Forget Bullwinkle. For a Good Hunt, You Need to Take the Moose Seriously.
The bull moose looks as if he were designed by committee, and an ad hoc one at that. His bulbous nose is disproportionately large, for example, while his supersized ears resemble those of a cartoon donkey. And as the world’s largest antlered animal, you have to wonder how he manages to even stand up on those long, spindly legs. Then again, I suppose it would be hard to fall over given his snowshoe-sized hooves. Now throw in his distinctive bell, that beard-like flap under his chin, and it’s little wonder the moose is often mercilessly lampooned.
But spend even a few days trying to corner him in his native forested habitat and you’ll quickly learn his is clearly a design of function over form. Lose track of the wind for even a second and his otherworldly sense of smell will have you pinpointed to the square foot. Accidentally step on even one loose twig and his ears will home in on your location with the tracking ability of the latest satellite technology. And just try to catch up to him if he wants to get away from you. Those legs will carry him gracefully over deadfall and other obstacles at an unbeatable pace, while his splayed hooves will buoy him across soppy muskeg that will otherwise leave you mired.
Big bulls offer one of Canada’s most underrated hunting challenges, and few are those who consistently fill their tags. That’s why I’m always looking for an advantage when it comes to pursuing these giant beasts, and over the years I’ve picked up several best practices from other seasoned hunters.
Where Are the Moose?
There’s little sense in hunting moose where few, if any, exist. That’s pretty obvious, I know, but the corollary is key: To maximize your chances of success, you’ve got to hunt where moose densities are at their highest. As generally solitary creatures, bull moose can be notoriously difficult to find, especially during hunting season and when they’re feeling pressured. That’s why few hunts rely as much on effective planning and scouting as a moose hunt.
Your research should begin with population and harvest data, available through most provincial natural resource departments. Peruse the census data with an eye to total numbers of moose, population densities and bull-to-cow ratios where available. Harvest data, meanwhile, can be both meaningful and misleading, as moose kills are often related more to accessibility than to outright moose numbers. If the data is available, look instead at hunter success as a more valuable indicator of opportunity.
Once you’ve selected a hunting area at a macro level, it’s time to check out topographic maps and aerial photography of your chosen region. As moose often relate to water, I generally concentrate my map-searching efforts along lakes or river valleys. The flats along lakeshores, deltas, beaver dams and riverbanks often support alder, willow, dogwood and other fall and winter moose favourites. Also scrutinize contour intervals adjacent to the areas you’re considering. If they’re excessively steep, the key shrubs that moose prefer are unlikely to grow there. And if they’re too flat, you may find that muskeg and other wet habitats will make travel difficult, if not impossible.
Once you’ve identified a few potentially choice locations, turn your attention to aerial photography. Scales of 1:40,000 or less should provide the detail required to identify the vegetation. Look for broad deciduous tracts, which provide food for moose. However, don’t ignore the importance of dense coniferous stands, which offer moose thermal cover in winter and cooling shade in summer. Known burns and cut blocks are other choice areas, as both tend to support thriving communities of the moose’s favourite shrubs. These regenerating sites will often offer as much as 15 years of premium moose forage before the vegetation matures to the point that it becomes unpalatable.
Talk to the Pros
Finally, talk to biologists, conservation officers, trappers, forestry workers and pilots familiar with the location you’re considering. Such professionals will know the area better than almost anyone else, and they’re often willing to share key intelligence with hunters who approach them in a respectful manner. Pay them a visit with your maps in hand, or simply pick up the phone-it just might be the most productive research you undertake.
Call During the Rut
There are few hunting experiences that match the thrill of calling in a bull moose to within spitting distance. Excitement aside, however, calling is also the most effective way to hunt bulls during the rut, particularly in relatively flat terrain that precludes the opportunity for effective spot-and-stalk hunting. You may have heard the stories about randy bulls responding to the sound of a train whistle or an axe splitting wood. While I don’t believe them, I do know that when bulls are actively seeking receptive cows, you don’t need the mimicry talents of Rich Little to enjoy calling success.
Call Bulls and Cows
Much has been said about the pros and cons of bull versus cow calling. In my experience, cow calling has been considerably more effective. The best calling locations are in relatively flat or thickly wooded habitats, where a bull is forced to get close before he can actually see the animal that’s making all the fuss. In good moose habitat, I like to select calling sites in areas that also attract cows, meaning locations with large quantities of good forage. Close proximity to water sources, such as lakes, beaver ponds and rivers, is also an important consideration.
There are two certain deal breakers when calling moose: not managing your wind, and making noises that aren’t natural. Despite the fact raging hormones can leave bulls a little less suspicious than they might otherwise be, never forget that a bull’s two primary defences are his senses of smell and hearing. Compromise on either front and your moose will quietly and quickly slip away, never to return.
At times, a bull will respond to your call but refuse to commit to those last few yards. In such instances, going to a soft bull call will often trigger him into closing the gap, presumably because he believes another bull is attempting to claim the prize he’s been wooing. A soft bull call won’t frighten smaller bulls, either, yet will still pull a big boy into the open.
As to the timing and sequencing of calls, there are no hard and fast rules. However, calling in the early morning and again in the late afternoon to early evening has proven to generate more responses than midday calling. If I think I’m calling from a good location, and the wind is favourable, I’ll call every 15 to 20 minutes for up to two hours. If I’m less certain about the area, I’ll call every 10 minutes or so for a half-hour to 40 minutes, then move on if there’s no response.
Patience is important, and so is remaining ever vigilant. Some bulls will steamroll in with lots of noise and hoopla, while others will slip in like a cat burglar-if you’re not on full alert, they’ll discover they’ve been duped and disappear in the blink of an eye.
When you’re hunting in proven quality moose habitat, it can pay to put a few miles on your boots in search of rutting pits. These are small scrapes that bulls dig with their front legs, then urinate copiously and regularly into. Once a bull has the soil and urine stirred up into a gooey mess, he’ll splash it onto his bell and antlers; he’ll even sometimes lie down and roll in the muddy mixture. Next, he’ll rub small trees with his lathered antlers and bell to advertise his prowess and presence to cows and other bulls alike, as do many other antlered game. Cow moose get excited by this urine scent, luring them to scrapes to seek a breeding partner.
If you come across an active rutting pit—and you’ll know it by the distinctive odour when you do—it can pay to hunt the general vicinity. In particular, consider calling in the area if conditions are favourable. Much like breeding white-tailed bucks making scrapes, bull moose will create several rutting pits throughout their territory. They’ll revisit each of them with often unpredictable regularity, depending largely on the size of their breeding territory and the timing of encounters with cows.
You Be the Judge
For some hunters, any moose is a good moose, with a young one best of all—everything else being equal, immature moose generally provide the most tender meat for the freezer. For others, however, part of the game is fooling the biggest, baddest bull in the valley. If that’s your game, it’s a good idea to know how to field judge a bull before hitting the switch. Around most hunting campfires, talk of trophy moose generally centres on rack width. While total width contributes greatly to the overall score, it’s palm length and width that you should really focus on.
Palm width can generally be estimated quickly in the field, with the best moose having palms 15 to 20 inches wide. Length of palm is a little trickier to estimate accurately. The best moose generally have split palms, meaning top palms that extend up and back from the main beam, as well as brow palms that extend forward and below the main beam. Total palm length for scoring purposes spans both palms. Beyond width and length, points on each palm contribute to the final score (each point contributes just one point to the final score, irrespective of length).
When field judging bulls, total width will stand out quickly, much as it does with a deer. However, it’s the presence-or not-of a brow palm that will ultimately have the biggest impact on your final record-book score.
Move with the Moose
While moose hunters tend to be creatures of habit, unfortunately the same cannot always be said for the moose. One of the greatest challenges in moose hunting is that these are, by and large, relatively solitary animals, especially bulls during much of our typical hunting seasons. And solitary animals by nature seem to be less inclined to utilize the exact same pieces of habitat in the same way at the same time each year, as do animals more prone to herding. As a result, you can spend a lot of time searching in typical moose habitat and still not find a bull.
So, when you’re not finding moose in the same old haunts, it’s time to change it up. There are many environmental variables that can influence moose behaviour and habitat utilization, such as changing weather, hunter pressure, fire, flooding, disease and population densities. The list goes on. It’s important, therefore, to be willing to explore new country—and new tactics—if you hope to enjoy consistent success.
When moose aren’t where you expect to find them, think through the problem and try to figure out what might be affecting their behaviour—and how. This is where time spent poring over maps and aerial photos getting to know your hunting territory can pay important dividends. During the rut, for example, I’ve seen a sudden rise in temperature turn off breeding behaviour as though a switch had been pulled. You need to recognize changes such as this and react accordingly. Where’s a moose likely to go in abnormally warm weather? Somewhere to cool off, which could be a water source, but more often he’ll head into the shade of coniferous cover. If you know the area, you’ll find the cover.
You missed getting your moose during the rut? Consider hunting the post-rut, but understand you’ll have to change your strategies to be successful. Bulls, in particular, tend to travel significantly less during the post-rut, preferring to recover from the rigours of breeding by feeding heavily. In this case, you’ll want to search for the most remote locations with the greatest abundance of prime foods. When snow is on the ground, tracking is also an effective method for hunting post-rut moose. If you find a fresh track, you can generally be assured the animal that made it isn’t far away.
Don’t Die in the Hole
The bottom line is that moose hunters should take a page from the tactics of tournament fishermen—if your standard pattern isn’t producing, don’t die in the hole. Instead, move on, change your strategy and make something happen. If nothing else, you’re bound to discover some new hunting grounds—and a few new tricks for finding moose—in the process.