The transition from hunting bull moose during the rut to hunting them afterwards is akin to switching from defence to offence. During the rut, it’s all about bringing bulls to you. After the rut, you have to go hard after them.
Why the change in tactics? The rut is taxing on bulls. They continually travel their home ranges in search of receptive cows, and often have to fight other bulls for breeding rights. As well, foraging is a low priority. So, by the time the rut ends, breeding-aged bulls are often exhausted and in markedly diminished physical condition.
Post-rut, recuperation is on the agenda as the bulls prepare for the coming harsh winter. They’ll no longer be interested in your cow calls, and will instead go to ground to rest and feed. But you can still hunt them. Here’s how.
Narrow the search
Bulls typically seek solitude following the rut, though they may tolerate the presence of other bulls. They also search for the highest-quality foods. Depending where you hunt, this could be willows, alder, birch, dogwood or other shrubs. The best forage will be growing in relatively open areas, not under the canopy of mature trees, where there is less growth. Often these prime feeding locations are associated with logging clearcuts, regrowth after burns, river deltas, south-facing slopes, lakeshores and riparian habitat. While the annual flooding and receding of water ensures continued shrub growth along rivers and lakes, shrubs in logged or burned areas will provide high-quality forage for about 15 years before they’re overtaken by trees.
Identifying a bull’s preferred post-rut feeding area can be extremely difficult—hunters often come to the conclusion that bulls have simply disappeared. They haven’t, of course, but you’ll have to do some reconnaissance to figure out where they’ve gone. Aerial photos are a godsend for this, enabling you to identify potential hideaways where a bull can hole up, understanding that he’s seeking excellent food—particularly if it’s adjacent to mature mixed woods that offer escape and thermal cover, along with a heaping dose of privacy.
Scout them out
Once you’ve identified likely bull refuges, hunting them becomes a process of elimination. When the landscape allows, glass these areas from a high point, paying careful attention to the edges where shrubs meet mature forests. Be patient when you’re glassing, as bulls may be bedded down.
Where you don’t have the advantage of being able to effectively glass an area, carefully work the perimeter, looking for signs of recent moose activity: tracks, droppings or evidence of feeding. Pay particular attention to the wind, ensuring you’re not directly upwind of where you think a bull may be hanging out.
If you spot a bull from a good vantage point, don’t rush in—he’s not going anywhere. Instead, take the time to plan a careful stalk, remembering to always approach from the downwind side. Before you begin your stalk, make note of any conspicuous landmarks to help you keep your bearings; what looks like relatively open cover is usually much denser once you’re in the thick of it.
Track them down
If you find evidence of recent activity but still haven’t spotted any bulls, you’ll need to go in after them; it’s fruitless to sit and wait for animals that have little interest in moving very far. Depending on prevailing conditions, you can either track or still-hunt your way through the promising habitat, with fresh snow being your greatest ally.
If you do cut a fresh track, follow parallel to it from the downwind side; I like to stay a good 50 metres off the track, cutting back every now and then to ensure I’m still heading in the right direction. If you walk right in a bull’s footsteps, the odds are pretty good he’ll detect you before you see him. A moose’s senses of smell and hearing are tough to beat, and more than once I’ve walked a moose track for several hours before realizing he knew I was on his trail every step of the way. I like to hunt post-rut moose on windy and wet days, as I believe those conditions best help cover my scent and sound.
When tracking, keep in mind that bulls will often buttonhook back on their trail before bedding, allowing them to watch for predators. For this reason, it’s critical to carefully scan ahead at all times, checking both sides of the trail. Even in relatively dense cover, it helps to use your binoculars, as they will often reveal a moose long before you would have seen him with your naked eye. Hunt all day if you can. Bulls will feed heavily during the shoulder hours, and through the midday they’ll alternate between feeding and bedding.
Always be ready
Depending on how and when you spot a bull, opportunities to shoot can arise quickly. Alternatively, you can have all the time in the world if you spot a feeding or bedded bull from a distance, but it pays to be ready. Once I’m in what I consider to be prime habitat, I unsling my rifle and carry it in front of me, with the scope turned down to low power, ready to shoot.
If you happen to bump a bull, sit back and relax for 20 minutes; chances are he won’t go far, especially if he’s the least bit unsure about what spooked him. Bulls are very selective about their preferred habitat during the post-rut and they really don’t want to move to a less-productive location if they’re not forced to. If you have several days to hunt, consider pulling out completely after bumping a bull and returning the next day. If you don’t pressure him too much, he’ll likely be back—ready to give you a second chance.