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Author: Thomas McIntyre
Mightier Bison once roamed here, as did more massive peccary and jaguar; even beaver of enormous dimensions (over 400 pounds) dammed streams, and no doubt full-fledged rivers. No deer anywhere, ever, though, has been as great as the present-day moose, Alces alces.
Even though it is the Big Foot monster truck of all the deer, the moose, among the large mammals such as the wild sheep and the wapiti that crossed the land bridge of Beringia from Eurasia, was rather late to the party. The moose did not migrate into what is now the continental United States until toward the end of the Pleistocene, perhaps no more than a few hundred thousand years ago. From then on, it spread east across the continent, occupying the boreal forest, river deltas, river canyons, subarctic scrub, and assorted patches of berry bushes.
Eventually moose would be found throughout Alaska and adjoining parts east and from there in a band roughly between the 55th and 45th parallels of northern latitude from the Rockies to the Maritimes. It was, of course, a major source of meat-highly prized meat-for both Indian hunter and European settler. Those settlers in their tall black hats with silver buckles had such an impoverished grasp of basic taxonomy-after generations of living in an agrarian nation where the wildest animal extant might be a Guernsey bull-that when they first clapped eyes on A. alces they had no idea that they were seeing the very same animal that was still at large just across the north sea from England in Scandinavia, where it was called the elg, or elk. So naturally, or rather more unnaturally, they gave that name to the wapiti, and asked the Indians what they called that other choicely large beast yonder, and were told, moose.
The records books recognize three subspecies of moose in North America. The biggest of all is the Alaska-Yukon moose, A. alces gigas (the "giant" moose) of Alaska, Yukon Territory, and Northwest Territories. Next is the Canada moose, considered to be A. alces andersoni from the Mackenzie River east in NWT, then from British Columbia to the Great Lakes, and A. alces americana in the rest of Canada east to Newfoundland and down into North Dakota, Minnesota, Maine, and now increasingly New Hampshire, Vermont, and even Massachusetts. Finally there is the Shiras' or Wyoming moose, A. alces shirasi, inhabiting Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Utah, Washington, and, you guessed it, Wyoming.
Size comparisons of moose are, of course, comparisons of relative colossusness, like deciding which sumo wrestler tips the scale at 450 and which at 465: They are all bigger than they have any earthly right to be. It can be argued that the Alaska-Yukon moose is the biggest, capable of approaching 1500 pounds, while the Shiras' at a mere 900 to 1000 pounds is a mere stripling. The Canada falls into the Momma Bear class in the 1200-pound range. To be sure, such numbers are more guesswork than field study, it being somewhat problematic to weigh a moose all in one piece. I do know that just the hindquarters, meat and bone only, of the last Canada moose I killed, a good six-year-old bull, came near to 300 pounds when I brought them in for processing. Add front quarters, ribs, hide, head, and internal organs, and 1200 pounds on the hoof would not be far from the mark.
Antler size is likewise a matter of how-much-more-do-you-want. The moose has the distinction of being the terrestrial mammal capable of producing the largest mass of bone (antler) in the shortest amount of time (half a year from casting the old ones to new ones cleaned of velvet), growing racks of up to 80 pounds. Moose racks are judged primarily by their span, though that is only one factor in determining the quality of a trophy. In general, and though it can vary widely, a hunter can follow the 40-50-60 rule: Any Shiras' with a spread over 40 inches, any Canada over 50, and any Alaska-Yukon over 60 should be considered a for-sure trophy moose. Needless-to-say, many more 50s are killed in Alaska, 40s in Canada, and 30s in the West than the above benchmarks, yet they are perfectly satisfactory trophies nonetheless. A trophy moose rack can, and should, also have width in the palms themselves, not just span (a practically pinched 65-inch Alaska-Yukon rack captured the world's record score). The palms should run down to good brow palms (a quick reference for gauging a moose is to look at the points growing out of the brow palms; three or more from each is usually a sign of a mature bull, though, again, there are considerable variations), and there should be good numbers of, and good-length points (maybe eight to a dozen per side) raying off the palms.
Where to look for trophy moose is another question. Big moose are at a premium as hunters appear to have rediscovered them in the last several years. Moose have had a certain down-market image, associated with deep-woods pursuit by backwoods meat-hunter types with plaid coats, earflap caps, .30-30s, and gumboots. For a long time, therefore, many "serious" hunters seemed to overlook the moose in their quests for more (supposedly) prestigious game like bighorns and elk. Having collected those animals, they began to notice that there were moose about, that a moose hunt was more affordable than another one for brown bear, and that moose could actually look quite impressive hanging on the wall. Thus there has been created a bull market in bull moose.
This increased demand has made trophy moose both less affordable and less accessible, as the best moose become located in the farthest country. There is also a great deal of talk about the impact of predation, especially by wolves in Alaska, on moose, and how this aggravates the situation with regard to finding good bulls. At the risk of sounding weasely, it's hard to say. Certainly too many wolves are not what the doctor ordered for moose, but neither are winters with deep snows, disease, and a host of other factors that may impact their population.
In the long run, though, moose have proven to be both remarkably resilient and prolific. Unlike numerous other species, they seem to be relatively immune to habitat disturbance by humans, and in fact can benefit from it, moving into areas where logging, mining, and clearing have altered the landscape. Whatever creates the opportunity for more willow and poplar to sprout up, the moose seems to be in favor of it. Its range and numbers on the rise, it is likely that the moose will sooner, rather than later, occupy the entire habitat suitable to it.
One thing moose cannot seem to do without, though, is water. They are by far the most aquatic of all North American big game. Other animals may on occasion be found near or even in water, such as caribou frantically fording a river, but you can tell their hearts aren't genuinely in it. On the other hand, it would not be out of the question to note moose sporting gills. Wherever they can find water, in stream, lake, or swamp, moose are going to go stand in it and if they can, dunk their heads down in it to feed. (As a quick mental experiment, try to think of any illustration of a moose that did not involve flowing or standing water of some sort.)
The hygrophilousness of the moose gives a hunter his first clue of where to look for it. Moose can be very few and far between, but since they are not likely to be far from water for very long, traveling a river or a lakeshore in a canoe can be a an extremely effective hunting technique. In the season of the rut, usually in September, this sort of "drift hunting" can be combined with low guttural grunting (along with pouring a stream of water into a lake to imitate the sound of a cow urinating and branch thrashing to simulate fighting) to call a moose in. Calling isn't restricted to a canoe, but can be done on land, as well, as can still-hunting.
For the best still-hunting fresh snow is nearly invaluable, and so this manner of chase is better left to the later, colder months of the fall. In the Rockies, moose are hunted pretty much the same way elk are, and I have had Shiras' moose come to my elk call, when the damn elk refused to! In open enough terrain, whether in the mountains or the low-bush country of the North, moose can even be glassed and then stalked. A bedded moose or even one standing fairly contentedly is, it must be admitted, not among the most challenging stalks a reasonably competent hunter will ever undertake-not that a moose who gets your wind cannot take off with deceptively ungainly looking strides that will cover broken ground at a clip no Grand National steeplechaser could ever hope to match.
Bullwinkle to the contrary, moose are no joke. Attacks by moose are far from unheard of, particularly by irritated cows perceiving a threat to their calves. I live in Shiras' moose country; and as I push my way through head-high willows to reach a trout stream on the mountain in the spring, I often have second thoughts about what might be lying-up in there. Which means that a real "stopper" caliber is needed to bring down a moose, right? If that were the case, all those guys in the earflap caps would have been starved out generations ago.
There is little or nothing big enough to drop a moose reliably in its tracks, but anything from, say, a .30-'06 on up, with a stout bullet, can do the job of killing one cleanly. Moose have a disconcerting habit of taking a hit and showing no reaction whatsoever. Elk may not react much either, when hit, but they will at least start to run. Moose can just go on standing there, and you can go on shooting them, certain you are hitting, but dumbfounded about what's keeping them up. And then moose will take a step and collapse. Just like that.
Personally, I like my .375 for moose-for one thing, it gives me an excuse to use it in North America-but would be perfectly content to hunt them with a .300 with 180-grain bullets. For blackpowder, I would probably want something bigger than .50 caliber, and shooting a conical, rather than a round, bullet. As for the proper draw-weight bow, you will have to ask somebody else-such young and foolish days are behind me.
Other essentials of moose hunting are ankle-fit waders with good traction soles ("Alaska tennis shoes"), and a good packframe, horse, ATV, six-wheel Argo, and/or hovercraft to carry home the moose. Better yet, find three muscle-bound and not-overly-bright high-school football players and convince them that you are letting them share in the adventure by packing out your moose for you (plan on at least two trips, each). Whatever scheme you devise, and there is no simple or easy one, as a moose hunter you are morally, ethically, legally, and not least, gastronomically obliged to get all the meat possible from your kill to your freezer. And whether you choose to display your trophy as a skull or a shoulder mount, be sure to have whatever backskin remains tanned, there being few objects more beautiful than a broad, glossy, thickly haired, multi-hued moose hide.
There is something, finally, instructive in the evolution of the moose's public image over the last hundred years, even if it's hard to say exactly what. Theodore Roosevelt made the moose the symbol of the fierce determination of a new century. Slowly, for some not entirely fathomable reason (maybe because it had come to seem distant, such distance in this case not making the heart grow fonder but instead breeding contempt) the moose turned into something risible, culminating in Rocket J. Squirrel's sidekick from Frostbite Falls. Now, at the start of another century, with the overall opportunities for hunting it never being better or more widely available, and with matters likely to continue in that direction, the moose for many hunters is back where it belongs as the ultimate deer, the greatest of all time.
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