By John Musacchia
This was it, Monday. The correspondence, the long months of waiting and preparation, the sleepless nights, now finally coming to an end.
The light was fighting to pierce the mist hanging in ghost-like stillness over Princess Lake, Newfoundland. Yesterday we were driven by our outfitter, Harvey Sheppard, from his home in Cornerbrook to Deer Lake and then flown by float plane to this remote camp on Princess Lake in South Central Newfoundland.
We were a party of four hunters, two gunners and two archers. Jimmy Hulbert and I were the bowmen and Arty Laffmen and Frank Fiordialisi of Long Island were the gunners. Strange that we should be hunting together, but during the previous year’s hunt we had developed a deep respect and friendship for each other. Outside of an occasional reference to us as pig stickers we got along fine. Now we stood in the darkness, waiting for enough light to enable us to climb into the canoe at our feet. Any bowhunter knows that at this moment I was more than ready, and yet the questions ran through my mind: Did I pack that extra string, compass? Did I tie that nock properly? I gripped and regripped the Bear Super Kodiak in my hand. It felt good – fifty-five pounds, sixty-four inches long, my companion on many a hunt and a sweetheart of a bow.
Time to go. I turned to see Lint Gilbert motioning me into the canoe. This would be my second year with Lint, and it took some doing, but by the end of last year’s hunt he finally had completely accepted the bow as a lethal weapon. It had taken one book class moose and a caribou to make him a believer. Made me a little nervous, because to hear him tell it I could do no wrong, and I sure knew better.
Lint is the son of a very famous Newfoundland guide and is fast becoming a very fine guide in his own right. We shoved off. After a few balks our little outboard came to life and we were on our way. The lake was still and the rising mist seemed to stall just above our heads to form a canopy. We traveled along the shoreline for about fifteen minutes when suddenly the mist vanished. We found ourselves at the mouth of Laffmens Brook.
Beaching the canoe we picked up a caribou lead and started to climb towards the ridge. God bless these caribou leads because I think it would be impossible to hunt this tucker brush country without them. Suddenly over Lint’s shoulders I saw a movement. We watched and then there he was, a bull moose appearing on the skyline. Moose will often stand on a windswept ridge like this to seek relief from black flies.
We looked him over with the glasses and figured him to be no more than forty inches and Lint thought his palms were narrow. We decided to make a stalk anyway. Perhaps he would look better at forty yards. We lined him up with a boulder behind him and a lone tamarack on the shore behind us and started our stalk.
The wind was fine. We circled wide on the downwind side, crossed the ridge well behind him. I took a peek. He was still standing there. We worked our way along the ridge till we spotted our mark, the boulder. We took a breather and after a few minutes I nodded to Lint. He grinned. This was his way of saying good luck.
As I worked down towards the boulder I moved over to line it up with the lone tamarack on the lake. When I got to the boulder the moose had to be just beyond it. I crawled the last fifty yards, took a deep breath, said the archer’s prayer (Pick a spot) and peered over the boulder – No Moose! Ten minutes of glassing, he was gone. Climbed back up to Lint. He couldn’t understand it either. He hadn’t seen him come out below me.
I was surprised to hear Lint say it was time to boil a kettle and have lunch. Half the day was gone. Lint started the fire and set the kettle to boiling. The smell of dead tamarack twigs brought back thoughts of last year’s hunt. It was good, very good, to be back. Between bites of Vienna sausage, I glassed the slope below me. Where could a hulk like that hide? Well, let him grow until next year.
We buried our trash and doused our fire and headed down the slope and into the back country. We hadn’t gone more than five hundred yards when I realized that the hills below were alive with small groups of caribou. We sat down and went to work with the glasses. We looked for white. The mature bull caribou develops a white chest and neck and in a really mature stag the white may even run in a horizontal band almost to his hind legs. I couldn’t find anything that looked good enough to stalk.
Then Lint pointed to a white spot on top of a knoll. Lint said, “That will make the book.” Looked like one bez, double shovel, small but nice size crown both sides. “Let’s go,” I said. We had plenty of cover and worked our way to within about 400 yards of him. I put the glasses on him again. He was still lying down with his chin on the ground, perhaps to rest that rack. We sat there on our haunches and discussed the situation in whispers. It looked hopeless.
Then I saw it. A small boulder lay about ten feet in front of the stag. If I could move to my right I could line it up with this head and if I crawled the last fifty yards or so that three – foot rock would cover me within twenty yards of him. I waved to Lint and moved out to my right. Sure enough the rock completely covered his head and unless he looked up I was going to have a go at him. It was a long crawl, sixty yards – now can I get to forty?
Then trouble, loose rocks, lots of it. That did it. He was on his feet staring at me. I froze. No good. He shook his head, turned and disappeared. I scrambled up the hill and looked over. There were three of them. Two cows and Big Boy out of range and crossing a small stream. They stopped on the far side and stood watching me. Minutes went by. They were very curious. I tried to think of a way to get closer. Maybe the tee shirt bit. The wind was still right and it just might work. I tore off my arm guard and peeled down to my white tee shirt.
I put back my arm guard, put my bow on my head and boldly stood up. I did a slow bowing dance down towards the stream trying to imitate a challenging bull. The cows turned and slowly started to walk towards me.
As I turned in my dance I noticed that Lint was about forty yards behind me in the grass. He had both hands on his face and was in convulsions. I gave him a dirty look and continued to dance. The cows were now about 50 yards out and Big Boy couldn’t stand it any longer. With a snort he came after his cows and placed himself broadside between the cows and me.
I stopped the dance and slowly drew the bow. All three were now motionless and watching me intently. The picture looked perfect and instinctively I released. I’ve seen one jump the string, but three? I saw the arrow go behind the stag. Lint came up and we watched the bull enter a small lake and swim across.
Lint said, “That bull is limping.” Sure enough through the glasses he seemed to be favoring his right rear leg. On inspection the arrow showed blood on the blade. The shaft was clean. We followed the stag’s course for a bit, no arterial bleeding, just a drop here and there. The way he was acting it was obvious that I had scored a freak hit. The arrow had cut one of the tendons in his hind leg. There was no leaving this animal. We just had to get him. The stag was now a mile away and slowly climbing the next ridge. We decided to let him settle down and follow only at a distance in the hope that he would lay down and again make himself vulnerable.
As we watched he laid down. He was right out in the open. No stalk was possible. We hoped he would move out of there. Two hours went by. The stag never moved, “Getting late now,” Lint said. He thought the stag would stay down. Hope he’s right. I asked Lint if we could find this spot again. He nodded and with a glance back at our stag we headed home.
In an hour we were on the ridge looking down on Princess Lake. We dropped down and passed the boulder the moose was supposed to stay behind. Droppings marked the spot where he had stood. Lint found a nice lead and led the way. Tired now and glad this lead is wide and easy going. We came to a fork and Lint takes the right one, saying it is a short cut. We don’t go three steps and we jumped our bull moose.
We watch him tear down the mountain and then he turns left below us. Remembering the wide left fork, I scramble back in hopes of getting a shot as he crosses it. Looks good. He’ll cross the lead. But this bull moose has other ideas. He jumps into the lead and we stand facing each other. No shot, all head and shoulder bones. I’m in a half draw waiting for him to turn and give me that quartering shot. I hear Lint stir behind me and feel better. Seconds go by and now, back go the ears and with a squeal, here he comes.
He’s on us now, but luckily 10 yards out he swerves to thunder by five yards off. Somehow fourteen years of practice make me do the right thing. The arrow catches him behind the last rib and ranges forward, up and out. Realization of what had happened hits us. With a sheepish grin Lint said, “Boy, that was close and all I had was an axe.” Knowing Lint, I knew he would have used it well if that bull hadn’t swerved. We discussed waiting awhile, but it was now very late.
From where we stood we could see my arrow hung up in the tucker brush. It had just made it through the bull. I paced it off, nine yards. That bull had been close, too close. The blood on the arrow and trail showed a lung hit. One hundred yards further and there he was. Large animal, but only forty-one inches. He’d never make the book. If Id had time to look at him I would have passed. Quickly we rolled him overand shortly we had him gutted and cavity down. We marked the spot with all the tissue we had so that the packer would find him in the morning. Well, at least we had some great steaks. It was almost dark when we reached the lake.
Fifteen minutes and there was the cabin. Jimmy Hulbert was silhouetted in the doorway and loudly announced that due to Arty Laffmen’s skill and cunning, the menu tonight would consist of young caribou stew. And was it good! Two scotches later found us all in our sleeping bags, verbally reliving the day’s events. Someone was in the middle of a great story and the next thing I knew the smell of bacon woke me up.
Breakfast over, we headed across the lake again. Those tiny Quananiche salmon were dimpling all over the lake. Would have to fry some before we leave, I thought. There was no need for conversation. Lint and I knew where we were headed. Three hours later we were still hunting for him. Finally, just by luck, we topped a ridge and there he was, making his way down the ridge. Keeping our distance we followed, sure that he would put himself in a vulnerable position.
Little did I dream at the time that this was the beginning of the roughest bow hunt of my life. Twilight found us far from camp, weary and completely frustrated. Time and again we thought we had him, but he was keyed up and alert and seemed to be expecting me on every stalk. It was dark when we returned to camp. No energy for talk tonight; we ate and hit the sack. Wednesday turned out to be the same as Tuesday. He never went very far and that white cape helped us keep track of him. Thursday: can’t find him!
We hear a shot. It’s Frank Fiordilisi and his guide, Guy Snooks, working in the same area. We had noticed Frank during the morning on the far ridge glassing, but didn’t think it possible that our stag could make it that far. Hope Frank scored. We boiled a kettle and had lunch. This was the low spot of the hunt. We ate in silence. We had done everything possible. In my frustration I now became the supreme Monday morning quarterback. Why didn’t I wait till he looked away on that first shot?
I know better than to shoot when an animal is on the verge of flight and looking straight at me. Why didn’t I go around that loose rock? I had plenty of time. If only I had – suddenly I was brought back to reality by a shout. It was Frank’s guide standing on a rise behind us and frantically waving. It took about twenty minutes to reach him. He had found the stag. He was bedded down just beyond the next ridge.
Thank God, Frank already had his caribou or he would have shot him. Frank said they didn’t know it was our stag until they jumped him and they saw him limping. We thanked Frank and headed over the ridge. The glasses picked him up immediately. As we watched he lay down again. Two stalks and four hours later, still at it. He seems to be playing a game with us now. Can’t get closer than seventy yards. We watch him bed down again.
Should we try again? Lint says, “Leave him be. We’ll get him in the morning.” I hope so but now he is about four miles from camp and I’m starting to doubt that we will ever get him. We have passed up many caribou and had hoped our stag would somehow be distracted by them, but no soap. We’ll see what tomorrow brings.
Friday dawns clear and crisp. Over breakfast the talk is about our caribou stag. Someone refers to him as Mr. Guts. The name sticks: it sure fits. It is a long way out, but we find him easily. He is bedded down right where we left him on the shore of Rocky Pond. Stalk looks great. I goof from thirty yards. He leaps out of his bed and the arrow buries itself harmlessly in the lichen. Why didn’t I wait till he stood up, I ask myself.
We watch as he swims a half mile across the lake and beds down on the shore. We line him up and start around. It’s a good two miles. We never get close. He has me when I’m still eighty yards out. Back in the lake he goes. This is getting ridiculous. He beds down on the shore close to where he was before.
We boil a kettle and have lunch. I watch him through the glasses and notice that he has bedded close to the mouth of a stream. I think to myself, “I hope he is as close to that stream as he looks.” We line him up and start around. Wind is good and he’s right where the stream enters the lake. The stream is very noisy. Perhaps Lady Luck is smiling at us.
I leave Lint on a knoll and start down the stream bed. Only seventy yards now. I start my crawl; water is very cold. Can see his left ear and tip of his right antler. He has his back to me. Elbow goes in. How can water be so cold without freezing? Forty yards now. This stream noise could be the difference. Twenty yards now. Should I try to get closer?
No, let’s go. Pick a spot; pick a spot. I stand. He sees me and surges to his feet. Not this time! The arrow is perfect. He staggers to the water and dives in. Twenty yards out he suddenly rolls over and is still. An hour later he floats ashore on a tiny finger of land and we are there waiting for him.
Tape shows that he will make the book, but what if he didn’t? Would anything change? He’d still be Mr. Guts and bigger heads will still give him the place of honor on my wall. This year I’ll go back to Newfoundland, but there will never be another Mr. Guts.
Dedicated to James Hulbert, gone now, and yet he will live on for those who were lucky enough to have shared the world he loved with him.