The river was slow in spots, but we were enjoying the cool September weather as we eased along the willow-choked river, dodging the occasional spruce tree that protruded from the bank. Our gear stored in dry bags lined our raft and made a comfortable place to sit and watch.
We rounded the corner on a long stretch of the Kobuk River. There in the distance were two moose feeding along the edge, both grazing leisurely on the soft green grass growing just beneath the surface. As we made our silent approach, we immediately focused on making a plan.
Float Hunt Advantages
Float hunting or rafting has become quite popular here in Alaska, and more and more hunters are taking advantage of it. At one time rafting was primarily a recreational sport where the adventurous crowd looked for an ultimate whitewater experience. In recent years, however, hunters have begun to utilize it to their advantage, floating along Alaska’s ever-abundant rivers, creeks and streams to reach places where moose, caribou and other big game are abundant.
For the bowhunter this can be a grand experience like no other. I first started using a raft back in the 1990s and only used it from base camp. Each day we floated down river to have a look, but each evening we would tow it back to camp. A tough ordeal, especially if it’s rough water, cold or both! I learned quickly that if you use your raft as part of the camping experience and move from one location to another, you can extend your hunt and make the adventure much more rewarding.
Rafts, once only a hunter’s dream, are now the norm on all hunts. They can be either bought, rented or (in some cases, depending on the outfitter or transporter) supplied with the hunt. Here in Northwest Alaska where I bowhunt, they are included in every fly-out. If you don’t have a raft, the transporter or outfitter, who usually has several models on hand will recommend one. Yes, they do take up room on a bush plane, weigh 70 pounds with seats, paddles and pump and count against your weight total, but in all cases you’ll be glad you have it.
It’s amazing the incredible amount of weight they can handle in shallow water. On one moose and caribou hunt, we were lucky on Day 3. We took two caribou and, later that evening, a monster moose. I wondered about our ability to haul so much meat and gear and actually began looking for a place for a plane to land close by in case things turned out for the worse. We loaded the raft down and set out with no problem whatsoever. We made it to camp, then further down-river to the designated pick-up spot the next morning. It was unbelievable.
Take The Rental Route
If you want to experience an Alaska DIY big-game float trip, there are certainly ways to do it without breaking the bank. I highly suggest going the rental route and/or finding a transporter who includes rafts in the drop-off price. In certain hubs where hunters gather and then fly to camp, there are usually several companies that rent rafts and other camping gear. This is a blessing, especially if you don’t want to haul all that gear from your home destination. Most companies and transporters usually charge by the day, which is a lot cheaper than buying a raft outright. I’ve seen prices start at $25 a day, cheap for a 5- to 7-day hunt. But again it depends on the number in your party, how many rafts you need and the size. Most rental companies will have many choices and will make recommendations, which makes it nice.
Buying one outright can be expensive, and, like a good bow or a great pair of binoculars, you get what you pay for. Rafts come in various sizes and options to fit just about everyone’s needs, no matter your hunt party’s size and gear load. I personally use the Soar brand, and my two 16-footers can handle just about anything the tundra and river can dish out. New rafts can run from $1,500 to $2,000 just for the basics, including paddles and seats, so unless you plan to hunt this way for years to come, renting is the way to go.
After you get your raft lined up, next is gear. Like all Alaska hunts, “light” is the rule, and dry bags with tie-downs that work are a must. I use a variation of dry bags that come in different sizes to accommodate various equipment. Cabela’s makes bags that are tough and relatively cheap and come in several sizes. I also use “LoopRope.” These ties will secure any load and can be used in various arrangements. Also have a tarp or two to cover everything in the raft to keep it relatively dry. Also a cargo net works great in keeping everything in place.
Where To Go? How To Get There?
Where should you float, and when? Simple answer: your quarry will dictate the where and when. Moose can be found along most major rivers — caribou, too, depending on their migration patterns and time of year. September is certainly the best month, but I’ve seen some late-August hunts produce. This is what makes float hunting with a bow so grand. You choose your dates, find a river, and then get dropped off on an upstream gravel bar where a plane can land and begin your adventure.
Float-hunting adventures usually start with a bush plane dropping hunters off on the bank of your chosen river. From there it is up to you on how your excursion will unfold. Good transporters who know the area are accustomed to this type of hunting and usually have a good idea on where to place you. Most hunters will then orchestrate a pick-up plan, including a date and place, and then the pilot (barring bad weather) will pick you up as scheduled. Most hunters who go this route schedule 7 to 10 days to travel a section of river and score on a big bull or two.
It reminds me of Africa. You never know what lies down the road or, in this case, around the next river bend. It provides a new and scenic view each day. If things are slow, you just keep going until you find something that interests you.
Research long before you put a paddle in your hand is the key to success. The Internet is the first place to look, and there are many, many books written on the subject. In addition, bowhunters can contact Alaskan companies that specialize in outfitting hunters for these kinds of excursions, everything from where to what. They even provide instruction to bowhunters who have never been in a raft.
Most hunters think it costs more, but in reality it isn’t any more than a do-it-yourself drop camp. The only difference is the price of a raft and a little extra weight.
Load Meat & Gear With Care
Last, but not least, is dealing with the good fortune of harvesting of a bull or two while floating. Depending on if and when you arrow an animal, you will have to deal with the meat—maybe the cape and horns, too, if that is part of your plan. Good game bags are a must; those made by Caribou Gear are the best. They can withstand the rigors of any adventure, specifically in the bottom of a raft.
Loading your raft with meat from a caribou or two, or maybe even a moose, requires consideration. This can be tricky at times. The placement of your gear and meat load is essential to continuing your float without capsizing. Balancing your load may take some practice, maybe even a little trial and error.
Also be sure to rotate your meat each day, and eliminate as much moisture as possible. How long your hunt lasts after the time of a kill cannot be overlooked. Alaska’s waste laws are strict, and with float hunting becoming more and more popular, officials are paying more attention to how hunters handle the meat in rafts.
More Chances Down-River
The moose kept grazing as we appro-ached eyeing us as we got closer. I had already slipped into my waders, and our plan was for me to slip out of the raft and creep into the willows. The problem was, the willows were as thick as briars and almost impregnable. Circling around and getting a bowshot was close to impossible. As I left the security of the raft and reached the bank, the moose decided they had had enough and disappeared into the thickness with only a hoof print to show their existence. Oh, well, I knew there would be another chance down-river.
About The Author: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on big- game hunting throughout North America and Africa.
Choosing the right combination of equipment is key, especially when you’re floating down a river in the middle of nowhere. However, it isn’t as difficult or specific as some may describe. Actually, it isn’t much different than packing for a normal hunt.
Yes, you will need a raft, but if you’re on a budget, then the rental route is the only way to go. Most outfitters and transporters provide this service and will gladly rent to you. Believe me, $300 to $400 for a week of fun is better than paying $1,500 to $2,000 for a new raft and then having to haul it to your hunting destination. Another benefit is that you don’t have to choose a brand; your guide or pilot takes care of that. There are many brands to choose from which will do fine in the river. Yes, they all come with a patch kit in case a bear or rock decides to make a hole or two.
Besides your bow setup and maybe a soft case, your basic normal gear will work fine on a float hunt. Good dry bags in several sizes are a good place to start. I use Cabela’s brand, and they have never failed me. More importantly, they are relatively cheap compared to many other brands. These bags will hold food, a stove, sleeping bags, a tent or two, extra clothes and other necessities that you would take on a normal hunt. Keeping light should still be a priority, and keeping everything dry just as important.
You can get wet, there is no doubt about it, and wearing waders and rain gear will be the norm while raft hunting. Unlike waders on the tundra, waders in a raft can be quite enjoyable. They keep you dry while floating, and then after you spot a big bull down-river they will allow you to grab your bow and exit quickly and more efficiently.
The number in your party and the number of rafts you require will dictate the amount of gear to bring along. If there are several in your party, then you can get away with a bit more gear, bigger tents, more food, etc. However if you are going solo or with another bowhunter, then keeping it simple works better and makes camp a little easier and efficient. Packing camp quickly and getting on the river at first light often provides for some of the best bowhunting action.
Having a motor on your boat or raft can be a blessing in disguise. Here in the Far North on rivers without names when you need to get to a place where no one has been or see a big moose lurking on a far edge, a motor can and is a great thing to have.
Floating down a river is nice. The solitude and silently approaching an unsuspecting bull can be the ultimate bowhunting experience. Being able to float several miles a day without the noise of an outboard is what float hunting was meant to be. However, having a motor attached doesn’t have to change the experience. At times it can literally save you.
Most rafts can handle a motor and most come with mounts. Small 10- to 15-horsepower motors can be easily attached and provide excellent maneuvering capabilities. However, if you want to step it up a notch, you need to try bowhunting by boat.
Boat hunting has long been the norm in most parts of Alaska. For many subsistence hunters it has been the only way to hunt. I’ve personally hunted this way for years and have experienced some of my greatest bowhunting adventures to date on boats.
Hunting from a skiff or an aluminum boat is just as enjoyable as a raft hunt. A boat will hold more gear; with its motor you can travel faster and cross bigger and, in some cases, rougher water. Another advantage is that boat hunts are great for shorter excursions. Compared to float hunting, bowhunting from a boat is pretty much the same. You boat upriver and camp as you go, usually taking the same gear and equipment.
The disadvantage? You lose the element of surprise. Motors make noise, and I have seen moose, caribou and even bear literally disappear long before we got even close to them. A good eye and knowledge of the river and used animal crossings are a must.
Amazingly there are Alaskan outfitters that guide hunts by boat. Most can be found in communities along many of the major rivers, specifically the Yukon and Unakaleet areas. Some of the biggest moose are taken this way. There are even a few outfitters that boat for caribou.
Whether you choose to raft or use a boat with a motor, bowhunting by water can be one of the most enjoyable times you will spend in the Last Frontier. Being able to move camp, see new country and find a big bull to arrow will be an adventure not soon forgotten.