Fall has always been my favorite time of year. Here in the Midwest, the dog days of summer give way to Indian summer, where sometime in late September and early October shorter daylight hours, lower daytime temperatures, and cooler nights eventually trigger colorful fall foliage…
Of course, October also means the beginning of the false or early rut for whitetail deer, which is the only big-game animal we can hunt smack dab in the Midwest or Illinois. The corn and soybeans are being shelled or cut by those big $250,000 combines, and that means more deer will be on the move. And bowhunters are licking their chops, anticipating elevated levels of activity prior to the gun season opener in November.
But my favorite fall (and spring) memory actually takes me some 3,000 miles northwest to Alaska, the Last Frontier. And it’s two memorable hunts, not one. The reason for two special and memorable hunts? Because both represented the opportunity to hunt two big-game species I had never hunted before, to hunt with industry friends, and to be the first to field test entirely new rifle cartridges.
On my very first trip to Alaska, a hunting trip I had dreamed about since I was in grade school, I had the opportunity to hunt Alaskan moose with Remington’s Art Wheaton. Remington had just that year introduced the Ultra Mag series of cartridges, and I had a Model 700 in .300 long-action Ultra Mag that would prove to be perfect moose medicine. The rut was in full swing, and with my guide (Virgil Umphenour from Hunt Alaska) using a call to entice a bull to temporarily leave his cows; he brought me face to face with a heavy horned 1,600-pound bull in some very thick willows.
You have to understand that for a Midwesterner who had only hunted 150-200 pound whitetails in the woods, this four-legged critter looked as big as a locomotive weaving his way through the willows. Moving through thick brush and busting off willows and pine boughs at will, the bull was towering over all else and was a sight to behold. He was irritated and agitated, and he wanted to confront any challenger who wanted to “steal” one of his cows. Given we were only 50 or so yards away from each other, you can imagine how nervous I was as I got in position, brought the 700 bolt action firmly to my shoulder, fixed the crosshairs on his front shoulder and squeezed the trigger.
The Ultra Mag and Model 700 did its part…moose meat to fill the freezer and a mount to proudly display in my game room.
My second trip to Alaska brought me to a hunting area near Norton Sound with my good friend Wayne Holt, who was with Hornady. It was another opportunity of a lifetime, hunting grizzly bear. Hornady decided to introduce the .375 Ruger cartridge, a round that basically exceeds the performance of the .375 H&H, and to prove its remarkable performance; they wanted us to try it out on dangerous game.
Again, long story short, my guide, Eric Umphenour, spotted a grizzly in open country that seemed to be heading in our direction. Fortunately, we had time to set up and then play the waiting game. Eric had perfectly read the bear’s intention as he basically followed a drainage until he was only about 125 yards away. He was moving quickly from left to right, and when Eric whispered, “take him,” I squeezed the trigger on my Ruger Model 77 Alaskan and heard the first 270-grain bullet impact.
The problem was, when the bear was hit, he went down in a dip in the ground and disappeared. The pucker factor on my index was off the charts. As we discussed what to do next, the griz suddenly resurfaced running full out from right to left…I had a split second to put a second round in him…. I did and he went down instantly.
Two great animals taken with two great guns and two new cartridges, with two special friends….
Two trips loaded with memories to last a lifetime…
- Picking a single favorite fall memory is a little tough, but I’ll go with the time I hunted birds in Montana with my three cousins, Randy, Doug and Ryan Clark. The four of us grew up hunting and fishing together in west-central Illinois; I was an only child and they neatly filled the role of surrogate brothers.
Flash forward several decades. Randy—who now works for the National Shooting Sports Foundation—was then manager of Diamond Wing, a hunting preserve near Ennis, and he invited Doug, Ryan and me to come out for a few days to hunt.
We flew to Bozeman and drove to Ennis and spent three days gunning pheasants, chukar and quail over a smorgasbord of bird dogs—a beautiful matched brace of black and white springers named Comet and Spike; a pair of strapping black Labs named Trapper and Doc; a racy young German shorthair named Pepper and her bracemate, a veteran Brittany named Gus who pointed his birds at distances that were nothing short of phenomenal.
Gus would lock up and we’d start to walk in…20, 30, 40 yards. We would glance back at Randy, who was acting as guide and dog handler, and he’d wave us forward. “Go on!” he’d say, and we’d walk another 20 or 30 yards while Gus remained staunch far to our rear. Finally the birds would get up and we’d shoot and the razzing would begin regarding each other’s prowess with a shotgun.
That joking is what I remember most about the hunt—besides the outstanding dog work, that is, and it was outstanding, make no mistake. On our first morning, Doug, our resident comedian, had been quick to point out the huge black rock formation on a nearby mountain that bore a striking resemblance to a gorilla’s face—the prominent brow, the jutting jaw, the frowning expression. Doug promptly christened the formation the Gorilla God and we subsequently attributed every hit or miss to the gorilla’s whim…whether we’d done something to tick him off or were in his favor at the moment we pulled the trigger.
It’s been more than a decade since I spent those three days with my cousins shooting birds over topnotch dogs beneath the Gorilla God, and the memories still bring a smile. Camaraderie like we enjoyed on that hunt is, after all, one of the primary reasons we go afield.
It’s time for us to get together and do it again.
—Rick Van Etten - Gun Dog Magazine