Paid in Bull

by Billy Molls, Deltana Outfitters

Tom HiggsDespite the single digit temperature, the small outboard motor came to life on the second pull. I let the engine warm up for a minute before shoving off into the fog-engulfed river. I navigated the slow shallow water by memory as the first crimson rays of sunlight crested the nearby hills. It was the first day of the second of the moose hunts of the season. Our destination was a glassing knob four river miles upstream.

As I slowly worked the canoe upriver, I noticed Tom sitting in the bow glancing from side to side trying to detect movement along the willow-choked riverbanks. Tom Higgs and I have hunted together several times before. Tom’s last hunt with me was a Dall Sheep and caribou hunt, during which he took a beautiful 36” ram and an excellent caribou that narrowly missed the Boone and Crockett record book. I recalled the day two years earlier when Tom had moose hunts on his mind and booked his trip. He was so excited then. I bet he thought this day would never come.

I gently idled to the tie-up tree I had used before. The ride took ten minutes longer than normal, but we still had plenty of time to make the 400-yard climb before we had good glassing light. Tom hopped onto the riverbank with the bow rope in hand, as if he had done it a hundred times before, and tied off the canoe. We donned our packs, grabbed our rifles, and headed up the hill.

About halfway up we heard a bull grunt, followed by the unmistakable sound of antler on brush. The bull was no more than 600 yards in front of us, but with the low blanket of fog we could only guess how big he was. Tom looked at me with a smile. “Should be a good morning,” I whispered.

We continued to the top, took off our packs, and waited for the fog to clear. We listened through the calm autumn air as our mystery bull continued to destroy anything in his path. Our eyes were intently focused where our ears thought the bull was, hoping to catch any movement. The sun was still a few minutes from it’s unveiling, when a gentle north wind hit my cheek. The bull’s only means of protection was about to disappear. I gave a bull grunt and raked some brush from where I was sitting. The bull immediately grunted back with every step he took in our direction.

“Maybe I called a little too soon”, I told Tom.  “Will he climb the hill to us?” he asked.

They will occasionally, but they usually wait for a visual before they do that. The bull came about 100 yards closer, stopped, and commenced destroying a tree when another bull grunted. Tom loaded his rifle and was ready if a shot presented itself. Though it seemed longer, not more than two minutes passed before we could see the bulls. They were 20 feet apart, 250 yards below us, on the edge of a slough. By now the butterflies had taken flight in my stomach, but Tom was unshaken. He was ready with his rifle on a rest, waiting for me to size them up.

"The one on the right is the biggest", I said. "Well, the one on the left is huge! How big is the other one"? Tom asked, seemingly in disbelief.

I held my response as the bulls met head on and began sparring. I made sure Tom was comfortable with his position, and gave a cow call. The bulls seemed to forget one another and looked directly at us.

"The one on the right is nice. He's a solid 63 inches, with four brow tines on each side. He might go 65. The left one is about 60. What do you think"? Tom asked.

With any other hunter I would suggest taking him, but there are bigger bulls here and this is only the first hour of a 10-day hunt.

"I never tell a hunter not to shoot a legal animal, so I am leaving it up to you", I said.

While we sat for a minute the two bulls milled around the slough in front of us, in no hurry to go anywhere.  Then I spotted another moose a mile distant. I quickly put my spotting scope on him.

“Your question is answered Tom. This is the bull you want. Take a look.”

“Holy cow! How big is he?” “He’s definitely 70, but he’s a mile from the river and moving away from us,” I said.

I made my loudest call, and raked some brush.  The old warrior heard me, stopped for a few seconds, but continued on his way. I had already forgotten about the bulls in front of us when Tom said, “I would have never guessed that those two bulls could look small”.

We hunted the next five days for that bull, and never laid eyes on him. In fact, we saw only two other bulls despite the cold, and seemingly perfect weather. One was in the high 50’s and the other about 60. So, after the morning hunt on the sixth day, we packed our light camp to relocate in another drainage.

We navigated slowly downstream through the ice chunks, which had been getting larger and more numerous. A mile below our old campsite our progress was severely hampered by a 300-yard ice-jam. We realized then that if we didn’t get to some faster water today, we would be hiking out.

Luckily, the water was just under hip boot height. I was able to walk in front of the canoe and chop out  the ice with an ax. It took us 30 minutes to chip through those 300 yards. I was ready for a rest when I fired the motor up and resumed our trek. We came to four more ice-jams, which we were able to break through with the canoe by leaving the canoe in idle, driving our paddles through the ice, and paddling our way through. This wasn’t great for the prop, but the water was too deep to wade in.

We were relieved when we came to faster waters. We continued down the main river for two miles, and then came to the mouth of a more shallow, but faster drainage. The cold, dry weather didn’t help our cause, as we had to get out of our canoe and pull over more than a dozen shallow spots before we reached our predetermined campsite. By 7 p.m. we were tired and irritable (me more so than Tom).

We quickly set up our tent on a small gravel bat and paddled across the river to get a view from the adjacent hill. Before 8 p.m. I spotted a small bull. A few minutes later Tom spotted a bull in the timber. We finally saw enough antler for me to identify him. He was the same bull I saw on the previous hunt. I knew, or so I thought, how to get him.

We immediately ran down the hill to the canoe, and paddled across the river. With only one hour of daylight left we quickly stalked to within 100 yards of the bull, when we came to a frozen beaver pond. I knew we would break the ice if we tried to cross it, so pulled out the canoe paddle and went to work. I followed with two bull grunts. The bull grunted in response, followed by multiple cows!!

“He’s got cows. He’s going to be tough,” I told Tom.

The experienced elk hunter knew exactly what I was talking about. Suddenly a branch broke, through the willows we could see a moose coming, Tom was ready. What we thought was a cow turned out to be the small bull we had spotted earlier.

With 15 minutes of shooting light left we heard a bull grunt 300 yards in the timber, directly behind us. We cautiously approached through the loud spongy tundra, calling and raking brush with every step to mask our steps. We stopped when we came to the edge of the timber he was in and waited in vain. At dark we quickly slipped back to our tent, which was only 400 yards away. The next morning found us atop the same hill across the river from our tent, the same frost glistening from the foliage, the same stiff north wind hitting us in the face. Again we heard two bulls in the timber, but we could never catch a glimpse of them. We decided to wait them out until evening. Finally, at 3 p.m. Tom and I simultaneously spotted a moose. It was a cow.

Then I spotted an antler. Then two more cows came into the small opening. The sight that followed in the few seconds was all we needed to confirm that was our bull. Tom immediately suggested that he walk across the river to a gravel bar where moose had been crossing, not 400 yards from the moose, and wait as evening approached.

I agreed. Tom found a suitable spot, and I stayed on the hill to watch. By 7 p.m. having neither seen nor heard a moose, I decided it was time to make something happen.

I walked down to talk to Tom. “The moose are in the same five acre willow thicket we last saw them enter. We can either go in there, try to call him out, or I can try to drive them to you. It is so thick in there that if we do get close to them we will probably only see hair and maybe a flash of antlers. This wind is perfect, but we have to do it now before it dies down”.

“Then let’s try the drive,” Tom said without hesitation.

I immediately took off, crossed the river and started looping around the moose. I cursed myself for forgetting to leave my canoe paddle with Tom. In less than five minutes I was in perfect position. The moose were somewhere between Tom and I, with a 10 M.P.H. wind blowing directly from me to them.

I paced back and forth, spreading my scent through the willows. I had just begun to enter the willow thicket when the herd exploded through the willows! It sounded like they went about 75 yards towards Tom and stopped. I eased closer. I boosted the moose again. This time they split up, some of moose went west, but I could tell by the antlers hitting the brush that the bull went east.

I ran, trying to get upwind of the bull pushing him towards Tom, but the bull broke out of the willows and into the tundra flat. Seeing this, I instantly gave my loudest bull grunt. The bull stopped and looked back. Then started to leave again when I grunted once more, and waved my cursed canoe paddle in the air. The bull turned and faced me. I hunched over, grunting with every step, waving the paddle as I stumbled through the tundra. I knew I wasn’t going to win an Oscar, but I was able to get around and upwind of the bull once again. He smelled me and whirled around to the South.

“Here he comes, Tom!!!” I yelled at the top of my aching lungs.

I was running in Tom’s direction when I heard two shots. I kept running for another 20 seconds before I heard “YEHAHHHH!!” I plowed through the willows and came to the river directly across from Tom.

“Where is he?” I asked. “He’s 20 yards to your right. I think he’s big, Billy!” Tom exclaimed!

I walked to the bull. “Tom, he’s not big, he’s huge! Get over here and check him out.” Tom was about half an inch from filling his hip boots, but he made it to his bull.

“He’s awesome! I wasn’t sure we were doing the right thing by pushing him, but I knew we had to do something different, and it paid off big time,” Tom said.

We told our stories to one another, of what happened, and how we both wondered if it would actually work. We took pictures, and then skinned and butchered the bull. We were back in camp just after midnight.

The next morning after a breakfast of moose steak and eggs, we loaded Tom’s bull and headed downstream. The 14 miles to base camp was an adventure to say the least. I would not have attempted the journey with such a heavy load with any other client, but I had confidence in Tom.

That evening after we shared the tenderloin with the other hunters in camp and washed it down with a couple of beers.  Then Tom did as all hunters in our camps do. He signed our cabin wall; Hunted hard for 7 days, until Billy changed the rules - Tom Higgs, Yreka, CA-65’ bull.

No Tom, WE changed the rules.




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