When a hunter draws a once-in-a-lifetime moose tag, the first thing he or she does is call a bunch of friends to help. My cousin Neil Lewis called me. Then he called his mom. It was a foregone conclusion the rest of his family would be there, all the way down to Steyr and Tabor, the toddlers, 21⁄2 and 11⁄2. They helped keep Neil and his wife, Amy, awake for most of each night so they would be good and tired at the start of every day.
For three days we had hunted the river canyons near the town of Ashton in eastern Idaho and called at the edge of the swamps. Neil had learned to imitate the cow moose call by pinching the bridge of his nose, a nasal quavering, haunting sound.
Calling from a ridge we heard faint responses from a bull somewhere in the quakies a mile or more away. And still not a moose sighting, not a glimpse.
“I’m a little discouraged,” Neil admitted on the second day. “I haven’t seen a fresh track.” But I had seen big moose tracks, perhaps a week old at a creek crossing, and moose hair stuck in barbed wire.
“The only tracks that matter,” I told him, “are the tracks the moose is standing in.”
Third evening. We split up with the idea we could cover more ground apart. In those last hours of the day, Neil and his mom, Sheila, drove the roads that followed a deep creek canyon, looked into willow bottoms and followed old moose tracks intermingled with cattle.
We stayed within a few miles of each other so if I spotted moose first, I could find Neil. And I took a few minutes to walk some likely looking grouse coverts with my pudelpointer in front of me and a double gun over my arm.
I jumped a grouse, missed it, then had a second chance at another bird in the same covey. The bird tumbled and Liesl made the retrieve, bringing a ruffed grouse to hand.
Down at the creek where I stopped to clean the bird, Neil passed me in his truck. He was going to check a meadow we had found the day before.
All roads in this part of the country lead to Yellowstone, and with the sunset in his rearview mirror, Neil pointed his F-250 east toward the Wyoming border.
When he saw an opening in the trees, Neil parked and walked alone down to the edge of what looked like a grassy meadow. He scanned the far shoreline and saw the twin palms of a mature bull moose. The antlers looked white in the failing sunlight.
His pulse quickened, Neil backed up to a small white fir sapling. One hundred and 31 yards.
Neil rested the Ruger in the crook of a branch and traced the Leupold’s crosshair from the jaw line to where the neck joined the body. Fingertip caressed the arc of the trigger, safety clicked to “fire.” Three pounds of pressure, the muzzle flashed orange in the bell of the scope and the rifle leaped against him. A Nosler AccuBond lanced across the lake bed.
If Neil wanted fresh tracks he had them now — the only tracks that matter, with a moose in them.
Instead of starting across, Neil whooped and hollered and headed back to find me. Together we would walk up on the bull he knew was lying at the edge of the timber.
Now, knee deep in the lake with the sun going away, we heard something in the trees.
In the last month there had been four attacks of grizzlies on hunters and hikers in neighboring Montana and Wyoming.
Earlier in the day Neil had talked to a game warden who had warned him again, as he had warned me earlier: “Watch out for grizzly bears. This close to Yellowstone Park, we are seeing bears every week now.”
Neil was ahead of me with his rifle at the ready.
“Do you think it’s a grizzly?”
Thumb on the safety, looking over the top of the scope, Neil backed away from the moose at the tree line. In my right hand was a revolver, thumb on the hammer, a light in my left hand. Shoulder to shoulder we stood in the moonstruck water.
The sound had come from the right, back in the dark timber. The moose was down with a bullet in the neck, as large as a black leather sectional sofa with wide antlers, its palms spread toward us.
Cra-aack! Another animal to the left.
After Neil had shot the moose he had sent a text message to his wife, who was 35 minutes away with the kids. Amy waded into the lake and the three of us approached the down moose.
Still there were two animals in the timber, and while the one on the left broke an occasional branch, the one on the right began to sound increasingly like a bull moose thrashing its anger against a tree. That’s what we told ourselves as I drew a knife and Amy held a leg and we began to break the moose down. Neil stood with the light and the rifle.
For most of an hour the two animals stayed back inside the timber. Amy hallooed and whooped and told the grizzly bears and wolves and moose what we were up to there on the edge of the swamp.
— Gary Lewis is the host of “Frontier Unlimited TV” and author of “Fishing Central Oregon,” “Fishing Mount Hood Country,” “Hunting Oregon” and other titles. Contact Gary at www.GaryLewisOutdoors.com