10 ways to totally @#$%&! up your best chance at taking that bull moose of a lifetime
It was the second day of October and the peak of the moose rut. The cows were in heat and the bulls were on the move. Picking our way through the northern boreal forest, my hunting partner and I chose a spot with good visibility and cover. My first moan through the birchbark call was immediately cut off by a low-pitched grunt to the east. With each successive grunt, the old bull inched closer, cautiously working his way directly downwind. When the bull finally emerged from cover at just 40 yards, we were able to glimpse his massive 50-inch antlers before he hit our scent, spun and retreated.
Looking back, my partner and I made several mistakes that cost us a shot at that truly spectacular bull. Moose hunters love the peak rut, but even at this magical time, when bulls are at their most vulnerable, success isn’t guaranteed. In fact, there are plenty of ways to screw up your peak-rut moose hunt—commit any of these blunders and the only moose meal you’ll be having is tag soup.
#1 SLEEP IN
Hit the snooze button one too many times and you could sleep right through your best opportunity for a shot. Bulls can, and do, respond at any time of day when they’re looking for a cow in heat. But seasoned moose hunters know the importance of the first and last hours of legal light. During these critical windows, conditions are often calm and cool, and the acoustics are amazing. Skip these magical times and you’re sure to miss some quality chances.
#2 HUNT THE WRONG TIME
I hear it every year: hunters declaring that the rut is early, late or not happening at all. Simply put, that’s a biological impossibility. Regardless of the weather, estrus occurs on a similar schedule every single year. (Cows that are not bred during the peak rut will have a second estrus cycle a few weeks later than the first.)
So, when does the peak moose rut—and especially the peak estrus—really take place? Hard-core moose hunters will always be in the woods capitalizing on the earliest, most eager bulls by September 23 and hunt straight through until at least October 8. The bulls will often respond most enthusiastically between September 27 and October 4. Biologists often refer to the three-day window between October 2 and 4 as the peak estrus, or the time during which the majority of cows are most receptive. These dates may vary by a few days from east to west, and north to south, but the timing of the rut is remarkably consistent across Canada.
Bulls will continue seeking out cows right up to until mid-October, but most hunters report the calling activity abruptly subsides after October 11 or so. The bottom line here? Hit the peak and your odds go up. Miss these critical days and they go down.
# 3 MOAN MANIACALLY
One of the biggest draws of the rut is the possibility of enticing a bull by performing your best rendition of a lovesick cow. Vocalizations can indeed work miracles, but not every hunter knows how to do it properly. If you call incorrectly, too much or at the wrong times, you may as well kiss your shot opportunity goodbye. Remember, calling is all about finesse and realism. On many occasions, I’ve heard other hunters calling and just shook my head, wondering what they were doing. I’ve heard them call too frequently or too loudly, and even make sounds that resembled a squeaky door hinge more than a moose. It’s no surprise these hunters never got a response, let alone saw a moose.
#4 MISUSE THE GRUNT
I don’t know why, but many hunters are either reluctant to use a bull grunt or, on the other hand, use it too much. If you moan and a bull grunts back, take the time to estimate how far away he is. Also consider whether he’s grunting frequently or sporadically and, most importantly, whether he’s closing in. Each situation is different, but if you hear a bull coming, sit tight and let him. He knows what he wants and he’s coming to get it. If a bull is grunting with a regular cadence, chances are he’s coming in on a string. Thinking you’re his breeding prospect, he’s grunting to let you know he’s on his way. Grunt back at this point and it could go either way–he could continue and challenge the competing bull or he could back off altogether.
While bulls are curious, they’re also notorious for sometimes playing hard to get and hanging up. When a bull hangs up outside of shooting range or under cover, he’s cautious, but he’s also motivated to breed and knows there’s a cow nearby. This is when a couple of guttural grunts can push him over the edge and bring him in. If you grunt shortly after moaning, the bull should interpret those vocalizations to mean a competing suitor is already tending a hot cow. This is sometimes enough to bring him in to challenge the bull and, in turn, present you with a shot opportunity. But realism is paramount. Grunt too aggressively and you could dissuade the bull from coming any closer. In the end, it’s about interpreting the bull’s mood and calling accordingly.
#5 MOVE TOO FAST
Moose have immeasurable patience. They spend more time standing still then meticulously moving through timber than any other ungulate in the woods. Despite their enormity, they also have an uncanny ability to quietly ghost through the trees, hardly making a sound. You will periodically hear them stepping on a twig or dry leaves as they walk, but they’re much quieter than other big animals, such as elk.
Bull moose are also on their own during the rut, slowly covering ground as they constantly search for a hot cow. Keep in mind they have large ears and excellent hearing, so if you race through the woods, you’re sure to sound unnatural and spook any moose within earshot. That means stealth is usually the name of the game for hunters. Consider the deliberate pace of a moose, and emulate it. Snapping branches isn’t always bad, but incorporate pauses and consider adding soft vocalizations to help camouflage those sounds. More than a few times I’ve duped unsuspecting bulls that literally waited as I approached.
#6 RELOCATE TOO SOON
Calling during the rut involves picking a spot, emulating moose vocalizations, waiting, then moving and trying again if there’s no response. If we don’t hear an immediate response, most of us choose to cover ground. This can go both ways. I know very productive moose hunters who believe in calling for up to two hours in one location, regardless of whether they hear a bull grunt back or not. As a rule, call for at least 15 minutes in any given location before moving on.
#7 IGNORE THE WIND
When you consider the size of the proboscis on a moose, it becomes perfectly clear this king of the forest has an acute sense of smell. Most often, they make every effort to approach from downwind to try to detect the odour of potential predators. So, if you want a guaranteed way to foil your hunt, ignore the wind and call from an upwind position. Even worse, wear hunting clothes that reek like smoke, bacon and other camp smells. In either case, you can say adios to your moose roasts.
#8 DON’T CHECK YOUR ZERO
This mistake isn’t specific to the peak rut, but it happens so often it’s important to mention. Taking a shot without checking your firearm is like rolling the dice. Many hunters only get out once or twice a year and, sadly, some don’t bother to sight-in their rifle or bow before the trip. This is a guaranteed recipe for disaster, and one to avoid during any season. Ethical hunters will always confirm their riflescope is on target, or their bow is tuned and the sight pins are dialled in. Wounding and losing an animal just shouldn’t be an option.
Kevin Wilson #9 IGNORE THE SIGN
Moose leave many markers during the rut. Savvy hunters pay close attention to these and focus on areas with the most sign. Overlooking noteworthy sign such as fresh rubs, rut pits and tracks will lower your odds for success. Old rubs indicate a historical presence, but find trees freshly shredded by antlers and you’ll soon get an idea of the size and territory of resident bulls.
Rut pits, or wallows, are obvious patches of turned-up ground used by bulls and cows to communicate with one another. Perhaps the most welcome sign for moose hunters, these are prime indicators you’re in the zone. Bulls and cows regularly visit rut pits during their breeding period, from as early as mid-September through to mid-October. They’ll both urinate and roll around in these pits to deposit and acquire scent. Likewise, tracks are always a good sign. Seasoned hunters pay attention to everything around them, but they always keep one eye on the ground, as tracks can give you an idea of the population density of bulls, cows and calves in the area, along with the size of the animals.
#10 WAVE THE WHITE FLAG
Moose hunters love cool, wet weather. Unfortunately, late September and early October can sometimes present bluebird days with the mercury higher than we’d like. But packing up and going home is a sure-fire way not to close your tag—you can’t knock one down when you’re sitting on your couch. I’ve listened to many hunters complain about the weather being too hot, too windy, too rainy, too snowy and—believe it or not—even too nasty, declaring that the moose hold up tight under such bad conditions. While this sometimes happens, the annual rut waits for no one. Weather that’s less than ideal can present tough conditions, but year in and year out, it’s the persistent hunter who eventually fills the freezer. Never forget: When you give up, your hunt is over.
Edmonton contributor Kevin Wilson is an avid all-around hunter.