As seen in the Fall 2015 issue of Hunt Alaska!
When I was 10 years old I went to a moose hunting seminar with my father. At the end of the seminar, the presenter opened the floor for questions. The room consisted mostly of men, but there were a few other boys and one of them, who was even younger than I, raised his hand and asked with the utmost sincerity “So where can you find the big bulls?”
The room burst in to laughter at the boys’ innocence and naïvete, but deep down I suspect every one in that room would have welcomed an (actual) answer…because that IS the burning question isn’t it? Where ARE those big bulls? Or ANY bulls for that matter?
Well the search continues, as every time I think I may have found an answer, that answer seems to stroll off in to the brush or get shot, and then I have to start the search all over again. For the purposes of this article, it will be assumed that the reader is already at least familiar with the basics of the moose, i.e. they live across most of Alaska, they are big, they are brown, boy moose are called bulls and have antlers, girl moose are called cows and do not, they think willow branches are nature’s Twix bars, and they have funny looking faces, etc. If the reader is completely new to moose hunting, this article will hopefully educate the reader enough to realize that he or she is not prepared for a moose hunt, and to go find someone who has actually done it (successfully) before and beg and plead to tag along.
Range and Habitat
As with trying to find any animal, the main thing is to look for their food sources. Moose mostly like to chew on trees. They focus primarily on willow, aspen, birch, and alder from which they will eat the smaller branches and twigs, as well as strip the bark from the larger branches and trunks of the willow and aspen. Areas of new growth such as burned, clear-cut, or avalanched areas, the edges of streams, rivers, swamps and lakes, or places where trees have been knocked over, exposing their tender topmost branches, are all good areas to focus on. In the summer and fall months moose will also seek out many of the aquatic plants found in ponds and lakes, and in the winter they will also look to spruce buds when more nutritious forage becomes scarce.
Moose generally stay within a few miles of an area, but can range as far as 60 miles within the course of a season. Patterns vary based on region and terrain, but in South-central Alaska, where I do most of my moose hunting, they (especially the bulls) tend to stay at higher elevations between 1,500 and 3,500 ft throughout the summer and fall until the rut begins, and then the bulls begin to come down from the hills and cruise the local hangouts looking for trouble.
For a more in-depth look at moose range, habitat and basic scientific data, visit the species profile found on the Alaska Fish and Game’s website.
When to Hunt?
-Early/Mid Season (August – Early September)
The early season has several advantages. Moose have not yet been hunted and so tend to be less skittish, plus not as many legal ones are dead yet! If you are a bow hunter you get an extra week before the general season, which is even better. Finally, you have about 20 hours of shooting light, so you can really get your money’s worth out of each hunting day. A downside is that the foliage is still full and leafy at this time of year, making visibility very limited. Adding to this visibility issue is the fact that the bull’s antlers are still in velvet, making it quite difficult to separate antler from fur and branch.
Mid/Late Season (September)
September is the romanticist’s time to hunt moose. The fall colors are in full bloom, their now-white paddles glisten in the sun, and the cool pre-rut air stirs them in to restless activity.
Vegetation has died off enough to make glassing a more realistic endeavor, and you are still getting a respectable average of 15 hours of daylight.
Most importantly, mating season (colloquially referred to as “the rut”) has begun!
The rut is a magical time when bulls that only a month before who might as well have studied their disappearing acts under Houdini can be brought within spearing distance with such hunting methods as chopping firewood and taking your morning pee.
When the rut begins varies somewhat based on location and climate. Generally speaking, the farther north one goes, and/or the colder it gets, the earlier the rut starts. In my area, the rut usually begins the 3rd week of September. In recent years the fall hunting season (in my area) has been adjusted to end on the 25th of September, 5 days later then it did in the past (always check current regulations for actual dates*). This allows hunters to catch the first week or so.
Methods of Hunting
Spot and stalk
Personally my favorite method, it consists of hiking and glassing. Usually one finds a good vantage point that overlooks a section of country open enough to spot a moose if and when one appears. This works well in alpine and sub-alpine areas, or around lakes, swamps, or meadows. Once the animal is spotted, a route of attack is chosen and one stalks within range. This method can also be employed in forested areas, but there is a lot more walking and a lot less glassing involved, so your odds of connecting are consequently reduced.
A very effective and occasionally even leisurely method of hunting (if there is such a thing), this consists of taking a boat, usually a canoe or inflatable such as a Zodiac, and floating down a stream, or along the edge of a lake. This can be very effective as moose do not generally anticipate threats coming from water, and your approach can be silent, particularly if you are traveling under paddle power. The difficulty here is getting the shot. Shooting from a boat is unsteady work, and moose are not always willing to wait for you to put ashore and make a stalk. However it is a method that provides access to areas that are often otherwise inaccessible or very difficult to hunt, and one can cover FAR more ground then on foot. Plus you usually don’t have to pack the animal very far, a major consideration when hunting moose.
While a common method for other deer species in the “Lower 48” (states), hunting moose from a tree stand or blind is probably the least common method in Alaska. It is illegal in Alaska to use a feeder or to otherwise “bait” while hunting moose, and the great expanse of country combined with relatively low population densities usually makes it an unlikely prospect. This is not to say that using a tree stand or a ground blind of some kind does not have a place however. To be successful it usually requires a good knowledge of the area and some extensive pre-season scouting to find a spot that is high-traffic enough to warrant setting up a stand or a blind. The best places are usually on the edges of swamps, meadows, or water sources that have regularly used game trails nearby.
The drive or beat method can be very useful in areas with thick brush or forest where there are few or no high vantage points from which to glass, or in which it is difficult to make a quiet approach. The method is a fairly simple one in theory, but takes a little co-ordination and consideration for safety to pull off. It consists of several hunters positioning themselves at one end of a designated area, and spreading out (how far is terrain dependent, but 50 yards between each driver is usually about right). The shooters then position themselves at the opposite end of the designated area, usually on the edge of some sort of clearing that provides good visibility and fields of fire. The drivers than make their way towards the shooters, making a considerable amount of noise, which will then conceivably push the moose in to the clearing and in front of the shooters. This is one of the more dangerous methods of hunting moose as care must be taken not to fire in the direction of the other hunters, and the drivers need to beware of stumbling upon bears as they trample through the thick brush.
An incredibly effective method when employed during the rut, calling is the main-stay of many professional guides due to its effectiveness and efficiency, and any method of hunting that gets the animal to do most of the leg-work is a good method in my book. There are four basic types of calls intended to bring a bull moose in to the hunter. Cow calls, bull calls, simulated urination, and scraping. Cow calls are mostly long, drawn out wails, simulating a love-sick cow moose calling for companionship. Bull calls consist primarily of short, deep grunts that replicate a challenging bull making his presence known. Both of these methods can be created using ones mouth with a little practice, and there are several megaphone style amplifiers that help a great deal in making the sound of your calls carry. There is also a great trick involving a wet shoe-string and a coffee can (just Google it). Techniques for these calls are difficult to convey through the written word, but there are many excellent DVD and online tutorials available, and the key is practice, practice, practice. Urination simulation is simply that, a water bottle or can of water poured steadily in to a lake or pond in an effort to sound like a moose is there. Scraping simulates a bull rubbing his antlers against a tree or brush, which they do to remove the velvet from their rack, as well as a display of strength and prowess when putting on a show for other moose. Hunters who do a lot of scraping will often carry a small antler with them, or a moose scapula bone (which produces the same sound but weighs much less). If you have purchased one of the fiberglass varieties of megaphones for calling, it also works very well. If you are not carrying a scraper of some kind, a dry piece of wood can work in a pinch.
Moose have been killed with just about every gun and caliber imaginable, but most Alaskan’s carry a bolt-action rifle chambered with some sort of .30ish caliber round. General wisdom suggests a 30-06 or larger. Moose have large bodies and heavy bones, so a good controlled-expansion bullet that will hold together is important. I currently use a Remington M700 chambered in the .300 SAUM, pushing 180 gr Nosler Accubond bullets
Shots are usually taken under 250 yards, though longer shots are certainly a possibility. As the meat is a prize in and of itself, most hunters opt for a traditional behind-the-shoulder shot, targeting the lungs and heart. One advantage to moose being the size that they are is their vital area presents a target about the size of a basketball! Head, neck and spine shots have their place and are taken by hunters at times, but the moose’s large antlers can make these difficult to take.
On a related note, moose are rather notorious for absorbing lead. It is not so much that they are particularly hard to kill, rather it is that they are so big it takes them awhile to figure out that they are in fact, dead. I have seen moose that have been shot straight through both lungs or the heart (or both!) not bat a single eye and were it not for hearing the “smack” of the bullet hitting flesh, one would never know they had been hit at all! Fear not however, for in a few moments they will invariably take a step or two, falter, and tumble to the ground. That being said, I am still a firm believer in “insurance” shots. No sense in losing an animal over “one shot” bragging rights.
After the Shot
The old saying goes, hunting moose is a few moments of adrenaline followed by days of hard work. Far too many hunters have excitedly bagged their moose, only to exclaim upon approaching it, “Oh no, what on earth have I DONE!?! It is difficult to comprehend just how big a moose really is until you have seen one up close, or better yet, tried to roll one over. A big bull can weigh upwards of 1600 lb’s on the hoof, and the antlers alone can span wider than a man is tall and weigh over 70 lb’s!
Due to this immense size, hunters generally have no choice but to process the animal wherever it decides to fall. Hopefully you were smart enough to let that moose step out of that pond, or away from the alder thicket before dropping him…
There are many ways to break down a moose, and each one would be an article in itself, but let’s touch on some of the basics.
Once you have insured that the animal is indeed dead (if his eyes are closed….shoot ‘em again. He’s faking it), the first step will be to clear the work area. Use a handsaw or hatchet to clear any brush that is in the way. Next be sure to take plenty of good pictures. It can be easy to get caught up in the moment and skip this step, but you will be grateful for the memories when you get home. If it is late in the day or you are going back to get help (advisable), gut the animal and prop the empty cavity open with a stick to allow it to properly cool. Moose contain a tremendous amount of heat and this will quickly go to work spoiling your meat and cape if you are not careful. When the time comes to break the animal down further, it is nice to have helping hands to hold the legs back as you work, and to re-position the animal. If you are by yourself (and even if you are not) it is handy to have some cord or rope to tie off the leg you are working on to a nearby tree or bush. A small pulley can also be useful for this, doubling your pulling power as you move the animal around.
Some hunting sections of Alaska require that you leave the meat on the bone until you are out of the field. Be sure to check the regulations carefully for your area. If you are packing your animal far, this will be a tough job, as one moose quarter can weight between 120 and 150 lb’s. If you do not have far to carry the moose, leaving the bone in is advisable anyways, as it will help preserve the meat and keep it clean. If you must pack any real distance however, you should remove the bones (regulations permitting), to save on weight as even a completely boned out moose will often yield well over 400 lb’s of raw muslce. When you have finished field butchering, it is important to cover the meat in good breathable game bags to keep the meat clean and free from bugs. Following this you should hang or lay the meat out in such a manner that allows it to cool. If there is no handy meat pole or tree, setting it atop an alder or willow patch will provide ample air movement.
Preparation and Equipment
Moose hunting is A LOT of work. Make sure you are ready for it by training in the pre-season. Go hiking, get a gym membership, and work your way up to carrying 120 lb packs if possible. Your hunt is far more likely to be successful if you are not too tired to hike that extra mile at the end of a long day to go after that big bull, and while packing a moose out is NEVER easy, it is sure a whole lot easier if it is not the first heavy pack you have put on all year!
As with any type of hunt, spend as much time practicing with your weapon of choice so that you are proficient with it and are aware of both the limitations of the weapon and your skill.
Equipment is another topic deserving of its own article, but here are the basics. Don’t take ANY new gear in to the field. Always test it before hand. Clothing should be durable and quiet. I wear a lot of Sitka brand hunting gear, wool, and fleece. As always, dress in layers, and bring more layers than you think you will need. Shoe choice depends on the terrain you choose, but don’t skimp here, get the best you can afford. Hip boots, rubber boots such as Xtra Tuffs, or insulated, waterproof leather boots with good ankle support are the most common choices. Rain gear is a must as fall is often a very wet time of year. I always carry a good raincoat and rain pants with me no matter what. Rain gear is also nice to wear while field dressing in order to stay clean(er). My field dressing or “kill kit” consists of 50’ of parachute cord, a small pulley, a skinning knife, a pocket knife, a folding handsaw, a sharpening stone, surgical gloves, surveyors flagging tape, a space blanket for laying meat on (and later protecting it from rain), and 6-8 game bags.
Hunting in Alaska usually involves a lot of glassing, and the importance of investing in the best optics you can afford cannot be overstated. Good quality optics will gather more light, allowing you to see clearly during the darker times of day. They will reduce eye fatigue on long glassing sessions, and they will hold up to Alaska’s notoriously harsh environmental conditions. The most important piece of optics you will buy are your binoculars, as you will be spending the most time on them. I carry Vortex Razor HD 10x42’s .
Spotting scopes are not quite as vital but can come in real handy when you need to count the brow tines on the stump you spotted across the valley with your binoculars. I use the Vortex Razor 20-60x85, and while heavy, it has saved me many unnecessary miles of walking. If you shoot with a riflescope, I recommend a variable power that can dial down to 4x or lower, as shots are often made in thick brush.
Backpack selection is of great importance. I recommend selecting two, the first being a smallish internal frame daypack to wear while actually out hunting, the second a large, high quality external frame pack for hauling out the meat and antlers. Internal frame packs are difficult to lash large antlers or quarters with bones to them, and they do not provide enough support when carrying heavy, often awkward 100-plus pound loads. The unrivaled Alaskan favorite is the venerable Barney’s Pack, available only at the famous Barney’s Sport Chalet in Anchorage.
Remember that moose country is also bear country. Bear spray and electric bear fences provide some piece of mind, and one should always practice safe camping, keeping food locked up or hung in a tree some distance from camp, and doing the same with any meat or trophies that are collected during the hunt.
For hunters new to hunting moose, or to hunting in Alaska in general, I hope this article has illustrated that learning curve can be rather steep. That being said, moose hunting is a rewarding and exciting endeavor not to be passed up. Be sure to do your homework, and if at all possible, employ a guide or go with an experience hunter for your first time so that the first words out of your mouth upon walking up to your moose are not “Oh no, what on earth have I DONE!?!”