It was nearly 30 years ago when, I can honestly say, I had my first bull moose answer a call. I come from a non-hunting family, so most of my hunting involved learning through trial and error. I’d also read everything about moose I could find at the local library and in my favourite outdoor publications, but back then information was scarce. So, when I finally got a bull to respond, I was already patting myself on the back when it was less than 100 yards away. When I let out another long, mournful bawl, however, the bull turned tail and disappeared. I headed back to camp empty-handed that day, but in the years since, I’ve learned enough from old Bullwinkle that my successes now far outweigh my failures. Here are the five top lessons I’ve learned in moose school.
Lesson 1: Language
I think most moose hunters don’t understand what exactly they’re communicating when they’re calling moose. Obviously, the long, mournful bawl is that of a cow, but what’s she actually saying? Like most moose hunters, I was under the impression a bawling cow meant she was lonely and looking for a suitor. Although this may occasionally be the case, it’s more likely she’s expressing displeasure with the bull currently in her company-and doing a little advertising to see what else is out there.
In my early hunting years, I thought all there was to calling in a bull was to bawl in one place long enough and he would show up to service the receptive cow. Several failed attempts later, however, I realized I had to be doing something wrong. After spending some time with a grizzled old guide from northern Manitoba and actually observing moose, I finally learned why my success rate had been dismal.
When a bull hears a cow bawl, he’s attracted by the prospect of a tryst—but he also knows he’s not the only bull with sex on the brain. The best advice, then, is to quit cow calling once the bull has announced his presence. Instead, start talking to him as if you’re also a bull, as he’ll expect another male to be nearby. Rather than come crashing in looking for a fight, though, he’ll typically hang up and try to talk to the other bull to see if they can work things out. All that grunting and thrashing of willows is not done to impress the cow, but to frighten off the other bull. In a real situation, the cow remains quiet, letting the boys resolve their issues. After all, she now has two suitors, so why should she continue to call? That’s why the hunter who keeps cow calling once a bull has announced its presence is quickly identified as a fraud.
Lesson 2 : Acting
It’s easy to get a bull to answer your call and, once you speak to him in the right language, it’s easy to get him close. Getting him to expose himself for a rifle or bow shot, however, can be another matter completely. I know it might be hard for some hunters to believe, but a sage old bull coming into a call seems to know exactly where to hold up behind cover to prevent a shot. I remember one mountain bull in southern Alberta that came in three times to less than 20 yards, but he used the cover so well there was never an opportunity to shoot—even though I was packing a high-powered rifle.
To get such bulls to expose themselves, a surefire technique I discovered through loads of trial and error is to mimic their every move and sound. Unlike cows and their long bawls, bulls communicate through a series of short grunts. Some bulls like to grunt frequently, while others seem shy. The lesson here is to talk to them exactly the way they talk. Every time they grunt, you grunt. And if they start thrashing willows with their antlers, you need to mimic the sound.
If anything, most hunters are guilty of over-calling. By letting the bull set the pace of the conversation, however, you’ll draw in those bulls that like to hang up out of range. The one exception to this rule is if you start losing a bull, or he just won’t show himself. In such a case, keep mimicking his calling, but also get aggressive by thrashing nearby trees and willows. Some hunters carry an old shoulder blade from a moose or elk for this purpose, but a branch can usually get the job done.
That’s exactly how I sealed the deal on my largest bull to date. He kept coming to the call, but would hang up just out of sight every time. Finally, I beat a nearby willow with a large branch and the bull charged right in. He came in so fast, in fact, that I barely had time to raise the muzzleloader and slam a 250-grain slug into his vitals.
Lesson 3: Geography
Certainly, most moose hunters know what good moose country looks like. Areas with new willow growth, for example, are prime locations, as are spots where a fire has gone through. A burn that’s two or three years old is one of the best moose habitats you’ll find. Still, few hunters ever really stop to dissect such areas and learn where exactly moose choose to call from-and why.
During my early years of hunting moose, I figured, as many hunters do, that where you call from really isn’t that important as long as there’s fresh sign. Nothing could be further from the truth. Cow moose are very selective regarding the spots they choose to call from, and bulls are far more eager to come to a familiar location.
Hands down, the number one location to call from is a moose scrape, and it’s even better if there are several scrapes in close proximity. Bull moose, like whitetails, make scrapes to mark territory and to announce their presence. Most often found in wet ground adjacent to open areas, the scrapes are also frequented by cows. I’ve even seen cows rolling and urinating in them.
There’s little doubt when you’re near a fresh scrape, as the odour will be extremely pungent. And if you can find one, there’s guaranteed to be a moose nearby. While hunting in northern Alberta a couple of years ago, I came upon four fresh scrapes all within sight of each other. I had barely finished the first call when not one, but three bulls answered. Two of them came in quickly and got in a fight less than 50 yards away from me; the third kept his distance, trying to spot the cow while the other two bulls were occupied. One well-placed shot from my .50-calibre muzzleloader ensured a winter’s supply of meat.
If you can’t find active scrapes, choose a location where the sound carries well. A favourite of mine is a point that extends out into a lake-obviously with suitable moose habitat nearby. Another prime location is a large beaver pond. Moose love beaver ponds for the feed they provide, and the open area allows the sound of the call to carry well.
Lesson 4: Timing
Like most ungulates, moose are most active during the early morning and evening. Even during the heat of the rut, an old bull will take a nap on a hot afternoon. Calling during the shoulder hours, therefore, is generally the most productive. But after having a couple of trips ruined by extremely hot weather, I eventually developed another technique that’s resulted in several good bulls. One night—actually, it was about four in the morning—I had to answer the call of nature, so I got up and left the canvas confines of our wall tent. It had been an unusually hot week for late September, and even in the pre-dawn darkness it was still warm. As I stood admiring the northern lights and taking in the sounds of the night, I decided to let out a cow moose call, for no particular reason other than it seemed the thing to do on such a beautiful night. Not surprisingly, no answer followed. Then I went back to bed.
It was still dark when intense grunting and the crashing of willows just outside the tent awakened my hunting partner and me. I checked my watch; it was still 45 minutes before legal shooting light. There was little to do but sit in the dark and wait. Things quieted down about a half-hour later, and when we emerged from the tent at first light, there was no sign of the bull. I hadn’t even finished my first call, though, when the big bull answered, and as he strode around the point where we were camped, my partner quickly dispatched him. Yet another lesson was learned.
In fact, the pre-dawn call is as close to a guaranteed producer as there is when the weather turns hot. That’s because moose don’t like hot weather, and they’ll confine most of their activity to the hours of darkness. During the day, meanwhile, they’ll just lay up in the shade and not respond to calls. If it’s legal where you hunt, therefore, calling an hour or so before first shooting light will definitely increase your odds, especially if the weather’s hot.
Lesson 5: Psychology
If you are confident an area will produce, it likely will—if you’re patient. I used to be guilty of calling from the same location only once, and often spending just an hour or so if I didn’t get a response. Consequently, I suspect I missed seeing a lot of moose over the years. One time I called from a great-looking beaver dam, but after an hour of not getting an answer, I moved on to another location. My travels took me close to the beaver dam two days later, and I was shocked to see fresh moose tracks on top of mine, as well as some trees that had been thrashed to a pulp.
Now I’ll call from the same spot for a couple of days in a row, morning and evening, if there’s ample moose sign. Bulls move around a lot looking for receptive cows during the rut, and just because they’re not in a particular location when you call, it doesn’t mean they won’t be the next day. If a spot looks as though it should hold a bull or you’re seeing cows, spend a few days calling from it.
I scored on a nice young bull two years ago on one of the best-looking beaver ponds I’ve ever hunted. Even though we never heard so much as a grunt on our first outing, we returned the following day and had a bull come in to the first call of the morning. It was one of those spots that just looked as if it should hold moose-and it did. Often during a week-long hunt, we may only call from two or three different locations; after all, there’s no sense in running all over the country.
My last bit of advice: take the time to find the hot spots, then spend the time working them. And remember these five lessons—odds are you’ll get top marks in the field this season.