Moose Hunting Tactics
The day was stuck halfway between summer and winter. Dun moths dervished in the warmth of the mid-morning sun, but at least a dozen high flying skeins of migrating Canada geese had etched their way across a cloudless sky since daybreak, driven southward by the steady encroachment of winter. It was just a matter of days before the first blizzard of the winter would rake through the wilderness pasting the windward sides of the tree trunks with a three-inch layer of snow and bringing down the last sere leaves of summer.
Secretly, I wished the day would stay stuck right where it was for a few days or even weeks longer.
Somewhere, across the distant ridge or perhaps a thousand miles away, I was sure other hunters had watched the sun rise and watched the edge between night and day, the line between brightness and shadow creep slowly down clusters of golden tamaracks on the other side of the clearing and then across the tan marsh sedges to eventually yield to full daylight. I'd spent almost a week morning and evening in this same stand watching over this same forsaken marsh, but I lingered just a little longer, relishing the warmth of the late September sun on my back and wondering about those other hunters, in other tree stands in other wilderness havens across North America.
We're probably about a million strong from coast to coast, counting moose hunters on both sides of the Canada-US border, and we hunt three different species of moose. The largest of these is the Alaskan moose known to biologists as Alces alces gigas; mature bulls often weight more than three quarters of a ton and carry antlers more than five feet wide. At the other end of the scale is the small, rather pale Shiras or Wyoming moose, Alces alces shirasi, found in the Rocky Mountains on both sides of the Canada-US border. In between is the Canada moose, Alces alces Americana that is most widespread through northern North America, though some biologists classify the western moose as a subspecies called Alces alces andersoni because of minor differences in the bone structure of the skull. Fact is that, without a pair of calipers in hand to measure each individual cranial component, it's virtually impossible to tell the difference between the moose that roam the Peace River region of Alberta and the rolling hills of Quebec's Gaspesian Peninsula, between the animals that thrive in the spruce forests of insular Newfoundland and those found in Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont.
Moose are ideally suited to their habitat.
To the casual observer who happens to see a moose by the side of the road or in a park, these largest members of the deer family appear large, ugly and ungainly. And, I must admit that, in this context the description is apt. Yet, seen in its natural habitat of hinterland bogs and spruce forests, the animal is graceful and magnificently suited to a harsh environment. Those who have hunted moose know that they can appear and disappear like ghosts, that they can be both timid and bold. Hunting them is more than just a matter of technique, science or art; it's more like a passion. And a kinship between hunters, knowing that somewhere, some place else another hunter is sitting in a stand just like yours, keeping solitary vigil over a clearing not much different than yours and letting his mind wander into forgotten corners, into chambers rarely visited during the bustle of everyday life.
Game biologists in the Canadian province of Quebec conducted a survey some years back and found, to their surprise, that more moose are taken annually by stand hunting than all other techniques combined. That should come as no surprise since, sooner or later, a moose will unquestionably saunter past most every hunting stand ever built in the right location. The question is whether the moose will show up during legal shooting hours or after dark and, if this does take place during daylight hours, whether the hunter will be there to see the animal.
This fine bull was taken with bow and arrow from a stand.
Despite the popularity of portable stands among deer hunters, most moose stands continue to be fairly large and more or less permanent installations usually constructed in a copse of spruce trees at the edge of a large clearing or bog. Elevated stands overlooking the confluence of two watersheds are productive, but I especially like clearings located along natural travel corridors like valleys or between lakes. While it's true that moose can negotiate virtually any terrain when they need to, it's also true that they stick to the routes of least resistance in their undisturbed wanderings. Hence, they will opt to roam the most level ground, the areas with the least amount of brush to hinder them and follow the routes which require the least amount of effort.
The ideal moose stand is one which overlooks the greatest amount of in-range forest edge, which always has the sun behind it and where the wind is always favorable. Unfortunately, ideal situations exist only in our plans and we need to accept some compromises. One is in respect to wind; if only one stand is possible, it should be positioned on the easterly edge of a clearing since the prevailing winds in most North American moose country is from the west. If a second stand can be built, try to position it according to the wind direction brought about by incoming weather.
I like a fairly spacious stand with two-foot high front and side walls to hide any movements that might spook the moose and also to provide a degree of shelter from the damp breeze. I like some kind of roof, no matter how rudimentary, to keep off the rain or wet snow. Remember that the longer the vigil you're willing to endure the better your chances for success. I also like the stand to be located amidst a stand of evergreens partly to hide its bulk and partly to provide a more stable platform; attached to just one tree, the stand is more liable to sway than if it is attached to three or four trunks. This is important when time comes to take a long shot at a moose and there's a stiff breeze blowing. I've had moose walk right under my stand, but by the same token, I've also watched them through binoculars browse for what seemed like hours without ever coming within reasonable rifle range. And I've also been thankful for a stable rest when one good bull stood face on at the edge of some alders at 350 yards across the surface of a small headwater lake.
One important consideration in stand hunting is the construction of the stand. I know several hunters who are convinced that the best time to build a stand is the day prior to the start of the hunt because moose are basically curious creatures and are attracted by the sound of the chain saws and the hammering. It's difficult to argue this approach in light of their consistent success, but, at the same time, the idea rankles me. Whenever possible, I like to hunt out of the same stand season after season, but if a new location is called for, I prefer to complete the construction during the summer so that the animals can forget about the commotion and the elements can weather the wood and erase the smells long before the season starts.
The problem with stand hunting, however, is that the hunter is committed to essentially one location and, if conditions are such that the moose are loath to travel, it's sometimes better to go looking for them. For instance, during the post rut, the bulls retire to the heavy thickets along the flanks of mountains to browse and recover their strength. During this mid-October period, I like to slowly still-hunt these sanctums much the same as I would for whitetailed deer. I also resort to still-hunting in territories which have already been worked over by other hunters who may have badly spooked the animals. Once moose have been disturbed on a daily basis during the course of a week, they often become nocturnal and the only way to find them is to look for them in their daytime haunts. I've found moose in the birch and aspen plateaus atop knolls and I've also stumbled on them bedded down along the edges of lumbered areas where ample food and dense cover a little more than a few strides either way.
You'll need to move quietly and smoothly, stopping often to probe the shadows for a patch of hair, the edge of an ear, the glint of an eye or maybe a tine protruding from the edge of a thicket. The secret is not to move like a ghost, because it is physically impossible for a human to approach a moose without being detected; rather, it is to move like a moose. Members of the deer family -- moose included -- tend to make relaxed movements when they are at ease, while predators -- man included -- tend to make deliberate movements which attract the attention of deer, elk and moose. And, as is the case for all still-hunting, you'll need to wear fabrics that muffle the slap of branch and the scraping of a twig; moose have extremely acute hearing and they tense to the alien sounds.
For all their size, moose can be incredibly quiet in the bush.
One of my favorite still-hunting methods is to float small rivers in a canoe and I especially like waterways interspersed with small lakes or ponds. Moose often use the banks of these streams as travel corridors and the canoe offers a relatively quiet mode of travel through areas often undisturbed by other hunters. When I'm floating a river by canoe, I try to leave myself plenty of time so I can work the day's stretch at leisure rather than having to hurry in order to reach a predetermined location by nightfall. I also try to scan the shoreline carefully because game trails do not follow the streambed precisely but rather cut in and out of the bush according to the whims of the animals that use them. A moose might be standing with all four feet in the water or it might watch you float by some 150 yards away.
Calling was probably the most common technique for the Canada moose, but it is declining in popularity and may soon become a lost art as game departments continue to shift the regular firearms seasons further and further beyond the peak rut in order to protect the mature bulls when they are most vulnerable. Nevertheless, the technique bears mention for those in remote regions where the regular seasons still straddles the breeding period as well as those jurisdictions where archery and black powder seasons have been imposed.
The success of calling hinges on the fact that the cow moose advertises her impending readiness to breed by issuing a long, audible moan at regular intervals until a suitable bull responds and joins her for a romantic tryst that may last as much as 72 hours. Though the intensity of the response depends in large part on the bull's aggressiveness, his level of experience and the degree to which he is convinced that the invitation is real. Let's briefly consider these points one at a time.
Calling is probably the most effective tactic for moose.
First of all, a bull needs to be in the mood, so to speak. Give or take a week to ten days to allow for latitude, altitude and climate, the rut starts at the beginning of September and peaks about the middle of the month, then tapers off quickly. Outside this rather small window, the bull is interested only in filling his gut and getting through the day with his hide intact. But even within this rutting period, an inordinate mild spell can put the damper on the ardor, excessive human activity within an area can spook the animals and a bull already paired with a cow is also unlikely to respond to a call.
Secondly, a young bull entering the rut the first or second time is likely to respond more readily than a cautious old bull which has survived many a rutting season. In fact, on more than one occasion I've had big bulls come sneaking noiselessly to investigate the invitation to a romantic liaison and I've seen them stand patiently for as long as an hour behind the screen of alders, scanning and assessing the situation before committing themselves; some were unconvinced and simply disappeared into the shadows of the forest and a few stepped out into the open.
Which brings up the third point. Inexperienced young bulls have been known to fall madly in love at the blast of a diesel tractor's horn, but it generally takes a lot more to mislead a mature moose. The more convincing a scenario you create, the better your chances that the bull of a lifetime can be lured out into the open. The consistently successful moose callers I've met all take into account that a moose has well developed hearing, a highly acute sense of smell and, most of all, is keenly familiar with its surroundings. They set up their camps at least a mile back from where they intend to call and they enter the area as little as possible to avoid alerting the moose to the human presence.
And they also know that moose calling is more than just bellowing through a birch-bark cone until the mountains tremble. I've learned that it's best to wait half an hour to an hour to let the forest settle back to normal. I read a book or go to sleep to help pass the time and resist the temptation to yield to impatience. Then I start to create the illusion; I snap a few twigs inside the forest edge and perhaps nudge a few branches to simulate a cow idly browsing. A bit later, I move to the water's edge and plunge the open end of the birch bark cone in and out of the water to sound like a moose walking in the water. At this point, some hunters scoop up water with the birch bark cone and, using the thumb to control the flow of water out the mouthpiece, replicating the sound of a cow urinating. I'm not convinced to what extent this is necessary, but it certainly doesn't hurt.
Once this illusion of a cow wandering along the edge of a lake or swamp has been created, it's time to try calling. Bearing in mind that the bull might be no more than 100 yards or so away, I start with a muted cow call using cupped hands to provide the necessary timbre. Half an hour later, I try a second call a little bit louder and half an hour beyond that another call louder yet before actually switching to the birch bark cone. In either case, the call of a cow moose looking for a mate starts low and increases in volume for about four seconds and ending in a curt grunt. A bull will typically answer with a short staccato grunt before wending his way closer. When I hear this or the sound of antlers being thrashed across branches, I wait and only use a short, muted, moaning plea only if I think the bull is losing interest. Breaking the odd twig is usually all it takes to keep the bull coming. If the bull is particularly reticent, I use the short grunt of a male and occasionally rake a stick through the branches to create the impression that another bull is moving in on the cow and thereby, hopefully arouse a jealous rage.
Calling is most effective on cool, brisk mornings between daybreak and about nine o'clock and again from about four o'clock in the afternoon through to last light. Whenever possible, I like to further enhance the illusion of the presence of a willing cow by spreading breeding scent around the area; mare-in-heat urine is bottled specifically for this purpose and, provided it is fresh and pure, most bulls will throw caution to the wind once they get a good whiff. It's wise to heed the bottlers' warning not to apply the scent to your clothing!
Any discussion of recommended firearms and calibers invariably causes an outburst of controversy, protest and reproach. It's true that many a moose has been dropped with the ever popular .30-30 and, by the same token, it's also true that you can never be over gunned, but I believe that in the middle ground between these two bench marks lies the most sensible approach in choosing the right gun for moose hunting. As a general rule of thumb, I consider the .30-06 Springfield the bottom limit as an all-around moose caliber and the .338 Winchester Magnum or its equivalent as much as you'll ever need for moose. Between the two are a number of excellent moose calibers including the .270 Winchester, the 7 mm Remington Magnum which I shoot for moose and the .300 Winchester Magnum. Try to choose the highest caliber, which you can shoot most comfortably, bearing in mind that some of the big cannons thump the shooter badly and bring about poor shooting habits. I would rather hunt with someone who shoots a bottom range caliber exceptionally well than someone who shoots a big magnum badly.
In terms of the bullets, a good choice for moose is a fairly robust bullet of 160 grains or better and constructed so that it holds together on the thick hide and heavy bones. Some of the premium factory loaded ammunition available these days fits the bill nicely.
For moose hunting, I favor bolt-action rifles because they've always functioned trouble free for me in good weather and poor. And I like a variable scope atop the gun, the 2.5 to 8X variable is a good choice because it will serve double duty for both stand hunting where I might have to reach out and still-hunting where the shots might be at close range. If you do intend to still-hunt, opt for the standard objective lenses because the oversize 50 mm optics require a high mount and as a result the shooter sacrifices critical seconds trying to aim. It's much easier and faster to line up the scope with standard mounts and furthermore, that big chunk of glass on the large-objective scopes can feel like a 50-pound weight after you've toted it around all day.
Whatever size scope you opt for, buy the very best you can afford because you'll subject it to rain, snow, shirt-sleeve weather and below freezing temperatures during the course of an average week's outing for moose. The last thing you need is for the optics to fog up just when that bull of a lifetime steps out in front of you.
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.