As big-game hunting guides, my wife and I have learned what works and what doesn't when it comes to calling moose.
Professional guide Heather Wilson called this bull in to three feet during the peak of the 2016 rut. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson
Climbing into her stand before daybreak on Oct. 1, my wife, Heather, settled into her stand. Overcast and rainy, it was the peak of the rut. We carefully chose her stand location after searching the area and noticing an abundance of old rubs and a maze of well-worn game trails.
After cow calling only a few times, Heather heard a series of soft grunts off in the distance. Readying her bow, she strained to see through the brush. As if on cue, the big bull broke from cover, grunting feverishly with each step and moving toward Heather’s stand. The bull was literally three feet from the base of the tree. He eventually migrated about 30 yards. Heather moaned softly, the bull turned broadside, and the rest is history. Heather drew her bow, anchored the string, and settled her sight pin on the bull’s massive chest. Upon release, her arrow sailed through the bull’s torso, and he trotted off into the cover, collapsing only 40 yards away. Her calling was perfect and the response was textbook.
As big-game hunting guides, my wife and I have learned what works and what doesn’t when it comes to calling moose. Want to do the same? Here’s how.
The rut’s biggest draw is the high probability of attracting a bull with vocalizations. Getting a bull to respond to your calls is nothing short of magical.
Calling is effective throughout the breeding period, but the key is recognizing when the action begins, peaks, and ends. Throughout most Canadian provinces and the northern United States, savvy moose hunters will be in the woods probing for the earliest eager bulls by Sept. 23 and hunting straight through until at least Oct. 8, with bulls often responding eagerly from Sept. 27 to Oct. 4. Similar to whitetails, the timing of the moose estrus is consistent from year to year. Bulls will continue looking for hot cows right up until mid-month, but most moose hunters say the calling activity abruptly subsides after about Oct. 11. Hit the peak and your odds go up. Miss these critical days and they plummet.
Wind and thermals can help or hinder calling efforts. Heavy winds can make calling ineffective because sound just doesn’t travel in these conditions. On the other hand, calm conditions – particularly when it’s cold – can carry your sounds great distances. Wake up with frost on the ground and limited or no wind, and you could be in for some great calling action. A light, switching breeze or distinct thermals carrying your scent sporadically can create difficult calling conditions. Whenever possible, set up in a manner that forces a bull to approach from upwind. My own calling efforts have been foiled on many occasions by bulls working their way to a downwind position and catching my scent.
Birchbark cones project calls well. At the end of the day, however, attracting moose is all about producing the most realistic sound possible. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson
Calling is all about realism. Do it too much or too loud, or make sounds that don’t effectively resemble a moose and you may as well go home. Whether you make your own or purchase a commercial version, the sound that resonates out of a cone-shaped call most accurately resembles the real thing. I’m a big fan of birchbark cones, but commercial varieties like Duel’s mega or 2-in-1 moose call are decent options, as well.
Bull moose are well-known for hanging up just out of bow range. More often than not, it’s while they’re still concealed by the cover of heavy timber. As a rifle hunter, this may not be an issue if they’re out in the open, but archery hunts are frequently foiled by reluctant bulls. For this reason, it’s ideal to have a hunting partner who can call for you. The best calling setups involve picking a spot with decent visibility and having your caller move 40 yards upwind before commencing. The pesky hang-up often occurs within 50 to 80 yards. This setup can often put the shooter in a perfect position for a shot opportunity.
A seasoned guide often supplements their vocalizations with other natural sounds. Bulls often stop and rake branches with their antlers. This is a display of dominance, and you can use it to lay down a challenge to an incoming bull. It’s up to you to judge the mood of the bull. You may not necessarily do this right at the beginning of your calling sequence. If he hangs up, raking a tree’s bark or branches can sometimes aggravate the bull enough to continue his approach. Many hunters use a moose scapula for this – mostly because it looks and feels somewhat like a moose antler.
Montana Decoys are portable and lifelike, adding realism to any calling situation. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson
Bulls look for breeding partners during the rut, and seasoned guides know that moaning like a cow in heat is by far the most productive way to attract a bull. Even still, discretion is in order. Call incorrectly, too much, or at the wrong times and you may as well kiss your shot opportunity goodbye. If your cow moans aren’t working or, again, if a bull hangs up and stops his approach, mix cow moans and bull grunts together. This works particularly well if you have a partner. Walking slowly, one behind the other, the hunter in front moans while the second hunter follows close behind and grunts every so often to emulate a bull tending a cow. This strategy presents the perception of competition and has worked great for me in the past.
Seemingly schizophrenic at times, bulls are often reluctant to come all the way in. Many guides combine their vocalizations with a visual stimulus; one or two cow moose decoys add realism.
Montana Decoy is well-known as the leading company producing portable, photo-realistic decoys. Bulls that see and hear what they want often eagerly approach without a second thought.
Moose leave many markers during the rut. Experienced guides pay close attention to these, localizing efforts in areas with the most sign. Fresh rubs, tracks, and rut pits are the most noteworthy.
Old rubs indicate a historical presence. Find freshly shredded trees, and you’ll soon know the size and territory of resident bulls. Rut pits, often referred to as wallows, are obvious patches of turned-up ground used by bulls and cows to communicate with one another. Perhaps the most welcome sign for moose hunters, rut pits are great indicators that you’re in the heart of the action. Bulls and cows regularly visit rut pits during their breeding period to deposit and acquire scent.
Bulls and cows regularly visit rut pits like this one during the rut, making them excellent locations from which to call. Photo Credit: Kevin Wilson
With cooling temperatures, acoustics in the woods can be wonderful, especially in the early morning and evening when frost covers the ground. Whenever possible, calling from an elevated position like a ridge or tree stand can help project your sound.
When a guide gets a response, they always evaluate whether the bull is committed or just curious. If they find a bull that’s eager to commit, they know when to stop calling. Sometimes a bull won’t grunt at all, and other times only once or twice. If he’s grunting incessantly, he’s likely coming in on a string. If you can see his head rolling back and forth from left to right and he’s grunting every few seconds, he’s committed. As long as he’s on approach and closing in, stop calling and let him come. If he hangs up, try one or two soft moans and get him in the mood again.
Calling during the rut involves picking a suitable location, mimicking moose vocalizations, waiting, and then moving and repeating to attract a bull. If you don’t hear a response immediately, be patient. I know several productive moose guides who believe in calling for up to two hours in one location, regardless of whether they hear a bull grunt back or not. They swear that if there are bulls in the area, they will come. In my experience, covering lots of ground is more effective. As a rule, I like to call for up to 30 minutes in any location before moving.