Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Inaugural SS&S 2011 big game hunt report

While this might have been the inaugural big game hunt, I've likely waited long enough to post this that I'm surprised I haven't been beaten to the big-game-hunt-report punch. Mea culpa. Onward.

This year's hunt, as with last year's, was a bit of a last-minute affair. I knew I wanted to go, either for moose or caribou, but it wasn't until the week before that I pinned down hunting partners. This year, I joined up with Todd, a manager here at Environment Yukon, and Wayne, his buddy from Fort Mac days (Todd is this Todd, a former SRD Regional Biologist for Fort McMurray: though he's back in Yukon now, working for us). Todd's moved back to Yukon so recently, in fact, that he doesn't qualify for resident status this year, and Wayne's from Alberta. This boils down to me being the only guy with a tag - a strange kind of pressure to be under on a hunting trip. After come consultation, we settle on hunting the same area I hunted last year, along the X River in X Yukon. This trip involves a potentially hairy paddle down the X. Because the X can and does eat inexperienced paddlers, there's almost no hunting pressure there, and it's through some great habitat - wetland complexes, willow flats and 20-year-old clearcuts. It's a great spot, if you like paddling (and moose).

Todd (left) and Wayne (right) eat pre-trip cookies.

So, on Saturday afternoon, Todd and I drove to X to meet Wayne, who's driven up from Calgary. We ate a lousy, greasy gas station supper, and visited the range where I think I sold the idea of buying a Tikka T3 to Todd (a matter for a different post - I finally bought myself a Tikka T3 Stainless in .30-06, which is by far the most accurate rifle I've ever used). We met Wayne at the X campground - a solidly redneck guy with a thick New Brunswick accent.

The next morning, we headed up a rough logging road to the put-in. Along the way, we spotted a ton of spruce grouse - I was the only one with a license for grouse, too, so when we came on a group of three in the middle of the road, Todd lent me his shotgun and I walked right up to them and missed. Twice. Well, almost - I wing one on the second shot, then track it down through the woods.

As close as you can come to a miss

Two things; Todd had his choke set all the way open, and Wayne had been filming me. Todd promises to play the video at my retirement party. For a trip that was already a bit high-pressure, this is an inauspicious start. We hit the river, Todd soloing, and Wayne and I together in my canoe, and I discover Wayne hasn't really paddled before. We go over draws and pries. We poke around backwaters and wetlands, but it's really sunny and pretty hot out - not ideal moose hunting weather (but very ideal canoeing weather). The river's a lot higher than last year, and it takes me a bit to recognize the spot where I camped last year. We stop there, set up camp, and hunt through the evening in the clearcuts near the river. Nothing's stirring, and there's not much sign. We're all a bit disheartened - it doesn't feel very moosey.

Sunny, warm, and not much sign

We get up early the next morning, and head back to the clearcuts to call and wait. After an hour and a half or so, we hear a bunch of breaking branches back near camp, the sound of a moose-sized animal moving through the trees. This is good for a half-hour of breathless excitement, which fades as nothing comes of it and we think of other things (trees floating down the river, falling branches) that could have made the noise. Wayne and Todd head back to camp, but as I'm holding the rifle and a bit more keyed up about shooting something than they are, I wander off in the direction of the noise to investigate further. As I round a bend in the river upstream of camp, I catch the unmistakeable black bulk of a moose on the far shore. I sneak up closer, and spot a cow and calf, and then another cow, in a backwater across the river. I watch them for a while, and try a bull call or two, and I get their attention, but don't see any other moose. The lone cow seems to be acting a bit unusually - running around a bit and vocalizing, but I can't spot any bull with her. I head back to camp to get Wayne and Todd, figuring they'd like to at least see a moose, but they're gone by the time I get them back to the spot. Todd and I paddle across the river and stalk quietly through the area, but find nothing except tracks.

We decide to press on downriver, and pack up camp. Almost immediately downriver, with Todd in the lead canoe, I spot a cow and calf on shore. I stage-whisper up to Todd "Moose!", and he looks way downriver with his binos and assures me I'm looking at stumps. He's about beside the cow and calf now, and only spots them when they bust through the brush away from the river. We stop there for a bit, too, but they're gone, and there's no bull with them. We're more excited now, though - it may be hot and sunny, but there are moose around. We float slowly downriver, checking out likely habitat, and we find some good spots, but they're all really thick, hard to hunt, and not the kind of place we want to pull a dead moose out of. As it gets toward 5pm, we stop at the next big gravel bar we see, and set up there for the night.

Camp for the night

After an early supper, Todd and I take a canoe up a small backchannel next to camp, while Wayne stays behind to go fishing. He catches his first-ever grayling before we're even in the boat. Todd and I get about a kilometer in before our way is blocked, and we set up in kind of a lousy location near a creek and call until just before dark, with no results (though both Todd and I could swear we heard something small and/or sneaky moving around in the brush for a while - wolves?). As we paddle back into camp, Wayne is really excited. He'd been doing some calling as well, while he was fishing, and a had big bull come out of the woods across the river, wade across to the gravel bar on our side, walk toward him, then veer off into the woods. We make plans to get up early and call the next morning, and go to bed excited.

At 5:45 the next morning, we're up and ready. We set up on the highest point of the gravel bar, sitting back to back so as to see in all directions. It gets to legal shooting time, 6:10, but it's still too dark to see much, as it's finally clouded over. We wait 20 minutes, until the black turns to grey, give a cow call and wait.

Within 10 minutes, I can spot a light shape that seems out of place. I watch carefully, and it moves - a darker, larger shape forms below it, and it's a moose antler on a bull, feeding on willows and slowly making its way towards us along the bank from upriver, above the top of the gravel bar. I tell Todd and Wayne, then sneak ~50m closer, where I can hide behind the root mass of a washed up tree. I can see the shape of the moose's body, but I don't have a good view of the antlers, I need to be sure it's a bull. I bring the binoculars up with one hand, but I'm too excited and shaky, I can't focus on it. I put the rifle down and steady myself against a root; it's a bull. There's a dark shape behind it, too - perhaps another moose, but my only concern with that is that it's not directly in line with the shot I'll take. As the bull comes closer, I put down the binos and pick up my rifle. The bull looks small in the scope, it's a 175m shot, but my rest is good and I'm confident in the rifle. It turns broadside to browse, and I shoot.

At the shot, the moose runs out into the shallows of the river. I'm concerned, I didn't see any obvious reaction that signals I've hit it, but I figure I must have. I shoot again as it slows to a walk - I don't want the moose any further into the river. It turns back toward the bank and begins to run - I shoot a final time, and it disappears into the brush on the bank. I run back to my pack with Todd and Wayne - the gun's empty, and I want more ammunition. I reach them, and then look back, and the moose is standing on the bank, looking at us as if nothing's happened. It heads back into the willows, and I'm really worried, though Todd and Wayne assure me I hit it well. Wayne's recorded everything on his video camera, so we review the footage:

Some notes on this video:

  • Firstly, that the dark shape behind the bull was a second, larger bull (which was actually the one Wayne thought I was going for).
  • Secondly, the first bull's reaction to the shots is apparent - the first makes impact, and after the second the moose is blowing lung steam from bullet holes in its sides.
  • A second clip (not included) shows that in fact it's the second bull that came out and watched us on the bank after I shot the first. I suddenly appreciate that I only had three cartridges at my disposal. Neither bull is as big as the one Wayne saw the night before.
  • For the second year in a row, I'm using cheap ammunition on a moose hunt. For a second year in a row, I shoot a moose three times. My plan had been to use some handloaded Barnes TSX from Todd, but at the range , we discovered that they didn't cycle dependably through my gun, so I fall back on the cheap 180gr Federals I'd been using for sight-in. Next year I'll either have some better handloads from Todd, or use a bonded bullet.
  • I hadn't realized Wayne was narrating. I might have had some directorial input otherwise.

I'm worried, I haven't seen the moose fall. We wait half an hour before putting on our waders and lining a canoe up to where I shot the moose. We reach the spot, and there's good sign - lots of blood, and by its tracks in the river sand, it's stumbling before it hits the bank. We're all worried it has buried itself into the thick willows, but we find it immediately, up on the grass beside the river, above the wet sand and just outside the willows - perfect. The first two shots were both lung shots, the third a largely ineffective one in the hindquarter. We're all familiar with taking apart large animals, within two hours it's in bags and in the canoe. We pack up camp, have a leisurely lunch and are on the river by noon.

A perfect moose in a perfect spot

Next trip, a tripod
The Tikka groups as well on moose as it does on paper

Half a moose loaded

The water's much higher than it was last year, so the going's easier, but there's a really nasty logjam just before X that's as bad as ever. The river constricts suddenly between two high logpiles, and accelerates through them and into a huge floating logjam at the end. There's a hard left into an eddy, with a very sharp current seam, and the consequences of missing the turn are being forced into and under the floating logjam where you'll conceivably remain forever. Todd's confident we won't have to line it, that we can run it just fine, and I tell him he's got more confidence than I have. After some thorough instruction, though, Todd runs it successfully, and Wayne and I follow. We shoot through on the left, almost grazing along the logs on the left side of the chute, then I steer us into the left eddy, bracing for the fast spin we'll take when the bow hits the eddy. We spin even faster than I anticipate, the right gunwhale goes low, and we ship a bunch of water. I pull us out of it, then we teeter the other way, and Wayne bails. The canoe fills, but stays upright, I get out to keep us afloat, but we're in calm eddy water, and we manage to get ourselves and the boat to shore without upsetting it. We bail, and except for being wet, everything's fine. We hit X almost immediately afterward, and it's calm paddling thereafter.

Easy paddling on X

Quartered and bagged - cool, clean and dry for the night

With our time and the river speeding along, we could have made it to the highway before dark, but we don't want to arrive in Whitehorse at 3am, so we camp on a broad sand bar on X, about 10km north of the highway. We have a big supper, drink a bit of Scotch, and convince Todd to do a bit of moose calling (as he's never hunted moose by calling them). We go to bed, only to be woken up at 5am by a bull moose grunting around behind our camp. We all get up, and stand around in our underwear in the moonlight, peering into the night to see the moose. By its tracks, it gets to within 120m of camp before running off. We head back to bed, get up late, and have an easy float back down to the highway.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Gamebirdin 101

There are really only two rules:

1. Go to Caw Ridge in September
2. Carry a shotgun with no. 7 1/2s

I got 13 ptarmigan and 3 spruce grouse. I saw three more but did not shoot/missed.

My friend and I shot 10 in the first 30 minutes in the field, thus filling our daily quota.

It was quite epic as the ptarmigan often fell 30-40 feet off the cliff after being shot. I quickly scrambled to get them as I kept spooking additional birds (I also figured I would lose them if I did not go right away).

For those who know Caw Ridge I stumbled upon these spruce grouse at the bottom of West End. The male put up a good fight and I had to chase him up the slope in the back left. I often hear people complaining about the taste of spruce grouse but I think they are delicious.

This was also the first time I really took advantage of the stand-on-the-wings-pull-the-feet method of cleaning: it worked quite well and by the end I could do a bird in under five minutes

Sunday, 11 September 2011

I didn't always like rainbows...

But they're growing on me. The Thompson River strain is considered to be one of the better looking, and they fight like hell. Very acrobatic.

To acquaint myself, a few weeks back I headed up to Wells Gray, on the Clearwater River.

Harrassed the locals...

Then checked out some of the upstream migration barriers.

The Thompson River has some beautiful scenery, and is only a 45 minute drive to some nice water.

With hungry fish. I like how their eyes are spotted (that's one way you can tell if you're looking at a trout vs. salmon juvenile, though not all trout have the spots).

There were salmon porpoising periodically out in the current while I was getting these guys to take big dries next to the bank.

While still feeling like a summer heat wave, it is inconveniently getting dark earlier and earlier.

Wapiabi in September

First the obligatory scenic shots

With most of the Old Guard out of province, our camping activities now include:

i) walking on coals

ii) refreshing swims

But the fishing remains the same


Saturday, 10 September 2011

Inaugural SS&S 2011 big game post

In half an hour, I'll be taking off for a moose trip down the X, a return to last year's productive areas. I'll be back on Friday, with photos if nothing else. I've packed my fly rod and some big ugly streamers this time, too, with the hope of finding bull trout along the way.

More to come. In the meantime, my go-to guy for both moose calling and facial hair (the best bit's around the 3:00 mark):