The young fellow flagging me from the Nikiski back road appeared a bit frantic. Standing near an old two-track vehicle that led to a power line right of way popular with local moose hunters, he ran to my truck as it came to a stop.
"Are you a moose hunter?" he asked.
"I am, although I'm not hunting right now" I replied.
What I thought he said next gave me pause. "My buddy shot a moose, and we need to know if it is legal." "Uh, OK" I replied as he pointed down the trail.
What am I getting into I thought as I walked to an old truck parked in the middle of the trail. Another young fellow stood behind the truck with an old Winchester M94 .30-30 in hand.
We were about 10 days into moose season, and the morning had dawned cold. A bit of ground fog enveloped the tall grass along the power line where the young man was staring. The moose in question was still very much alive.
I had misunderstood. The fellow had said, "My buddy spotted a moose," not shot it.
Forty-eight or 50 inches?
The big bull was flanked by two cows, his big head swaying from side to side as he pulled at the tall grass. When he turned and looked our way, he looked huge to the untrained eye.
We stood for a few moments watching him, the young hunter with the rifle giving me sidelong glances in expectation. Not wanting to spoil the moment, I waited a few more minutes before shaking my head and saying, "No, sorry, he just won't quite make it." The big bull was maybe 48 inches with two brow tines on each side and telling this hopeful hunter the truth was heart wrenching.
Driving away reminded me of a similar situation. A hunter friend of mine was on another back road and had spotted a moose that he thought was legal, but he had some doubts too. Then an Alaska State Trooper happened by and stopped to look at the bull. They watched the bull feeding and finally my friend asked the trooper if he thought the bull was legal. The trooper told him it looked legal to him.
The tape measure said otherwise, the bull being short of the 50-inch mark and lacking the necessary, at the time, four brow tines on at least one side. So my friend, after he had signed the citation written by the trooper cleaned the bull, loaded him up and turned him into the local Alaska Department of Fish and Game office. Several weeks later he paid the $1,000 fine the court deemed appropriate for such a violation.
Most of us hunters know other hunters who have experienced taking of a bull they thought was 50 inches to find it was an inch or two shy, and paying a similar price after turning their mistake over to the authorities.
Distinguishing a 48-inch bull from a 50-inch bull is as difficult as judging a full-curl Dall sheep, except in the case of the moose, there is no fixed point to give the go ahead. Judging the antler spread of a bull moose under ideal circumstances is tough enough. Doing so from a distance, in low light, in brush-choked terrain is a learned skill that takes many years of field practice.
Even then, on a close call, there is a large exhale of held breath when the tape reveals the truth.
Well meaning folks who made a mistake that is very easy to make, especially when the hunter has put in a lot of effort on a hunting trip and is just trying to fill the freezer.
Having been around a long time, I remember the days when a 50- inch, three-brow-tine regulation was reserved for "trophy" areas. Then in the mid-to-late 1980s the spike-fork, 50-inch and three- brow-tine regulation was adopted on the Kenai Peninsula as a management strategy. Many areas around the state followed suit.
By 2011 the bull-to-cow ratio on the Kenai Peninsula had dropped to a very low level. For the 2011 and 2012 moose seasons, only bulls with 50-inch antlers or four brow tines on at least one side was adopted. Moose harvest dropped from more than 300 annually in Unit 15 to 37 in 2011 and 40 in 2012. Since then, the regulations have allowed the taking of a bull moose with only a spike on at least one side or a 50-inch spread or four brow tines on at least one side. The known harvest since then has been around 200 annually.
Bounty of bulls
At no point in the 45 years I've lived on the Kenai have there been so many bull moose to see. Between genetics, which affect antler size somewhat, and browse conditions, which seriously affect antler development, there are a lot of bulls that fall in the category of the one the young fellow had spotted. Many mature bulls could be an inch or two on either side of 50 inches — but with only two brow tines.
In other words, a crapshoot. It has always baffled me that regulations requiring such extraordinary field-judging skills even exist. Between the fish, waterfowl and upland birds and the occasional caribou that we take, we really can't consume a moose in a reasonable time, so we don't take many and don't really have a dog in the fight. But the young fellow's plight sparked the thought that maybe there's a better way.
Looking at regulations from other moose-producing states and some Canadian Provinces, the only other place I found that uses antler spread as a factor is British Columbia, where they also use brow tines and point count. Antlered game such as elk and deer, when they are regulated by antler size are done so by point count.
Consider the four differences between a dead bull moose with 50- inch antlers and one with 48-inch antlers.
*The 50-inch bull goes home to a happy hunter's freezer.
*The 48-inch bull gets donated to charity and costs the unhappy hunter a big fine.
*The hunter takes a chance and gets the bull home and then must live with having taken an illegal animal.
*Or the worst case — and probably more common than we know — the 48-inch bull stays where it dropped to be eaten by scavengers.
Management wise there cannot be a nickel's worth of difference between a 48-inch full and a 50-incher.
It seems like adding a simple point count — say 10 points to at least one side — would work. So a legal bull could be one having a 50-inch antler spread, or three or four brow tines to at least one side, or 10 points on at least one side. Or whatever the point count, the number needs to be one that satisfies the goal of maturity and procreation. Points are tangible, and while not always easy to count, it seems like having that option as another way of identifying a legal bull would be better than hoping and praying that the tape will say 50 inches when a hunter walks up to claim his or her moose.
Steve Meyer of Soldotna is lifetime Alaskan and an avid shooter. He'll be writing every other week about guns and Alaska hunting. Contact Steve at firstname.lastname@example.org