Hunting the King of the Forest
Hunkered behind a large spruce tree, I watched in amazement as a massive bull displayed his dominance on a nearby ridge. Guttural grunts followed by aggressive raking captured the undivided attention of two cows standing a short distance away. It was early October, peak of the moose rut in Alberta. My lovesick moans held his attention but weren't enough to close the deal. So I stepped it up a notch. After emitting a series of low grunts, I grabbed a nearby log and raked the tree branches before me. Evolving into a show of strength, dominance and will, the huge bull postured for the better part of a half-hour. Then, off to my right, a second bull appeared. Intrigued by the commotion and in search of a companion of his own, things were getting interesting.
In a perfect world, I'd like to end by saying that my arrow struck one of these fine bulls in the chest, bringing him down expeditiously. The disappointing truth is that as soon as the first caught wind of the second, the hunt went sideways. Doing an about-face, the larger bull gathered his two cows and vanished into the shadows of the forest. The newcomer, although attempting to follow, soon gave up in frustration.
Left with nothing to show for my efforts but a log in one hand and bow in the other, I chalked that one up to experience and continued on in search of yet another hormonally challenged bull.
When it comes to hunting the king of the forest, there is much to be learned. Like all big game species, the more we know about moose, the better our chances of encountering them on their turf.
Four main sub-species of moose can be found across North America. Boone & Crockett classifies these as Alaska-Yukon moose (alces alces gigas), Canada moose (alces alces americana and alces alces andersoni) and Wyoming (alces alces shirasi) moose. Considered an adaptation to environmental conditions, Alaska-Yukon moose are the largest, Canada moose the second largest, and Wyoming (Shiras) is the smallest of the three. Their scientific name is Alces alces and, aside from bears, wolves and cougars, moose have no other significant predators.
With a life span of between 15 and 25 years, a mature bull averages around 1,000 lbs. and a mature cow will generally weigh in at around 900 lbs. They have a muscular body and with long, lanky legs, they can be a formidable opponent, not to mention those imposing antlers regally worn by mature bulls.
Moose are herbivorous mammals, the largest of the deer family, Cervidae. They are highly prolific and adapt well to different types of habitats. Able to run up to 35 miles per hour, they have also been known to swim up to 10 miles.
Widely distributed across the northern part of the continent, vignettes of moose surrounded by northern boreal forest, standing chest-deep in a wetland have imprinted the stereotypical habitat that moose prefer. And, while it is widely recognized that moose reign as king of the northern boreal forest, they are fast dispersing into areas not typically known to host this large ungulate. Commonly thought to inhabit muskeg regions with plenty of evergreen cover, moose are also thriving in the aspen parkland as well as foothills and mountain regions of many states and provinces.
Inhabiting every province in Canada except Prince Edward Island, moose are also thriving in many northern states. Although hunting opportunities vary, most states allowing a harvest typically do this on a limited draw basis. Best known moose hunting states include Alaska, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming. Several states such as Minnesota, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire also offer great moose hunting opportunities. Colorado and Utah have limited hunting.
Muskeg wetlands, old growth mixed timber and nearby patchworks of swamp spruce with lots of willows; these are the familiar characteristics that most moose hunters look for. The fact is, yes, from a macro-perspective these habitats are exceptional and may very well hold a long tradition as home to moose, but they are found elsewhere as well. Now plentiful in mixed forest and forest-fringe agricultural areas throughout Canada and the U.S., seasons are open each year to increase recreational hunting opportunity while simultaneously serving a vital management purpose.
What to Look for and Where
There are a variety of signs one can look for when locating moose. The best place to begin is on the ground. Most obvious will be their droppings. Resembling over-sized chocolate-covered almonds, they are unmistakable. Pellets range from an inch to an inch-and-a-half in length. Apart from elk droppings, which are slightly smaller, moose leave uniform piles that serve as tell tale signatures of where they once stood. Test them for firmness and you'll be able to read just how fresh they are. If they're soft, chances are you may be hot on the trail of a moose. If they're cold and firm, you could get lucky and see one, but more likely than not, that animal is long gone.
Poke around a bit and, you'll probably discover tracks nearby. Tracks from a young moose can be difficult to discern from those made by an elk. Seasoned hunters, on the other hand, have little trouble identifying the distinct imprint left by a mature bull. Dewclaw prints seen in most tracks, particularly in those left by a bull, will often be more pronounced with the front of the hooves typically splayed apart. An average bull moose track measures around six-inches in length and 4-inches in width.
Elevating your search by four feet, almost universally, browse can be an exceptional indicator of where moose are feeding. Young saplings offer a nutrient-rich snack for these large herbivores. Find heavily browsed areas, those with shrubs chewed off at chest-height, and chances are you're on the right track.
In the early season, mineral licks can be great moose factories. During those hot early fall days of August and September, moose frequent licks. Remembering that patience is a virtue, many stand hunters capitalize on these moose magnets before the temperature drops. When the weather turns cool, moose and other ungulates visit licks less often. By the third week of September, most moose are well on their way to carrying out the many rituals involved with breeding. This phenomenon brings with it rut sign. Old or new rubs are prime indicators of moose rut activity. Bulls have already begun rubbing antlers on aspen, willow and spruce trees. These rubs are usually made between three and seven feet in height and on larger trees (i.e., eight to 10-inches in diameter). At this time of year, searching for visual indicators like these will always help, but listening can often produce much better results as both cows and bulls become increasingly vocal.
Curious by Nature
Moose, while generally considered reclusive, are curious creatures. Regardless of the time of year, moose will almost always stop to inspect the sounds of a peer. Perhaps best known to hunters during the fall rut, calling can be an effective way to not only attract moose, but also stop them in their tracks. Along with their curious nature comes a propensity for hanging up just outside of a hunter's shooting range. Seasoned moose hunters will attest to the ease with which bull moose can be drawn in to the call. However, most will also testify that bulls, especially mature ones, will often stop a certain distance from the hunter's position. In my experience, that magical tolerance distance is about 40 yards. Yes, periodically, they'll come chugging in like a freight train, but more often than not, it's best to position a shooter some 30 yards downwind as moose have an uncanny sense of smell and will commonly circle downwind to try to capture scent. Frankly with a nose like theirs, little goes unnoticed!
Calling moose, while relatively simple, does require attention to subtleties. Most hunters use their voice, but supplementing these vocalizations with either a homemade or commercially manufactured cone can augment your call to the perfect pitch. I personally use a birch bark cone. These can be crafted from dense birch bark or purchased from a hunting supply retailer. Otherwise, Buck Expert is one company that manufactures a handy synthetic cone for calling moose. One of the best resources I've discovered is a DVD series produced by renowned Ontario moose hunting expert Alex Gouthro. In his videos he offers a step-by-step look at the vocalizations produced by moose and how hunters can use these to get close enough for a shot.
Best Time to Hunt
For die-hard moose hunters, peak of the rut is a favorite. With a broad three-week window of opportunity, calling to attract a bull or even a cow to within range is most effective from September 22nd through October 10th. This is not to suggest that calling doesn't work at earlier or later times, but rather that this timeframe is when preparation for, and the first estrus takes place. In my experience, September 29th to October 7th has always produced the best action. It is during this time that the majority of cows go into their two to three day estrus. Like most ungulates, being in the woods when this hormonal switch is turned on, can be a magical experience.
A few years back I'd been searching for one particular bull throughout the month of September. Having had several close encounters with smaller bulls, cows and calves, I had my heart set on one individual. With large palmated antlers, I conservatively estimated he had a 55-inch spread and would easily make the Pope & Young record book. As luck would have it, on October 2nd, I revisited my favorite spot and just like a dinner bell, as I still-hunted along the edge of a clearing, a bull responded to my lovesick moans. In response, I managed to sneak in to a nearby tree stand and continued communicating with the bull. In short order I saw one of the smaller bulls come crashing through the underbrush racing in to inspect my wanton cries for love. Obviously agitated, the young bull was reluctant to leave. Standing just 10 yards from the base of the tree I was sitting in, he paced back and forth for several minutes all the while grunting feverishly. Eventually he grew frustrated and left.
Granted, scenarios like this don't happen every day, but in my experience, that eight-day window in early October frequently presents not only ample opportunity to communicate with cow calls, but bulls will readily aggress toward grunt calls from intruding peers. For the ultimate in close-encounter hunting, calling moose at the peak of the rut offers unparalleled excitement.
Give it a Try
If you've ever had the urge to hunt moose, but haven't yet done so, it's time you did. With many jurisdictions allowing for the harvest of a moose under the authority of a lottery permit only, it may require several years of application. Regardless, I assure you, it's well-worth the wait. Moose hunting accounts for exceptional sporting adventure in the outdoors, and should you be fortunate enough to close a tag, one specimen alone can feed a small army for many meals to come.
For more information on moose, their habitats and species management, visit the North American Moose Foundation website at www.moosefoundation.org.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com.
Member of OWAA & OWC.