Prelude and planning:
Ten years ago I went to Alaska to hunt moose. I saw cows and young moose every day, but my tag only allowed me to take a mature bull. I came home grateful for the chance to have seen the magnificent wilderness of interior Alaska, but I came home without a moose.
I began to apply for moose permits in Maine and a few years later also in Vermont. Two years ago, my friend Gene invited me as the second hunter on his Vermont moose permit. He took a cow moose while I was with him. I was thrilled for him and surely enjoyed the moose meat that he generously shared, but it only fueled my desire for a moose of my own. This year I filed my applications and the day after the results were announced I received an email from my buddy Will that just said “Congratulations!” We had been discussing moose hunts and I knew what he meant as soon as I read it. It turned out that I had not only drawn a moose tag, but I had drawn the most coveted tag; one which allowed me to take any moose from the heart of moose country.
I immediately got online and began searching for anything related to Vermont moose hunting that I could find. There wasn’t much available but I uncovered a link to the Champion Lands Leaseholders and Traditional Interest Association (who I ended up renting an excellent camp from). I began to ask for advice on several hunting forums and received some good tips from a couple of fellows who had hunted in area E2 (thanks George, Brian and Pat!) and from wildlife photographer Roger Irwin (check out his moose photos at www.rogerirwinphotos.com ).
My brother in law John had been my hunting partner in Africa in 2002 and we had such a good time there that when he expressed an interest in coming along I was delighted to enlist him as the second hunter on my moose permit. Having a second shooter who you can trust is invaluable. Having helped Gene drag his cow out of the woods, I wondered if John knew what he was volunteering for but I was delighted to have him along, especially since Gene was ineligible to hunt moose in Vermont during the three year exclusion period that followed being selected as a moose permit holder.
My wonderful wife exceeded all reasonable expectations by encouraging me to go on the hunt even though her birthday fell squarely in the middle of the six day season and the hunting area was an eight hour round trip from home.
A month before the season my 12 year old son came along with me to scout. There were old moose tracks everywhere we looked (including within 200 yards of the camp!). We drove many miles of unpaved roads in our Subaru to get a general feeling of the area. The second morning we were rewarded with the sight of a young bull trotting down the road ahead of us. It was my son’s first sighting of a moose and I considered that well worth the trip in itself.
It became obvious to me on that trip that a four wheel drive truck would be essential to reach the more remote hunting areas and (God willing) to haul out a moose. There would just be no way to get a moose in a Subaru! It also became obvious that much of the terrain was so thickly over grown that I would need a short and light handling rifle.
I came home and worked up a load for my Marlin Guide Gun. This little carbine had been a consolation gift from my friend Alan who hosted my unsuccessful Alaskan hunt. It was destined for moose. The load I settled on for the 45-70 cartridge was 46.5 grains of IMR 3031 pushing a 405 grain cast lead bullet at about 1600 f.p.s. It was a cast lead load for an old school cartridge in a lever gun. As a history buff, it seemed just about ideal for moose hunting to me.
Two days before the season opened I swapped vehicles with my friend Gene. He generously donated the use of his pick up truck (‘The moose hearse’) and would drive my Subaru for the week I was away hunting. The day before the season opened my hunting partner drove the 5 hours from his home to mine. We shared the first slices of the traditional opening day apple pie breakfast, loaded the truck with duffels, rifles, coolers, game cart, blind, and the rest of the pie then drove the 4 hours to moose camp all the while wondering where a moose would fit - since the truck bed was already full!
During the drive we debated whether to take a cow moose if we saw one on the first day or two, or whether we should hold out for a bull. I dearly wanted a bull, but I would much rather bring home a cow than no moose at all. We decided that we would pass on any cow with calf in tow, but left it open ended beyond that.
We arrived at camp, unloaded the gear, and immediately got back in the truck to do 4 more hours of scouting before dark. Once again, there were plenty of old tracks in the hunting area, but no moose.
We awoke an hour before dawn, grabbed a quick bowl of oatmeal and went out the door (who had time to cook when the hunt waited?) It was COLD. Temperatures the day before had been in the 50’s. At dawn it was only about 10 degrees Fahrenheit.
We drove the paper company roads peering into thickets, bogs, and forest, up slopes, down valleys, and over streams hoping for a lucky break of moose within sight of the road on opening day. You can not imagine how much the dark base of an uprooted tree covered in soil resembles a bedded moose, or how many of them there are in the sodden wooded soil of moose country. I dare say that we examined THOUSANDS of fallen logs, root balls, and large rocks looking for ears and antlers. When we happened upon some spot that appeared more promising than the others we would walk about looking for moose. I found LOTS of moose sign, but very few fresh tracks and none so fresh as to still have moose in them.
I quit counting hunters after the first dozen trucks we encountered with occupants doing exactly the same thing that we were doing. Near the end of the day I hit a fresh track in the mud off a logging trail. It led to a pair of large meadows with a swampy tree line between them. In that swamp there was a sapling that had been destroyed by some bull rubbing his antlers within the past few days. About 50 yards from there, two immense moose beds flattened the high grass. We spent the rest of the evening sitting in a cluster of fragrant Christmas tree like spruce watching the meadows and occasionally hearing another hunter imitating the call of a moose cow in need from his truck parked at the roadside a half mile away.
We slipped back to the truck only after the green spruce tops against the brilliant blue sky had turned to purple towers in the night. The entire opening day had passed without a single glimpse of moose. I decided that I would be very glad to take any moose God sent me in the five short days that remained in the season.
After the long day out in the cold from dawn until dark, the cabin and its woodstove were very welcome. When I closed my eyes I saw forested bogs and dark humps of soil bound tree roots. We slept comfortably and dawn found us back at the same meadow. The frosted blackberry leaves thawed as the sun rose. But in just two hours the cold sent us back to the truck. The shelter of the truck was dubious since the heater had frozen up. It at least blocked the wind. We decided to return to a couple of areas that had looked promising the day before.
The first one seemed just about ideal to me. The road passed between two ridges that had been logged off a year before with a stream running just below the road. It proved to be “a very moosey” area indeed. There were not only signs of moose feeding, old tracks and droppings, but also day old tracks. The only trouble was that they were intermingled with numerous boot prints from the day before. The area had been hunted hard on opening day. The moose may have already been pushed out of the area. We decided to check a couple of other likely spots and hope that they had not seen quite as much hunting pressure.
We drove to several other spots that we thought had promise, walked a long lane, and spent several hours watching over a beaver pond surrounded by moose tracks. But by noon I had decided that the previously hard hunted spot was our best bet. It showed more fresh moose sign than anywhere else we had scouted and I suspected that most of the hunters who had been there had stayed close to the road. By going a bit further, we might just find moose. We retreated to the cabin for a heavy lunch with a plan that the meal would carry us until dark. We resisted the temptation to stay warm and take a nap after lunch and went back to the morning’s promising ridges.
Just as we arrived, an older hunter came out of the brush and climbed into his partner’s truck. We decided to try the area anyway again reasoning that he probably had not ventured very far from the road. The view after climbing up the bank from the road revealed a small fold of promising moose country with a higher ridge behind it. The top of this second ridge was the stereotypical knife edge path where you could see what seemed like straight down 100 yards on both sides. The side farthest away from the road fell away through pines into a broad valley of low brush with dark heavy pines covering the far slope. Beyond that the hills continued to rise into several higher ridges of mountains. The top of the second ridge was covered with moose tracks going both directions. We first followed it south toward Granby Bog. It ended in a wet area with thick growth and a gurgling stream. I imitated the call of a cow in longing and we waited half an hour without any sign of reply before retracing our steps up the ridge. Perhaps we should have waited longer but the visibility was limited in that small bowl and the noise of running water drowned out any distant sounds of travelling moose. I thought we might have better luck following the ridge in the opposite direction.
We worked our way back up the ridge and followed it peering into the thickets below and the pines beyond them. Could that dark spot be the head of a bedded moose? Could that light patch be antler? No. There were a thousand false alarms as we snuck along the ridge for the next hour.
At the far end of the ridge we sat on a fallen log to rest and watch the valley below until we decided that we should start working our way back. I called a few times, waited fifteen minutes and then we started sneaking and peaking our way toward the truck. As I reached any vantage point which let me see a little further, I would pause and search for some sign of elusive moose before moving on. We had covered perhaps ½ the distance back to the truck when I peaked over the crest of the next fold looking for a dark ear tip or light antler point in the brush ahead.
I can not convey my absolute amazement when I saw not empty woodland, but MOOSE. It was not some bit of the hidden animal, but the full body of an ADULT BULL MOOSE standing in the open 50 yards away. At seven feet tall and nearly 1,000 pounds he was absolutely immense and he was staring at me. I don’t know if he was actually staring at me, but he was definitely looking in my direction for the split second it took me to crouch down below the hill crest out of sight. Later, John said that he thought that the bull was coming down the trail in search of my cow call. He may have just been walking down the trail for his evening stroll, but in either case after ten years of longing, God had sent me a bull moose. I crouched below the hill crest and pointed frantically in moose direction whispering to John “Moose! Moose! Right There!” John crouched down and began to duck walk forward as I turned back to the moose and worked the lever on my Marlin to chamber a cartridge.
I could scarcely believe that the moose was still there when I looked again. Knowing that the point of impact for my load was six inches low at 50 yards for my hundred yard zero, I put my sights on his throat and pulled the trigger. At impact the bull spun and began to lope away over the uneven ground. With a bullet in the moose I sure didn’t want to lose him in the bog (or worse down slope away from the road)! I held for the center retreating moose butt and pulled the trigger. John said he had an open shot if I got out of the way, so I said “take him” and crouched down. I heard his 375 Ruger bark and stood just in time to see the moose go down over the top of the knob. I covered the 100 yards between us and saw that he was down on top of the ridge 50 yards from where the first shot had hit him.
After action report:
The first shot had broken his right shoulder just below the joint. I later recovered the bullet outside of the ribs a foot behind the shoulder.
Either my second shot or John’s shot had taken the bull six inches left of his stubby little tail, broken the left hip at the socket and passed beyond. The bullet was left behind in the gut pile when we field dressed the moose so I don’t know whose shot it was, but in any case with a broken shoulder and a broken hip the moose was down. He was still raising his head when I walked up so I gave him a finisher at the base of the skull and thanked God for not only giving me a moose, but my longed for bull with decent palms besides
Then the work began! Somehow all three of my large knives had been left behind at the cabin. But John had an excellent set of “Knives of Alaska” and a bone saw. We brought the bull out in three pieces by separating the hind quarters behind the ribs and the head from the front quarters. My brand new two wheeled game cart was worth every penny over the next two hours.
A gorgeous sunset lit the sky red as we struggled to wheel the moose down the ridge and toward the road. We managed to load the hind quarters in the truck before returning for the larger second piece. Already near exhaustion from field dressing the moose and getting the back half of him into the truck, John and I then returned to the moose and brought the second massive chunk to the truck. We were standing in the darkness contemplating how on earth we could lift, roll, or slide the several hundred pounds of front shoulder and ribs up to the tail gate when a truck with four hunters pulled out of the darkness of the dead end road and offered to help. They had been hunting farther down the dead end road and arrived just at the right moment. With the six of us it was an easy lift. God had provided just the help that was needed at just the moment of need, again.
We were so exhausted by field dressing the moose and getting him on the truck that we waited until the next morning to pack up camp and check the bull in. The Vermont Fish and Wildlife official told us that my bull was a 3 or 4 year old moose with an antler spread of 33 ½ inches. Based on seeing a moose of similar size weighed we estimated that our moose was 700 lbs field dressed (900 pounds on the hoof?). I was absolutely delighted to be home in time for my wife’s birthday. Before the week was out my freezer was very full, and I am blessed to have fulfilled my ten year moose quest.