Bucket List Bulls

Jeff B

I was icing my knee after a second knee replacement while reading a hunting magazine. An article described a horseback hunt, camping in wall tents, and going after Big Moose. “I am going to be 60 years old shortly,” I thought, “and this has always on my bucket list. I’m going to do this!” This trip would be a physical challenge with a bad back, two artificial knees, and neuropathy in my feet, but I was up to the challenge.

After researching many options online, I felt my best bet for a nice bull was to hunt in British Columbia. I knew that big 50-60” bulls could be hunted in the North Central part of the province. I researched extensively, looking at how moose were hunted, and the flexibility various outfitters offered. And finally, I checked references. I decided to book with Steve, Tammy, and Tricia Fiarchuk of Bullhead Mountain Outfitters in Hudson’s Hope, BC.

Steve had over 30 years of outfitting experience all over BC. Recently he had started Bullhead Mountain Outfitters to hunt areas close to home, areas rich in game, and areas he knew well.

I invited several hunting buddies to come along, but none could afford the cost and time away. I turned to my old college roommate Dave Rasmussen who said he would go.

We started to plan our trip and met with Steve and Tammy at a Deer Expo in Madison, WI. We asked about the details of the hunt and were more than satisfied with what we found out.

As the hunt date drew near, we decided to drive, so we could hopefully bring back all of our meat and racks, as well as possibly shooting a second animal (elk or bear).

I hadn’t ridden a horse in 40 years, so I had hoped to get to a local stable a few times before our trip. Unfortunately, the local stables didn’t have any openings for riding. I kept looking, but the time slipped away. Steve had said he could tailor the hunt to our needs, and depending on where the bulls were, we may not be on horseback at all and instead, concentrate on the archery-only area. Steve had advised that we should be ready to walk 2-3 miles a day, so I prepared by walking 3-4 miles, 4-5 times a week and rode my bike as often as I could to try to get in some type of shape. I never did get a chance to ride a horse before we left.

After driving 30 hours, we arrived at the Fiarchuck’s ranch on a Tuesday afternoon. We unloaded, hauled our gear into a cabin close to their house and main camp, and met the others.

There was a sheep hunter in camp from Alberta with whom we shared the cabin, and we all had dinner together that night, hearing stories of many grizzly bears in the area. One story in particular was about a local hunter who had walked in to hunt elk and was attacked by a grizzly bear. After the grizzly had buried him and left, the man was able to dig himself out, hobble back to his jeep, and get to town. This was unnerving as I was not used to bumping around with grizzlies in Wisconsin. To be out with just my bow and no sidearm definitely had my attention!

We would be hunting in the Peace River basin, an area rich in wild game. In this area, a legal bull moose must have at least three brow tines, or a minimum of 10 points on one side.

The next day, Hunting Day 1, Dave and his guide CJ headed out on horseback to an archery-only area, where they would camp in a small trapper’s cabin in a basin full of moose. Steve called this area “Moose Central.”

Meanwhile, Steve and I drove a half hour to access the archery area, towing a Polaris Ranger on trailer. Unloading the side-by-side, we then traveled 4 miles across old logging trails to a similar basin. I was immediately taken with the scenery as in the background of every basin were unbelievable snow-capped mountains.

Steve stopped to call moose in several areas, but we heard no bulls respond. In the third area, we heard a nice bull grunting as he approached us from down along the river. We heard him thrash his rack on the willows and Steve commented, “That’s a nice bull; you can tell by the sound of the smack against the willows.”

For the next 40 minutes we waited. I set up my shooting stick, with my crossbow on top, ready and trying to guess from what direction he might come in. It was the first morning and I already had a legal bull coming in hard.

He stopped in the thick alders and willows about 75 yards out. After another 45 minutes, he must have winded us. We tried several more spots that day without a response.

The next day we started out early, near a small lake and called several times. As we came around the back side of the lake we saw a cow, but she took off. We tried calling there for a while, but no luck. We continued on, hiking in 3.5 miles to a mineral lick near a beaver pond, to a spot we planned to sit most of the day. Steve had several pictures of moose in the area, captured on a trail camera he’d set up nearby, but also a few grizzlies and wolves. While we sat, we heard a pack of wolves howling over a kill they’d made the night before. We later learned they were somewhat close to Dave and CJ who’d had a bull coming in until the wolves had begun howling.

After sitting for a time, we walked out of the mineral lick area. The 50s-plus warm weather wasn’t prompting the moose to be on the move.

Back to the side-by-side, we took the Ranger down a muddy trail full of fresh grizzly tracks and then climbed to a peak overlooking a large basin. After an hour of glassing and calling, we heard another bull approaching. This one seemed to be another good one by the sounds of the willows being whacked.

He continued to grunt as he came closer and closer, climbing out of the basin. I cannot tell you how exciting it is to call and then hear a big bull respond, grunting and smashing small trees to get to you. The sight of willows and alders moving violently and the crashing of brush is as exciting as it gets!

Steve climbed about 15 feet up a tree to get eyes on him. “He’s legal, a really nice bull. Get ready!”

I again had my crossbow on top of my shooting stick. The bull was approaching from the west, out of my sight behind a large spruce tree. Checking the distance with my rangefinder confirmed the tree was 50 yards away. I was pretty confident at this distance with my crossbow, so I waited.

The bull stopped then went down a ravine and came out 100 yards south of us with the sun behind him. He was a nice 50” plus bull, but we were in the bright sun and stood out like a sore thumb. He spotted us immediately, turned and left. We tried calling again but no response.

We circled around behind where we thought he’d gone and called some more, but no response. It was getting late, so we started back to the lake where we called at dusk for maybe 45 minutes. Unfortunately, still no interested bulls in the area.

A message made it through to us from Tammy to Steve: the sheep hunter’s guide, Mike, had spotted a couple of big bulls in a basin near their 20-mile camp.

“We need to get up there,” Steve announced. “You up for riding a horse?”

I so wished that I’d had the chance to ride before the trip! I was concerned about riding for two hours and then not being able to get out of bed the next day.

“Can I sleep on it?”

Yet, as we got back to camp, I was thinking to myself how I’d come all this way and here was my chance to do what I came for – a moose hunt on horseback, packing into a remote camp.

I headed over to dinner with Steve and announced, “Let’s go!!”

The plan was to pack up the horses and get up to 20-Mile Camp the next day. In this area I would have my rifle, a Browning X-Bolt in 300 Win Mag with a Zeiss Victory 10×42 HT scope.

Come dawn, we had our work cut out for us. We organized gear while Trisha got the horses ready and into the trailer. Once loaded, we started the 1.5 hour drive up the mountain to the trail head. There, we unloaded the two saddle horses and two pack horses and loaded them up with supplies to replenish the camp atop the mountain.

It took two hours to ride up to camp at 6,000-plus feet. By then, it was getting late. We unloaded gear and took care of the horses, then used the last 90 minutes of daylight to glass the basin. Peering through our optics, we didn’t see any moose, but saw sheep, mostly ewes and a few small rams.

That night I got reacquainted with Dave, the sheep hunter from Alberta. Although they had seen some rams, Dave wasn’t interested in any of them yet. His guide Mike kept the camp in tight order, using a tree branch as a broom to sweep out the tent floor – ingenious.

Dinner that night was lasagna and stroganoff made in pre-made packets by Tammy. We all ate and slept well.

The next morning it was windy and wet, and the sunrise was a beautiful red. “Red in the morning, sailors warning,” I thought, and it proved true. It poured most of the day with temperatures in the mid-to-upper 30s with 30-mile-per-hour winds. We were hopeful that the cooler weather would get the moose moving. After a breakfast of oatmeal and coffee, the hunting began.

Steve and I glassed the basin for a while, then packed our backpacks for the day and headed out. We took a trail that dropped down maybe 200 feet in elevation to a level site where we could glass the basin from a different angle. From that vantage point we spotted two cows, one a very blond color, probably an old one.

Steve was concerned about trying to call if the bull had cows already, but we had no choice. We called several times with no response so dropped down another 200 or so feet in elevation.

The side of the mountain was extremely steep, and the hard rain had made the trail slippery. We set up again and Steve called. Although I had never hunted moose before or tried calling in bulls by imitating a cow in heat, Steve knew what he was doing. He made his mournful call, and immediately we heard a bull respond.

The bull started coming and kept coming. We hadn’t yet been able to get a good look, but Steve kept calling and the bull kept coming. Finally, I spotted him about 220 yards out through the thick pines. Steve did too and stated, “Not legal.”

We stopped for a while and then resumed calling 30 minutes later. This time a bull responded from the west, then another came from the north. The one from the north was grunting and coming in hard. This one appeared at about 175 yards, and once again Steve stated that he was not legal. Maybe it wasn’t going to happen. Was it possible that all the mature bulls in this area had already paired up with cows?

We glassed for another 20 minutes as the rain kept pouring down before Steve pointed out a big bull at the bottom of the basin. He was near two cows, roughly a half mile away. Steve called, and the big bull turned and came right in our direction. He kept coming and coming until he disappeared into the pines below us. We dropped down the steep grade another 500 feet or so, trying to find a good vantage point. With all the rain and mud, I slipped on a rock, my back landing hard on a sharp rock. I almost blacked out from the pain.

As Steve continued to call, we heard the bull’s grunts continuing to get closer and closer. Finally, Steve caught a glimpse of him 300 yards out and I heard the words from I’d been hoping for. “This one is legal and he’s a Big Bull!”

We heard him smash his way through the thick pines, grunting and grunting. Then he stopped. My rifle was up and ready on the shooting stick, pointed at the opening of the pines. A log cracked on my far right, and I saw the top of his paddles.

As he stepped into the opening about 120 yards away, he got low and started to run. He must have winded us. I had maybe a 20 foot opening, and I shot, aiming behind his shoulders.

 “You hit him,” shouted Steve, “but I’m not sure how good.”

Steve said he saw the water explode off the big bull; the force behind the 180-grain Nosler Partition was amazing. We ran towards the bull. I was confident in my shot but was concerned about where I hit him. As I was running down the steep incline over mud, rocks, and blow downs, my foot slipped yet again, and my knee bent back under my leg so that my foot touched my lower back. I thought my steel knee was toast. I got up, my adrenaline pumping to get to the moose in case I needed to take another shot.

Steve yelled out, “You got him. What an awesome bull!”

Arriving at the bull, I was elated. He was more than I expected. A 56” Big Bull with four brow tines and 13 points on one side and three brow tines and 11 points on the other. One of what would have been his biggest tines was broken off recently from a fight with another bull. This could have added another 3-4” to the overall width.

I felt good about my shot. A clean kill, it had gone through the lungs and clipped the heart. He had dropped in his tracks.

We took several pictures, and then Steve’s work began. He started to skin and quarter the bull. After completing one side, we pushed until we were able to turn the 1000 pound-plus bull on his other side so that Steve could then finish quartering the moose while letting the meat cool down.

Later on, Steve and Mike brought down the pack horses and packed out the big moose, bringing it back up the mountain and then to camp.

That night we experienced 40-plus mile-per-hour winds, the tent flapping so hard it was tough to sleep.

The next morning, the four of us broke camp, bringing the horses down the mountain. The view will be a lasting impression considering my successful moose hunt. The clear sunrise, with fog still in the basin, the view over a lake below, being at the top of the mountain looking down, with the string of horses, with the big rack on the back of one of the pack horses.

My dream had been fulfilled. Steve and his experienced crew had helped me fulfill a bucket list dream beyond my expectations.

The next two days were spent cutting up the moose, portioning it into Ziploc bags, then placing it in one of two of the chest freezers in our 6 x 12 trailer. I soon learned that my friend Dave had shot his moose after hunting in a rifle area the past three days. His was a mature 48” bull at the bottom of a basin. We had both shot our Bucket List Bulls when our expectations were less than 50 percent. We owe all of this to Steve and his experienced crew and an excellent area to hunt.

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