BURKE COUNTY, N.D. — We’d just spent the better part of an hour belly-crawling through the grass, trying to get a glimpse of the cow moose and her calf hunkered somewhere in the scraggly poplar trees of a prairie slough.
At least we assumed she was still in the slough; there was no reason to believe she’d left. The trick was to see her without her seeing us. And then get into position for me to get a clean shot.
Easier said than done.
It was the first afternoon of four days I’d set aside to fill the cow moose tag I’d drawn for Unit M10 in northwest North Dakota. Two friends who didn’t carry guns joined me in the field, and two other friends hunting coyotes nearby and their relative who initially spotted the moose were available to help with the heavy lifting in the event I was successful.
They’re not looking for publicity, so I’ll leave it at that.
On a whim, I’d put in for a cow moose tag in M10 last spring on the final day of the application period. Moose in that part of the state are abundant enough that the Game and Fish Department this year offered 120 cow/calf tags in M10 — more than double the 55 available in 2018 — along with 70 any-moose tags that allowed hunters to shoot either a cow or a bull, up from 55 last year.
I hadn’t really expected to draw a tag. Friends had applied many times without getting drawn, but since North Dakota’s moose, elk and bighorn sheep hunts all are once-in-a-lifetime opportunities without a preference point system, getting a tag truly is luck of the draw.
Statewide, Game and Fish offered 475 moose licenses in six hunting units this year.
The months leading up to the hunt were a mix of anticipation and anxiety; anticipation at the prospect of shooting a moose and anxiety at the prospect of blowing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
If not for the local knowledge of friends who live or grew up in that area and their extensive network of landowner connections, I never would have applied.
Was I nervous? Darn right.
The fact that North Dakota moose hunters have a success rate of more than 90% did nothing to lessen the anxiety. I’m not an experienced big game hunter, but I didn’t want to be among the small percentage of moose hunters who fail to fill their tag.
Despite that anxiety, I felt I’d prepared as well as I could, putting several rounds through the .30-06 rifle I’d borrowed for the hunt. A friend helped me sight in the rifle for the ammo I was using, and the pattern I shot at 100 yards definitely was tight enough to kill a moose. Much farther than that, and I’d hold out for a better opportunity; I know my limitations.
“You’re going to kill a moose,” he assured me on several occasions.
There’s a big difference between target practice and moose hunting, though, and there’s no way I could have prepared for the deer that ran into the slough and spooked the cow moose we’d spent the past hour stalking.
The commotion that ensued when the cow and her calf stepped out of the slough wouldn’t have been out of place on an episode of “The Three Stooges.” Long story short, I was out of position and unable to make the shot.
We’d seen seen countless deer but only one other moose, a bull, to that point in the day. More than two hours of daylight remained, but a second day of hunting in cold, windy conditions appeared inevitable.
The wasted opportunity was a setback, but the moose and her calf hadn’t acted particularly disturbed as they trotted away and disappeared behind a hill to our south.
Perhaps, we hoped, they hadn’t gone far, especially with a howling northwest wind that gusted in excess of 30 mph.
Getting back into sheltered surroundings would be a priority.
Time to regroup
Clinging to that possibility, we turned around and walked south along a draw at the other side of the hill, hoping to get another look at the cow and her calf.
Then we saw it, a dark spot in the trees in a slough several hundred yards away on the same land. A quick scan through the binoculars confirmed it was the two moose.
So began the most intense — and most memorable — 20 minutes I’ve ever experienced as a hunter.
Crawling wasn’t an option from such a distance, but a massive tree with multiple trunks at the near side of the slough offered enough of a shield to keep the moose from seeing us.
Instead of looking in our direction, the cow kept looking behind her, nowhere close to the hunched-over forms working their way toward the leaning tree.
Two pheasants that erupted from the slough grass sent heart rates racing, but they were too far from the moose to have any impact.
Slowly, we inched our way closer; 200 yards, 175 yards, 150 yards. …
The moose and the calf at her rear had no idea we were there as I stepped up to the tree about 125 yards from where they stood.
It took some finagling to break off enough dead branches for a clear shot, but by leaning against the tree and using a branch to steady the rifle, I was able to get the cow in the crosshairs.
The whole encounter took maybe 15 seconds but it felt more like 15 minutes.
The first shot connected, and the moose flinched and made a 180-degree turn; I fired a second shot that also connected and was about to fire a third when she reared back and tipped over backwards.
“Moose down,” one of my friends hollered.
The calf, large enough to fend for itself, stood there a few seconds before lumbering up and out of the slough and disappearing over the horizon.
Hugs and high fives ensued as we celebrated the conclusion of a successful hunt and the harvest of perhaps the only moose I’ll ever shoot. It’s hard to describe the emotions: Elation, relief, twinges of remorse, but most of all gratitude — for the opportunity to be there and to share the moment with two of my best friends.
Moose, whether steaks, sausage or some other form, will figure prominently on the menus of our fishing and hunting excursions for the foreseeable future.
The hard work came next, but thanks to my friends’ field-dressing experience and a crew of good help, we had the moose on the trailer and were headed for the friend’s home that served as our base camp before dark. Both bullets had pierced the heart.
Skinning and quartering the moose to comply with chronic wasting disease restrictions in that part of the state would follow the next day, but the hunt was done and the pressure was off. We had three more laid-back days to enjoy our stay in northwest North Dakota.
And enjoy we did.