By Jason Mitchell
The guide called it, “pumping the primer.” We had slowly motored the boat up onto a sandy beach. The same exact beach where we had cow called for three consecutive mornings. Part of a milk run where we followed a schedule of hitting the same locations day after day.
Behind us was a large, round shallow bay. The kind of location that an angler would expect to find pike during the spring or summer. Beyond the shoreline were stunted pines and patches of bog. As the bow of the aluminum boat rubbed the sand and slid up onto the beach, I painstakingly grabbed my rifle and pack. Ever so careful that my numb feet or rifle stock wouldn’t hit the aluminum that seemed to amplify any unnatural sound. My climb out of the boat wasn’t graceful but was quiet.
“Pumping the primer” as the guide explained meant calling in a good location and having the sense to come back to that same location only to call some more. There was a strategy to cow calling a love-sick bull moose and that strategy was visiting the same locations repeatedly where a moose was likely to live.
“Can’t tell you how many times I will be driving the boat along and look over to see a big bull standing on the beach right in the open where I had been cow calling. They don’t always come in right away. The bull might be occupied with another cow. Sometimes they finally respond after three or more days of calling,” Craig explained in a thick Canadian accent.
Craig was the prototypical-tough moose guide, a Canadian bushman who wore a flannel shirt when most men would be inclined to wear several layers of Gore-Tex. A marvel to modern medicine as he could physically outwork you with seemingly one arm while he smoked a pack of cigarettes a day with the other arm.
We both took a knee at the edge of the water as Craig finished his cigarette, he pointed to a deadfall where I was to take a position. After moving inland about ten yards, I put up my shooting sticks and anticipated where a big old bull moose would come from. I could see Craig and my position had his approval when he nodded after we made eye contact.
Craig’s moose calling equipment consisted of a homemade birch bark cone that was laced together with a leather shoelace. A wooden canoe paddle, this crude cone and a pair of lungs was all Craig needed to sound like a love-sick cow moose. Craig took a deep breath and leaned his head back as he placed the cone up to his mouth to amplify the sound. A deep moan pierced the cold Manitoba air and seem to hang in time. A love-sick moan that started deep in the chest and carried into a far long groan. Seconds passed in slow motion. A moan was followed by another moan and then some shorter grunts that sounded guttural. I watched and listened. Craig began beating the trees next to him with the canoe paddle, snapping branches.
Minutes passed. Craig dipped his cone deep into the water like he was scooping a bucket of water. As the water poured out of the bottom of the cone into the lake, it sounded like… what I imagined a cow moose would sound like when it is urinating in the water. As I listened to the water pouring, I thought I heard something else in the water. Something much more distant. I wondered if I imagined the sound. Could have been a loon or a bird. Seconds passed. My head slowly turned so that I could see Craig. As our eyes met, he pointed to his ear and then pointed towards the direction of the boat. We both strained, listening and watching towards a direction that I would have never anticipated a moose to come from. There was more noise, a soft noise that can’t be described. A noise I couldn’t identify. Craig could see the moose before I could. I began watching Craig like a duck hunter watching his lab. He put his hands up to his head to give me the universal “antler sign” and then pointed.
I turned my shooting sticks and made sure the scope was still set on low power… waiting for a moose. For an instance, I could see four long legs moving through the trees in front of me but then the legs quickly disappeared. I heard the moose grunting. Short grunts that seemed to come with fast puffs of air, pushed forth by a massive set of lungs that expanded and contracted within a massive animal. The moose was walking to my left and even though the moose was only perhaps thirty yards in front of me, there were several trees between us. As the moose walked, I could see a sporadic glimpse moving through the trees that appeared jet black. Suddenly I realized that I was in a very bad spot. Lifting my rifle off the shooting sticks, I side stepped with my rifle and shooting sticks to a tree that was fifteen feet to my left. There was an opening in front of me that the moose was walking towards. As the bull approached the opening, I saw the antlers for the first time. Everything was steady, almost perfect. I didn’t think or second guess. When the bull stepped into the clearing and offered a shot, I put the crosshair behind the shoulder and fired one shot. The bull jumped from the impact and the hit was good. I might have been cold as ice as I pulled the trigger but noticed my fingers were shaking as I worked the bolt on the rifle to load another bullet.
Craig yelled, “shoot him again.” But before I could find the moose in the scope again, the bull started to wobble. The bull took a few steps into the water and tipped over. Within ten seconds, within ten yards of where he was hit, lay a dead moose.
On a shoreline of a very remote fly in Manitoba lake perhaps hundreds of miles from any population of people, there I stood with now trembling knees in complete awe of the entire experience. This was my very first moose hunting experience that would be etched into my memory forever. I am still in awe at the size of these animals, the places where they live. The early morning boat rides through fog on the most remote lakes.
There is nothing like the approach of a moose during the rut. A big bull will almost seem to sway back and forth as they approach. Their legs seem stiff, unable to bend. The deep grunting. You can sometimes see a fire in their eyes. The sheer size of these animals is incredible. One of my absolute favorite hunting experiences. When fall meets northern Manitoba with the first hard frost, the fall foliage is a kaleidoscope of oranges and yellows interspersed with the dark greens of conifers. A beautiful place for a beautiful game of cat and mouse.
Because moose hunting in Manitoba is done either on the water or close to the water, small boats are the primary means of transportation. Because boats are often used to access where moose live, this hunt is appealing for older hunters or hunters who are not in the best physical shape. Compared to the physical demands of a sheep hunt or even a back-country elk or mule deer hunt, moose hunting is less demanding physically. There is a small disclaimer of course… less demanding until you pack-out and load several hundred pounds of moose meat into a fourteen or sixteen-foot aluminum boat. The old-adage with moose hunting is that you shoot moose to put them down and you shoot them close to the water.
There are tremendous moose hunting opportunities in northern and eastern Manitoba particularly when hunting out of the fly-in camps. These moose hunts are very similar to a fly-in fishing camp with the exception that your dealing with much colder weather. The outfitters have enormous concessions or regions allocated for hunting. Most of the outfitters I know will rotate lakes so that specific locations are not hunted every year. Some outfitters also offer bear hunts in combination with moose hunting. Great fishing is a given for pike, walleye and sometimes lake trout and grayling. I have seen wolves, lynx and woodland caribou. Of course, what you don’t see is people. The absolute remoteness is what is perhaps most enduring about this pristine landscape.
There are several great moose hunting camps in Manitoba which are appealing for many hunters because of the logistics. A great resource of moose outfitters can be found online at www.huntfishmanitoba.ca