Two weeks alone in remote Alaska. Some 70 pounds of gear and provisions. While some might struggle to survive, for bowhunter Mike Mitten it’s just another adventure.
Longtime traditional bowhunter Mike Mitten has logged many adventurous solo hunting missions across the North American continent. As he sees it, striking out on your own is the ultimate way to drink in the total hunting experience.
Over the years Mitten, now 60, has certainly logged his share—and then some—of amazing solo experiences, including bow-bagging four trophy bull moose in four different Alaskan mountain ranges. Of course, it almost goes without saying that hunting moose by your lonesome anywhere they roam is one seriously onerous task. But when you throw in the extreme planning and logistics required for traveling to and around the remote Alaskan interior, with a relatively barebones selection of gear, and the even-more-extreme workload that comes with success, well, the challenge becomes almost otherworldly. Mitten relishes all of it. Every bit.
Hunting solo, of course, is not for everyone, nor should it be. But if you long to hit the backcountry on your own, whether the goal is western elk, mule deer, black bears or even Alaskan moose, you can learn much from the travels and experiences of Mike Mitten.
Here are a few solo hunting tips from the soft-spoken, powerfully built cancer researcher who hails from Beach Park, Illinois.
Q. You do some speaking on what it takes to hunt solo in the backcountry. What are some of the biggest challenges?
Mike Mitten: “A big part of it is simply to have enough confidence in your abilities to head out on your own. And I make the point that confidence comes from knowledge, and knowledge comes from experience. Good woodsmanship skills, dealing effectively with extreme weather, that all comes from getting out there and doing it on your own. Maybe you start with smaller trips and slowly build that up. It’s experience that cannot be bought. You’ve got to get past the initial fear. For some it’s like the first time driving in a big city. At first you might be forced to do it; then it gets easier and soon it becomes second nature. But some people will not even consider it.
“Another challenge for me these days is old age,” Mitten offered, chuckling. “I’m getting up there, but still remember the things I used to do as a young man, routinely hauling 90-pound packs, always looking to conquer that next ridge. So these days I can still struggle with, how hard do I push it? You’ve got to know your limitations. I don’t have to come back from a hunt with an animal to call an adventure successful, but I always want to come back telling myself I did everything physically that I possibly could.”Q. You’ve killed four Alaskan moose from four different mountain ranges. How do you go about finding/choosing a choice area in such a vast landscape?
Mike Mitten: “I’ve found that researching and meeting with like-minded people helps a lot. That includes joining organizations like the Professional Bowhunters Society [PBS], and the Pope and Young Club. You start meeting people and networking and you can learn a lot. And a lot of it, sometimes, is by necessity. Sometimes you lose your [air taxi] contacts, some years a particular unit is not open to nonresidents, sometimes a unit requires a draw, so things can change. In years past I’ve had success at a certain spot and would have loved to go back the following year, but I’ve found it just wasn’t possible. All the planning and preparation is a big part of the whole experience.”
Q. What are your thoughts on hunt duration, the total days required for a solo hunter looking for realistic success on Alaskan moose?
Mike Mitten: “Most people don’t realize that moose aren’t behind every bush in Alaska, that it can sometimes take a good while to locate a good mature bull, which is my personal goal,” Mitten said. “I usually don’t go unless I know I’ll have at least 14 or 15 actual hunting days. In Alaska you must plan to lose a couple of days of hunting due to bad weather. And then you will lose another day if you are moved [by your air taxi/outfitter service], because in Alaska you can’t hunt the same day you fly.”
Q. Many people might not realize that your weapon of choice is a traditional recurve bow, which you’ve used exclusively for many years. What is your current setup?
Mike Mitten: “I’m using a Tall Tines recurve by Brian Wessel. I like a three-piece takedown, I have a long draw, so I have a 64-inch recurve, pulling 65 pounds at my draw. It’s durable, it stands up to getting tugged-on by a lot of brush, especially the dense tag alder and willow brush thickets so prevalent in Alaska. My arrows are 32 inches long; I’m still using old-school Easton 2219 aluminum arrows with four, 5-inch feather fletchings. Total arrow weight is 750 to 800 grains; currently I’m using 225-grain Tuff Head broadheads, with 75-grain adaptor. It’s a single-bevel stainless design so they won’t rust up on you, another consideration for Alaska.”
Q. We’re guessing someone who regularly hunts Alaska solo with a recurve must get asked quite a bit about bear encounters?
Mike Mitten: “I do, and I haven’t had a lot of bear encounters in Alaska; I guess I’ve been lucky. One of the last encounters, this past fall, occurred as I was walking through a dense tag alder thicket, where bears like to bed during the day. I’m not sure how close it was, but I heard it huffing at me, so it gave me a warning. I drew my sidearm from its holster, but really quickly I could hear the next warning huff was farther away. I haven’t had any really crazy close calls. I like to use a small portable electric bear fence around my meat cache, and I carry a Ruger Super Redhawk in .454 Casull at my side. It’s a personal choice but I don’t carry bear spray; a bonus with the gun is that you could kill an animal for food in an emergency situation. Having the gun is especially nice if you’re sneaking up on a kill site preparing to pack another load of meat.”
Q. Flying into remote areas in a compact Super Cub plane requires you to carry just 70 pounds of gear. What are some other critical pieces of gear?
Mike Mitten: “As I’ve gotten older I’ve increased the thickness of my sleeping pad because on an extended hunt rest is so critical; currently I’m using an Air Core model by Big Agnes. I’ll also use an ultralight cot that keeps you up out of the water, which can accumulate even in your tent, because water is everywhere in Alaska. I’ve been a Sitka Athlete since 2007 and good rainwear that you can truly hunt in is critical; moose have huge ears and they can hear you coming in most rainwear. I’m using the Sitka Thunderhead Jacket that has a brushed outershell. It might hold some moisture that you can then bring in your tent, but the quietness outweighs any negatives. I also always carry a puffy jacket for insulation; the Sitka Kelvin Jacket is always wrapped in plastic in my pack so it’s ready when I need it. Also, I always carry a small can of Sterno fuel so I can start a fire anywhere in any weather, and I’ll also carry a satellite phone for emergencies, and to check in with family every five days or so.”
Editor’s Note: Stay tuned this week for a review of Mike Mitten’s latest self-filmed DVD, Chasing Solitude: Passions Of A Solo Moose Hunter. Read more of Mike Mitten’s solo hunting adventures by checking out his latest book, One With The Wilderness: Passions Of A Solo Bowhunter.