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A Float Hunter's Window

by Larry Bartlett

Float Hunting the Window

The moment I downed my first Alaska moose I knew that some day I would be a proficient moose hunter. My moose hunting education started that day. I began to log field notes depicting animal behavior, lessons learned, and terrain layout related to moose sign. In the struggle to outwit my opponent on his turf, I gathered valuable clues that helped me develop effective hunting techniques. And applying some of these techniques that I have learned at the right location along your next river journey will help you see more animals, too. 

I have analyzed my maps and hunting logs from twelve successful moose hunts that occurred over a ten-year period. When comparing my harvest data, similarities began to emerge. For one thing, most of those successful hunts shared similar campsite characteristics (high- or low-bank locale), which I selected based on river layout and fresh moose sign. I should probably mention is that eight of the twelve bulls in my study were shot from camp. The other four bulls were harvested while actually floating downstream. I consider these random opportunities or Divine intervention. After analyzing the similar factors, I have developed some techniques that have provided good success over the past decade. Those techniques are based on a working theory that suggests hunters achieve higher success by hunting and camping inside a river’s window of opportunity. Consistency alone suggests strongly to me that such a “window” exists, so let’s discuss this theory and how it could help improve your float hunting success. 

Selecting a River 

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There’s no doubting the importance of selecting a worthwhile river, but to understate the role of sound hunting strategy is detrimental. In fact I have normally hunted different river systems each season and still done quite well. I believe moose hunters as a rule achieve higher success when they hunt effectively in a scarcely populated (with moose) area, than when they hunt poorly in a high-density area. Therefore, I suggest that technique is at least as important as general location. For a great hunt, combine effective hunting skills with a prolific river, shake or stir to your pleasure and top with patience.

Locate the “Window” 

”Window” is a term I use to describe the locations along a given river that will provide the best opportunity for a successful hunt. This window is a time and place where dreams are realized, and I am convinced that learning how to identify these windows along Alaska rivers will improve your moose hunting success. Since many float hunters find moose either from or near camp, site selection must be considered much more carefully than deciding on the basis of which sandbar has the smallest rocks. 

Skilled moose hunters study surrounding elevation and river layout, pinpoint animal movement patterns on the ground, all the while analyzing potential campsites. Oftentimes, these windows are merely pockets of frequent moose traffic which extend a few miles up- and downstream. These windows may be stacked or several miles apart, depending greatly on the dynamics of that ecosystem and its moose. 

Terrain features cradling the river often dictate these small pockets of moose traffic. Since every river is unique, it is nearly impossible to predict animal movement when studying topographic maps based entirely on this theory. However, a plausible hunting strategy can be devised once hunters are familiar with the landscape and can begin to compare other clues found along the journey. And since float hunting entails mostly hunting from camp, it’s important to discuss the considerations for selecting the best riverside locale, which define the characteristics of a river window. 

Presence of fresh moose sign

Look for sign along the riverbanks that is at most a couple of days old. It’s a good idea to sketch onto your maps the areas where sign is most abundant. This technique will help to reveal movement patterns and characteristics. One problem with floating rivers is that you may locate fresh sign but you may be unwilling or unable (poor camping potential) to stop and hunt overnight, then quickly float out of fresh sign. One more window closed for good. 
So, locate fresh sign and scout the area for quality camping ground. If the sign is fresh, moose will likely be in the vicinity (<2 miles away), so you may only have a few river bends to float in search of an ideal campsite before that window fades. Therefore, once you have decided to hunt an area based on fresh sign, locate a riverside camp overlooking the most likely areas of moose traffic. To recognize and interpret moose travel ways we must first know how terrain layout affects moose activity.

Terrain layout

Terrain layout covers everything from visible elevation to a river’s cut banks. Bull moose seem to have no qualms about fording a swift and deep stream or traversing downed timber if the path provides security, concealment, forage or mating opportunities. Nevertheless, if undisturbed, moose generally avoid arduous routing, stiff climbs over passes, and steep slopes that are part of favored river habitat. I have observed that bull moose generally select routes based on their need to reduce energy expenditure and conserve body fat, since mating is so physically taxing. Therefore, large and small valleys, river corridors and drainages, and flats are all important travel ways for moose. I have followed moose around a river bluff a distance that could have been reduced by half had we climbed up and over, but the bull chose the less demanding route.

Likely travel routes

Important travel ways are easily spotted while floating a river. Just look for fresh sign along every low-bank (beach side). Bulls often cross gravel bars on a bisecting route just inside the willow and alder fringe. Instead of taking the scenic route following the river course, moose regularly ford the river channel and cross o the opposite bank, saving energy by traveling the shorter, straighter route. Once a hunter identifies the movements of a bull moose, likely travel routes of that animal can be postulated by comparing sign on the ground to target features found on the map. A hunter armed with this knowledge is able to determine likely travel ways for the elusive moose leaving those ghostly prints. A campsite must then be chosen based on the most likely avenues of approach by that animal. Adjoining tributaries, low passes, large and small valleys, flats, marshes and plateaus can be located on your next hunting map. Identify these areas on your topos and use your finger to draw a route that you believe a normal moose would select – in my experience, that generally means a straight line over friendly terrain. Continue that line down along the river’s edge, crossing channels and gravel bars as needed to maintain a relatively straight line. If your imaginary line correlates with the location of fresh sign, you’ve just highlighted some likely travel routes for moose. You’ll notice that certain river stretches along that imaginary line appear likelier pathways than other stretches. Consider fresh sign and terrain layout when determining whether any location is within a window -- then select your campsite appropriately.

Concealment

Think of concealment as a cloak, an invisible field around you that prevents your opponent from seeing your next move and counteracting it. That is the comfort moose find in riparian vegetation. Smart hunters think like a moose, which encourages them to setup camp overlooking optimal areas with adequate vegetation and fresh sign, paralleling likely travel ways. Personal concealment is achieved by moving all tents and inflatables into the brush line to distort the outline of camp and to absorb noise and movements. Oftentimes, this concealment is provided on the high-bank side of the river and not the gravel bar side (low-bank). And while camping on the high bank creates a tremendous burden with gear shuttles and camp setup, animal encounters are more frequent, in my experience. The high bank not only offers better concealment, but also a higher vantage point with extended visibility. 

Conclusion

Float hunting Alaska's rivers for moose isn't as difficult as it once was for me. Effective hunting skill begins with a hunter's knowledge of animal behavior, followed by timely execution of effective techniques. The next time you find yourself searching an unfamiliar river corridor for moose sign, remember to seek out the most likely travel ways and make a disciplined approach to hunting moose. Unfortunately, not all river sections are utilized the same way by bull moose, which explains why some areas are seemingly void of animal traffic. Remember that campsite selection and recent moose activity are important considerations of a productive float hunt.

Hunting inside a river's windows has helped me achieve greater success. Locate these windows on your next float hunt and improve your own success. 

Larry Bartlett is author of A Complete Guide to Float Hunting Alaska.  He owns and operates Pristine Ventures, based at Fairbanks, Alaska. 
  

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