November 09, 2023
We worked our way up the ridge through several inches of fresh snow. This was the kind of morning we hope for in early fall in the Rockies: everything clean and new, all tracks fresh, the calm after the storm. I’d spent a day with friends in Steamboat Springs, Colo., under clear blue skies. Clouds piled up in early afternoon, and the first snowflakes began hitting as I started up Rabbit Ear Pass. It was a near whiteout long before I got to the top. With almost no visibility and the road getting icy, I crawled down the pass and took it slower yet on the narrow, winding blacktop to Walden.
Although I’d never been there, I knew Walden was the epicenter of Colorado’s Shiras moose population, and that was where my moose tag was valid come opening day the next morning. I didn’t know the area, but old friend George Taulman did. It’s not a good thing to go in cold with a special tag like that, but that’s the way the dates worked. When I drew the tag, George promised to help me out, and we agreed to meet in Walden the day before the season. He didn’t expect it to be a long hunt, but it didn’t matter: Once we started, we had as long as it took. George came in from the south and beat the storm. It was well after dark before I stumbled in, snow slacking off.
We started at daybreak on a lower slope of a big ridge on public land south of Walden. A fresh set of big tracks led us down maybe a mile or so, through scattered timber that became thicker downslope. We caught the bull at the edge of thick stuff. He was a nice bull with thick paddles, but his antlers were narrow and didn’t have many points. He stared at us for a few seconds, then moose-trotted into the trees. Not that one, not that day.
Leaving the bull to his moose pursuits, Taulman and I retreated to the main ridge and turned south again, following a clear but snow-covered hiking trail. We continued up the ridge, ignoring deer and elk tracks. On top the ridge was a flat, timber-covered mesa. Just over the crest, the hiking trail was crossed by the fresh, ski-like tracks of several moose, peeling off to the right into timber. These moose stuck to a meandering trail of their own.
The big tracks suggested at least four moose of varying size. George knew the area and knows more about Shiras moose than I’m likely to learn. I don’t think he knew for certain that there was a mature bull in the group, but it didn’t take rocket science to figure we should follow them. They led us to the southwest through flat, relatively thick pine timber. Between trees and snow-laden boughs, there wasn’t much visibility, but I assume the moose were following older, snow-covered game trails.
By late morning, the pale sunlight had chased some clouds away and was starting to peek into the forest. After a short hike of about a mile the tracks led us into a long, narrow clearing. At the far end, several dark forms stood at the edge of the next stand of trees. One was a bull—a good bull—and I was faced with a tough first-day decision. Well, maybe not so tough. This bull had wide upper palms with lots of points and multi-tined brow palms. No doubt the area held a bigger bull. Maybe we could find him, maybe not. Regardless, the bull at the end of the clearing had everything we look for in a Shiras moose.
I was shooting a Marlin lever-gun in the powerful .338 Marlin Express, probably the single most accurate lever-action I ever messed with. I’d shot a nice Colorado elk with it a bit earlier and had tremendous confidence in it and Hornady’s FTX bullet. There was no rest in the thick trees, but the shot wasn’t all that far. I dropped to one knee and tried to find the shoulder of the black bull in black shadow. At the shot the group turned, the bull trailing. We followed quickly and found him alone across the next, smaller clearing, still standing.
Moose are not especially tough, but they are big and often seem oddly impervious to “bullet shock,” as we like to describe it. It’s not unusual for a bull to stand motionless, seemingly unaffected, after a first well-placed shot. I shot him again in the same shoulder, and this time he went down hard.
This was a good bull, and I still think it was a good decision to take him, but who knows? Regardless, the permit was filled, and we had a whole lot of work to do.
SIZING UP THE SHIRAS
The moose is a creature of northern boreal forests that circumnavigate the globe in the Northern Hemisphere. There are Old World and New World moose. Collectively, they are the world’s largest extant deer or antlered animals. The biggest of all probably come from Siberia; the Manchurian moose of northern China is said to be the smallest. In North America, the largest are the Alaska-Yukon giants, growing up to 1,500 pounds with antlers that can exceed 70 inches in spread. Canada moose are a bit smaller in body and antler. Some authorities (and record-keeping groups) distinguish between western and eastern Canada moose, while others do not.
Without question, our smallest moose is the dark, almost black, moose of the southern Rocky Mountains. He’s called variously the Yellowstone or Wyoming moose, but his proper handle is Alces alces shirasi, after George Shiras III. George Shiras must have been a naturalist, right? No, he was a Pennsylvania congressman. The scientific name was generously given in his honor by his buddy, George Edward Nelson (1850-1934), a naturalist and an important figure in late 19th-century exploration and early wildlife conservation. Nelson’s bighorn, the northernmost race of desert sheep, bears his name. Nelson described the Shiras moose in 1914 as being distinct from Northern and Eastern varieties.
The primary difference is size; a Shiras bull can weigh up to 1,000 pounds, with antlers downsized correspondingly. Depending on points and brow palms, a Shiras moose with a 40-inch spread is pretty good. Exceptional bulls can exceed 50 inches but are unlikely to reach the 55- or 60-inch spreads of excellent Canada moose. Visually, Shiras moose are usually darker than Northern moose, appearing almost coal black at distance. Up close, dark brown is more correct. They can and often do have lighter hairs, especially on their heads, necks and humps.
Nelson described this moose in Wyoming, which probably is still the core of the Shiras range. They are also widely distributed in Montana and Idaho, though there is suitable habitat in Utah and now spilling down into Nevada. Colorado’s modern moose herd started in the 1970s, with one of the first introductions near Walden. According to science, the moose of southwestern Alberta and southeastern British Columbia are also Shiras moose. I’ve hunted moose in B.C.’s Kootenay region and agree completely. Small and dark, these moose are somewhat geographically isolated from the larger Canada moose of northern Alberta and most of B.C.
In our Western states, drawing the tag is typically the most difficult, and certainly the most time-consuming, part of a moose hunt. Shiras moose are generally not creatures of the densest forest. Rather, they tend to hang out along stream systems with some willow thickets. In mixed cover they are highly visible, the presence and general location of good bulls often known to local residents and hunters.
Unlike exceptional elk and deer, knowledge of big bull moose is of limited utility because the tags are scarce and difficult to draw. Beat the odds and draw a coveted tag, and just like with sheep permits today, you’ll likely have all the help you need. True, you may not gain access to private land holding a big bull, but the majority of the West’s moose roam public land.
Ever since Shiras moose populations opened to hunting, most permits have been allocated by public drawing. The odds are never good, but I believe in the permit application system. It takes faith, persistence and consistency, but somebody has to draw, right?
In our finite human life spans, none of us can claim perfect timing. We were all born too late for something we wish we could have experienced. My timing wasn’t so bad for Western big game. I started applying for some tough permits in the late ’70s when I was still young. Sheep came first, and I added states and species as I could afford them. So it was that I got in on the ground floor when several preference- and bonus-point systems started. A great permit might be drawn the first time, but they’re usually a matter of patience.
In 1988 I threw my permit applications in with George Taulman’s United States Outfitters (USO), the first computerized application system. Today there are several that are probably equally good, but I’ve stayed with USO. The advantage to a system: For little additional cost, it provides the consistency essential to preference and bonus points. Once you start building them, you can’t afford to skip a year.
Applying for permit drawings is playing a long game, but it’s been a great game for me. In just a decade (1999), it was a mathematical near certainty that I would draw a Shiras moose permit in Wyoming. A decade later (2009), it was an equal near certainty that I would draw a Colorado moose permit. In 40-some years, I’ve also drawn three sheep and two goat permits, plus various elk and deer tags. When I drew the Colorado Shiras permit, I was still in moose drawings in other Western states. I figured two was enough and quit applying. I’m still applying in some sheep drawings, still building points, but for Bullwinkle, you aren’t competing with me.
Sadly, today’s prospective Western moose hunters have other competition. My permits came in innocent pre-wolf days. For the record, I am not anti-wolf. We should hear the occasional wolf howling in the American wilderness … just not too many, allowed to increase without management. In Alaska and western Canada, moose are the wolves’ traditional and preferred prey. Our wolf reintroduction in the Yellowstone ecosystem started with moose-hunting wolves from Alberta. They were good at what they did. As they expanded, they didn’t just decimate many long-nurtured moose populations. That much overused word means to kill one in ten. No, wolves destroyed many pockets of Shiras moose. The end result: In traditional areas, especially around the Yellowstone ecosystem, there aren’t as many moose—or as many moose permits to draw. That’s the bad news. The good news is Shiras moose continue to expand their range, especially outside of core wolf country. Permits will never be easy, but one thing is certain: If you don’t apply, you will not draw.
Public drawings aren’t the only way to get a Shiras tag. Some Western states have private-land tags, and conservation organizations sometimes auction governor’s moose permits, though both are above my pay grade. These days, those same special-opportunity state permits are increasingly offered in raffles, sometimes raising more money for conservation and management than auction tags. No different than buying a lottery ticket, the odds are not good but the investment is small … and somebody will win.
Let’s come back to those sort-of Shiras moose near the border in western Canada. Boone and Crockett draws the line at the Canadian border, only accepting moose from our Western states as Shiras. Safari Club International’s record book includes moose from adjacent Alberta and British Columbia as Shiras. This is an important distinction because permits in Canada are not by drawing; outfitters are required. But these moose are, well, Shiras moose, much smaller than the western Canada moose to the north. As such, these hunts do not carry the premium price of moose hunts in areas that produce huge bulls.
I did several hunts in B.C.’s Kootenays for various game. I concur the small, dark moose that live there look like Shiras moose. I can’t speak for extreme southwest Alberta; I’ve never been there. The Kootenays are mountainous, so hunting moose there is essentially the same as hunting moose in our Rocky Mountain West. It isn’t easy hunting, though, and the moose population is not extremely high. I took a couple of these moose, one very average, one excellent. This area of Canada is an option if you get tired of rejections in the drawings and really want one of these apartment-sized animals.
I drew my Wyoming permit in the Bighorn Mountains. An isolated range, far to the east of primary wolf territory, the Bighorns were always and remain prime Shiras moose habitat. I hunted with veteran local outfitter Toby Johnson. He knew the moose, and the hunt was on his home turf; it was the perfect combination.
We started in the Bighorns up in the clouds. The tops, and all moose habitat, were cloaked in an impenetrable bank of fog. Glassing wasn’t possible, and there was nothing to be done but wait it out. Sooner or later, it had to break.
When it did, we spotted a magnificent bull bedded in a high basin, his back to heavy timber. There was no way to get to him from above and no vantage point within possible range. We studied the area for a long time. Glassing from an adjacent mountain at distance, our perspective was uncertain, but the only way to get in on the bull appeared to be by climbing up a cut running from the bottom of the basin. It took a long time to get around, even longer to climb up, and I had no idea what I’d see when I got there.
When I crept past the last stunted pine and peered over the lower lip of the basin, it was one of those magic and unforgettable moments. The bull was still there in the same position, his head to the left and down, and he was much closer than I expected. Not 100 yards separated me from the very big and very black Shiras.
I pushed my pack onto a low berm, slid the rifle over it and crawled in behind it. Normally I avoid neck shots. My rifle, a reworked Winchester Model 88 in .358 Win., was very accurate. The bull’s left shoulder was in an odd position, the angle uncertain, but that huge, black neck was gleaming in the sunlight. The 250-grain Sierra centered the spine where neck joins shoulder. Lights out, no movement. The real work began soon enough, but I had been looking forward to it for a long time.
- Choose tough, heavy bullets and bright scopes.
A bull moose is a big animal; even a Shiras bull is larger than most bull elk. Moose often show little initial reaction, regardless of velocity or foot-pounds. However, since they are big, it is essential to hit them with an adequate cartridge, using a bullet of enough weight and tough construction to guarantee penetration. I’ve taken various moose with everything from a .270 Win. to a .375 H&H Mag. and beyond. Any cartridge in that range will work just fine. Cannons are not necessary, but place the shot well and choose tough, heavy-for-caliber bullets.
It is coincidence that I took both my American Shiras moose with medium-caliber lever actions (.338 Marlin Express and .358 Win.). I do love my lever actions, and I was gambling on a shot at moderate range. Both worked perfectly, but with permits so rare and irreplaceable, I’m not suggesting similar gambles should be taken. The two Shiras-type moose I took north of the Canada border fell to a .338 Win. Mag. and .340 Wby. Mag. at 150 yards and something approaching 400 yards, respectively.
Moose are usually stalkable, but close shots are not a given. On that long shot, we couldn’t close the distance, and it was our last chance on the last day. I was glad I was carrying a rifle that could handle almost any situation. Because of the size of the target, big scopes aren’t necessary. However, don’t underestimate the difficulty of resolving dark animals, especially in shadowed timber. The scope must be bright, and an illuminated reticle really helps.