Hunting season begins early in the year long before the weather turns and the freezer starts to empty. The future season actually begins when the draw results come out in June. That is when the planning can begin as it depends on what you draw. When this information pops up on our Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks website it is akin to a second Christmas morning. Often the results are not what we hope but there is always that small chance, a little ray of hope that something life changing will pop up on the screen. This was one of those special years. I will never forget Tristan’s face when he read his results. He was in shock. “I drew a moose tag!” he said with a look of disbelief. Then the scurry began as he made phone calls and researched maps and web sites. The trips into the hunting district started as he poured himself into scouting. The pictures and video he gathered of cow moose and their calves and a nice bull moose in his unit made the anticipation levels rise. Our 2 year old boy Mason and Tristan would watch moose hunting videos almost every day and the whole family was just as excited about the hunt as Tristan was. This tag is very difficult to draw as the odds are less than 1%. After drawing it once, you are required to wait seven years before you can even begin to put in for the draw again. He was determined to do everything he could to ensure success once season opened on September 15th. All the preparation and excitement was a little extra special because this year we would be bringing our 8 year old daughter, Briger, along for her first hunting trip. She was very excited to go and would be bringing a camera to help document her experience.
September 14th found Tristan, Briger and I on the road to moose camp. We set up our tent in a remote campground and plotted our morning hunt. The area was promising as we spotted moose just minutes from our camp. We watched them with anticipation and the morning on our minds. Two friends joined us for the opening hunt as extra eyes and strong backs in the case of a long pack out. Sleep was sweet and short. I heard the alarm sound and Tristan get up. I rousted Briger out of her warm sleeping bag, which was no small feat. We fueled up on coffee (hot cocoa for Briger) and muffins, then headed for our look out spots.
Tristan and one of his buddies were going to glass from a long rocky ridge that dissected a large open wetland nestled into this steep canyon. While scouting this summer, Tristan had been watching a large bull that liked to hang out in the thick timber above the river. They hoped to lay eyes on him again.
Our other friend had been out hunting all week and had a sore knee so he was driving the road along the river and wetland areas while glassing the hills to see what he could find. Briger and I went to a lower vantage point that allowed us a different angle view of the same area that Tristan was glassing. The morning produced a couple young bulls and a lot of cows and calves but the big bull didn’t show. Tristan and his friend then hiked a few drainages and found a lot of other cows and calves. Briger and I would walk the river trails on the bottom looking for sign and glassing the hills. We saw a lot of pretty sights but a mature bull remained elusive.
That night our friends had to head home and Tristan, Briger and I were the only ones in camp. We knew in the morning we would head back to the place where the big bull had been this summer. With dinner in our bellies and moose on our minds we hunkered down into our sleeping bags again. The next morning we all went out onto the rocky ridge to glass. We watched a cow and calf foraging in the marsh and enjoyed the warmth of the sun as it crested the peaks. The bull never showed but the views were breathtaking and the time spent together was priceless.
We drove back to camp for lunch, to regroup and to plan our next step. While at camp Briger found a Fingered Dagger Caterpillar which she quickly named Fuzzy Wuzzy. He became her constant companion for the duration of the trip and traversed the moose woods in a paper cup made homey with the addition of sticks, leaves and a leftover chunk of blueberry muffin. We finished lunch, which proceeded to give us a food coma that ended with a long nap. While we slept, Briger entertained herself by taking pictures of us sleeping and playing with Fuzzy Wuzzy. We woke refreshed and determined. While scouting, Tristan had found a back up spot in case the bull he had been watching didn’t show up once season opened. Since we found ourselves in that exact situation we decided to head up to the back up location.
It was a long drive through slow bumpy roads and then a straight up rocky road climb into a huge mountaintop pine thicket. We reached the top and parked. It was over 6000 feet in elevation and the air was crisp and cool. The smell was ethereal. Mossy dense greenery carpeted the forest floor and the criss cross of wind blown downed trees turned the dense timber into a maze. It was silent except for the breeze blowing high up through the tree tops above my head. It had the feeling of holding within its darkness the hiding place of monsters. Tristan spotted a small trail winding off into the forest behind us and decided to walk it out a ways and see what he could find. He grabbed is Marlin 45-70 and soon disappeared behind a think wall of tree trunks. Briger and I stayed at the truck and wandered through the nearby trees looking at this and that and just breathing in the freshness. We stumbled upon a gigantic rub and took a picture of it. I wondered at how large it was and tried to picture the animal that could be responsible for such carnage.
Suddenly, we froze hearing the 45-70 rock the stillness. A pause followed and then 3 more shots broke the stillness like glass shattering in the night. I was instantly uncontainably excited. Briger said, “Mom, why are you so excited?” I snapped my head around and looked at her with wide and wild eyes. “Because if the 45-70 is rockin’ something is dying! If it is a moose it is only the second day of season so it has to be big!” A wide grin appeared on her face and she said, “Well, I don’t exactly understand but now I’m all excited too.” We sat together holding the radio waiting to hear it crack and Tristan tell us what was happening. Two minutes felt like an hour but finally he rattled over the radio, “ I have a bull down and he his huge!” Briger and I whooped and hollered. We grabbed the pack frames and started off through the timber.
We wound our way through the maze and jumped over logs. After about 1/3 of a mile we saw Tristan. Tristan told his story, “I left the truck and started down the trail. About 200yds in I heard running water and walked off trail to a very good spring and investigated it for moose sign and saw several tracks. I cut back to the trail and started creeping down it as slowly as possible, stopping regularly to look hard at the surrounding timber and keep track of the wind with my wind-checker. One of my hunting partners, who is much more experienced than I, always tells me to move really slow when hunting and this was in my head. About a ¼ mile from the spring I saw a moose rack turn in my direction. About the time his head stopped turning, my rifle was up and through my scope I was looking at him looking at me. I didn’t want to shoot him in the head but I immediately arrived at the conclusion that the timber was so thick that if he took a few steps in either direction he would be gone from my sight. His head was down so I didn’t have a good brisket shot either. So, I shot him in the face. He turned and started running as I was racking the lever on my 45-70. I quickly lowered my hammer to the safe position and chased after him navigating waist high blow-down timber. As I was moving, I noticed a huge cow moose with a juvenile to my left at 10 o’clock, with the bull moving through the timber to my right at 2 o’clock. After scrambling about 30 yards I had him in my rifle sight again and he was moving away from me. I did not want to shoot him in the hind quarter but I didn’t have much of a choice. I aimed at the top of his hinds hoping to hit the big hump above his shoulder-blades. I rapidly fired two rounds. This stopped and slightly turned him. I was on the move again because he stopped just outside of a clear sightline. I flanked him for about 10 yards and saw him again and aimed and fired just as quick. This time I aimed for his side. The last shot dispatched him quickly and he fell over. I pulled some extra rounds out of my pocket and topped the 45-70 off just in case the action wasn’t over. I moved in on him and and he totally expired just as I walked up. All shots were from approximately 80-100 yards. I shot 4 times all offhand. My first shot hit the sinus cavity below his right eye, exited through his maxilla and ended up in the neck. The next two hit him in the back of the neck just above the top of the back loins. My last shot hit him square in the liver. I reckon the entire encounter lasted 20-40 seconds. I knew that I had killed a mature bull moose but did not know that he was so big. With just a little tremble in my hands and voice I called Lindsay on the radio and told her I killed a monster. My lever gun is so short that I could not poke him in the eye with it to confirm that he was done without getting in range of his giant hooves or rack, so I found a long stick and checked him. Now I took my pack off, gave Lindsay more detailed directions and went back to the trail and waited for her and my daughter. It was only a minute before I heard the 8 year old babbling away towards me.”
He led us over to the moose and I walked slowly up to him in awe. It was like walking up to a giant. He was overwhelming. I couldn’t believe what had just happened and it felt that way for two days. He had shot the bull about an hour before dark and after taking pictures we only had a half hour of daylight to work on getting him ready to pack out.
We got a hindquarter onto a pack frame and Tristan started off through the maze back to the truck. Briger and I continued working on the moose. She would hold the light for me as I cut. When Tristan got back we loaded him up again and he was off. That happened two more times before I had finished cutting him up and prepping the hide and skull. I took the hide on my pack, Tristan took the head and a scrap meat bag and Briger took the backpack.
Three headlamps snaked a burdened path through the darkness stopping to climb over downed trees and rest the back now and then. We made it back to the truck and unloaded. Tristan headed back out alone once again to fetch the last remaining bag of backstraps and tenderloin while Briger and I got everything organized and strapped down in the back of the truck. It had taken us three hours to complete the task and the truck was loaded down heavy. We had a long drive back out and we relived the adventure for many of those miles.
The moose scored a whopping 171-2/8 points and was the largest moose taken in the lower 48 states in 2016.