By Joseph Robertia
Opening day of moose hunting season is practically a holiday in Alaska, and just like there are sweet treats at Halloween or presents at Christmas, so does hunting bring rewards for those who have waited months, scouted for weeks and got up early on the opener to successfully set the crosshairs of their rifle scope on a bull.
James Banks, of Kasilof, left the house at 5:45 a.m. Aug. 20. Within minutes he did what many hunters are unlucky enough not to do all season — bag a bull.
Banks, a transplant to Alaska from Minnesota in 2006, grew up hunting in his home state, and said he has spent every fall since he arrived in Alaska pursuing game species.
“I have hunted all over the Cohoe-Kasilof area, and I hunt in the Kenai Mountains for black bear and sheep. I hunted last year but never saw any legal bulls. Saw a lot of moose, just no big guys,” he said.
Following research into moose population trends relating to the low ratio of bulls to cows, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game changed hunting regulations in 2011 so that spike-fork bulls were not allowed to be harvested. The legal bull size was also changed from having a 50-inch spread of three brow tines on at least on one side, to 50 inches and four brow tines.
But for this season, while the 50-and-four regulation still is in effect, bulls with a spike on at least one side are again legal to harvest. Banks said he was thankful for the regulation change.
“Last year was the first time in seven years I bought meat at the store, so I’m glad they brought back the spike rule,” he said.
Banks does his best to live off the land, catching salmon in summer and hunting various species in fall. When he hasn’t found hunting success, he said that helping successful friends pack out or process their meat has always been a fair trade to gain a little bit of wild game for his own freezer.
Moose have always eluded him, though, and as one of the most iconic species to hunt in Alaska, Banks said that he was determined not to have another season pass by without bringing down a bull.
“I had been driving around Cohoe and Kasilof for a week before hunting season. I also did recon in the woods and swamps in those areas. I had seen a lot of moose in that time, but I never saw any legal bulls until opening day,” he said.
In an odd turn of events, Banks spotted a spike just a few miles from his home on Cohoe Loop Road.
“I turned onto South Cohoe looking for a legal bull. I drove slowly, saw a cow, stopped and waited,” he said, hoping a rutting bull would be in tow, but it was not to be.
“Seeing nothing, I drove about five miles farther, then I saw him standing in the power easement,” he said.
It wasn’t a behemoth of a bull, like those seen on postcards with massive antlers of palms and a dozen brow tines protruding forward. But the chocolate-colored animal looked legal — as Banks spotted spike antlers on both sides. He had to be sure, though.
“I jumped out of the truck to get a better look at his antlers. He stood there watching me as I stepped off the road and walked slowly towards him, checking him with the scope. He turned his head, I saw he was a spikey-spike, so I dialed him in with the scope,” he said.
Banks was close, only about 25 feet away, but bull fever — the shakes that come from the excitement of possibly bagging a bull — can make even seasoned hunters miss a shot such as this one.
“I was excited and nervous, but just tried to stay calm and tune everything out,” he said.
Banks did his best to calm himself. He closed one eye, peered through the scope with the other, exhaled as softly as the light breeze blowing the tips of the fireweed patch the young bull was standing in, and then lightly squeezed the trigger of his 30.06 bolt-action rifle.
The report of the gun could be heard echoing in the distance, but it was where the round went, not the sound it made, that captured Banks’ full attention.
“My first shot hit him in the lungs,” he said, but wanting to be sure of a clean kill, Banks quickly chambered another round and fired again.
“I didn’t want him to get away or run off wounded and have to spend all day looking for him,” he said. “I practice shooting and I know my weapons like the back of my hand. I use my firearms as a tool to eat well here in Alaska, so my shots were controlled and right on target.”
As Banks looked down at his watch, he realized it was coming up on 6 a.m. The sun had just began to throw the first pink and gold rays of the day into the sky, yet Banks had already ended his moose hunting season.
He spent the rest of the morning field dressing the moose and packing it out in pieces to his nearby truck. He said he intends to butcher and process all the meat himself and is looking forward to many good meals this winter.
“When I came here, I knew I would never leave this place,” he said. “Alaska has so much to offer, and the best hunting and fishing is right here on the Kenai Peninsula, which is basically our backyard. So, living here with the moose and the bears, hunting and fishing every chance I get, I’m in heaven.”