TAUNTON AND RAYNHAM ACADEMY GRANT, Maine — As hunting omens go, we had a good one dark and early on Monday morning, as our party prepared to head into the woods and fill my moose permit with a (possibly, hopefully) huge bull moose.
“Look at this,” my hunting buddy and sub-permittee Chris Lander exclaimed, holding up a smelly old hunting boot for my inspection. And although examining someone else’s smelly old hunting boot first thing in the morning is something I tend to avoid, I humored him and peered inside.
There it was: Chris’s wedding ring, which had apparently fallen off his finger — 35 pounds of hard-earned weight loss will make you shrink all over, he has learned — while we were unpacking two days earlier.
We had scoured the side lawn of the hunting camp with headlamps and a metal detector and, after failing to find the ring, we’d virtually given up on ever locating it.
Now, before dawn of our opening morning of moose hunting, it had turned up.
Which, for a pack of superstitious moose-hunters, could only mean one thing: Before noon, we were sure to find the monstrous critter that we’d envisioned as our “Monday moose.”
Our luck had turned. No doubt about it.
Buoyed by our find, our group — Chris’s brother Billy Lander, our friend Pete Warner and I — bounded to our trucks and drove into the still-dark woods, eager for sunrise and a fantastic adventure.
This was going to be quick. Easy. Right?
That’s not exactly how it turned out.
Baying and buzzing
Two days earlier, Chris and I had arrived at a camp on Brassua Lake that we’ve been fortunate to have been granted access to for several years. Armed with moose-hunting rifles, bird-hunting shotguns, and a truck full of food, snacks and supplies, we settled in and got down to the serious business of scouting for our moose hunt.
And if a wayward ruffed grouse crossed our paths while we were checking out a few final spots? Well, that would be a bonus.
All day Sunday, we’d scouted a bit more, bringing our mileage total since June to more than 1,000, as we prepared for the opening day of our six-day season.
And finally, we settled on a spot we thought might produce a bull come Monday morning. It wasn’t far from camp, it was near both food and water, and we’d received reports that a large moose had been spotted not far away quite recently.
I called the site “The Living Room,” for one unfortunate reason: Some lout had discarded a couch in the clearing we decided to hunt. We crept in under cover of darkness, set up, and began to call.
At 6:40 a.m., victory was ours … nearly. A bull moose grunted softly, returning our calls.
Five minutes later, the game changed when we heard the baying of a pack of dogs that we later determined belonged to a group of hunters chasing snowshoe hares.
Our moose clammed up.
A minute after that (I know this, because I keep track of all important events during our hunts), the first mosquito of the week was buzzing in my ear. Did I mention that the morning started off at an un-moose-friendly 60 degrees?
And at 6:47 a.m., the mosquito bit me.
Some hunt this was turning out to be.
A couple hours later, after a few more close-enough encounters with the baying beagles, we headed back to camp for breakfast.
On the menu, appropriately: Bacon, eggs and canned corned-beef hash that my buddies and I always call “Alpo,” because it kind of looks like dog food when it’s in the skillet.
As the day progressed, we agreed that we’d missed out on our best chance. The weather turned sour, with occasional showers turning into a potential downpour.
As darkness approached, we cowered from the rain in a ground blind, hoping for the best, but expecting the worst.
Eventually, we gave up and headed back to camp. The best news of the day: We had leftover spaghetti waiting, and though we were a bit soggy, we wouldn’t go hungry.
Not that there was ever a chance of that.
My moose-hunting group has teamed up on three hunts over the past 11 years, and we’ve always filled our tags.
We have not, however, always agreed what constitutes a “Monday moose.”
I’m not greedy, nor especially picky, but in the interest of making sure that our group stays in camp long enough to eat at least half of the food — not an easy task — I admit that I’m not apt to shoot a small bull on the first day.
Come Tuesday, the equation changes a bit. Or, it would have, should we have crossed paths with a more moderate-sized moose that was willing to participate in our hunt.
Unfortunately, the only moose we saw was a pretty alert fellow, and when he saw a pair of hunters hop out of their truck, he wasted no time in scampering back into the woods.
Yes, he scampered. I swear.
We set up in the road and tried to call him back, but the bull — not a Monday moose, but certainly one that was fit for a Tuesday — never came back.
And really, that wasn’t a bad thing. We saw that bull at 2:30 p.m., when the sun was high in the sky and the temperature had reached a decidedly un-moosey 70 degrees. Shooting a moose under those conditions would have put us on a pretty strict deadline, as getting the animal iced down and tagged as quickly as possible is critical.
After that, we went to another spot and set up for a bit, then retreated to “The Living Room” to try our hand in the place we’d begun our hunt.
On the bright side, no baying beagles showed up.
Not so bright: No moose, either. And the mosquitoes were still biting.
Luckily, our day ended with huge plates of Billy Chili, a specialty that Billy Lander always provides on these trips.
And the stories that we shared around the table had little to do with our failures. Instead, we focused on the days ahead. They’d get better. Of that, we were sure.
Cool days ahead
On Wednesday, we headed into the woods determined to figure ourselves a moose. During preseason conversations with Lee Kantar, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife’s moose biologist, he gave me some good advice.
Ignore the swamps and ponds you might expect to find moose during the summer, he told me. Instead, focus on food, and go to clearcuts that have begun to regenerate and feature tender maple trees and other plants that moose favor.
That’s what we did. After a lengthy drive up a small mountain, we found a spot that looked ideal.
It was ideal, in fact.
For someone else.
There, on the side of the road, we spotted the gutpile left by a successful moose hunter a day or two earlier. And there, in a nearby tree, perched a hungry bald eagle, anxious to get back to feeding on the offal.
That night, as we huddled in the ground blind, which we had set up overlooking a natural feeding area, Pete peered out a back window and gave us the most encouraging report of the trip.
“There’s a cow out there,” he said. “It’s with a calf.”
Moose had arrived. The only problem: Our permit was for a bull.
There’s always tomorrow, we told each other. Then we headed back to camp and gorged ourselves on Pete’s specialty, a cheesy delight that we call “Petey Pasta.”
Cold man Luke
Encouraged by the two moose we’d seen just 12 hours earlier, we headed back to the blind, which we’d left in the chopping off Luke’s Moose Road. (Honest. That’s what it says on the map).
There were moose there before, we reasoned. They might be back … and a bull might tag along.
That, at least, was the plan.
What I hadn’t entirely accounted for was the 26-degree weather that greeted us, or the fact that since a stroke I suffered a year ago, my internal thermostat seems to be on the blink.
Simply put, after an hour, I was freezing, and I begged my hunting partners — Chris’s father-in-law, Earle Hannigan, had joined us the afternoon before — to move.
“Let’s check somewhere else. Maybe we’ll see something on the way,” I said.
Chris wasn’t convinced. But knew I was struggling, and he gave in.
That’s what friends do, after all.
And a half-hour later, there we were, staring down our scopes at the moose who’d shown up to make our day.
Chris had spotted a cow in a cutting that looked just like the ones Kantar had described. I made a few calls. On cue, a small bull moseyed into view.
And there he stood, quartering toward me, for 14 minutes.(Yes, we kept track). The shot the bull gave me was not one I wanted to take. The chances of success weren’t optimal.
So we waited. And waited. And waited some more.
Eventually, Chris put his rifle on top of his head and waggled it back and forth, simulating the antler-swinging swagger of another, bigger moose. When Chris took three steps toward the bull in the cutting, everything changed.
The moose took three steps to his right. My sight-picture changed from “marginal” to “optimal” in the matter of seconds.
And then, our hunt was over.
For the record, the bull weighed 559 pounds, and sported antlers with a 34½-inch spread. It will provide plenty of meals for me and the friends who helped make the week a success.
That’s the short story.
The longer version? Well, that’s still a work in progress.
For years to come, we’ll gather in wild places like this and re-share the tales that we earned while working together. Our memories will get foggier, and our versions of the events may begin to differ over time.
But will we all cherish those stories, and the adventure we shared?
You bet we will.