This column originally ran on Saturday, October 1, 1994
Where a wind-toppled spruce leaned on the shoulder of a shadow-paved woods road, Bob Lawrence of Rockwood slowed the pickup to a stop. Nodding toward a clear-cut beyond the spruce, the master guide said, “Yesterday morning there were five moose in this cut, three bulls and two cows. None this morning, though,” he said after a few seconds of scanning with binoculars. Then, easing the truck forward, “’Course yesterday morning was dark and overcast and that tends to keep them out longer.”
That casual but informative comment told me I was on the right track for bagging a story about moose hunting from a guide’s perspective. For the uninitiated, Monday’s dawn signals the start of Maine’s 13th annual one-week moose hunt. An experimental hunt was held in 1980, after which the Legislature approved an annual moose season beginning in 1982. There was no moose hunt in 1981.
This year, 1,200 permitted moose hunters — 1,080 residents, 120 non-residents — and their subpermittees will take to Maine’s six moose-hunting zones with the hope of tagging one of North America’s largest big-game animals. Perhaps you recall that in 1993 the Legislature passed a bill to increase the number of lottery-drawn moose permits from 1,000 to 1,500 by 1996. Accordingly, 200 additional permits were drawn this year. Depending on the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildife’s approval, moose hunters will set their sights on 1,400 permits next year and 1,500 in 1996.
“With last night’s full moon and as clear as it is this morning it wouldn’t have hurt anything if we’d been an hour or so earlier,” said Bob as we cruised the ribbon-like road winding through miles of moose-barren cuts. The day was a strong seven hours old and the sun smiled warmly as a light breeze fanned September’s smoldering foliage into flames.
Noticing the tracks scuffing and gouging the road, I agreed: “They were out all night, that’s for sure. With the rut coming on I imagine the bulls are staving around like they own the place.”
“Right,” replied the guide who owns and operates Lawrence’s Cabins and Guide Service on Moosehead Lake. “The bulls are feeling real important but the cows aren’t too impressed with them yet. Another week’ll do it … there’s one right there.” About 30 yards ahead of us, a cow moose emerged from a stand of mixed growth and trotted across the road like a horse on a hiatus from the farm.
In spite of its awkward and ungainly appearance, the cow vanished as quickly as it appeared. It was the animal’s swiftness and agility, in fact, that prompted me to ask Bob if he thought moose were any spookier after 13 years of being hunted. “I’d say they’re more camera-shy than gun-shy,” he answered. His reference, of course, was to moose watchers who can hunt from springtime through autumn.
The more we rode, the more obvious it became that, as in all hunting, weather conditions affect the moose hunt. Bob aimed at that when he said: “If we had these conditions on opening day of the moose hunt, a lot of hunters wouldn’t have to clean their rifles that night. The majority of hunters want bulls, and they just aren’t out this morning, it’s so clear and bright. That’s why I like dark overcast mornings for hunting.”
It’s no secret that successful guides do their homework, and Bob Lawrence has a history of scoring high marks in his tests. Previous to our outing, he made aerial scoutings of the zones in which he would guide his hunters and planned to do so again before the moose hunt. While most Maine hunters don’t waste much time in tagging their moose meat, most non-resident hunters are after trophy bulls and that makes the hunt more challenging.
Next week, Bob will have six non-resident hunters in camp. “Naturally, I’m looking for big bulls during my aerial surveys,” he said. “But I’m also looking for fresh cuts that are sprouting second-growth hardwoods and, preferably, are near water. You’ll find moose in those places but not there,” he said pointing to a sere brown sprawl of stumps, rocks and splintered wood. “That cut’s been sprayed with herbicide.”
“I’ve noticed,” I replied. “Some of these clear-cuts are real eyesores.” Raising a corrective finger, Bob responded with, “Plantations. They’re no longer referred to as clear-cuts. Plantations sounds better. But no matter what they call them, my opinion is that if they keep cutting and spraying and planting softwoods, the moose population will start to decline.”
His rationale is that it takes a lot of fuel to keep a moose’s boiler going and, currently, Maine’s herd is estimated at about 25,000.
How does one guide handle six hunters? “I have four other guides working for me.” Bob explained. “One of my hunters will hunt without a guide. As for myself, this year I’m guiding a bow hunter. The guy’s good. He hunts all over hell and has bagged a lot of big-game trophies but never a moose. I’ve only missed getting a moose on opening day twice, but they were taken with rifles. I’ll have to get that bow hunter within 30 yards or so of a trophy bull and that’s not going to be easy. Usually, I can stop a bull with a call, but during the rut there’s a period when they get real edgy and hard to handle.”
A trophy bull has an antler spread of 50-plus inches, field dresses at 800 to 1,000 pounds or more and is about 7 1/2 years old. Also, it’s possible for a bull moose to lose 100 pounds during the rut.
The easy-going guide chuckled as he said, “You never know where you’ll cut their trail, though. I’ve been stalking moose across cuts and had bulls that were lying in holes stand up about 10 yards ahead of me.” Imagine one of those ol’ swampers with antlers as wide as a pickup truck rising out of the ground to stare at you like Sonny Liston stared at Floyd Patterson.
“The first thing I tell my hunters,” Bob continued, “is to bring the biggest gun they’ve got. A .300 Weatherby or Winchester magnum is ideal, but a 7 mm magnum will do the job and so will a .30-06 loaded with 180-grain bullets – no open sights if I can help it. Then I lay down the ground rules: ‘no long shots, no running shots, aim where I tell you and don’t shoot until I give the word.’
“If my hunter has a subpermittee, I let them decide who’ll shoot first. None of this `one, two, three, shoot!’ stuff. If two guys shoot at the same time, they’re going to compete and that results in poor shooting. The last thing I want is a moose running off wounded. That’s why I want the first shot to be right where it counts. Most of my hunters are experienced and know the score. They listen to what I tell them and they go home happy. The guy I watch closest is the newcomer who gets his experience out of Field & Stream magazine and thinks he’s the world’s greatest hunter.
“The way I work a hunt is this: I get my hunter into an area about 15 minutes or so before daylight. If the bull I’ve scouted doesn’t show soon after, I’ll try calling him out. If that doesn’t work, I’ll get on the high ground and scan the area. If I spot him and he’s out of range, we get downwind of him and begin stalking. A bull might not go charging off when he sees or scents you, but he’ll often maintain his distance and can get into the woods before you’re close enough for a clean shot.”
Checking shooting ranges on cuts and marking them by stumps or rocks is another advantage of preseason scouting. “Most people are poor judges of range, especially across open areas,” Bob allowed. “I’ve had hunters want to shoot at moose 300 yards or so away, thinking the distance was a lot less. Problem is, the critters are so big they look close even at long range.”
As though to confirm that, the next moose we saw were two cows feeding in a clear-cut. Bob judged them to be about 300 yards away — and they did, indeed, appear closer.
Now, if you’ve dragged a deer out of the woods, you have to wonder about getting, say, a 900-pound bull moose off a clear-cut and onto a vehicle. “Slowly,” Bob answered when I asked how it was done. “I use portable winches, come-alongs, chain saws, axes, block and tackle, and a lot of heavy rope. Usually, I can move a moose about 100 yards an hour with that equipment.”
Perhaps you know that a clear-cut’s stubs, stumps, ridges, holes and humps are on a par with the Maginot Line tank obstacles of World War II.
“But the easiest way to get a moose out,” Bob admitted, “is to hire a skidder if there’s one available. It may cost $100 but it’s worth every nickel of it. You wouldn’t believe it, but I’ve seen hunters expecting to haul a moose with 50 feet of clothesline rope. Worse yet, I came onto a couple of guys trying to drag one out and it wasn’t even field dressed. Hell,” he said with a shake of his head, “a moose’s innards can weigh 200 pounds or better. Why drag that, too? The most important thing, though, is to get the animal opened up and cooled off. A moose has a lot of body heat and it will bloat and spoil in a hurry if it isn’t dressed out and iced down as soon as possible.”
As for loading the animal onto a vehicle, Bob said snowmobile trailers that tip are ideal. To get a moose onto a pickup truck, a sheet of three-quarter inch plywood serves as a loading ramp. “If there’s a banking high enough to back the truck up to, that helps a lot,” he said. In either case, a winch must be anchored to move the animal.
People who rummage around in the outdoors, though, usually are masters at “making do,” as we Mainers say. Accordingly, Bob explained how to load a moose onto a truck if a winch couldn’t be used: “It takes another truck to do it. Park it ahead of the pickup the moose is going into, run a rope from the moose over the cab and hook it onto the truck parked ahead. Then, drive it forward slowly, pulling the moose up the plywood ramp and into the pickup.”
In regard to hunting moose from a canoe, he allowed that “adds a lot of luster to the hunt” but it also adds a lot of work. “A moose shot in a bog has to be quartered. There’s just no way an animal that big can be muscled around in mud and water and rolled into a canoe.”
In giving advice to unguided hunters, Bob emphasizes preseason scouting. “Learning the road systems is important,” he said. “Hunters can waste a lot of time out there getting turned around and coming to dead ends.”
Regarding the six moose-hunting zones, he predicts hunters with permits for the Central Zone will be on prime gunning grounds; particularly in the Ragmuff area, where the road gate was opened two years ago.
The last of the five moose we saw was a spike bull wallowing in a roadside bog. Although Bob figured the animal was about 1 1/2 years old and would weigh 450 pounds dressed out, give or take, it still looked as big as a Budweiser Clydesdale.
When we arrived back at Bob’s camps in the early afternoon, the guide who also tends to deer hunters, bear hunters and fishermen allowed, “I don’t know if I’ll see you at the Greenville checking station on opening day. Unless things break right, I expect it’ll take awhile to put my bow hunter close to a trophy bull.”
“You’ll practically have to put him in its shadow,” I concurred.
“Oh, I don’t want any shadows,” Bob reproved. “I’m hoping for a dark, overcast dawn.” That’s an experienced and successful guide talking.
Moose Tracks: Since the annual moose hunt was enacted, the largest antlers recorded measured 69 1/2 inches and were worn by a bull shot by Andre Brochu of Stratton in 1987. The heaviest moose recorded was a 1,330 pound bull shot by Sterling Waterman of Gray in 1982. Last year, 934 moose were tagged during the one-week hunt.