Lead a moose to water

by Scott Earl Smith | October 12, 2021
a hunter sits on a mossy rock and surveys the expanse

Moose are almost exclusively related to water­ways. Lakes, streams, rivers, swamps, and bogs are their preferred habitats. So anyone intent on hunting these magnificent creatures must know how to hunt those areas.

Hunting waterways presents both challenges and oppor­tunities. Most times waterways are easily navigated in a boat or canoe, but just because a certain area looks pro­ductive doesn’t mean it will be. Spending too much time in the wrong place is common. Being at the right place at the right time is key. And doing it all by the book is vital. Here are some gems of knowledge I’ve gathered over the years. Some from my own experiences, and some from other hunters.

By and large, my system is this: travel the lake or river system in a boat or a canoe, find likely looking habitat, check for signs, make some calls, and revisit these spots throughout the hunt. Once you see or hear a moose in the area, spend time there until you harvest an animal or until it becomes fruitless.

For the past nine seasons, I’ve had the incredible privi­lege of hunting moose on fly-in lakes in northern Ontario with an outfitter that specializes in fly-in hunting and fish­ing in Wabakimi Park and surrounding area. I’ve learned a lot about hunting moose on waterways over that period. Six hunts were successful, with 10 moose harvested. Like anything you can learn from both the wins and losses. Here’s the low-down on hunting waterways.

Keep moving

One of the best pieces of advice I can give is to constantly be on the move. Don’t post for hours on end in one place because it looks good, or because of a gut feel. The excep­tion to this rule might be known breeding areas where you have called in moose before, but even these areas are fluid from year to year. On one of my hunts my partner basically sat in one spot for the entire week. He was a manager of a large com­pany and his stress level was at the max. His idea of a great hunt was to sit in the blind, gaze across an impenetrable swamp and ponder the mean­ing of life, hoping a moose would appear.

That never happened. Lesson learned is that you can still do some pondering while moving around looking for moose. On closer examination, the swamp he hunted was riddled with wolf tracks along the edges. Likely a pack was working this area for caribou and moose.

a blaze orange hunter paddles on a quiet lake

Remember that moose habitat during the rut may differ from summer feeding areas. Bulls are often found on timbered ridges near a lake or river system. They choose these areas so they can see, hear, and smell other moose. Sand beaches are great places to check for fresh moose tracks. Some say that moose like to walk them, just like humans. I’m not sure if that’s the case, but cer­tainly their tracks can be readily spotted even from the boat, and it’s easy to discern fresh tracks from old ones. In my experience it’s more common to see bulls than cows during the rut. I suspect that’s because the bulls are the ones doing the pursuing.

Beachcombing for bulls

When you spot a sand beach or another likely spot, go and check it out. Not only should you be constantly moving along a waterway, you should be stopping frequently to check out areas that look good.

On one of our hunts, I was patrolling a sand beach for moose tracks when I spotted a submerged truck tire just out from shore. I stopped the boat, pulled the tire from the water, and dragged it to shore. As the boat was full of gear, I decided to return later in the week to retrieve it. (We were building a dock at the camp and the tire would be a fine boat bumper.)

A couple of days later, two members of my party in another boat spotted the tire and went ashore to retrieve it. Once they set foot on the sand beach, they decided to do some calling and let out a mournful cow call. To their surprise a distant bull answered and about 30 minutes later a beautiful bull was on the ground.

Later that afternoon they returned to camp with moose meat, while I brought home the tire.

Persistence pays off

a hunter with a felled moose

I’ve taken moose on the first day of the hunt, the last, and everything in between. It all boils down to being at the right place at the right time, which is what I call the magic of the hunt. Weather systems and the timing of the rut are just two factors in play.

One of my partners used to say, “You can’t shoot moose from the lodge” as we departed from the dock each day. While there may be the rare excep­tion to this rule, for the most part, he’s bang on.

My 2017 hunt was a classic example of never giv­ing up. I was hunting a small lake in Wabakimi Park with friend Ken Funk. We’d been hampered all week by relentless cold drizzle and high winds. The only animal we’d seen was a large black bear that wasn’t on our agenda. On the last full day of our hunt the weather cleared and I had a bull answer my call at first light. However, as the morning progressed we realized he just wasn’t going to show himself. We returned to camp to clean the cabin and pack our gear, as the plane was scheduled to pick us up the next morning. On Ken’s insistence we headed out into the late afternoon for a final sundown hunt.

I returned to the same place and had a wee nap on the rock where I planned to call closer to last light. When I awoke I let out a sleepy cow call. To my surprise, I heard a distant grunt that seemed to be about a kilometre away. The bull continued to grunt with the regular­ity of a metronome — only each time sound­ing louder until he came into sight. I dropped him with my .270 WSM at a cool 20 paces. To date, it’s the most exciting hunting moment I’ve experienced.

Satellite texting

Party hunting is vital to a successful moose hunt on any waterway. This past year our party of four was equipped with satellite texting units to communi­cate. We paired up in two boats and made sure each pair had access to a satellite texting unit. It was the best way to communicate. Two-way radios can be fickle in hilly terrain and they can have less range than advertised. On this hunt I received a text advis­ing me that the other pair of hunters just had a bull answer their call. My partner and I immedi­ately stopped hunting, as our group had only one bull tag left. We quickly paddled back to meet our friends and they had indeed harvested that bull.

Garmin satellite unit

Satellite texting units range from $350-$450. Service plans start at $20 per month with very limited usage. More comprehensive plans range from $35-$125 per month, and most allow you to suspend service during periods where you don’t require it. Keep in mind that you still need to stay within the provincially regulated five-kilometre range of each other when party hunting.

Calling long distance

I choose vantage points along waterways where my call will be heard for long distances in sev­eral directions. The lake where I harvested my 2017 bull has one of the best calling spots I’ve ever encountered. It’s a high rocky point on a bay, centred in a large burn from a recent forest fire. The bay wraps around that point, provid­ing about 300-degree visibility. The surround­ing hills are visible for almost a kilometre. On a calm day my calls travel for at least that far in all directions.

I make cow calls most often, but I’ve had situations where only bull grunts, followed by thrashing bushes with a paddle or a moose ant­ler have drawn responses. Moose likely have their reasons for responding favourably to one call over another, and it pays to vary your calls. Once you get a response, don’t change the music. In fact, if he’s continually getting closer don’t call at all unless he hangs up for a period of time.

Keeping quiet

Moose have an uncanny ability to pinpoint exactly where you’re calling from, so once they’re close, keep quiet. The trickiest situation is a bull that’s coming to your call silently (younger, less-dominant bulls often approach quietly). Listen for snapping twigs and antlers rubbing against branches. A bull will almost always circle to your downwind side to pick up your scent, so anticipate this by situating yourself where you can see in that direction.

Be confident that moose can hear you. Like humans, each one has a unique voice and charac­ter, so if your moose call doesn’t sound exactly like what you’ve heard on instructional videos, don’t worry. And be persistent. Several times, moose (or their tracks) have appeared in the morning in the exact spot I’d called from the evening before. One year I harvested a spiker bull on day two of my hunt that way.

Sometimes a distant bull will answer, but won’t move closer, so try reversing the norm and approach them. On one hunt when this was happening, my partner and I slipped quietly into our canoe and paddled downriver toward the bull. We pulled up on shore, took cover, and did some more calling and raking of the bush. This time, he answered with great enthusiasm and appeared moments later. It’s almost like he’d previously been warn­ing us that we were on the edge of his territory, but this time he was saying, “Ok mister, now I’m going to kick your ass!” It’s possible he’d had a cow with him, but we’ll never know.

Numerous times I’ve called while paddling down a river and had no response until I’m within a few hundred metres of them. I’m sure they heard my calls from a kilometre away, but chose to keep quiet.

Prepare for the shot

When you find a spot that looks like it could be fruitful to make a call and sit for a while, look for cover and a good shooting rest. I carry a shooting stick on all my hunts. The adjustable legs provide a variety of shooting positions, and it doubles as a walking staff. I avoid silhouetting myself against the sky by simply moving down a few steps from the pinnacle of a ridge. Look for some kind of brush to break up your outline and keep movement to a minimum.

If it’s going to be a close encounter, establish shooting lanes for your shot, be it for a bullet or an arrow. Keep in mind that moose have an uncanny habit of appearing from where you least expect them, so don’t call until you’re ready for action. One of the biggest mistakes you can make is calling from a motor boat under power in the middle of a bay. A moose can answer and/or appear instantly and because you’re in a moving motorized boat you’re not in a legal position to shoot, and you can’t quietly move to shore without spooking the animal.

It’s never too late

It’s also possible to call in a bull during off-peak times or even post-rut. Data supports Sept. 27 as the peak of the moose rut in much of North America, and roughly speaking, rut behaviour is common from two weeks prior to this date until two weeks after. However, my good friend and expert moose caller, Cale Wilson, has called in bulls from the last week of August until the end of season in mid-December.

I’ve been an outdoorsman all of my life and noth­ing is as exciting to me as hearing a moose come to my call. It’s visceral, heart-pounding, and unfor­gettable. You might say it’s what “calls” me back to moose hunting waterways every season.

Originally published in Ontario OUT of DOORS’ 2019 Hunting Annual

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