Don’t Sleep When Calling Moose

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We carefully packed our boat full of gear and motored down river to find a spot to set up our base camp for hunting moose. The heavy, grey clouds in the sky peppered us with intermittent showers, which occasionally turned to snow. Conditions were ideal for calling moose and planning our trip near the end of September would have us on the land in what I consider prime time.

We traveled about 18 kilometres before finding an open shoreline with open timber to set up camp. The fresh moose tracks on the beach were a good sign we were in the right spot. It took about an hour to pitch the tent, string some tarps to keep the rain and snow off and collect enough wood to keep a fire roaring for several days. It was time to start calling.

I walked back to the edge of the river and did my best rendition of a love-sick cow moose. The deep, guttural moans echoed up the valley and reverberated back to me off the steep valley walls. I pulled out a small tarp from my pack and sat in the trees to watch the edge of the meandering river. Darkness would be upon us soon and the winds died down, leaving only the sound of flowing water to break the silence. After waiting 20 minutes, I called again. High on the ridge behind camp the unmistakable sound of a bull moose grunt pierced the evening air. I immediately snapped to attention and tip-toed back into camp to let my hunting partner know we had the interest of a potential bull.

The deep, single grunts were clear and decisive, letting us know exactly where the bull was hanging out. The tangle of willow and alder made it virtually impossible to shorten the distance to the bull. We listened to him, trying to coax the cow we imitated to come up the ridge to meet him. It was an exciting start to our hunt and as darkness fell I knew I would have trouble sleeping while envisioning the large antlers I anticipated coming through the trees when we called in the morning.

We awoke to a fresh layer of snow on the ground and quickly made a pot of coffee to warm ourselves from the inside. I made my way back to the river bank, with fog rising from the water’s surface, like the steam coming from my fresh java, and aimed my birch bark call down the valley to see if our bull was still vocal and in the same place. There was no response. I sat with my binoculars and watched the shoreline for the tell-tale signs of antlers flashing through the trees. Just because I didn’t hear a moose respond didn’t mean there wasn’t one around.

On my third calling sequence, the tall black form of a moose appeared on the shore about 300 metres from camp. My heart immediately starting beating faster and I lifted my binoculars to have a closer look. The bull was coming directly at me and strutting down the shore, trying to look his best for the calling cow. It was day one and with small antlers we opted to let the bull go, with the hopes of finding a bigger one. We enjoyed the encounter as the bull approached to within 100 meters before deciding to head across the river. He wasted no time swimming the distance to the far side, and I had to wonder if the frigid temperatures of the water were the reason he swam faster than I can run. He got out on the far bank and shook the water from his thick hide, sending a fan of droplets cascading in a large halo around him. He took one last look at us before trotting off into the alders.

The action made it easy to stay focused on the hunt and when we heard a grunt from high on the ridge, we knew the bull we talked to the night before was still interested and likely explained why the young bull we encountered never said a peep.

A small island just down from our camp, with calm, shallow water between it and the main shore, provided the perfect location to set up and coax the bigger bull down the hill. We found a comfortable spot on the downwind edge and sat back to call, while watching the natural opening the river channel provided.

Using my watch, we called every 20 minutes. The wind picked up, making it impossible to hear anything but the flowing water beside us. The morning slowly disappeared and after calling for five hours, my hunting partner and I started to get fidgety. I was going through my fanny pack sorting our gear while he read a magazine. I didn’t think there was any way a moose could sneak in on us. After all, how could a 1,000-pound animal be quieter than the mice I could hear scurrying through the dry grass? I watched the ducks, geese and cranes migrating overhead and checked my watch regularly for our next opportunity to call. The excitement from the morning encounter with the young bull had long but faded away and we were in the heart of what I’d describe as the moose-calling doldrums.

I’m not sure what caught my attention first, but when I looked down the edge of the long, banana-shaped island, the hulking mass and giant antlers of a moose nearly made my eyes pop out. I don’t know how he managed to get 60 metres out of the trees without us seeing him, but there he was, standing on the edge of the river channel, trying to locate the cow he’d be hearing all day. I couldn’t hear a thing but could see his mouth opening and closing as he softly grunted. The bull was too far away for a shot and we quickly flew into action to try and cut the distance. Sneaking around the far edge of the island, we hoped to come around the edge of the trees and put ourselves within 100 metres of the bull. Unfortunately, by the time we got there, the bull was gone. We weren’t sure if he heard, smelled or saw us or simply lost interest, but the gig was up and the massive-antlered bull we had come for was now just a lingering memory.

We committed the cardinal sin of moose hunting and lost our focus. I have no idea how long the bull was standing there before I saw him, but if I’d been paying attention the outcome of our calling efforts would have been very different. The bull was the largest I’ve ever encountered while hunting and he was still out there due to our mistake.

Calling moose can be the most boring thing in the world when the animals aren’t responding. However, they can show up without warning, and at any time of day, so stay focused whenever you call. I didn’t really expect the bull to show up that early in the afternoon, but why should I think he wouldn’t? I was disappointed in myself and learned a valuable lesson when it comes to filling the freezer with moose meat.

I like to describe the art and science of calling moose as hours of boredom followed by a minute of adrenaline-pumping excitement. The problem is the hours of boredom can turn into days and a wandering mind can mean missed opportunity.

We all dream of the vocal, noisy bull that comes charging to the call, and to be honest, there is nothing more exhilarating. Once, while hunting a remote lake in the Yukon, my hunting buddy and I called for five straight days without a single response. It got to the point where the hunt was starting to get mentally painful. Mid-afternoon on the fifth day, our silence was broken when a bull bellowed at us and charged the lake shore like a freight train ready to fly off the rails. It was a hair-raising experience even someone hard of hearing couldn’t have missed. Looking back, it was our focus on the hunt that led to our success.

We called consistently and timed our vocal events so we didn’t over do it. Too much calling can be the kiss of death and spacing calls 20 to 30 minutes apart is the best way to imitate a real cow moose trying to find a suitor.

Hunting with a partner does make it easier, as you can take turns being the point man. That is, watching and glassing the surroundings with the anticipation a bull will show up. Taking turns allows you to rest your brain, as staying on full alert for an entire day is extremely difficult to do and if a moose is going to show up in silent mode, it will be when you least expect it.

I find it easy to stay focused early in the morning and late evening, as that’s when I expect to have a moose respond. Truth be known, I’ve called in more bulls late morning and during the afternoon than any other period. They often need time to get to the call, traveling long distance or have to try and herd cows they’ve already gathered. Then again, they can just be shy or cautious, having encountered hunters in the past or knowing a larger bull is in the area that could potentially kick their butt. Whatever the reason, most moose take hours to bring into the call, so pick your best spot, sit down, don’t move and call consistently.

One of the most memorable moose I’ve ever taken was called right into our camp site. I was hunting a remote lake in northern Alberta and decided to call every time we were in camp. I bellowed when I got up in the morning, when checking the stars in the middle of the night, when doing dishes, before going to bed and so on. I didn’t spend the majority of my hunting time at camp, but I called consistently when there. On the fourth morning of the hunt, still nestled inside my sleeping bag, the clear and distinct grunts of a bull moose resonated through the thin canvas of my wall tent. I couldn’t believe it! My guess is the bull had been locked up with another cow and once she was bred, he headed directly for the cow he’d been listening to for days because that’s what moose do. It was one moose I almost slept through, but once legal light broke across the lake I snuck out of the tent and called the bull back to within 40 metres of where our boat was parked on the shoreline.

Find ways to keep your focus and listen and watch for any signs of Bullwinkle. I like to keep a list of what I’m seeing. It’s like a game to count birds, wildlife and even wild flowers. Watching for something as small as a new songbird will ensure you don’t miss a glimpse of an antler point or dark movement in trees. If you get tired, spell yourself off with your hunting partner, but make sure someone is always the point man. Take turns and alternate reading a book or playing word puzzles, which are also things to train your brain to stay sharp and working. I like to pack a thermos of coffee or tea and the little jolts of caffeine do help.

Expect the unexpected and you’ll find more success when calling moose. There are no standards and each bull will react differently and teach you new lessons for appreciating this giant of the forest.

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