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How to completely mess up your fall moose hunt

So, you finally got your moose draw, and this is the year you’re going to fill your freezer in one fell swoop. I mean, we’re Canadians, so we’re born knowing how to hunt moose, right? Plus, moose are the size of a barn door with the intellect of a garden gnome, so how challenging can it be?

Well, as I and thousands of others have found out—mostly the hard way—moose aren’t the dimwitted cartoon characters they’re often portrayed to be. Nor is cornering one the walk in the park you might imagine.

In truth, there are far fewer happy endings to moose hunts than the television shows, magazine spreads and glossy advertisements suggest. And by following these 11 simple strategies, you too can join the legion of moose hunters with far more tall tales than T-bones to show for their efforts. Or, you can do the opposite and at least stand a fighting chance of filling the freezer.

1. Stay too long in just one spot

Moose are creatures of habit and it’s all too easy to believe you’ve got them figured out. It’s equally as easy to forget they’re also wild creatures that march to their own drummer, and it’s a sin of the hunt to become overconfident and refuse to change tactics when you’re not seeing animals.

In the business world, you’ll often hear corporations stress the importance of being nimble—it’s all about showing a willingness to respond quickly to opportunities or changes in your operating environment. The same goes for moose hunting. Weather, hunter pressure, food availability and a host of other variables can all affect moose behaviour, so when your game plan isn’t working, it’s time to switch things up. The moose may have been there last year, last month, last week or even yesterday, but if today they’re not where you expected them to be, it’s time to move to greener pastures.

2. Lose your patience

The moose has long been lampooned as a creature with less than Mensa-qualifying credentials. As such, many hunters are eager to take the fight to it, tramping haphazardly through the bush believing the average moose will be standing placidly in place awaiting their arrival. That’s little more than a fool’s gambit.

Covering ground at breakneck speed may be beneficial to your quadriceps, but it won’t increase your odds of seeing moose. No, patience is a virtue for the moose hunter. Go into the affair with a well-thought-out game plan and stick to it. Moose have a way of showing up about 10 minutes after you’ve lost your patience, so take your time if you want to improve your chances.

3. Under-estimate

It’s easy to believe that moose are witless, especially if you judge them by their appearance—the oversized nose and big floppy ears don’t give them an especially inspiring bearing. But while they have the look of an animal designed by committee, the very features that make moose subject to ridicule provide them with highly sensitive defences.

When you’ve evolved to elude predators such as wolves, cougars and bears, you know a thing or two about avoiding danger. Those mule-like ears provide incredible hearing, which is why moose will respond to calls from several kilometres away. And that bulbous schnozz is more function than form, giving them a phenomenal sense of smell.

While not as refined as their other senses, even the moose’s vision is better than it’s given credit for. Moose can pick up movement from long distances, then turn to their other senses to assess whether it’s friend or foe. If you don’t hunt quietly and cautiously, with careful attention to the wind, your search for a moose will be over before it’s started.

4. Wait too long to shoot

I understand waiting for the perfect shot. And I’ve had bulls commit to calls so completely that I could walk them right into my lap. But I’ve also had moose that were all but in the bag change their minds in an instant. On a recent Newfoundland hunt, for example, we called in a bull that hung up on the edge of a clearing at 150 metres. All we could see was its head and neck, and the temptation was to continue to coax it into the open so that its heart/lung region would be exposed. But when it didn’t move in response to another of the cow bawls that had brought him into range in the first place, my partner didn’t hesitate. A neck shot it would have to be, and down the bull went.

This was in complete contrast to a moose hunt the year previous when my partner waited and waited on a meat bull that wouldn’t fully commit. We could see him holding up in the bush less than 100 metres away, with only another few dozen metres before he’d be fully exposed. Eventually, the bull tired of the game, turned and trotted away, never to return. It can be difficult to judge, and we’d all prefer the perfect shot, but you have to be prepared to take the shot that’s offered, when it’s offered.

5. Go for lunch

Moose camps are all about tradition and camaraderie, a place where men can be men, eating too much fried food and telling lies. And with all the boys in camp for a week, a laissez-faire attitude often develops. When the edge is off, hunting days can easily turn into a couple of hours at daybreak followed by a late-morning brunch and a quick nap before heading back out for the evening hunt. There’s no life like it—except, of course, if putting away some moose meat for the winter is as important as you told your boss and your wife when you begged off for the week.

There are those hunts when everything falls into your lap, like a nice bull wandering into camp while you’re brushing your teeth. But that happens far less often than the stories would suggest. The most consistently successful moose hunts occur when you work at them. Take a sandwich and a chocolate bar with you; make a day of it and planfor lunch in prime moose habitat. And if you really need a nap, grab a quick one under an old spruce.

6. Don’t practice your shooting

Given that a moose is a huge target—the largest antlered game animal on the planet—and that your rifle, cartridge and scope combination will shoot the eye out of a boll we evil at 400 paces, it really doesn’t make much sense to waste a whole lot of time or money with excessive range practice. Just point your shooting iron in the general direction of your moose and hit the switch when you see black. Yeah, right.

Many would suggest it’s near impossible to miss a moose, but I’ve seen it happen more than once, and with rifles that were sighted-in, to boot. But range practice isn’t just about sighting-in; it’s about becoming so familiar with your rifle and how it works that shooting becomes second nature—you should be able to load, unload, work the safety and cycle your action flawlessly with your eyes closed. And when you raise your rifle, it should come up so the sight image is perfect every time. As well, you should know exactly how much pressure your trigger requires to release. Range practice is all about ensuring that when your moose magically appears, all your attention is on the target, not on your equipment.

7. Head out under-gunned

There’s a common belief moose are relatively easy to kill compared with most of our other big-game animals. It’s true that a lung-shot moose typically doesn’t travel as far as a similarly shot elk or bear, but if you take to the field with a light calibre or less than premium bullets, you have to be extremely careful about your shot selection. Either squeeze the trigger only when you have a broadside heart/lung shot, or prepare for an extended tracking session followed by a nightmarish extraction of a 1,000-pound bull from what will surely be the worst place imaginable. And if you’re not so lucky, you should be willing to experience the shame and disappointment of a wounded and lost animal.

Make no mistake, moose are large animals with thick hides, dense muscles and tough bones. If your shooting angle is anything less than ideal, well-constructed bullets of .30 calibre or above are recommended. I know, thousands of moose have been taken with the 7mm and .270 families—I’ve killed moose with both myself. I’ve since learned, however, that it’s better to be safe than sorry.

8. Use too much gun

All the rage within the hunting community these days are magnum cartridges, thumb-sized cases stuffed to the brim with hot powders. The theory is quite simple—increased velocity translates into more downrange energy and flatter trajectories, which in turn adds up to more dead game.

But like most theories, the argument has its weaknesses, not the least of which is that it holds water if, and only if, you shoot well. A poorly shot moose is just that, irrespective of the calibre you’re using. And the problem with magnums is that a high percentage of hunters don’t shoot them well.

It’s our old nemesis, recoil, that’s the problem: today’s popular magnum rounds have considerably more felt recoil than their more domestic ancestors. If you can handle the recoil, by all means hunt with whatever firepower turns your crank. If you can’t, don’t worry—you’re part of a bigger club than you might think. Just remember you have an ethical responsibility not to shoot if you can’t shoot well.

9. Don’t worry about scouting

Many hunters who wouldn’t dare pursue deer or waterfowl without first conducting some reconnaissance don’t believe scouting is necessary when hunting moose. They simply strike out from camp or their vehicle and think they’ve got as good a chance as anyone else at finding a moose.

But moose aren’t distributed evenly throughout the forest, and their location is not perfectly predictable. Some of the most productive time you can spend, therefore, will be familiarizing yourself with your hunting territory, even if you’ve been hunting the same location for several years. Tracks, droppings, beds, wallows and signs of feeding activity are the best clues as to where moose are active. If you can scout the area a week before your hunt, perfect. If not, spend day one at camp covering ground with an eye to narrowing

10. Don’t bother trying to track them

It’s easy to dismiss tracking as an ineffective way to hunt bull moose, especially since the animals have such long legs, refi ned senses and a large home range. But when conditions are right and there’s fresh snow on the ground, walking moose down can be a productive tactic.

Tracking is most effective post-rut, when the bulls are recovering from the exhaustion of the breeding season. They’ll retreat to remote areas that have high-quality forage, where they can browse undisturbed, moving very little except between bedding and feeding. Cut a fresh track at this time and it’s likely your moose won’t be far away.

Don’t trail a moose by walking in its footsteps, however. Instead, track him by walking parallel to his path from the safety of adjacent cover. Moose are renowned for looking over their shoulders as they travel, so you don’t want to make it easy for them to detect you. When you’re getting close to a bull, stop every third step and scan carefully ahead and to the sides, looking for a patch of dark hide or the twitch of an ear.

11. Don’t devise a recovery plan

Why is it we’re so meticulous about planning for hunting success yet so often ignore what we’d do if, in fact, success smiled upon us? With some activities, it matters little, I suppose. But knocking down a moose without having given much thought as to what happens next is a mistake you only make once. The mass of a moose is never more apparent than when you’re standing over a dead one, wondering just how in heck you’re going to get it back to camp.

Saws, axes, knives, plenty of rope, a block and tackle, packboards, ATVs, game bags, coolers, strong backs and a commitment to cleanliness—they’re all part of the well-prepared moose hunter’s inventory. More than once at remote camps I’ve had to quarter my moose and submerge it in a lake to keep the meat cool when temperatures soared. Anything less than complete preparation and you’ll spoil both the meat and your hunt.

Ken Bailey

Ken Bailey

An all-around hunter, Ken Bailey enjoys pursuing waterfowl the most. Based in Edmonton, Outdoor Canada's longtime hunting editor Ken Bailey has hunted every major Canadian game animal, in every corner of the country. For many years, he’s shared his deep knowledge of game behaviour, and wide expertise with all manner of firearms with OC's readers. His work has been recognized numerous times by both the Outdoor Writers of Canada and the National Magazine Awards. Ken is a committed conservationist, dedicated to habitat preservation, sustainable harvests, and passing along our hunting heritage to the next generation. He's also an avid fly fisherman, and a pretty darn good game chef.

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