The West Branch Bull
By Bucky Owen
We headed directly at him and at about 70 yards, he turned and charged up the bank. There was no way to shoot so I gave two loud grunts, he turned for an instant, and I had a heart-lung shot. After I shot, he charged over the bank and headed through the swale
Twenty years is a long time to wait for a moose permit but in 2004 it finally came! I particularly wanted to hunt in Section 4, which runs from the Golden Road north to the Reality Road and from Baxter Park west to the Canadian border. Included are sections of the Penobscot, St John and Allagash rivers and I wanted to do a traditional hunt along one of these rivers. In late September while salmon fishing we saw several moose on the West Branch between Lobster Stream and Chesuncook Lake and decided to try this area.
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Both my subpermitees could not come so I invited Matt Scott and Larry Totten to join me. We set up camp above the outlet of Pine Stream Flowage. Neither Larry nor I had ever been on a moose hunt, but we had shot elk and caribou and had to quarter them to get them back to civilization. Matt had been on two successful Maine moose hunts but was able to get a vehicle close to the animals. This trip was going to be very different! I read the material sent out by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) as well as reviewed their moose video, both of which were excellent. Mark McCollough loaned me his birch bark call that had successfully lured in two bulls and Larry and I both bought additional calls. For days, I walked around the house grunting like a bull or uttering more subdued cow calls. My wife, Sue, thought this was rather amusing and periodically responded enthusiastically! My permit was for a bull during the second season so we didn't know how well bulls would respond to
calling after the rut.
Our biggest concern was how to deal with the meat if we shot a moose. I ordered eight Alaska mesh game bags from Cabelas and had eight coolers ready to go. During September, the river was running at 1700 cfs but in early October, this dropped to 450 cfs. In 36 years this was the second lowest I had seen it. On Sunday, Matt and I met Larry at Lobster Landing. We both had 20-foot canoes as well as a 17-footer that we towed and planned to drag up into Pine Stream Flowage to access additional country. We left Lobster landing, entered the West Branch, passed under Hannibal Hamlin Bridge, and motored past Thoreau Island. It was here, more than 150 years ago, that Henry David Thoreau and Joe Polis, his guide, spent the night on their moose hunting expedition on the West Branch. Five miles downstream, we passed the mouth of Moosehorn Stream where Joe unsuccessfully hunted that first night. He later shot a moose on Pine Stream. Further down we passed Halfway House, a thriving little community during the
logging era, and then slipped past Big Island and the old Driving Camp. In many places, we had to turn off the motor and paddle because of low water. Down past the Fox Hole we set up camp above Rocky Rips. It was late afternoon, time for a little single malt.
Up by 4:30, we had finished breakfast and had to wait for first light before heading further downriver. I had a .270 sighted in for 250 yards as well as a back-up 300 H&H, which I had bought in Alaska in 1957. It bucks like a mule so I only keep it as a spare. One half mile down river, we headed for shore to do some calling. It was blowing hard out of the northeast and hearing anything was difficult. About 30 minutes after we arrived a cow and calf came down to the river to feed. I was sure a bull would follow, but nothing. Shortly both Matt and I saw a bull charge across a swale and into the woods, some 200 yards back from the river. I'm sure we didn't spook it, but it was gone. Another calf showed up and all three came to our side of the river. (Nothing like having live decoys!) Then a second cow entered the river and one of the calves swam in its direction. Its mother responded by charging the other cow and chasing her a quarter mile down river. The mother and two calves then retreated to the woods leaving the lone cow feeding on aquatics. We carefully crossed the river and I approached within 50 yards of this cow. Eventually I uttered several cow calls and she just raised her head for a moment. (Live decoy and calls!). But no luck and we finally left to try calling along Pine Stream. By noon, we were back at camp for a rest and lunch. By four, we were back at it trying first upriver and then back to where we had seen all the animals in the morning.
As we slowly moved downriver Matt said, "Look left" and standing in a small inlet was a nice 2-3 year old bull. He was staring at us head on and the canoe was pitching up and down with the waves. We headed directly at him and at about 70 yards, he turned and charged up the bank. There was no way to shoot so I gave two loud grunts, he turned for an instant, and I had a heart-lung shot. After I shot, he charged over the bank and headed through the swale. Larry brought the canoe to shore and I headed out immediately in the direction I had last seen him. About 150 feet from shore there he was almost gone and I gave him a final shot high in the neck. Larry and Matt were following a blood trail and showed up a few minutes later. After congratulations and a few pictures, Matt headed back up river for coolers and the spare canoe. Larry suggested that we not gut the animal but skin it down the back and over the quarters. We did this pulling out one leg at a time, skinning it completely, disjointing it, and
sawing off the lower portion. We then popped it into a game bag and set it out on the marsh to cool. Matt returned and we sent him back to camp for lanterns and headlamps; this was going to take some time! Once the four quarters were off, we cut off the head, separated the neck, and removed the back straps. These were all put in game bags and set out to cool. Next, we cut through about eight ribs, slid out the viscera, and removed the tenderloins. It took about two hours to butcher the animal and another hour to transport the meat to camp. I had a complete fore quarter strapped to a backboard and was navigating back to the canoe in the dark when I slipped and went over backwards. The straps were so tight I could not move. A few plaintive calls and the next thing I saw was a camera flash; Great! There was no moon nor stars and we motored back to camp by "feel." It was slow going.
Back at camp, we had a late supper and celebrated with a few more single malts. We hung some quarters, iced the rest of the meat in the coolers, and headed to bed about 10:30, exhausted, but happy.
The next morning was decision time. Could we make it back upriver with loaded canoes? We finally decided that it was impossible so Larry and I headed upriver in the rain in one 20-footer partially loaded. We had to double pole up through five sets of rapids before we got to Moosehorn Stream and easier going. At Lobster Landing, we loaded the canoe and headed all the way around Chesuncook Lake via the Telos Road to Umbazooksus and the northwest corner of Chesuncook. From there we canoed across the north end of Chesuncook and up the West Branch to camp. On the way up river, we checked the carcass and, using a chain saw, removed the antlers. Matt spent all day cutting up and bagging tenderloins and back straps as well as disjointing the larger pieces so they would fit into a cooler.
The rain ended by eight that night, the wind dropped, and by next morning the sun was shinning. By 10 am Wednesday camp was down, the canoes were loaded and we headed downriver loaded to the gunwales. We reached Umbazooksus by noon and I said goodbye to Larry and Matt. I still had to register the moose at Abol Bridge and take it to Herring Brothers in Guilford for processing. I had checked with Herring Brothers before the hunt and they said they would process a quartered moose if it was clean, well iced, and appropriately labeled. They are one of the many processors recommended by DIFW, were wonderful to work with, and did a great job.
So the hunt is over and only pictures and memories remain; Oh, and 350 pounds of moose meat! We all agreed that a traditional hunt was a great experience and we would do it again in a minute. Even though 150 years had passed, our hunt was similar to Thoreau's and occurred only a few miles apart.
Bucky Owen spent 32 years teaching wildlife ecology at the University of Maine. He was also the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife Commissioner for four years.
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