FAIRBANKS (AP) -- Sitting on the bow of a friend's airboat in the bright sunshine at Chena Pump Landing, Mark Krenzelak and J.R. Stepp looked like quintessential Alaska hunters.
Krenzelak, 35, was wearing a new brown Carhartt ballcap, a fleece camouflage coat, blue jeans and work boots. Stepp, 40, was similarly attired in a black sweatshirt, camouflage hat and pants and workboots.
They each wore wraparound sunglasses. They each had a pinch of tobacco tucked behind their lower lips. A Tasmanian devil painting adorned the front of the airboat.
Their destination was the Tanana Flats, a vast area of swamp and bog between the Tanana River and Alaska Range that will sprout a population bigger than many Alaska towns starting Tuesday, the opening of the moose and waterfowl hunting seasons in most parts of the Interior.
The Tanana Flats are regarded as the most productive, and popular, moose hunting grounds in the state of Alaska. Biologists estimate that there are about 10,000 moose roaming the Flats and Alaska Range foothills south of Fairbanks, of which approximately one-third are bulls. In an average year, state wildlife biologists estimate that one in every three hunters gets a moose on the Tanana Flats. Hunters shoot 500 to 600 moose on the Flats each year.
There are so many moose out in some parts of the Flats that the state issues 150 permits to shoot cows and it just so happened that Stepp and Dave King, the friend they were waiting for, were in possession of two of those cow permits.
''They say the percentages out there are higher than the rest of the state,'' Krenzelak said.
To which Stepp added with a laugh, ''Especially when you get lucky and get a cow permit like I did.''
''If it has antlers it's mine,'' joked Krenzelak, the lone hunter resigned to shooting a bull.
Hundreds of hunters will venture into the Flats over the next 20 days in hopes of filling their freezers for the winter.
''I want meat in the freezer,'' Stepp said, plain and simple. ''You can't eat the antlers, no matter how much salt and pepper you use.''
The three hunters agreed beforehand to split any meat they bring home. ''The way we look at it is if one of us gets a moose we're feeding three families,'' Krenzelak said Friday. ''If we could get two we'd be more than happy.''
A little way down the beach, 51-year-old Glenn Zahn was holding a rope attached to a 20-foot Alweld jet boat loaded with bulging dry bags as he waited for his partner, Mike Pollen, to return. Friends for 40 years, Zahn and Pollen have been moose hunting on the Tanana Flats for the last 20 years.
''We got our first (moose) in 1981,'' Zahn recalled.
They picked out a new spot off the Tanana River earlier this summer and have made three or four trips to the camp this summer to prepare it for hunting season, cutting firewood and setting up tree stands.
''We call it moose camping,'' said Zahn, wearing a red and black flannel shirt, camouflage pants, rubber boots and a fleece ballcap. ''We have fun first and if we get lucky we have to work hard.''
They average a moose every other year, Zahn said, but the warm weather of late was a concern. The Interior has yet to experience its first frost of the season and leaves have just begun to change color. That could mean moose won't be moving much during the day and will be harder to spot.
''I'd rather see golden leaves and no bugs but you take what you can get,'' Zahn said.
For the most part, Interior moose hunters have got it pretty good. Hunters kill more moose in game management unit 20, a 50,400-square-mile area that stretches from the Yukon River in the north to the foothills of the Alaska Range in the south to Tanana and Lake Minchumina in the west, all the way east to the Canadian border.
In an average year, hunters harvest between 1,500 and 2,000 moose a year in unit 20, which is almost a quarter of the state's annual moose harvest of between 7,000 and 8,000 moose.
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