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FAIRBANKS - The spitting rain and chilly breeze at Chena Pump Landing on Wednesday morning didn't bother Mike Jenkins and Ken Butler as they loaded up their 17-foot Roughneck aluminum johnboat.
"The weather could be better but we'll take it," said the red-headed, pony-tailed Butler.
Decked out in full camouflage and armed with permits to shoot cow moose on the Tanana Flats south of Fairbanks, the two construction workers from the Matanuska Valley had made the 300-mile drive north in hopes of filling their freezers with moose meat.
"I'd prefer not to shoot a cow; I'd rather get a nice little spiker," confided Jenkins, taking a break to roll a cigarette. "I'd feel bad shooting a cow, but I'll do it if we have to."
The goal, after all, is to come home with a year's supply of meat, not a set of antlers.
It doesn't take a wildlife biologist to figure out why moose attract more hunters than any other big game animal in Alaska.
"You can fill a freezer with a moose better than anything else," Butler said.
The moose-rich Tanana Flats south of Fairbanks offers the most productive moose hunting in the state, in part because the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has opened the Flats to a massive cow hunt the past two years to cull a herd they say has grown too big for its range.
Last year, hunters reported taking 602 antlerless moose in Game Management Unit 20A and another 450 bulls, despite antler restrictions that limit hunters the size of bulls hunters may take. One in about every three hunters went home with a moose.
This year, the quota for the Unit 20A cow hunt was upped to 800, which is split into seven areas, and biologists say the harvest could reach as high as 1,300 moose in Unit 20A alone.
The parking lot at Chena Pump Landing, where hunters launch their boats to reach the Flats was already dotted with about a dozen trucks and boat trailers early Wednesday morning.
As Jenkins and Butler launched their boat into the silty waters of the Tanana River, Carl Hemming, his son, Peter, and friend Bob Cannone, were busy loading Hemming's 22-foot Alweld jet boat. A 17-foot square-stern aluminum Grumman canoe stuck out the back of the boat.
"On those little creeks these canoes work good," said Carl Hemming. In addition to the canoe, they had coolers, dry bags, Rubbermaid containers, a fold-up extension ladder, rifles, a propane bottle, a jug of water and a chain saw.
"The more stuff you bring the more stuff you can break," quipped the elder Hemming, a 54-year-old retired habitat biologist.
Anticipating a horde of hunters, he made a trip across the river last week to reserve a campsite.
"We've already got a tent set up over there," Hemming said.
All three hunters possessed cow permits and they were only looking for one moose. The only bummer was that they had only a few days to hunt. Peter Hemming, 24, is due to start graduate school at Eastern Washington University in Spokane, Wash., on Sept. 10 and his father is driving him to school.
Nearby, 59-year-old Bob Perkins, an engineering professor at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, was loading gear into a 17-foot square-stern aluminum Grumman canoe.
Like Hemming, Perkins had already chosen a campsite and was ferrying a load of gear across the river. With classes at UAF starting today, Perkins had a class to teach this morning before heading out for the weekend.
Not that getting a moose was his top priority. In 20 years of hunting, Perkins can only recall shooting one moose. "I love to just get out and see the leaves change colors," said Perkins. "Getting a moose is secondary."