minutes along the way. I told Jesse that I also would be grunting occasionally because I wanted our quarry to think there were two bulls interested in checking him out. One time only, about 10 minutes into the charade, I turned to face Jesse and let out a fairly soft but long and languorous cow-call. The idea was to spice up the mix and further short-circuit our bull’s cerebral processes.
Almost immediately after the cow-call, our joint effort began to produce results. I heard a very low, guttural grunt perhaps 60 yards in front of me. A branch snapped, some bushes started moving, and suddenly antler-tops were visible coming slowly in my direction. Aside from that one breaking limb, the bull was amazingly quiet. It was as if I were watching an old movie in slow motion without sound. At 35 yards or so, he stopped — all but invisible to me, offering no shot whatsoever. I now had an arrow on the string and was staying just as quiet and motionless as my quarry. Jesse continued his occasional grunting, in hopes of bringing in the big bull right past me. Yet, for the moment at least, the bull had “hung up” and wouldn’t approach any closer. After a while, I sensed that our prey was no longer there, and my predatory instincts resurfaced. If I didn’t maintain the initiative, our chances might well evaporate very quickly.
So, off I went again, running right after him, breaking every branch possible as I sped past. Every 20 to 30 yards, I stopped to look and listen. The sound of grunts or brush breaking up ahead would usually allow me to refine my “aim,” and keep me more or less on target. Soon I found myself angling down a rather steep slope that was somewhat more open than the previous 200 yards. Here, I had to be much more cautious, because I didn’t want the bull to pick me up visually. That’s what normally brings the game to an unsuccessful conclusion. Either that, or your quarry gets your scent in his oversized nostrils. As I paused to study the new vista, I heard a grunt not far away; then, a few seconds later, another grunt in a completely different direction! There had to be two different bulls out there in front of me! The sounds seemed to be about 50 yards apart.
This was really starting to get exciting. For a brief second or two, I suddenly caught glimpses of both bulls on the move. The one we’d been working on for nearly an hour seemed to be retreating. The other one soon exposed himself completely as he busted out of the heavy timber into the aspens below me and started diagonally uphill in Jesse’s direction. I could still hear Jesse’s occasional grunting sequences, but he had fallen a bit farther behind now. This was a brand-new protagonist I hadn’t seen before, and his rack was big. In fact, probably the bigger of the two. However, he also hung up and was willing to come in only so far. Although he was only around 50 yards directly below me, his black hulk of a body was wedged between a group of white aspen trunks that discouraged any consideration of a shot. When he finally turned to head back into heavier cover, he passed through my only shooting lane at a pace too fast for me to take the risk.
Since I hadn’t seen the first bull now for at least 15 minutes, I resolved to focus all my predatory powers (whatever they may have been) on this new bull. However, the same routine ensued with him that I had experienced with the earlier one. Grunt, rake, thrash, and charge — but somehow he always stayed just beyond my comfortable bow-range. Finally the terrain seemed to offer me a break, and I quickly opted for a different tactic.
The big fellow, and at least one cow, were standing in some open aspens just on the other side of a heavy hedgerow of conifers. Through the fringe edge of the evergreens, I could just make out with my binos some long, blackish legs. They were perhaps 70 yards up the slope above me. I saw that I could use the thick conifers as a solid screen and cover half the distance between the moose and me on very open, quiet ground. He may possibly have heard me sneaking toward him, but I’m certain he was convinced I was another bull coming to raid his harem. This time he stood his ground.
Once the evergreens blocked any further advance on my part, I came to full draw and then stepped sideways out into the open. The bull and I made eye contact with no more than 40 yards separating us. Instead of just one cow, he had three circling him. He was standing there fully broadside, looking down at me. The only problem was the dangling aspen limbs, directly between us, which I suspected would interfere with the arc of the arrow. Another step to the side did not solve the problem. A third and final, lateral step gave me the clear shooting lane I needed, but by then it was too late! As I tried to stabilize from that final bit of motion, the magnificent bull wheeled and began trotting straight away from me. I quickly let down, because under those circumstances, the so-called Texas heart-shot was not one I wanted to try.
Having been nailed visually and identified as the fraud I was, I figured the game was over for the morning. Slowly, I started back up toward the ridgetop in the direction of the road we had driven down a couple hours earlier, which leads me back to the strange drama I started to recount at the beginning of this story.
On my diagonal, uphill course, I eventually sensed I must be getting pretty close to the road. At what later proved to be just 60 or 70 yards away from it (though I couldn’t see it yet), I heard a couple of moose grunts not far behind me. They took me totally by surprise. I responded in kind with two or three soft ones of my own; then stood still to listen for about half a minute. Nothing further, so I continued walking. At the very instant I stepped onto the roadbed, I heard another grunt directly behind me. As I whirled around to look, I saw the head and antlers of Bull #1 coming into view over a rise below me. He was at 50 yards and closing fast.
Instantly, I knelt down behind a bush, slapped an arrow on the string, and came to draw. He was obviously looking for me, and seemed pretty intent on thrashing me — if he could only find me. At 35 yards, he skidded to a halt, with a small oak tree between me and his rib cage. His eyes continued searching. Knowing that I couldn’t remain at full draw indefinitely, I uttered one, last, very soft grunt. He bolted forward another 10 yards, took a jag to my left, and stopped a bit below me, broadside, at about 30 yards. Because of his erratic course, as well as the brush and terrain between us, I’d had to let down, dash a couple of strides off the road in his direction, and draw my arrow a second time. I doubted I would have much time to get the shot off. As he started to lift one front leg, I released the arrow. However, by the time it arrived, his body had moved forward one full stride, and the shaft disappeared through the upper-rear part of his body. Not at all what I had intended!
Immediately, I grunted loudly twice and managed to turn what was looking like the beginning of his escape into a sudden charge that brought him several running strides in my direction. I was at full draw again and moving sideways, trying to find a clear shooting lane. The bull had stopped again, quartering away from me, looking back one last time in an attempt to figure out the nature of the antagonist with whom he’d come to pick a fight. I truly doubt I would have ever gotten off a second shot had it not been for my complete camo-outfit, including gloves and headnet. This time he stayed still just long enough, and my arrow was true to the mark. It passed completely through, striking him low in the chest, just behind the front leg, and exiting the far side of his brisket.
As the bull lost all his macho-cool and went charging off downhill like a runaway cement truck, I shouted at the top of my lungs, “He’s coming your way, Jesse!” Though I didn’t know it at the time, the stricken animal’s death-run carried him only 80 yards. Once I caught up with my young guide back at the truck, he explained that he’d heard me yell but hadn’t understood the words. The bull had, indeed, been headed his direction: so much so that Jesse thought the bull was actually charging him! He rather sheepishly explained that he had run 40 yards straight downhill as fast as he could, and then had dived under a fallen log. We soon located the dead moose, which had been kind enough to expire just 15 yards from our road. Jesse quickly realized that even before he’d made his mad downhill dash, the bull had never been any closer to him than about 50 yards. We both had a good laugh over the whole crazy episode, and talked about how big sounds in a forest can sure fool a guy.
It had been quite a remarkable morning, and both of us were absolutely thrilled with the outcome. The trophy-class bull (with antlers 42 inches wide) was, indeed, the same one Jesse had spotted in his bed from the truck. When I began my stalk on him two hours earlier, I’d had no idea that — before the game was over — I was going to become the “stalkee,” rather than the “stalker”!