FAIRBANKS I had never heard a moose grunt, but there was no mistaking the sound.
We were floating down a river in a raft on a weeklong hunting trip. It was about 8 p.m. and the only sound was the roll of the river and an occasional wave splashing against the rubber raft. The guttural sound of the bull grunting stood out like someone coughing in a silent theater.
As soon as I heard it, I turned to my partner and excitedly mouthed the words, ''That's a bull.''
In doing previous stories on moose hunting and moose calling, several hunters and guides had told me what a bull grunt sounded like. I had even tried imitating the sound while hunting in previous years, though with little confidence and no success.
Neither my partner nor I had called this bull. He was just walking through the woods grunting, as I had been told bulls sometimes do. We couldn't see him but we could hear him. It almost sounded like someone straining on the toilet.
With our adrenalin pumping, we paddled over to a gravel bar as quickly as we could. As we were doing so, the moose reached the river and began crossing. Out of the corner of my eye, all I could see over a rise in the gravel bar was brown antler palms. It was a good-sized bull, with an antler spread probably approaching 50 inches.
Unfortunately, he disappeared into the woods before presenting a shot. He continued to grunt for another minute or two but we could not elicit a reaction.
First, we tried to draw him out with cow calls. When that didn't work, we tried grunting and thrashing the brush. Try as we might we couldn't get that bull to show himself. We moved down the river to find a camping spot and never saw him again.
In retrospect, we should have pitched camp right on that gravel bar and spent the next two or three days trying to call that bull into camp. You should never leave an area where you've seen a bull without trying to call him in, especially when it's late in the season.
That was a lesson I learned two years later floating the same river. I awoke at about 7 a.m. to go to the bathroom and before heading back into the tent, I let out a couple of mournful cow calls. Not really expecting any response, I crawled back into the tent and began to get back in my sleeping bag.
''What are you doing?'' my partner said, wondering why I was going back to bed.
''I'm just going to sleep another half hour,'' I replied.
I hadn't even zipped up my sleeping bag when the bull grunted right outside the tent. We flew out of our sleeping bags in our long underwear, threw on our boots, grabbed our rifles and slipped out of the tent as quietly as possible. The still-grunting bull was nowhere in sight, even though we could tell he probably wasn't more than a stone's throw away. He was hidden in the brush behind our camp.
We tried to pull him out with a cow call but that didn't work. As quick as the situation developed, it ended. The moose vanished.
We spent part of that day sitting on a hillside glassing for some sign of the bull but found none. Later that evening at around 8 p.m., some 12 hours after we had heard the bull grunting outside our tent, we heard him again, this time walking along a game trail paralleling a beaver pond. We could hear the crack of his antlers against trees as he made his way down the trail toward us.
It had been almost an hour since we had let out a few cow calls. We were probably only about 10 minutes from heading back to camp when my partner heard the bull's antlers smacking against trees on the side of the trail. A few minutes later, the bull walked by us and I shot him from about 20 yards.
As you might have guessed, I am now a vocal advocate of moose calling.
Dave Kelleyhouse, one of the state's most renowned moose callers, estimates he and his hunting partners have called in at least 150 bulls in 20 years of hunting.
''It's not a science,'' said Kelleyhouse last fall. ''It's more of an art than anything else.''
Or as Master Guide Pete Buist, another expert at talking to moose, puts it, ''At the right time of year it doesn't hardly make a difference what sound you make. You can fart or burp or anything.''
The right time of year generally begins around the second week of September, when amorous moose begin the fall rut.
''Usually after September 10 or 11,'' Kelleyhouse said. ''I've called them in as early as Sept. 5 but it's usually after Sept. 10.''
That doesn't give someone hunting in an area where the season closes Sept. 15, as it does in most areas, much time.
There are four basic calls hunters use to attract bull moose, depending on the time of season and the situation:
Antler scraping on trees and brush in early September.
A pre-rut bull ''gluck'' in early September.
A ''mu-wah'' bull challenge in mid-September.
A nasal, melodic, drawn-out ''mo-ooo-ah'' cow call that starts high, goes low and ends high. Cow calls can be used to draw lone bulls in any time of the season.
''In the first part of the season a cow call works best for me,'' said Koyukuk River moose hunting guide Virgil Umphenour last fall, another expert moose caller.
Cow calls can be used to stop bulls in their tracks in the event they begin moving out of an area, too.
Brush thrashing and soft ''glucks'' work well to catch the attention of and solicit a response from nearby bulls early in the season, too.
''Many times before I open my mouth I'll thrash the brush first and then wait and then thrash again,'' Kelleyhouse said. ''A lot of times the first thing they'll do when they hear another moose is smack their antlers against the brush.''
When you stop raking and thrashing the trees, listen closely.
''Give it a good five minutes,'' said Kelleyhouse. ''Pay attention to what's going on. Listen for sticks breaking, antler rakes.''
If he gets no response by thrashing the brush, Kelleyhouse will switch to a bull challenge by issuing a series of grunts and waiting up to 30 minutes. The bull challenge should only be used if you hear bulls in the area challenging each other, Kelleyhouse advised.
''If you give a full out bull challenge to a young bull you'll put him on the get go,'' he said.
A bull challenge is most effective on big bulls in heavy rut. The call is similar to a slow ''mu-wah'' groan with the emphasis on the ''wah'' coming from your belly. It is usually issued three or four times in quick succession. If a bull responds, start raking the brush more aggressively. It's possible a bull will respond to your call but will not move toward it. ''That's because he's got cows with him,'' said Kelleyhouse.
At that point, start crashing through the brush and head straight for the bull. ''Gluck'' while you walk, too.
''They just think you're another moose,'' said Umphenour.
Any kind of call is best projected through some kind of megaphone, though cupping your hands around your mouth and plugging your nose works, too.
While effective calling may take practice, anybody can scrape a moose antler or shoulder blade against brush and do a good imitation of a bull moose scraping his antlers. If you don't have an antler or shoulder blade, you cut the bottom of a plastic milk jug out and use it. It has a handle and provides a decent imitation of antler scraping. If you have a fiberglass stock on your rifle you can use that, also.
Coffee cans can be used to imitate bull or cow calls or to duplicate the sound of a cow urinating in a pond. Esterous cows urinate frequently, said Kelleyhouse, and you might catch the ear of a bull if he is nearby. Fill the can up with water, hold it chest high and slowly pour it into the water.
To use it as a bull call, put a hole in the bottom of the can and insert a short section of thick, cotton rope with knots tied on both ends so that it fits snugly in the hole. Pull or jerk the rope through and it will imitate a grunt. To imitate a cow call, use a smaller hole in the bottom of the can and a shoestring. Wet the string and slowly pull it through the opening.
The best way to learn how to imitate a bull grunting is to hear the real thing. There are several moose calling tapes or videos available, including a 30-minute video titled ''Love, Thunder and Bull'' produced by Wayne Kubat of Alaska Remote Guide Service in Wasilla. It's the same video used at moose hunting clinics sponsored by Fish and Game and is available for check out at Fish and Game offices.
Tim Mowry is a reporter for the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner.
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