Lessons Moose Have Taught Me
In the first light of day and the last grayness of evening, there are imagined sounds which seem real and real sounds which might be imagined. And between the two is the muffled silence of the northwoods in autumn, sodden still from the pre-dawn drizzle and musty already with the change of the season. Somewhere in the distance drifted the faint song of high flying geese headed south.
But my mind had registered another sound, the sharp snap of a twig behind the screen of alders that crowded the edge of the marsh. My ears scarcely heard it and the longer I strained to hear it again, the longer I strained to see movement behind the brush, the more certain I became that the sound had been imagined. A figment of my imagination created by my eagerness to see game. As I relaxed the grip on my compound bow and I settled back to my silent vigil, I felt the morning chill crawl down my spine. Ducking a bit deeper into the warmth of the wool jacket, I gathered up the loose ends of earlier thoughts left dangling.
Somehow it seemed as if autumn had come earlier, that it was a bit cooler than the autumns I had remembered, and a bit damper too. Or perhaps, things were still as they were, but in the course of four decades, my ears are no longer as keen as they once were and the dampness of early morning is heavier than it once was. At the same time, I was better prepared, better equipped and more experienced than during my seasons of bowhunting when I relied on the exuberance of youth to decide the success and failure of an outing.
It's true that I got lucky from time to time during those first seasons but, though I didn't realize it at the time, that luck was partially thanks to the guidance of the more experienced hunters in our party and partially thanks to the energy of youth. Spend enough time in the bush, especially in prime hunting areas, and you're bound to hit the jackpot every now and then.
Thinking back, I saw a pattern emerge in the second decade. Luck was on my side more and more often, it seemed. At the same time, my equipment had improved, my clothing was better suited to the conditions and I spent more time honing my skills. Instead of making the hills ring with the echoes of my cow calls, I finally came to understand what my hunting elders meant when they tried to tell me, years earlier, to call softly but well. I also realized that, for all their size, moose are shy, retiring creatures that will withdraw quietly at the first hint of human intrusion into their territory. I wondered how many moose I had spooked during my first decade of apprenticeship and how many opportunities I had muffed with that youthful impatience. At the same time, I also realized that I had finally grasped some of the basic truths about moose and bowhunting for these magnificent animals of our hinterlands.
What do I do differently? Well, I start my moose hunting season much earlier than I ever did; usually in spring when the outdoor archery ranges, especially those with field archery circuits, open their doors. With today's compound bows, calibrated sights, trigger releases and carbon shafts, virtually anybody can drive a half dozen arrows into a pie plate at 30 yards after just a few sessions at the range, but that's not what makes a good bowhunter. And with moose, you want to be the best you can be because you don't get a lot of opportunities in the course of a lifetime.
One of the worst mistakes I've seen bowhunters make is to consistently practice from fixed distances, another is to shoot with multiple bead sights. Game - be it moose, elk, bear or deer - does not present itself at fixed ranges of 20, 25, 30 or 40 yards and accurately judging distance is almost impossible when a big bull suddenly appears in front of you. Remembering which pin to use requires even steadier nerves. Stop and think back to all the stories you've heard about missed shots-nine out of ten times the arrow missed its mark because the hunter either misjudged the distance or, in the excitement of the moment, lined up with the wrong bead.
I started bowhunting before compound bows became popular and in those days we shot bare bow without any kind of sight. With enough commitment and practice, instinctive shooting can be surprisingly accurate at most reasonable distances. When I finally made the switch to compound, I also switched from instinctive shooting to shooting with sights. The advantage, I found, was that I could shoot better with less practice, but thanks to my earlier training, I realized the importance of using only one sight and learned to use it at various and unspecified distances. I couldn't tell you how high you have to hold to hit a pie plate at 30 yards, but I can show you.
Moose do not step out at fixed ranges and you need be adept at estimating distances quickly and accurately.
The key factor with single bead shooting is that knowing how high or low to hold must become second nature and the only way to achieve this is to spend time at an archery range where you can shoot from various distances. The problem with most organized ranges is that, for safety's sake, everyone shoots from a specified distance and that is a distinct disadvantage for the bowhunter who must invariably judge and adjust for a variety of situations.
Even with modern cam bows, the range is limited and an almost compulsive attention to detail is the secret to success.
Bowhunters with access to an informal archery range on their out-of-town property can easily practice a variety of distances, but those who do not should try to plan their practice sessions during times when the facility is least used by other archers. On those lucky days when I have a range to myself, I like to practice shooting at unspecified distances by sticking the arrows randomly in the turf at irregular intervals on my way back from the target butts and then shooting them one by one from those distances. After a while, the mind knows instinctively where on the target to put the pin.
Field archery courses are great practice for the hunting season because they try to recreate actual game situations; some ranges even provide elevated platforms to provide stand hunting practice. I try to visit these field courses during the week and on days when the weather discourages most other people. That way I have the range mostly to myself and can practice some of the more troublesome situations without being forced to move on.
An indirect benefit from field archery practice is the exercise it provides. I like to shoot my compound bow set at 70 pounds for both moose and deer because it provides better trajectory. When I started hunting moose with a bow, I used a 55 pound draw which was perfect for whitetails, but I quickly found out that it takes substantially more pressure to punch through the rib cage of a moose. My next mistake was to crank up the pressure for moose and then drop it back down for deer. Not a good plan because, in the excitement of the moment, muscle memory takes over and I would forget to compensate for the new trajectory and completely miss my target. To hold a bow at 70 pounds, even today's sophisticated cam bows, requires considerable upper torso strength-the kind of strength that develops through a regular shooting schedule.
With practice, experience and a touch of luck, bowhunting is both effective and exciting.
I also start my moose hunting season at the opening of the fishing season. Fishing is an excellent opportunity to scout new territories or those you hunt year after year and to become familiar with the animals that roam there. While it's true that moose do change their habits and movements according to the time of year, they spend their entire lives within a relatively small area. They may prefer one corner over another during a given period of the year, but they will nevertheless be within that area. If you regularly see a good bull during your summer's fishing, chances are good you'll see the same bull during the fall bow season, provided nobody has spooked the animal before you get there. Getting a shot is another matter, but at least you can hunt with the confidence that there is a bull in the area.
Late summer fishing trips in your intended hunting area will provide a wealth of
information about the number of animals and their habits.
During these regular visits to the hunting territory in the course of the fishing season, try to find the travel corridors the moose use on a regular basis and also scout around for good stand locations. Mark the sightings as well as the potential stands on your GPS. As is the case with deer hunting, the ideal situation is to find an area where one or more heavily used trails meet or cross, but a couple of other factors are equally important. For instance, prevailing winds during both fair and inclement weather dictate a stand location. I like a fairly low stand no more than about 12 feet off the ground and, since the breeze will carry the hunter's scent downward to some degree, I pick a stand location on the east side of a travel corridor for fair weather days when westerly winds prevail. I also select an alternate location for days when the wind turns to the east and blows in weather. Though wind direction is not nearly as dependable under these circumstances, a good bet is to pick a spot on the west side of a travel corridor so that the easterly winds carry your scent away.
Moose have browsed heavily in this area, likely during the preceding winter,
but are they in the area when the hunting season opens?
Other factors you'll need to keep in mind is the relatively limited effective range of a bow and the amount of brush between you and the target. Moose travel along the lines of least resistance, so pick your stand sites accordingly and trim any brush that might deflect your arrow judiciously rather than completely.
With a month to go before the start of the season, I try to go over all my gear from bow strings to cook stoves to make sure that I have enough of everything and that everything is in working order. The problem with leaving things to the last moment is that your usual supply house is bound to be sold out of that one particular weight and spine arrow which you've been shooting and you might have to order them from some far-away mail-order house. I also take my bow in for a full overhaul about a month prior to the season to make sure that everything is in prime working order and, at the same time get it back with time to spare so that I can get used to any subtle changes in the way the bow shoots after having worn parts-especially worn bow strings-replaced. As part of the overhaul, be sure all brush buttons and silencers are put back on the bow string and that the nocks are properly squared. It's entirely possible that the nocks might have been slightly out of alignment on the old, worn bowstring so you may have to reset your sight.
Softer Is Better
In the last couple of weeks prior to the season, practice with the bow completely rigged for hunting; that is, with a full bow quiver attached and, if you use camo socks to cover the limbs in a hunting situation, use them while practicing as well. Everything you add to or remove from the bow changes the way it shoots. I found that out the hard way.
Since most bowhunting seasons are set to coincide with the peak of the rut, good calling technique is as much a part of a successful moose hunt as pre-season scouting. Get a good instruction tape, one that concentrates on the various calls made by moose of both genders and explains what each of those calls mean. Listen carefully, over and over, to those which are appropriate to the mating season and then learn to imitate those sounds using only your cupped hands. Remember, soft is better than loud when you're bowhunting. I've had bulls respond at surprising distances to a muted, gentle call, but I've also had more answering bulls hang up at quarter mile away during the days when I used birch bark megaphones. I've heard them rake their antlers through the scrub and I've heard the belly-deep grunts, but just couldn't pull them closer. When I switched to the cupped hands technique, I found I had fewer hang-ups because I firmly believe that the bulls are more reassured by a softer call.
Final point in the preparation for a moose hunt, or any other big game hunt, is to be properly dressed to comfortably endure the many hours of damp, often cool conditions in a stand. I used to think that old jeans and sweaters too threadbare to wear in public were good enough for hunting and I spent many seasons shivering and wet to the core in a tree stand. There's no need for it, especially not with today's space age fabrics and the variety of clothing available. I keep my hunting clothes packed away in a trunk with a small block of red cedar to keep it from smelling musty and take them out to air about a week before the hunt.
After that, all that's left to do is buy your moose hunting permit and head for your hunting territory, confident that the equipment is in top working order, that your skills are honed to perfection, that your stand sites overlook the best travel corridors and that you're dressed to spend as many hours as it takes in the stand, come rain or shine.
* * *
The sounds were more distinct now; the intermittent sounds of something large walking along in no particular hurry. The snap of a twig, then long silence fractured by the slurp of a hoof being withdrawn from the soaked, black muck along the trail. It had to be a moose and my mind raced, speculating whether it was a cow or bull, wondering whether it would stay on the trail which ran diagonally past my tree stand or whether it would veer off for reasons known only to it.
I wondered whether a low, gentle call might provide answers to the unknown and might entice the animal closer, but decided against it, realizing that to do so would simply be an attempt to allay my curiosity and impatience. Up to now, the moose had stuck to the game trail and there was every possibility that it would continue to do so. And there was every possibility that this was a smart bull sneaking in, looking for the cow that he'd heard call earlier that morning.
The sounds were close and I knew that any moment all my doubts and questions would be answered. Within a few more steps the animal would have to step out from behind the alder thicket into the stand of golden, scattered tamarack. Within comfortable bow range. Time slowed and as I came to full draw, the sight of the bull etched a memory in my mind.
Some hunts just turn out picture perfect.
George Gruenefeld has been hunting big game for over four decades and his travels have taken him to several continents. Most of the time, though, he concentrates his efforts on the Prairies and mountains of Western Canada.