Colby Smith peered through thick early-morning fog atop a rocky knoll in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness and grunted like a bull moose.
"It was probably the worst moose call I've heard in my life,'' said Smith, 39, of Corcoran.
But something grunted back.
"I grunted again, and something stood up -- it sounded like a car rolling over in a ditch. I thought, 'Oh my god,' and my legs started shaking. I couldn't see anything, but I knew it was a moose,'' said Smith, who was on a once-in-a-lifetime moose hunt in northeastern Minnesota on Sept. 29 with his brother and brother-in-law.
Then the woods went silent, so Smith called again.
"He raked the brush, grunting and stumping, and started coming my way,'' he said. "Oh, my gosh, you could hear the brush clicking on his antlers.''
Smith shifted 10 feet closer to the ridge where the still unseen moose was approaching, and made more grunting sounds.
"All of a sudden he walked out of the fog, swaying his antlers aggressively. It was an unbelievable scene -- just like the movies. He stopped about 110 yards out, broadside. I had to tell myself to calm down or I would miss.''
The big bull's antlers measured 49 ¾ inches, and the animal likely weighed more than a half-ton.
"It was phenomenal,'' Smith said of the experience. He had intended to camp and hunt for 10 days. Instead, he had his moose just 37 minutes into the season.
Moose hunt's future
Shooting a moose -- or even getting a license to hunt one -- can be a long shot in Minnesota. Smith's was one of 46 out of 76 hunting groups totaling about 300 people who bagged a bull moose in Minnesota's 16-day season, which ended Oct. 14. That's a 60 percent success rate among those who received a license, but nearly 3,500 people applied for a license.
Since 1991, the moose hunt has been a once-in-a-lifetime hunt; those who receive permits through a random drawing are ineligible to reapply.
But the state's moose population has been declining, and it's uncertain how long moose hunting will continue. The state's moose population, now estimated at about 4,200, has dropped by half in the past five years, and some say if the trend continues the animal could disappear from here in 20 years.
Hunting isn't the cause of the decline, say Department of Natural Resources wildlife officials. And cancelling the hunt won't reverse the trend.
"Biologically, you can hunt a species, when you're only taking males, without having a negative impact,'' said Steve Merchant, DNR wildlife program manager.
"There's a strong tradition of hunting moose in Minnesota. But does it make sense to continue it if we continue to see lower numbers? That's a conversation we'll have.''
Researchers believe the decline is related to disease and parasites, including liver flukes, winter ticks and brainworm.
Preparing for the hunt
Colby Smith and his brother Taylor, 38, also of Corcoran, avid deer hunters, knew this hunt was special, so they went to great lengths to plan their trip. Neither Taylor nor Brian Mastel, 39, of Greenfield, their brother-in-law, had moose licenses, so they couldn't carry firearms or aid Colby during his hunt, but they could help him afterward.
Colby elected to hunt deep in the BWCA, which meant he'd have to butcher and haul his moose out of the woods without the use of vehicles or power equipment.
"We figured it's a once-in-a-lifetime deal, let's do it right,'' he said.
That meant getting in shape.
"I started training in June, walking 1 mile with a 25-pound pack,'' he said. "I ended up walking 3 miles every other day with 75 pounds on my back.''
Taylor Smith hiked with 50-pound sacks of chicken feed strapped to his back. Mastel is a marathon runner.
"The training made a big difference in our endurance,'' Colby Smith said.
Scouting also was key. Smith said they'd fished the area during previous canoe trips and often seen moose. And Taylor Smith and his 10-year-old daughter went to the area last summer, scouting, and found a little-used portage into a "secret lake.''
The fun is done
The celebration of bagging his first-ever moose ended quickly, Smith said, and the real work began.
"The temperature was in the 60s," he said. "We didn't want the meat to spoil.''
The threesome set up a tarp to shade the carcass, then gutted and butchered the moose with bone saws and knives.
"The head and neck were so big you couldn't move it by yourself,'' Smith said. "It was unbelievable.''
They packed the meat into eight bags weighing a total of about 600 pounds. Smith also kept the skull and rack, which he plans to mount.
They cooled the meat in their aluminum canoe, which they left in 45-degree water overnight, then headed out the next morning. Each had to make four trips across six portages, carrying their gear, three canoes and moose meat. That's seven trips across each portage.
Said Smith: "It was the perfect hunt. We did our homework. We had the right tools. It was an amazing experience, but it's not for the faint of heart.
"It's such a neat thing. If moose hunting ends, it would be very sad.''
Doug Smith • firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @dougsmithstrib