Fred Bear’s First Moose Hunt, from the Archives
"My bow was up to it. Was I?"
Editor’s Note: This story was originally published in the June 1953 issue of Outdoor Life and it reflects the language and stereotypes of the times.
A COLD OCTOBER drizzle was soaking the Ontario bush when the old Ojibway Indian and his wife beached their canoe below our tent. They had a little boy with them, sort of wedged in the bow ahead of the woman, and he was yelling bloody murder.
They looked too old to be his parents, and the man explained that, jerking a finger at the toddler and grunting, “Mamma dead.”
After we welcomed them with cigarettes, the woman held the boy up and pointed to his mouth. “Hurt,” she said. And he wailed at the top of his voice.
Neither my partner, K. K. (Knick) Knickerbocker, nor I is a medicine man, but we got the idea. The poor little cuss was teething, and they’d come to our camp hoping we could do something for him. I rummaged in my gear for the best remedy we had, a bottle of aspirin. We didn’t dare give them the whole bottle for fear they’d feed them all to the kid. So I shook out a dozen tablets, broke each in half, then pointed to the face of my watch and held up half a tablet for each hour.
They were tickled pink. The woman poked the first dose into the boy without ceremony. He went right on crying, but they paid no attention to him.
They came up to our tent and the man’s eyes fell on our two 70-pound-pull hunting bows and the arrows. Curious as a kid with a bulging Christmas stocking, he tested the razor-sharp edge of the four-bladed arrowheads, tried the pull of my bow. Then, after looking in vain for firearms, he grinned at me, and said, “Moose big. String-gun too little.”
KNICK AND I were still chuckling about it long after the Indians paddled away.
“Honest Indian,” Knick said.
But we didn’t share all the old man’s doubts. I started hunting big game with a bow in 1935, and I’ve never carried a gun since. Knick’s also an experienced archer, and he’d come all the way from Virginia to match his bow with a moose. Up to the time of our moose hunt, I’d killed nothing bigger than deer (though I’ve added moose, bear, antelope, and elk to my list since) and neither had Knick. Still we both felt our bows would stop a moose. Other archers had proved that.
The Indian wasn’t the first to rate us underequipped for moose hunting. We’d had difficulty finding outfitters and guides willing to handle us, once they learned we intended to use bows rather than guns.
One outfitter bluntly canceled our reservations. Another said he was booked full.
We didn’t blame them. Surprisingly few know much about the killing power of hunting bows. And since big-game guides live largely by the success of their parties, it’s only natural that most shy away from archers. Guns get more game.
It wasn’t until Knick and I contacted Archie McDonald in Quibell that we were able to arrange for a moose hunt in Ontario. And I confess we’d been in Archie’s main camp on Cliff Lake two days before we let it be known we were gunless. By that time it was too late to pack us out.
For guides we drew Bill Humphries an Victor MacQueen, an Englishman and a Scot respectively, and they were good sports about the thing. We were to hunt in an area where they trap beavers in winter. They assured us there were plenty of moose there, and if we were willing to take chances on bows it was O.K. with them.
So the four of us set out for Cedar River, the outlet of Lake Wabaskang, 100 miles north of International Falls. We worked through a chain of lakes—Twilight, Evening, Mystery, Cliff, Cedar, Perrault—traveling in two canoes with five-horsepower outboards, and portaging over rocky trails. Cold rain fell in an endless drizzle, broken only by harder squalls. We were wind-bound on Cliff Lake, on Cedar, and again at the lower end of Wabaskang.
We made camp late one afternoon, dried our clothes and bags, and let a good fire drive the chill from our bones. By morning the rain stopped, and the world began to look like a fit place to live.
It became a wonderful world when we took our casting rods down to the Cedar and flipped our spoons at the foot of a low waterfall. We caught wall-eyes and northern pike as fast as we could take ’em off the hooks. The pike ran 10 to 12 pounds apiece. In 30 minutes I landed three that totaled 40 pounds. We hung a few in trees around camp for bear bait. We put back the ones we caught after that; it was wall-eyes we wanted for eating, and the river swarmed with them.
Yet we found the best fishing of all at Wine Lake, a few miles down the Cedar from Wabaskang. Lake trout from three to 12 pounds had come up in the shoals to spawn, and they pounced on our lures the way a leopard goes after a goat. Now and then we hooked lunkers that wouldn’t be handled on our medium-weight casting rods. We broke lines and smashed tips on some I bet weighed over 25 pounds. We kept no lakers, still preferring wall-eyes at camp, but we caught them at the rate of 10 or 12 an hour anytime we fished.
It was raining again the second morning, but Knick and I had come a long way to kill a moose and we didn’t have all fall to do it. So after breakfast we climbed into the two canoes and headed downriver.
Knick and Bill turned off where Wine Lake has its outlet in the Cedar, but Vic and I kept on another three or four miles. Then we went up a small creek and into a little unnamed lake that Vic said was a moose hangout. By that time the wind was blowing a gale and the cold rain had us drenched to the skin. We went ashore, got a fire going, and huddled over it until our teeth stopped chattering. Then we went moose hunting.
Wet weather gives an archer one great advantage over the prey. He can move without noise, which he must do to get close enough to score with an arrow. Vic and I traveled slowly, combing every open place ahead. Eventually we spotted a sleek whitetail buck, a six-pointer, coming toward us. I picked an opening ahead of him in the brush and lined an arrow on it. When he walked into it I let go. It should have been an easy shot, since his neck and part of his shoulder were in sight at about 30 yards, but there was too much thick stuff in the way. Or maybe it was my fault. My fingertips were numb with cold by that time, and I didn’t get off a good release.
I heard the arrow thud into something solid and saw the deer whirl and run. I found the arrow, bedded in a young pine, three paces short of where he’d stood. It had brushed a twig, glanced off, and whacked into the tree. “I got a name for this place.” I told Vic. “Let’s call it Arrow Lake.”
He grinned, but it was a feeble performance, and I could see he was biting his tongue to hold back some remark on my performance.
It helped when I missed another shot at a bigger buck late that afternoon. I shot high, and again I blamed my cold fingers. But I knew better than to alibi to Vic. We saw seven deer that day, including three bucks, and I could have killed all three with a rifle. By the time we got back to camp I realized that any fragment of faith Vic and Bill may have had in archery was as good as gone. At supper the guides exchanged significant glances across the fire and acted like a couple of guys who have picked a lame horse.
THE WEATHER broke two days later, and we saw stars overhead and pink in the morning sky for the first time since the hunt began. We hurried through breakfast and were on our way before sunrise, running, the canoes through a winding canyon of gold and scarlet foilage. We hadn’t realized how far autumn had advanced. Ducks got up in front of us, and an eagle soared lazily overhead.
We separated once again, agreeing to meet for lunch. Vic and I saw two cow moose that forenoon, but nothing with antlers. Knick and Bill stalked a good buck but couldn’t get within range.
At noon we met in a cove formed by a big point that thrust half a mile out into the lake. We were finishing the last of our grub when a series of low, whimpering grunts rolled across the water to us. Bill lifted a warning hand. We listened until it was repeated.
“Cow, calling,” Vic said softly. “She may have a bull with her.”
We got up noiselessly and laid our plans in a hurry. The point was connected to the main shore by a neck of land about 200 yards wide and timbered with open stuff. Knick and I would have a chance for shooting there. The guides would drive, starting at the far end of the point, and if there was a bull with the lovelorn cow he’d have to come past us to get ashore.
Knick and I picked our stands and Bill and Vic shoved off in one of the canoes. Ten minutes later a cow moose come out of the willows 300 yards away, splashed through the shallows, and struck out across the cove. When nothing else showed up in three or four minutes I relaxed. Then I heard a heavy animal coming through the brush in a hurry and headed almost at me. I caught a glimpse of brown, too light for a moose, and an eight-point buck came busting out of the adlers. He was spooked, and going places, but I had him in the open and I knew he was my buck.
He went past me at 15 yards, running in long, reaching bounds. I shot when he was broadside. The arrow made a good solid hit, but I saw that I’d failed to lead him enough. I’d aimed for the rib section but the arrow had flashed into his flank.
I found out later the shot would have killed him anyway, likely within 100 yards. The four-bladed head had severed big arteries and was bedded against the hip bone. But I didn’t know that at the time.
The only apparent effect of the shot was to slow him down. His long jumps changed to short, high hops. I sent another arrow after him before he’d gone 20 yards. It sailed over his back, a clean miss.
He was going straight away from me, 40 yards off, when I loosed a third arrow. That sounds like fast shooting with a bow but my average time between shots is five seconds, and the buck lost a lot of his speed as a result of my first shot.
I took a little more time with that third shot. It struck him in the back of the neck, just below the head, and he went down like a dishrag. When we dressed him we discovered the arrow had gone through the first vertebra behind the skull and had driven deep into the brain. No bullet ever killed a deer quicker.
Bill and Vic came out of the brush in a few minutes, plainly disappointed and disgusted. They’d heard no shooting, of course, and I realized it hadn’t even occurred to them there could be a kill without gunfire.
“See anything?” Vic asked with patient resignation.
“Saw a cow moose and a buck,” I replied. “The moose swam the cove.”
“What happened to the deer?”
“He went right through here,” I said, pointing.
I let them take the lead, and they almost fell over the dead buck.
“Well, I’ll be damned,” Vic muttered. Bill added, “No shooting or nothing.” It wasn’t lavish praise, but the way they said it made it about the biggest compliment I’d ever had on a hunting trip.
Back at camp that night, however, I could see the two weren’t convinced that a bow was proper moose medicine. They’d witnessed a trial demonstration and were inclined to give me more credit than I deserved, but there’s a difference of something like 800 pounds between a moose and a deer, and to their way of thinking, killing a moose would require a far more lethal weapon.
Knick and I voted to try the Arrow Lake country next morning. We’d seen plenty of moose sign there and also a couple of cows. It looked like a good bet.
Knick and Bill left camp first but they loitered on the way down the Cedar, scouting for tracks, and Vic and I passed them. But five minutes after we paddled into the little lake they came out of the creek behind us—just in time for the show.
Right then, with both canoes in plain sight, a moose showed up at the edge of the alders across the lake. We saw his antlers first, over the top of the brush, and then he waded into the water. I had my glasses on him before he took three steps. He was a big bull with a fine head.
WHY HE DIDN’T spot us, I still don’t know. While our canoes were fairly close to shore and he was almost half a mile away, we had no cover. I didn’t think there was a chance we could cross to his side of the open lake unseen. But we had to try.
Vic and I crouched low and drove our canoe with hard, noiseless strokes. Knick and Bill were close behind as we rounded the end of the lake. A brushy point now hid us from the moose, so Vic turned the canoe toward shore. I was out of it and into the alders before its bottom touched land.
When I’d last seen the bull he was coming down the lake in our direction, walking slowly in shallow water about 25 yards offshore. There was a strong wind, blowing in my favor and making enough noise in the undergrowth to cover my movements. A few yards back in the brush I found a game trail running parallel to shore, and I followed it until I figured I was halfway to the moose. Then I took a branch trail down to the water.
Unable to see more than a few yards along shore, I crouched at the edge of the alders and waited. Nothing happened for a minute or two, and I was sure the bull had heard me and turned back. But I squatted there patiently and listened.
Then I heard him, splashing and grunting. Another five seconds and I caught sight of him through a hole in the bushes, 75 yards off.
For an instant I was as near to buck fever as I’ve ever been. He looked as big as a boxcar, and I recalled what the Indian had said about my string-gun. Suppose he was right? That was a lot of moose bearing down on me. I wondered what he’d do when my arrow drove into him. Would he come crashing for shore and pound me to a pulp with his big hoofs?
Then I took another look, sizing up his black bulk and his broad antlers, that shone like polished mahogany. They’d go 48 inches or better. I thought of Knick, Bill, and Vic back on the point, watching from the brush, waiting for my shot.
My bow was up to it. Was I?
IF THE MOOSE kept his course he’d pass in front of me about 20 yards away. I could take all the time I wanted, and at that range I could hardly miss.
I found another opening in the brush and settled myself on one knee. I could no longer see him but I could hear him coming. Then his neck and shoulders filled the opening. I brought the bowstring back to full draw and heard the sharp, satisfying twang as the arrow left it. And I was on target. The feathers of the arrow suddenly sprouted out from the center of the bull’s rib section.
“That ought to fix him,” I murmured to myself.
The moose flinched and stiffened. For an instant he froze in his tracks. Then he whirled and lunged toward deeper water. But he made only three jumps before he stopped broadside to me.
I had a second arrow on the string when he humped his back, stretched out his neck, and blew a red gush from both nostrils. I eased off my draw then, knowing he was done for. He turned toward shore, but his legs buckled and he went down. One arrow killed him before he’d moved twice his own length from the place where he stood when it hit him.
We got ropes on him and towed him ashore. When we dressed him we found that my arrow had entered between two ribs, sliced through the lungs, cut off big blood vessels, and stopped when the head sheared off a rib on the opposite side. The moose was dead a minute after he was shot. That’s how a hunting arrow is supposed to kill.
The Indian and his wife and the little boy turned up at camp about noon next day. Maybe they smelled meat. Anyway, they heard of our luck—perhaps via the moccasin telegraph. The kid was quiet, but both he and the old ones looked hungry.
We had two moose tenderloins hanging in front of our tent. I took one down and gave it to the old fellow. He grinned from ear to ear, and the woman started to paw through the duffel piled under a tarp in the middle of their canoe. She came up with a faded sugar bag full of wild rice, and handed it to us. When they were making ready to leave the man saw my bow propped against a tree. He looked from it to the moose quarters hanging near by. “String-gun plenty big!” he grunted.
It was Bill, the once-skeptical guide, who whooped a hearty “I’ll tell the world” back at him. Across the fire that night Vic put an interesting question to me. “How much would it cost me,” he asked, “to get a bow like yours?”
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