ASHLAND, Maine — Popular opinion at Gateway Variety — the tagging station in this part of the north woods — was that Monday’s unseasonably warm temperatures might make the opening day of moose season a tough one for hunters.
But as 12-year-old Eben Knox of Farmington lounged on the grass at midmorning, blaze orange hunting cap pulled down over his eyes, a parade of trucks lined up beside him with hunters waiting their turns to register and weigh their animals.
By 11 a.m., the temperature in Ashland was a balmy 73 degrees, but a total of eight moose had been tagged. Other hunting parties were regularly stopping by to check out the scene before heading back into the woods.
“I woke up at 3:30 this morning,” Knox said, explaining his unscheduled nap. “I went out this morning, called, called, for a few hours. Nothing. So later tonight we’re going to go back out, and hopefully I’ll get a bull.”
Knox was hunting with his grandfather, Scott Bubier of Farmington, with Big Boom’s Northern Maine Adventures, an outfitter in Portage Lake.
In all, 955 hunters headed afield on Monday, as the first of four moose permit seasons opened. Over those four seasons, a combined 3,135 moose permits have been allotted.
Big Boom’s had quite an opening day. Boomer Nott – “Boom” to his clients – said he had six hunting parties in the woods, and two shot nice bulls shortly after sunrise. Both were back at the tagging station by 10.
“We’ve been scouting for a while,” Nott said. “I knew if we didn’t get a couple in the early morning, it’s almost too warm.”
Nott said the moose are just heading into the rut, or mating season, when the bulls are receptive to being called. That was the case on Monday morning, as both of his successful parties called in their bulls.
John Ciulla of Scituate, Massachusetts, was hunting with sub-permittee Kevin Reardon and guides Jeannette McGraw and Mike Brown when they lured a bull into shooting range at about 6:30 a.m.
The truck Ciulla’s hunting party was riding in featured a tall tower topped by a bench seat, which would have worked well to spot moose in a clear cut. Neither of the hunters ended up riding in that seat, which Ciulla called “The Tuna Tower.”
“We didn’t get that far. [Brown] was calling him in within 20 minutes,” Reardon said.
Ciulla said the group had set up and called, but didn’t think there were moose around. Then everything changed.
“We had given up,” Ciulla said. “Then my brother heard something. We all stopped, [Brown] called some more and this thing came right at us. It was exciting.”
Brothers Kerry Solt of Lehighton, Pennsylvania, and Craig Solt of Newark, Delaware, also hunted with Big Boom. They were out with guide Magella Bouchard, and ended their hunts early on opening day.
“Right spot, with the right guide,” Kerry Solt said. “[Bouchard] called but it took an hour for it to come in. It answered right away, and then it didn’t, and didn’t. It actually circled in behind us.”
Their moose weighed 762 pounds and was among the largest tagged in the early going.
Wildlife biologist Amanda Demusz of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife said she was a bit surprised by the early traffic on such a warm day.
“It’s been pretty steady. The weather’s less than ideal, it’s definitely warm,” she said. “Moose care is going to be a concern, and they’re not going to move as much. But we are getting into the rut, so there is some success with calling.”
Few hunters seemed to enjoy their success as much as Jimmy Snow of Boothbay Harbor, who was hunting with Andrew Pinkham, also of Boothbay Harbor.
When Snow emerged from Gateway Variety after filling out his post-hunt paperwork, he broke into song on the walk back to the scale where his moose was hanging.
“This magic moment,” he sang.
Snow explained that the hunting group had set up and called unsuccessfully and were moving to another spot when Adam Pinkham — Andrew’s brother — saw the large antlers moving through the trees.
And when asked if he wanted to hop into the back of the truck to pose for a few photos with his moose, he was all smiles.
“I guess we have to,” he said, climbing into the truck bed.
Maine’s modern moose hunt began 40 years ago, in 1980, when it was staged on an experimental basis. After a one-year hiatus, it returned in 1982 and has been held annually since.