Where Hunting Happens, Conservation Happens™

The Best Present – A B&C Audio Adventure



By Doug Johnson
23rd Big Game Awards Program| From Legendary Hunts

My dad and I boarded a plane in Portland, Oregon, on August 27, headed for Dillingham, Alaska. This was the beginning of a 10-day hunting trip for moose and caribou, in the Wood-Tikchik State Park. I graduated from Eastern Oregon State College in the spring of 1995. Instead of giving me a gift with only monetary value, my dad decided to give me a gift that would be loaded with memories. This gift was a self-guided hunting trip in Alaska. We agreed that I would hunt for caribou, and he would hunt for moose. This would be our first, but not the last, hunting trip to Alaska.

In preparation for the trip, we had to buy a lot of reliable gear. This gear included just about everything you could think of that was waterproof, from the tent down to our apparel. Tom Slago, our air taxi for this trip, told us to be prepared for rain, and that we would need trustworthy equipment.

We arrived in Dillingham the evening of the 27th. The sun was going to be up until 10 o’clock, so we were able to fly out to camp that evening. Our air taxi was Bay Air, owned and operated by Mr. and Mrs. Tom Slago. Tom used his Beaver with floats to fly us in. After a short flight, he dropped us at a small lake, with only a number for a name. We set up our tent and did the other necessary things that needed done around camp. There was nothing but lichen, moss, little patches of alders, rolling hills, and caribou within sight of our tent. This looked to be the makings of a great hunt.

Moose season did not start until September 1, so I would be going after caribou first. After getting all the camp chores finished, we decided to go for a look around. We had walked only 100 yards when we ran into two young bears that bolted after catching our scent. This was the first time I had seen a grizzly bear, and after all the stories I heard and read, it was nice to see they headed in the other direction. After this encounter, we hiked up to one of the many rolling hills to get a better look at the surroundings. It was getting late in the evening, so there were a lot of caribou coming out of the brush. We saw close to a hundred caribou in a short amount of time, with many good bulls mixed in with cows. I could not shoot one until the next day because it is illegal to hunt game animals in Alaska on the same day you fly in.

We awoke the next morning to rainy and windy conditions, just right for caribou hunting. The wind blew away the pesky mosquitoes and gnats, allowing the caribou to stay out of the brush longer to feed. We left as the sun was coming up, and were only a couple hundred yards out of camp before we spotted the first band of caribou. There were a few bulls in the bunch, but nothing that impressed me. We continued hunting the rest of the morning, using our binoculars to find them, and a spotting scope to see if they were worth stalking. It was not until noon that I spotted the bull I wanted. There was only one problem; he was a mile away and standing on the other side of a brushy swamp. We guessed where he was going, since caribou never seem to stop moving, and took off to intercept him.

When we dropped down into the swampy lake bottom, we quickly lost sight of the bull. It took us well over a half hour to cover one mile in the rough terrain, but we finally arrived at our destination. Dad and I could not locate the bull, so we started walking toward a little rise, thinking he had slipped behind it. We had taken no more than 10 steps, when he came crashing out of the brush, and through a creek, not 50 yards away. The bull came out on the far side of the creek bed, and made a fateful mistake by looking back. I shouldered my .300 Weatherby and sent a 180-grain bullet into his right shoulder. The hunt was over and the work began. There was not a tree to be found for miles to hang the meat, so we field dressed and skinned the animal. We left the meat on the hide until we could pack it out the next morning. I felt the bull, heavily beamed and tall, with nice tops, would score well. He would later score 380-5/8 points under the Boone and Crockett scoring system. This was not enough for an all-time listing, but was enough for the award listing in Boone and Crockett Club’s 23rd Big Game Awards book. We spent the next day packing out meat and enjoying the scenery.

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The following day, Tom came and picked us up for our short flight to moose camp. Non-residents can not hunt moose in the unit where we were, so we moved 20 miles toward Tikchik Lake. On our way over to the next camp we saw a lot of moose, including two nice bulls. We landed on another small lake with no name, and proceeded to set up camp. It was early in the day so we decided to go look for the bulls that we had seen from the air. From several hundred feet up, the terrain did not look to be very challenging, but when we started walking through the brush, we found it was very rough going. The alders were over 10 feet tall and laid over on their side. They then arched five feet up, toward the sun. This made a lot of areas impenetrable, causing many detours. Beaver dams also caused a lot of problems. Every stream flooded the surroundings because of those little critters. The beaver ponds were very deep and also caused detours and lost time. Fed up with trying to take the low road, we headed for the hills. We found that it was much easier going in the hilly country, than down in the swampy bottoms.
When we got to the hilltop, near where we had seen the moose, we sat down and started to glass. It was a very warm and calm day, causing the bugs to be out in full force, which pushed the moose back into the brush thickets. We searched the little valley below us and found the two moose we had seen from the air, and they were both legal to shoot when the season opened. At the time, non-residents had to shoot a moose with three brow tines on a side, or one that had an outside spread greater than 50 inches. For two hunters who had seen only a few moose before, we decided to look for one that had three or more brow tines per side. When you consider how big a moose is, it was hard for us to tell how wide 50 inches really was.

On August 31, we awoke to a downpour and decided to stay inside the tent for the morning. The rain let up a little in the afternoon, so we took an excursion to the north side of the lake and saw lots of caribou and moose tracks, but no animals. Most of the area to the north of camp was low country with no way of getting up high to look for moose. The area, easily accessed by connecting meadows, was not our lucky place to find a moose. We had heard that bulls would come down into these lower areas as breeding season progressed. This was only the very beginning of the rut, with the biggest bulls just beginning to rub their velvet, and the bulls had not yet moved to the low country.

That night, back at camp, I convinced my dad we needed to go back to where we had seen the moose the first day. He liked the easy walking country northeast of camp, but we did not see any animals there. My dad and I have experienced a lot of hunting and packing into the wilderness in the Minam country of eastern Oregon. I knew that if he shot anything three to four miles from camp, we would have no problem retrieving it.

We awoke the following morning to partly sunny skies, and a quick breakfast of instant oatmeal and hot cider. With our fanny packs filled with the usual supplies of food, bug dope, and a first-aid kit, we set out with high hopes of finding a bull moose. Halfway into the valley, I spooked a bull with my noisy rain gear. It was not raining, but the dew on the grass and limbs was enough to soak you to the bone. We chased this little guy around for a couple of hours, but we never did get a good look at him. We proceeded to the hilltop where we could look down on the valley. We arrived at the top around 11:30 a.m., and began glassing. We did not see the bulls where they had been previously, so we began searching elsewhere. We did spot an exceptional caribou, bigger than the one I had taken, and I wished I still had my tag.

I spotted a bull. He was hard to see because the brush was so tall. His antlers looked huge. Neither of us had taken a moose before and we did not know if the bull was legal.

I decided to start looking a little closer in, since we had only been looking far out into the valley. Down below us, on a little shelf 200 yards away, I spotted a bull. He was hard to see because the brush was so tall. His antlers looked huge. Neither of us had taken a moose before and we did not know if the bull was legal. Dad readied his rifle, while I looked for brow tines. I could not tell through my binoculars, so we retrieved the spotting scope from my fanny pack. The scope had fogged up due to the moisture and almost cost us Dad’s bull. The bull did not know we were there, and kept nipping the tender new growth shoots off the alders. From our angle, I couldn’t tell with my binoculars if he was legal. I needed a front view to be able to see his brow tines. About that time, he laid down in the big alder patch, and all I could see were the tops of his antlers. It was now a waiting game.

I had waited for too many years, and spent more money than I could afford getting this far. Only a hunter could understand my decision. As I crawled to within 70 yards, I could truly see the bear’s tremendous size. My heart was pounding out of control and I was actually starting to feel fear. At approximately 60 yards I decided to shoot, not knowing what to expect. As I pulled the trigger, I can honestly say I did not know what the results would be. I had the crosshairs on the shoulder of the huge bear, and the bullet struck three feet back from his front shoulder. The bear let loose a tremendous roar and started diagonally toward me. Seeing that the gun was that far off, I had to force myself to aim off the bear, in order to hit him again. It worked! The next bullet struck the bear in the chest. The bear turned sideways, going in the opposite direction, so I aimed at his hip, striking the bear square in the shoulder. I was out of bullets and the bear and I were now only 35 yards apart. The bear got up again. Knowing there was nothing I could do, I laid with my face on the ice, hoping he would not see me.

After what seemed like an eternity, the bear finally expired. By that time, I was so exhausted from fear, that I almost could not raise up to look at my monstrous trophy. The bear was the ninth bear seen on my hunt — truly, the most fabulous creature I have ever seen. Later I discovered that my gun barrel was blocked with ice and had split at the magna-porting when I was thrown from the sled, causing its inaccuracy. 

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While we were waiting, my dad had grown tired of the gnats that were biting at his skin and buzzing around his head, so he pulled out a stick of bug dope. He had just finished applying the repellent when the moose stood up and looked right at us. The air currents had carried the nasty smell of the bug dope right to him. This, however, gave me enough time to see that he had at least four brow tines on each side. As the bull turned to run, I told my dad to shoot. My dad’s 7mm roared and the bull did not even flinch. He shot again and nothing happened. As he prepared to shoot a third time, the bull stopped and looked back at us, allowing for one good shot. After the third shot, he was off to the races again, acting as if nothing was wrong. After winding through the alders, he stopped in a group of trees, more than 300 yards away. The bull stopped and hung his head in a small patch of trees. With a final shot to the neck, the hunt was over.

I scaled down the hill to find his trophy, while Dad stayed behind just in case the moose got back on his feet. After crossing a little stream and climbing up the other side, I located the patch of trees where we thought the bull would be. I approached with caution, but there was no need. There before me was the biggest game animal I had ever seen. What a magnificent animal. Dad quickly came down from the knoll to claim his trophy. We both stood in awe and wondered how in the heck we were going to butcher this giant. After a big struggle to move the bull, it was time for pictures. Unfortunately, the camera jammed after the first photo. While setting up for the “one” picture, we realized how wide his antlers were. Stretching his rifle from the outside of one antler, to the opposite side, the gun only made it a little over half way. Using this as a gauge, we estimated that the bull had an outside spread of at least 72 inches. We thought this was big, but neither of us had any clue how big.

Having good backpacks was a real bonus when we realized that we would be packing 600 pounds of boned-out meat on our backs. It ended up taking us four days to get everything back to our camp. The most challenging part of the pack ended up being the antlers, and I got the job of hauling the monstrous rack back to camp. The easiest way would have been to split the skull between the antlers, but my dad did not want to risk voiding entry into the records book, if they scored well. All that water and brush got the last laugh. While covering the four miles back to camp, I bounced from one bush to the next, slipping and falling in frustration the whole way.

Tom picked us up on September 6th, one day earlier than planned. This is when we really started to wonder how big my dad’s bull was. Everyone who saw the rack stopped and asked questions. Many of the people we talked to said that it was the biggest bull they had ever seen in all their years living in Alaska. We put a tape measure on the rack and found it to be close to 78-inches wide. We promised that we would have the antlers scored when we got back to Oregon.
When we arrived back home, I had the rack green scored. They scored 255-3/8 points. We still didn’t know how big was big, so Dad had Buck Buckner score the rack after the necessary drying time. Buck taped the bull at 254-1/8 points. He called us the next day and said that it would rank approximately third in the world, if the score stood. Wow! What a moose for two guys who had only seen a few Alaska-Yukon moose before this trip. My dad has since moved to Kodiak, Alaska, and took the antlers with him. They are now on display in the lobby at Kodiak Inn in Kodiak.
More than anything I will always cherish the memories and companionship I had with my dad on this trip. It was the best present I could have ever received for graduation. I will not look at this trip for the quality of trophies (they were a bonus) we were able to take; rather, I will always remember the good time we had together.

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