Moose Madness

Everything you need to know to successfully hunt moose

There are but a few calls in the wild that elicit the spine-tingling exhilaration of just being there to hear them. The guttural roar of a lion as the sun sets over the African bush veld and the piercing bugle of a bull elk on a frosty September morning are two such calls. But the throaty grunts of a monster bull moose should never be overlooked. I must admit, I love hunting moose. The allure of calling to within mere metres a behemoth, rut-crazed bull is a thrilling experience like none other. Unfortunately, within hunting lore they are often overshadowed by some of the more glamorous species such as mountain sheep and elk. I believe it is time to pay them homage not only because they are largest member of the deer family, but because they occur in every province and territory other than PEI. What other big animal can stack up against these two qualifiers? None that I’m aware of.

Moose hunt. Photo by Steve Rahn.
Photo by Steve Rahn.

There are three sub species of moose in the west: the Alaska-Yukon, the Canada and the Shiras. The Alaska-Yukon is the largest antlered animal in the world and can push the scales to 1,500 pounds and grow antlers that will occasionally exceed six feet in width. BC is blessed with populations of both the Canada and Shiras.

Where They Live & How To Get There

Moose love hinterland, be it a swamp-infested spruce forest, a willow-covered valley floor, a forested mountainside, a new growth old burn or simply a remote river valley. Needless to say, many parts of British Columbia are moose pasture at its finest. Despite them living all around us, we must not lose sight of the reality that moose don’t like human encroachment, so the bottom line is that we have to find them in their backyard, not ours.

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The first step towards success on any hunt is obviously knowing where to hunt. Unfortunately, there is seldom an absolute answer, but to be successful this phase in planning a moose hunt is a must. Intuition, based on the general habitat in an area, as well as the lay of the land, has often played a key role in my final selection of a potential hunt site. A navigable river that traverses prime habitat, a remote lake surrounded by willow flats, an old burn or a series of small-interlinked navigable lakes are often the highest on my priority list. Google Earth satellite images are also helpful, and don’t forget interpersonal research, as anyone with knowledge of an area can be informative.

Now that you know where you are going, let’s take a quick look at how to get there. I firmly believe most moose are reclusive creatures, so we need to plan on getting off the beaten track. My most successful hunts have always involved either flying into a remote area, riding a horse into the backcountry or running a river boat or canoe far into the heartland of moose habitat. If you happen to fly into a remote lake, I highly recommend taking an inflatable boat or a canoe with you, as it will greatly enhance your mobility and potential success. I made it a requisite for every fly in. But if you are looking to step back to a simpler time, hunt moose on the back of a horse. It is by far and away my favourite way to hunt moose, not only for the nostalgic experience, but also the unbelievable mobility it offers.

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Hunting with horses provides a step back in time, as well as the ultimate in mobility. Photo by Weatherby.
Hunting with horses provides a step back in time, as well as the ultimate in mobility. Photo by Weatherby.

Hunt Strategies

Now, let’s put one common misunderstanding aside, that just because moose are big or may appear to be ungainly on occasion, that they are stupid. Let me assure you, it just isn’t so. Their senses, particularly their hearing and smell, are excellent and, despite the rut, they count on these defenses to keep them out of harm’s way. There are potentially six techniques to hunt moose: calling, still hunting, tracking, spot and stalk, stake out and what I will refer to as a forced encounter. By far the most successful of these has been calling.

Elevated spotting and good optics will enhance success on spot-and-stalk moose hunts.
Elevated spotting and good optics will enhance success on spot-and-stalk moose hunts.

Meanwhile, the other methods that have provided success include spot and stalk, which will require good optics and patience. I recall on one occasion where if it had not been for top-quality optics that clarified what I originally thought was a sand bank as a large set of moose antlers, I would never have gotten that big bull. Good glass is also vital in areas where regulations dictate antler type. And use height to your advantage when glassing valley floors or opposite mountain sides.

Stakeouts or stands can also produce results when they overlook willow flats or meadows, which are common at the end of many remote lakes. These areas also usually contain intersecting game trails made over the years by game in the area finding a route around the lake and are ideal for calling or a stake out.

Tracking in fresh snow or still hunting can be a blast, but both require more stealth and patience than I possess and will often lead to a very long pack unless you can get a mode of transport to your downed animal.

Tracking moose after a fresh snow can be a rewarding challenge. Photo by Weatherby.
Tracking moose after a fresh snow can be a rewarding challenge. Photo by Weatherby.

Last is a forced encounter, where the use of a mode of transport, such as a canoe, is used in prime habitat for a chance encounter with a moose. Just ensure you are aware of all regulations pertaining to hunting with a vehicle or boat.

It’s All About Calling & Timing

Over the years, I have been fortunate enough to have called to within shooting range in excess of 30 bulls. Each and every bull was a unique experience, so let’s start with some fundamentals. Calling can be effective from pre-rut right through the entire rut. There are four key elements in successful calling, and they are technique, location, timing and weather conditions.

Calling technique is a matter of learning two fundamental calls, that of a cow and a bull. Just bear in mind when calling that you are attempting to imitate a real animal, so put some feeling and realism in it. A birch bark call can be of help for long-distance calling, but for close-in work I often only cup my hands.

A birch bark moose call adds distance and a resonate tone to a moose calling.
A birch bark moose call adds distance and a resonate tone to a moose calling.

Next is location. If you aren’t where the moose are, the finest calling in the world isn’t going to garner a response. Make sure there is plenty of moose sign in the area. Look for thrashing, rutting pits and, of course, beds, pellets, and tracks. Additionally, when you select a calling site, ensure that you are reasonably well hidden and that you have good visibility for as close to 360 degrees as possible.

Most importantly is timing, and this can vary from place to place and to some degree on weather but, without a doubt, successful calling must be timed to coincide with the rut, which in most instances within Canada occurs during the latter part of September. Despite that general analysis, be prepared to be flexible, as after hearing a distant and plaintive call, I called up a 67-inch bull in the northern Yukon on Sept. 4.

Last, weather can dramatically influence calling. If the wind is howling or if a sultry hot spell has settled in, expect your success rate to dramatically fall. I have often found that an early morning calm on the heels of a stiff overnight frost, brought on by a new high-pressure system, to be about ideal. Another little trick is on those crisp, clear nights, get up in the middle of the night and utter forth with a few cow calls. It has always surprised me at how frequently a bull will move into very close proximity to your camp by morning.

My most successful calling strategy often follows a set pattern. I first begin with a cow call, then wait 10 minutes and follow it up with another cow call. I then wait a solid 20 minutes. If I have still not had a response, I will often follow up with a bull call and a bit of bush bashing with a moose shoulder blade, canoe paddle or even a stick just in case a reluctant bull is silently lurking nearby. It is always surprising just how quickly he will respond if he believes that an intruder is moving in on this phantom cow. However, if a bull doesn’t commit fully but has responded by only coming part way, carefully work your way in his direction and then use the bull call approach I just described. Just keep narrowing the gap until you have a shot. I have also used this approach on a number of bulls that I spotted that either showed no initial interest or were already with a cow.

Last, and this is always the most rewarding, is when a bull immediately responds to your call and is headed hell bent for leather directly your way. Remember, when this happens, try and keep your nerves in check and don’t overdo your calling. Respond only if he appears to be wandering off or if he stops and then only just enough to keep his attention focused on maintaining a straight line to your hidden location. I have used calling very successfully on fly-in hunts, river hunts, pack horse hunts and, on occasion, off-trails end-walk-in hunts. My calling success on these hunts outnumbers all my other successful hunts combined.

An inflatable boat on fly-in hunts greatly improves mobility and success.
An inflatable boat on fly-in hunts greatly improves mobility and success.

A Quiet Camp

Next to finding the right location and utilizing calling to improve your success, the one additional and critical element often overlooked by many hunters is that of camp site selection and maintaining a relatively quiet camp, especially if you intend on hunting in the immediate vicinity. Whether on fly in, horse pack in or a river hunt, disturbance of any kind, even in the rut, will move game out of the area, so plan accordingly. As an example, on one occasion I unfortunately chose too small a lake. The first morning out, I counted 11 bulls on the hills around camp, but after harvesting just one bull the rest left the valley by the end of the day. As a result, my hunting partner went home empty handed. Ever since, I have chosen lakes which are at least three kilometres in length, and preferably longer, with likely looking hunting locations at both ends. This then allows me to camp in the middle and I can access both ends of the lake with minimal disturbance. I have even camped on islands when and if they are available. Next, I have avoided open fires of any kind until I have a moose hanging on my meat pole. So, plan on cooking with propane or a gas stove.

Guns & Ammunition

While moose are a big critter indeed, with proper shot placement I don’t consider them a particularly tough animal to kill. Many a moose has fallen to a .30-.30 and the largest that I have ever taken, a mega Alaska Yukon bull that I’m confident went better than 700 kilograms, was shot with a standard .280 Remington. Having said that, neither calibre would be my choice for an ideal moose rifle. So, my advice here is to stick to a .30 calibre or larger and preferably even a magnum with a 180-grain bullet, especially if you intend on stretching the barrel for longer range shots. I have shot the majority of my moose with a beat up old .300 Winchester Magnum with bullet weights that varied between 180 to 220 grains. Over time, I found that a 180-grain Hornady handload that grouped sub-MOA with velocities that exceeded 3,100 feet per second was the ideal combination of long-range accuracy and killing power. Certainly, more than adequate for a clean kill right out to 517 yards, which incidentally was the longest one-shot kill I have ever made with that rifle and load on a moose. It just happened to be the evening on the last day of the season and I had a great rest, otherwise I may have never even considered that shot.

Success At Last

Moose hunting not only takes skill, but also planning. And not just of the “where should I go” variety but, just as importantly, how will I handle a moose that may weigh over half a ton when it hits the ground. My first rule was to never shoot a bull beyond a half mile from my nearest source of transport. That, of course, is if you aren’t hunting with the assistance of horses, as you can most often walk them right up to your downed animal. You, however, may feel that you can extend that distance. If so, bear in mind weather and just how many trips you will have to make to get that entire moose out and safely hung.

Next, have the gear to properly field dress the animal and then to pack it out. I always carried some nylon tarps on which to place the meat as it was removed from the carcass and never left home without an excellent pack frame with a solid hip strap. With a good pack, I have often carried upwards of 150 pounds of meat at a time that half mile to, more often than not, a waiting boat. While a moose can be field dressed and cut down into packable sections with a regular hunting knife, which I have done on many occasions, a compact bone saw or an axe can also prove useful. Particularly an axe, if for nothing more than removing the antlers from the skull.

Lastly, get the meat up off the ground and hung on a meat pole as soon as possible, preferably covered in meat sacking, to not only keep the flies off it, but to keep it clean all the way home. It’s meat worthy of every bit of the effort required to enjoy its individual and savory flavour.