Moose season is at an end in most areas along the highway system. The first snows came to the high country during the last few days of the season, moving moose from their normal summer haunts and many of the hunters from their camps.
The few hunters that braved the wet snow and chilly temperatures had pretty good success. That contrasted with the majority of hunters who saw little in the way of legal animals.
Patience, perseverance, and knowledge of the animal you are hunting are the keys to a successful hunt. A few days before the end of the season I ran into a hunter on an ATV traveling along a trail. I had been out walking and was returning home. This dude was just going out. It was 9 a.m., long after the majority of moose had gone to their beds.
During the course of our conversation, he told me that "moose hunting is all about luck." Actually, hunting of any kind has very, very little to do with luck.
Oh sure, the random moose that crosses the road in front of you just after lunch can be proscribed to "luck," though it is bad luck for the moose. Your luck is maybe better, depending on how good you are at running shots.
Rather than hope for that scenario, spend a little more time thinking about the wants and needs of a big ungulate. Weather, predation and hormones rule the lives of moose. Their haunts and habits change accordingly as the season progresses.
Summer finds the cows, calves and younger bulls working the swamps and ponds almost exclusively. They feed on pond weed and swamp grasses.
The larger bulls tend to stay higher, with a higher portion of their feed consisting of browse. There is a reason for this. Browse such as willows, dwarf birch and the short sedges contain a higher percentage of protein, thus allowing the big bulls to put on more fat in preparation for the rut. They come down to the swamps occasionally to feed on pond weed that contains more of the sodium and potassium that moose need. (This is the same reason you will see them licking salt from the road).
The cows and younger moose can get away with feeding on the lower quality swamp feeds. The quality of the feed is likely why the cows and calves are up feeding later in the mornings and earlier in the evenings than the larger bulls.
Moose get up late in the day. Just before dark is the preferred time of rising. They will bed down again before sunup. Rainy days may have them still up by 8 in the morning.
I remember as a kid being told that if you walked out to a lookout hill in the daylight or returned home while you could still see, you were wasting your time in the woods. That really does hold true. If you want to hunt mid-day, be sitting still somewhere by mid-afternoon, because many moose will stand and feed for a few, very few, minutes before lying back down until evening.
Patience is the key. Sit. Don't ride your ATV or be moving. Find a vantage point and sit still. Persevere. Stay on the hill for hours if it has good visibility. Good things come to those who wait.
I waited to hunt this year until the last couple of days of the season. The bulls and cows were all moving, partially because of the impending rut and also in response to the changing weather. Snow made visibility excellent and I was able to spot legal moose the first evening I went out.
Often folks say snow causes the moose to move down from higher elevations. That is true if there is really substantial snow, but otherwise it depends more on the temperature. Hard early frosts, like the one in early September 2012, will kick the cows and young bulls from the swamps into the lower willow thickets. Ice is tough on their legs. The high ponds used by the bigger bulls will freeze, so the bulls will come down to access the small creeks and pools in the willow thickets that are not freezing at night.
As September progresses, bulls spend a fair amount of time stripping velvet and thrashing willows to harden and polish their antlers. Depending on the year, they will come to call by mid-month. A hot dry summer, followed by a wet fall may delay velvet stripping and rut for a few days. Most moose have stripped velvet by the first of September and will begin to move to the cows by the 15th.
This year found quite a few bulls still separated from cows by the end of season. On the 18th, I watched a medium-size animal leave a cow and head out across country at a trot. The cow looked astonished -- how could he leave me?! -- and finally followed his trail about 30 minutes later.
The last thing to think about while hunting moose is how you are going to get that big animal out of the woods. Alaska has big moose. Most field dress in the 600-pound range. Only Chukotka moose of eastern Siberia are bigger. You may be able to get an ATV to the site of a kill, but many times this will not be the case. Bring a packboard. If you are allergic to packs, bring along a young kid who doesn't know any better.
Winter is coming -- indeed, it is already here on the Denali Highway. Do some research, think of next season and prepare. Practice patience, buy good optics and a decent packframe.
And next season, bring your wife and kids. The kids can pack, and your wife will keep you out on the hill longer, because if you stay in camp, you may have to do dishes or pick berries.
John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest sled dog race. He lives near Paxson and commercial fishes in Bristol Bay.