February 22, 2020
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So you want to hunt a Maine moose? Here’s what you need to know.

John Holyoke | BDN
John Holyoke | BDN
Libby Gardner (left) and her father, Larry Gardner, both of Fort Fairfield, look out over a small cut while the sun rises on the opening day of moose hunting season in the North Maine Woods.

A Maine moose hunt can be one of the best adventures you’ll ever embark upon. Or, if you’re not careful and don’t do your homework, it could turn into a miserable experience. From the permit lottery to tagging your moose to choosing a meat cutter, here are many of the answers to questions that may crop up.

What are my chances of being drawn for a moose permit?

Well, that’s a tough one to answer. The most basic answer, I suppose, is the flippant “not very good.” But it’s really much more complicated than that.

At its essence, the question seems like a really simple math problem. In 2019, for instance, 59,185 Maine residents applied for moose permits. Of those, 2,770 received permits. That means that Mainers had a 4.7 percent chance of winning a permit, doesn’t it? Well, not really.

The complicating factor: Every year a prospective hunter enters the moose permit lottery and is not drawn, they earn a bonus point for the next year’s lottery. If I enter this year and fail, next year my name will be in the lottery twice. The year after that, three times. And so on. Then, if you’ve been unsuccessful in your quest for six to 10 years, the state gives you two bonus points per year for that five-year grouping. And you’ll earn three bonus points a year for years 11 through 15.

That means that if you’ve been loyally entering the lottery for 15 years and have yet to be drawn, you will have accumulated 30 points, or “tries” in the lottery. And if I’m entering for the first time, I’ll just have one “try.” So obviously, the more years you keep entering, the better your odds of winning become.

John Holyoke | BDN
John Holyoke | BDN
Arnold Miller of Dexter celebrates after hearing his name during the Maine Moose Permit Lottery and Festival at Cabela's in Scarborough on Saturday, June 8, 2019.

How can I improve my chances?

How do I say this as politely as possible? Keep entering, and get old. Do those two things, and I guarantee you’ll earn a moose permit.

And I’m not being facetious: The state has come up with a way to reward loyal hunters who haven’t been drawn.

Hunters who reach their 65th birthday, and who have accumulated at least 30 “preference points” are now guaranteed to win a permit.

Another consideration: The less picky you are, the better your shot at going on a moose hunt. State wildlife officials allow hunters to be quite selective when they apply for a moose permit, and will let an applicant choose which seasons they’ll accept a permit in, and in which Wildlife Management District they’d accept a hunt. If you choose just one WMD and one season, you’ll have a much worse chance at being selected than the hunter who says, “I’ll take any hunt that’s available.”

Pro tip: If you really want to go on a moose hunt, you needn’t get drawn for a permit. Just be a nice person with a wide circle of hunting buddies who’ll let you tag along. You’re likely to be welcomed along as a scout, cook or moose-dragger every few years. If you can get a pal or two to list you as their “sub-permittee,” or second shooter, all the better! Just make sure you’re being honest with those pals. You don’t want to be the guy who wins a permit after promising five other hunting buddies that you’d list them as second gun on your own hunt as long as they do the same for you. Awkward? Yup.

One thing that can’t be understated: Mainers have a much better chance at winning a moose permit than non-residents. According to Maine law, 90 percent of the permits allotted each year must go to Mainers. Some will argue that it’s not fair for non-residents to be able to purchase limitless chances in the moose permit lottery, while Mainers can only buy one chance per year. In the grand scheme, it really doesn’t matter. If every single Matty Massachusetts and Kenny Kentucky decides to buy 10,000 chances in the lottery, it will fill Maine’s fish and game coffers, and not cost Maine hunters a single permit. Period.

Or, finally, if you’re a high roller who can afford to pay more than $10,000 for a permit (yes, there are some folks like that out there), you can enter the state’s annual permit auction, which will give 10 lucky (and well-heeled) winners the chance to participate in a sealed-bid process. The proceeds benefit youth conservation education, and the average winning bid typically tops $10,000.

How does Maine moose hunting compare with other states?

For hunters looking to stay in the lower 48 states and hunt moose, Maine is the best option there is. We’ve got more moose, they’re not so hard to find, and there are all kinds of skilled guides who’ll lead hunters on enjoyable hunts. The state’s vast network of gravel logging roads make getting to the moose a relatively straight-forward endeavor.

The gold standard for more adventurous hunters in search of larger moose is Alaska. While Mainers might get a shot at 2,500 or 3,000 moose permits a year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says that state annually harvests about 7,000 moose. And while Maine’s moose herd is estimated at 50,000 to 60,000 in recent years, Alaska is home to far more moose — 175,000 to 200,000 — in a state that’s nearly 20 times as large.

Nearer to home, the moose populations in other northern New England states have suffered severe losses due to the effects of winter ticks, and hunting permits are hard to acquire. In Vermont, for instance, just 10 permits were allotted in 2018. And in New Hampshire, just 53 permits were allotted in 2018.

John Holyoke | BDN
John Holyoke | BDN
Commemorative T-shirts hang near a moose head at the Skowhegan Moose Festival on Saturday, June 9, 2018.

How much is this going to cost me?

Moose hunting is not an inexpensive activity, though there are ways to reduce the costs associated with “the hunt of a lifetime.”

A Maine resident will pay $15 to enter the permit lottery, and another $52 for the permit itself, if drawn. Lodging for a hunting party can quickly add up, however. If you hire a guide — an expense that can really come in handy — the price will be higher. A couple of northern Maine outfitters easily found on the internet charge about $3,500 for a six-day hunt, with additional hunting party members paying hundreds more for lodging and meals. An alternative: Do-it-yourself hunts, based out of a rented camp or local motel. Food costs, in that case, can be split up among those in the hunting party.

A further consideration: Those who’ve never butchered an animal before will likely need a commercial meat cutter. Skinning, cutting, the creation of sausage, and packaging will add up, and will likely cost several hundred dollars more. My first concern has always been making sure that as much of the animal is consumed as possible — it’s the ethical thing to do. In my case — since I’ve got no meat-cutting experience — I know taking a moose to an experienced butcher is the responsible thing to do.

What gear do I need?

In its moose-hunting guide, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife includes handy lists of equipment you may need on your moose hunt.

A key consideration, according to the DIF&W: You might not be able to drive all the way to the spot where your moose falls, so it’s important to be able to — somehow — drag, heft or haul the moose wherever you need it to be.

Before we start, then, let’s suggest a method that’s less gear-centric, and which won’t require pulleys, rope and advanced physics degrees: Learn to quarter your moose, then pack the pieces back to the truck. Videos that will help you learn this method are readily available, and can save valuable time when getting the moose meat cooled off is of vital importance.

Among the equipment the state advises you carry:

— Game bags, large quantity of cheesecloth, or several old (clean) bed sheets

— Sharpening stone

— 2 or 3 large plastic bags

— Cloth wiping rags

— 1/4″ to 1/2″ nylon rope

— Sharp axe or hatchet

— Sharp, stout knife – at least one

— Large sheet of polyethylene (to lay meat on while processing)

— Sturdy hand saw, preferably a boning saw

— Heavy-duty pulley and/or a winch or come-along – 1-ton minimum capacity

I’d add this: Take along a large container of black pepper. Why? Well, it turns out that the flies that swarm to a dead animal (and the resulting maggots, if left unchecked) don’t like black pepper. After you get done field-dressing the moose, liberally douse the bloody parts with black pepper, and watch as the flies disappear.

Bridget Brown | BDN
Bridget Brown | BDN
John Holyoke pursues a bull moose in 2006, his first moose hunting experience, which he succeeded in shooting.

Is my rifle powerful enough?

The DIF&W says power isn’t as important as accuracy when it comes to killing a moose, and says as long as the bullet weighs at least 130 grains, it can work.

Here’s the complete list of cartridges the DIF&W does not recommend: .243 or .244 (6mm) .303 Savage .38-40 Win. .250 (.250/.3000) .30-30 Win. .32 Win. Spec. .38-55 Win. .35 Rem. .25-06 .32 Rem. .44 Mag. .351 Win. .257 Roberts .32-40 Win. .44-40 Win. .30 Rem.

And here’s the list of recommended cartridges: .270 Win. .30-06 Sprfld. .308 Win. .284 Win. .444 Marlin .280 Rem. .30-40 Krag. .348 Win. .303 British .8mm Mauser 7 x 57 mm. .300 Sav. .358 Win.

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Aron Simmons, 81, of Port Clyde as the moose he shot is weighed at the Gateway Variety store in Ashland on the first day of the 2019 moose hunting season.

Gabor Degre | BDN

What’s the best week to hunt?

The jury’s out on this one, although surveys conducted by state wildlife officials indicate that the regular October week is more popular than the September week.

For my money? Give me September — although there are certain benefits about the October season that I’ll mention in a minute. During the September week, I’ve found that the moose are more apt to be in the middle of their mating activity, known as the rut. Because of that, they’re more receptive to calling, and can often be lured within range. By mid-October, much of the mating has been done, and calling can sometimes seem fruitless.

Not that I’d refuse an October hunt, mind you. My second moose hunt was in October, and we successfully put plenty of meat in the freezer. The benefits cited by many are accurate: The weather is generally colder, which prompts more moose movement, and affords a little extra time before meat begins to spoil in the field. More foliage is off the trees, so it makes spotting a moose easier. Perhaps the biggest benefit of an October hunt: All your buddies that you brought along to help out on the dirty work can kill time bird-hunting while they’re out scouting.

Brian Feulner | BDN
Brian Feulner | BDN
From left, Tom Hale, Zack Hale and Bill Carlin strap down a 975-pound moose that Carlin shot on the first day of the 2014 moose hunt.

What do I look for when scouting?

Many people take several trips to the area they’re going to hunt, and spend time scouting areas that they think look good. Come hunting season, those trips might be virtually useless. (Not pointing fingers, here. I’ve done the same thing). Those early trips can still help hunters learn the lay of the land and figure out remote road systems, but come September and October, those moose will be acting a lot differently than they are in June and July, when they’re probably lurking close to water and munching on aquatic plants.

That’s why the DIF&W suggests scouting about a week before your hunt, looking for areas moose are currently eating, getting water or bedding down.

The department’s checklist of places to focus your efforts:

— 5- to 15-year-old clear cuts – these are favorite spots for browsing moose.

— Areas with lots of young trees – moose are often found there in the fall. Look for areas with lots of saplings about the size of your wrist, and some softwoods (such as fir or spruce trees) mixed in for cover.

— High terrain – big bulls can often be found in these spots during warmer parts of the day.

— Older, overgrown clear cuts – these still offer good food and bedding areas for moose.

Keep in mind, moose are more apt to be moving early in the day, then again just before sunset. Make sure you’re in good spots during those key hours.

How do I call a moose?

Moose calls come in many different varieties. Many callers can imitate a bull’s grunt, or a cow’s wail, using nothing more than their mouths (and maybe a cone that will boost the sound level a bit). Others opt for digital calls that you can find in many outdoor stores. Either will work just great, and switching up different calls can make the difference on your hunt.

Me? I like to think I know my limitations, and focus my effort on what I’m (almost) good at: A bull grunt. Heck, I even taught former U.S. Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell how to grunt like a bull moose. My cow call? Not so great. When I want to imitate a cow moose, I often reach for the digital call in my pocket. A warning: If you’re going to use a moose call app on your phone, please learn from my mistake. Last fall, while trying to pair a deer call app through a remote speaker, I ended up serenading the local deer herd with a cool rock n’ roll song that I inadvertently pocket-dialed. Not too stealthy.

Some people advise callers to be cautious and not overcall a moose. Because I’ve had success rousting bulls from cover with frequent, energetic calling, I tend to lean more toward the “keep talking” school of thought.

Of course, there are more ways to communicate with moose that don’t even require vocalizations. For instance, some guides keep a moose scapula, or shoulder blade, on hand so that they can rake nearby bushes, simulating the sound of a bull marking his territory. We’ve found that a simple (but solid) tree branch or piece of slash from a clear cut can also work as an imitation scapula. Just thrash the bushes a bit, make a few grunt calls, and listen for replies. For that matter, one year we had a bull follow us along a woods road after he heard me walking noisily through a bird cover. Our conclusion: Since I was making so much noise, the bull thought I was a possible love interest. Alas, that’s just a theory. He wasn’t talking.

I’ve shot it, now what?

Let’s be honest. The first thing you’re going to do is get your hunting party together, celebrate for a couple of minutes, and take a few dozen photos. But then, it’s time to get to work. Quickly.

A moose’s internal temperature is about 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and he’s wearing a thick, hairy coat. You MUST cool that moose meat down as soon as possible, or the meat is going to begin to spoil. Your best option may well be skinning and quartering the animal, and packing the meat out. With that said, most Maine moose hunters don’t do that, and instead choose to field dress the animal and take it to the tagging station whole. That’s fine. Just make sure you know how to do what you’re going to do — this video will help — and work quickly.

Then, get some ice on the moose, and drive to the tagging station. Don’t know where the nearest tagging station is? Of course you do. Because you’re smart and you know that’s something you must find out before you start hunting. Plus, you’re reading this BEFORE you go on your hunt. Click here for your tagging options.

And finally, after you’ve tagged the moose, don’t waste time driving him around town, showing him off. Instead, get yourself to the meat cutter that you called after your name was drawn for a permit back in June, and whom you reserved a spot with. You didn’t do that? Of course you did. Because (as we’ve already established) you’re reading this BEFORE you go into the woods.

You’re a responsible hunter, after all. This is the hunt of a lifetime. And you’re going to do everything you can to make sure the hunt goes off without a hitch.

 


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