This is the second in an 8-part mini-series chronicling my experiences in the 2012 Ontario Moose Hunt. You can find the entire series here (it will update daily as it’s published) or check out previous years (2009, 2010, 2011). The posts appear exactly one-week after they were experienced.
I spun my head completely disoriented. It was barely light on the first day of the hunt and I was still en route to my watch with 3 other guys behind me.
And, just like that we were done hunting for adult moose for the year.
I suppose it’s bad literary form to start with the climax of the week but that’s just kind of how hunting is. Last year was six long days of wet hunting with no results. This years hunt yielded results before we started: the hunt, in many ways, was over before it started.
The morning started like every first day of the moose hunt. The alarm rallied us from sleep around 5:00AM. Many of the veterans clamored for flashlights and cups of coffee and woke around the fireplace in the kitchen. I rolled back over and stole a few more precious moments of sleep before I was flushed out of my bunk. This strategy pays off with a few extra moments of sleep but they come at a price – I rarely get coffee and, when I do, the pickings are limited.
The north is pitch black before 6:30 this time of year. Despite waking in the black of night it was obvious to see that today was going to be a bleak one. The rain was drizzling and you could tangibly feel the grey sky hiding behind the dark of the early morning hour.
Our first hunter left camp around 6:00AM. Our first hunt was about 15 minutes from camp (on four-wheelers/ ATVs) and he was sent early to stake our claim. Just as the early bird gets the worm, the first hunters get their choice and land. While we rarely see others we don’t like taking the risk so a scout goes out 30 minutes or so ahead of the crowd.
Rain is the toughest weather to hunt in (snow being the best). If you’ve never sat in a forest in the middle of a rainfall for a few hours it’s tough to believe just how loud rain is. It practically robs you of your ability to listen to the forest as the absolute roar of water hitting leaves makes hearing anything else next to impossible. If you’ve never tried it, I highly recommend it. Everything sounds quiet at first but the longer you sit there, without moving and simply listening, the louder it gets until it gets so loud that you can’t believe you didn’t hear it to begin with.
We have 12 hunters this week. Our first run was to include 9 guys on watches and 3 doggers. The 9 of us would line abandoned logging roads and trails while the 3 doggers would make their way through the forest towards the line. The objective is for the doggers to ‘push’ any animals towards the line. This can be even more important during cold, rainy days as many animals will hunker down in thick woods to try and avoid the elements. The sound of the rain also causes them havoc (though less as the water often increases their ability to smell everything around) as they can’t hear their predators (this makes dogging even more difficult) and increases their uncertainty – so many try to stay in an area if they think it’s safe.
Speaking of dogs, Shaefer (our Vizsla pup/dog) stayed home this year but he’ll be coming up in future years. There was just a lot going on and my work conference would have meant almost 7 hours of driving to bring him along. He’s promised to forgive me and I’m glad he’s with Dana to keep her company though I miss him here.
At any rate,I wasn’t a dogger today – I was the watch setter. What’s a watch setter? That’s the guy who directs each of the others on where to sit. It requires an understanding of the land you hunt as well as the animals that live on it. Setting two guys too far apart leaves space for animals to run through – setting them too close together could lead to a shorter line or even guys sitting ‘on top of each other’ (in the line of fire) which is an obvious concern. Because each of the guys know where the others are, there’s less concern about interference and more pressure to ensure that we’re in the right places/ spread our appropriately. We’ve had runs in the past where we’ve missed moose that we could have had if the line was sitting in slightly different places and there can be considerable pressure on the person setting the lines.
Not a lot of our members are comfortable setting the lines – most who are tend to be the veterans. At 39 years old I’m one of the ‘young guys’ and there’s only two of us who have been setting the lines in that group (the other has done it more than I. I volunteered to set the lines this morning and it had me somewhat nervous. It’s the first time I had set the guys on this run and we have two less guys than we typically have. And to try to do it with little coffee may not have been the best strategy!
We left camp around 6:30. It was still dark and I piloted my mothers ATV with my Father sitting on the back. We drove swiftly through the cold and dark morning and I could feel the rush of the hunt beginning. We arrived at the ‘entrance’ of our first hunt at 6:45 and met with the early hunter and waited for the rest of the team to catch up.
By 6:55 it was beginning to become light. Hunting hours start 30 minutes before sunrise and end 30 minutes after sunset. The hunting season had officially begun when we set out for the watches, still on ATV. The doggers left the main trail as we started and I drove down the road slowly, stopping every few hundred yards and pointing to indicate a ‘watch.’
By 7:10 there were 3 other guys following me, on 2 bikes. I slowed to a stop, pointed to a watch and waited to ensure that someone was getting off a bike to take it. Once they started dismounted I slowly moved ahead looking at my map, compass and the forest to scan for the next watch. I was about 50 feet in front of the two bikes when I heard it.
I spun my head completely disoriented. It was barely light on the first day of the hunt and I was still en route to my watch with 3 other guys behind me. It didn’t make any sense – the shot was definitely from one of them but they had all been on their bikes less than 10 seconds before the shot.
As I looked up I saw the three of them fanning out, each staring forward, communicating and ensuring not to get in each others way.
By now my gun was in my hands and I had jammed a few rounds into it. Our guns must be unloaded on the four-wheelers (both by law and common sense safety) but it’s amazing how quickly you can load it when you need to.
As the guys climbed the hill in front of them, I fanned out. The four of us arrived at the moose at the same time. She had been hit twice and was lying on the ground and barely hanging on to life. She wasn’t gasped or panicked but clearly on her way out of this world.
A final shot probably ended her life 30 seconds before it would have happened without it. But that meant 30 seconds less pain. She was there one moment and gone the next.
I’ve seen animals die like this multiple times in my life. It’s a very different experience than simply seeing the corpse lying dead (or buying meat on trays). The moment is filled with every emotion I know: sadness for the animal, appreciation and excitement for my family and the winter ahead, relief that the hunt has been fruitful, happiness for a friend having experienced something that I have tried to experience for 24 years and probably a little disappointment realizing that I had missed my chance.
I had driven past the cow. My focus on ensuring the watches were set correctly cost me the certain chance to harvest my first large animal. Had I not been looking at my GPS or map there is no doubt that I would have seen the animal first, halted the team, and had my first chance to harvest a moose. There’s no bitterness there – I’m thrilled that we’ll have meat for the freezer – but there is a lesson learned. The woods have an amazing way of humbling you and reminding you of the basics – I was so worried about not messing up the watches that I forgot to watch myself.
The first thing we did after harvesting the cow was to check her teats for any signs of milk. If she was milking it would mean that a calf was nearby. Calves will pair up with other cows (and some will survive by themselves) but they are also legal to hunt and are, as horrible as it may sound, some of the best eating. Calves can be 300-400 pounds and sign of one would have pushed us to scan the area further or run our hunt. With no sign of milk, our hunt was over and it was time to process the moose.
There are 3 steps to field dressing a moose:
- emptying the chest cavity (care must not be taken not to pierce the stomach as it’s smell can be overbearing)
- removal of the windpipe (it looks and feels remarkably like the hose that connects your clothes dryer to the outside world)
- removal of the anus
Each of those things rot faster than meat. They are cleaned in the field with parts left for wolves or birds (I take the heart and sometimes the liver). A gut pile is devoured in less than 24 hours in the Ontario forest.
We learned a new trick this year while cleaning the animals. One of the hunters had a ‘bone saw’ that he used to cut the breastbone which allowed easy removal of the windpipe and allowed the animal to vent/ cool faster.
The moose was loaded into a wagon, carted back to camp and skinned and quartered. By 11:00AM it was hanging in 4 pieces and beginning to age/ cure. We hang it outside in a hanging shed (it’s a giant shed without walls) that prevents rain from spoiling it but allows the meat to cool, age and set. I’ll share photos of hanging meat at a later date (with fair warning to those who don’t wish to see it) but didn’t get photos of most of the process as we were busy working.
Skinning it right away is a new practice we’ve learned in the last few years. The skin peels much easier and the meat cools quicker. It’s a fantastic method and one we will continue to do.
I really wanted to tan the hide this year but I communicated my wish too late and it was cut in four before I had a chance to get to it (this made it easier to skin). I did salvage the heart and tongue (recipes for both to come).
With the moose hanging in the tree we had breakfast, declared the hunt over for the day and had a few early cocktails! This was the only adult we could harvest (it is a very controlled system that monitors how many tags each camp gets) and we can calf hunt for the rest of the week (as well as rifle hunt bear and crossbow hunt for deer if we’d like). A lot of people struggle with the idea of the ability to harvest more youth than adults but this is a common practice in wildlife (and even garden) management called ‘culling.’ Culling the young population brings stability to it by providing more food for the remaining young, limiting the amount of prey for predators (which could soar in numbers if their available food also soared).
The party didn’t go too long though. Dad and I went for a long hike to check for sign and find and area to hunt for the rest of the week. We didn’t find much sign but it was awesome to be able to spend a few hours with just the two of us walking through the woods. These are the memories that I will forever treasure about the hunt.
Stay tuned for day four tomorrow – but do let me know if you have any questions in the meantime!