We don't often hear about hunting moose in the late season. An undeniable romance focuses on calling and attracting bulls during the peak of the rut; but what about when all that hormone-driven activity subsides? Where do the moose go and what do they do? More to the point, how do we hunt them in the late season? Allow me to share the events of a late season moose hunt and offer four tips that helped me close a tag last fall.
Whether we're talking about Shiras, Canada, or Alaska/Yukon moose, for much of the year bulls are reclusive by nature. They do their own thing, eating, sleeping, and moving on their own. As the rut approaches and peaks, physical antler-on-antler confrontations take place but as breeding winds down, their short-lived aggression fades back to a more docile demeanor. But as the rut concludes and moose are forced into winter survival patterns, bulls become more social, often opting to hang out in bachelor groups. At this time their focus turns to maintaining the necessities in life; eating, sleeping, and conserving energy. For the late season moose hunter who understands these dynamics, hunting can be straightforward. For those better acquainted with rutting bulls, the late season can be both uneventful and frustrating.
By way of illustration, allow me to share a textbook example; a scenario that played out over eight days during a recent late season moose hunt in Alberta, Canada.
My first opportunity came during a late November muzzleloader season. October and November's first and second estrous had come and gone. A heavy frost covered the ground. The moose we were seeing appeared to be shifting to their winter bedding and feeding routines. They simply weren't moving very much. While less than two months earlier bulls were feverishly covering ground in search of hot cows, this was no longer the case.
On one early morning hunt, about 30 minutes after leaving the truck, I spotted a bull and cow up on a hillside some 500 yards away. With a slight cross-wind, the situation was less than ideal. Carefully sneaking in, I closed the distance to 150 yards but the only possible shooting lane was obscured by a matrix of trees and branches. Then without warning the massive bull caught the swirling wind. Lifting his head high and testing the breeze, with a startle, he trotted over the hill and vanished never to be seen again.
Seldom do you see bulls hanging out with cows in the late season.
More often than not, bulls will begin bunching up in small bachelor groups.
Still with an open tag, I managed to get out on several other days in early December. After covering many miles on foot and in my truck I saw several cows, calves and mostly small bulls. Only one bull was tempting, measuring around 43-inches in width, but I opted to wait. Another late season moose hunt ended and I returned home my tag still in hand. Unsure if I'd be able to return, my hopes of taking a big bull were fading fast but in the end, thanks to a supportive wife and an encouraging friend who eventually joined me, I returned to the woods for a third and final attempt to close my tag on a late season bull. It was the 10th of December and the weather was nasty. A bitter biting wind and snow-covered landscape painted a different and much less hospitable picture than during previous hunts.
Over several previous days, I'd learned that cows and calves were abundant but the bigger bulls favored the best habit and heaviest cover. In turn, they were harder to find. In the area I was hunting, this meant willow marshes and old-growth forest. I had heard rumors of a big bull being seen several times in the area but had yet to lay eyes on him. The first morning I climbed to a high hill overlooking a long and narrow wetland. Completely frozen over, it didn't take long to spot a bachelor herd of four bulls. One of the bulls was again tempting but still not big enough. And so my search continued.
Then December 11th arrived. This was the second last day of the season and it dawned cold, sunny, and calm. A skiff of fresh snow offered ideal conditions for tracking. If you're a moose hunter, you know that fresh snow is a lifesaver. Find a fresh track and play your cards right; it's only a matter of time before you catch up to the bull. Given the time of year, bulls, cows and calves alike weren't moving far during the day. It was bitter cold; daytime highs were around -8 Fahrenheit. With our map in hand, we noticed an area of habitat that I hadn't yet hunted so we made our way there to take a look. By 9:45 a.m., in the heart of what can only be described as some of the best parkland moose habitat I've ever seen, we discovered three bull tracks. Obviously fresh, we estimated that they were less than a couple hours old. John and I looked at each other and grinned. We knew we had no choice but to meticulously follow them. So we did, and within an hour their stride shortened and they appeared to be slowing down.
"They've got to be close," I commented to John. "These tracks look like they're slowing their pace; they might already be bedded down for the day."
Five minutes later we crested a ridge. Standing just 80 yards away was a young bull. Carefully advancing, two others became visible. There was no guessing. The biggest of the three stood quartering toward me. When you see a bull of this size, believe me when I say you don't hesitate. Shouldering my T/C 7mm Rem Mag, I zeroed the crosshairs of my Z6. Holding firm, I gently squeezed. With a boom, the massive bull lurched forward and disappeared! Looking at John, I was speechless. It all happened so fast!
"Congrats Kev, you just killed a trophy bull, and in the late season no less. Way to go!" John exclaimed.
Patiently waiting a few minutes, we slowly approached. Walking up to a bull of this stature is an awesome experience. I've taken nice bulls in the past but the sheer body mass not to mention antler size of this one, was awe-inspiring. It took almost eight days of hunting but it was finished. I'd seen 36 moose, 12 of which were bulls, but all it took was a viable shot opportunity at this one. Now the real work lay before us. Measuring just under 50-inches in width, he's got it all and will forever hold a special place in my trophy room.
The author took this fine bull moose during a lengthy eight days of hunting the late season.
After quartering, deboning and getting him in to my truck, we headed home. During the two-hour drive I had the opportunity to recount the things I'd learned that helped make this late season hunt a success. It dawned on me that there were four key things:
While there was no need to communicate with the bull I shot, I did experience several encounters during my late season hunt in which calling worked effectively. Bottom line - don't be shy about calling, even in the late season. After the rut, formerly reclusive bulls will often group up as the weather turns cold and winter conditions set in. While seeing individual bulls is normal throughout the warm summer months and most of the fall, their social demeanor changes once breeding activity is finished. Vocalizations are common, even in November and December, as moose communicate with one another.
For late season moose hunters, this presents an outstanding opportunity. On several occasions I've experimented with cow calls while hunting late season bulls. In my experience, bulls respond favorably to cow calls in the late season. During one of the December days I spotted two bulls bedded 200 yards away up on a hillside. Settling in to a low spot I moaned like a cow in heat. Within minutes both bulls stood and the larger of the two, a 3 ½ year old slowly but steadily made his way down the hill, along a trail, and eventually turned and approached stopping just 30 yards away. But that's just when the fun began. Deciding it was time to move on, I made myself visible. He eventually moved off into sparse cover 50 yards off in the other direction. As I slowly walked by, he turned and followed. Paralleling me for several hundred yards, he continued to approach. The reason was unclear, but it was apparent that he didn't find me the least bit threatening, and was intrigued with my calls.
Focus on Food
Just as it is a priority for other ungulates, food is always a priority, but during the late season, it's at the top of the list. This usually means shifting to habitat areas offering the best food sources. While moose have a home range, they will shift within that range throughout the year based on their needs, i.e. to breed, or to find thermal cover and nutrient-rich foods.
During the warm-weather months when wetlands offer a smorgasbord of marsh plants, food is plentiful. At this time food is abundant and life is good. When sub-zero temperatures freeze these wetlands and snowfall covers an assortment of grasses, moose turn to the most accessible food, and that means bark, willows, and poplar saplings. With this in mind, willow flats surrounding frozen marshlands can be an ideal place to look for moose in the late season.
Consider the Cover
Cold, wind, and snow; these are often the conditions of late season. Just like you and I, they don't like inclement weather. In defense, late season moose may take refuge in hills, valleys, or on leeward facing slopes. They'll seek cover near food. This can mean different things in different types of habitat. In many areas thermal cover such as old-growth mixed forest is a first choice. In the absence of coniferous trees, alternative cover like thick willow clumps will be a top choice. Rarely will a moose hang around in open areas when the temperature and conditions are inhospitable.
Use the Snow
Found in every Canadian province except Prince Edward Island, moose are also thriving in many northern states like Alaska, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Minnesota, Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire - all places that get snow, and sometimes lots of it. It doesn't matter if you're hunting in the foothills, mountains, rolling aspen parkland, or boreal forest, more often than not the common denominator with hunting late season moose is colder weather and eventually snow. And with snow comes the added bonus of tracking. Locate a fresh track and, particularly in soft snow, you've got an exceptional chance of walking a bull down. If you find a fresh track, get on it, and slowly follow keeping a keen eye looking ahead. Chances are within a short distance you'll catch up with him.
Rut sign like this rub confirm that moose live in the area.
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.