For most of Alaska, September is moose hunting month. Some areas of the state have additional limited times in mid-winter when it is legal to hunt moose, but for the most part, people hope and plan to take a moose in September. Only bulls are legal to hunt, and only one per person. In some places, the bulls are further restricted to those with a 50 inch rack spread (antlers measured at the widest point).
The season opens September 1st and closes September 30th. A hunting license for an Alaska resident costs $25 annually; no tags are required for moose. For non-residents, a hunting license costs $85, and a moose tag is required--$400. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game closely monitors the populations of all game animals; when a population declines, the first restriction is on non-resident hunters. They are simply not allowed to buy a license. If population numbers are moderate, bag-limits are instituted; when they are critical, entire areas are closed to all hunting of that species. The lower Kuskokwim River drainage is currently experiencing such a closure—a five-year moratorium on moose hunting from the village of Kalskag to the Kuskokwim Bay, a distance of about 250 miles. This is the third year of the moratorium, and it is making a difference. There have been a few reports of moose sightings in this area in the last year or so.
For people on the lower Kuskokwim, the moratorium means traveling a long way upriver to hunt moose. The closest possibility of finding one is at Aniak, about 150 miles away, and the chances improve by traveling another hundred miles or so upriver. At nearly $5 per gallon for gas (in Bethel; more in the villages), many people will not be able to afford the trip. A trip to Aniak in my (fully loaded) boat burns about sixty gallons.
Moose are quite large; a single adult animal weighs about 1600 pounds and will provide 600 pounds of meat—enough to feed a good-sized family for half a year. Not “catching” does not mean the family will starve; caribou are much closer, more plentiful, and easier to hunt. But there is nothing quite so tasty as a young moose taken early in the season before the rut begins. Having moose in your freezer is wealth indeed.
For the most part, moose are solitary creatures—somewhat ornery and cantankerous—and therefore more difficult to find and to hunt successfully. In the summer and early fall, they don’t move around a lot and may stand for an hour or more, eating grasses at the edge of a pond. Their dark color allows them to blend into their surroundings quite effectively, for all their large size. Their hearing is acute, and at the smallest noise they can fade back into the trees like an apparition.
Caribou, on the other hand, are herd animals, and the herds are often tremendous. The one that inhabits this area is 30,000 strong. That’s a lot of caribou! Find the herd and your hunting job is done; you don’t even have to be a good shot. Their strength and survival is in numbers, and they don’t spook as easily as moose; it is possible to get within fifty yards of the herd without alarming them. An adult caribou weighs about 500 pounds and will yield about 200 pounds of meat. Both males and females have antlers, and both are legal to hunt. Caribou is tasty, and much less “gamey” flavored than any lower-48 venison I ever tried; but it is not as tender and delicious as moose.
By late September the rut is starting. Moose are moving around more, in search of each other. Males bellow loudly in the woods, proclaiming their strength and prowess to the females who answer back. Testosterone levels begin to run high in the bulls as the rut progresses. Their urine becomes very strong, and the whole animal becomes somewhat stinky. Their ornery dispositions become even more so. They paw the ground and thrash small trees with their antlers, practicing for the dominance fights they will soon have with other males for the right to breed.
Moose are easier to find and hunt once this process begins; they are more visible, more smelly, and more distracted. But the taste of the meat is strongly affected by the hormone surge, and can be completely unpalatable. “Catching” in the last two weeks of the season is far less desirable.
I have only gone on one moose hunting trip. I am not a hunter; for me the trip was more about traveling on the river and camping. I am a reasonably good shot with a rifle, and believe I could kill an animal if I needed to, but it is not something I am drawn to do. In September of 2003, I went moose hunting with my two best friends at the time, Lynn and Tracy. We took my boat over three hundred miles up the Kuskokwim River and spent two weeks camping and hunting. It was a truly incredible experience. I kept a journal throughout the trip, and on our return I wrote a detailed narrative of our adventure. At the time, I thought I might submit it for publication in a hunting magazine, but never did. The very idea of three women going hunting on their own—and going so far—was quite a novelty at the time. It still would be if we left today.
I have decided to publish the story here, on Tundra Medicine Dreams. It will be in four installments, posted over four days, starting tomorrow. I hope it allows you a vicarious experience of an Alaskan moose hunt; it was a phenomenal experience for the three of us.
Labels: Tundra Life