November 6, 2013 — late afternoon — I am sitting in a traffic jam east of Portage Lake on the Beaver Brook Road. The road is a primary logging road connecting Route 11 on the west and Route 161 on the east side of northern Aroostook County. But the traffic jam is not due to logging equipment.
A small collection of pickup trucks are stopped at either end of a long, dusty straightaway in the roadway. In between the two groups of trucks a cow moose is standing knee-deep in a small roadside pond. It is the final week of the 2013 Maine Moose Season and 75 hunters hold permits for an antler-less moose in the hunting zone that the cow is standing in.
All of us are waiting for one of those 75 hunters to show up and shoot the moose. We know that if we drive past the cow she’s likely to spook and spoil the chance of a life-time for a permit holder. The driver of one of the stopped vehicles tells us that he has alerted his brother by radio. The brother and a nephew share a permit and they are on the way. So we wait.
Five minutes later an approaching rooster tail of road dust announces the arrival of the permit holders. The new arrival wheels quickly around the waiting trucks and approaches the moose closely — too closely — the cow turns away from the road and moves toward the tree-line.
The pick-up stops quickly and a teenage boy exits the passenger side, rifle in hand. He chambers a round, takes aim and shoots at the moose which is now out of sight of the waiting trucks. The boy’s father joins him at the passenger side of the truck and they celebrate a successful shot.
The trucks at each end of the straightaway begin moving again and converge at the shooting site. The teenager is flush with adrenaline and smiles widely as he endures the backslapping and jokes of the others in his party. We drive on.
In Maine, most moose are sighted from behind a windshield. If you want to find a moose to show Aunt Betty who is visiting from Florida – you do not strike off into the big woods on foot. Instead you drive along the Beaver Brook Road, or any of the thousands of miles of other logging roads, until you catch sight of Maine’s biggest mammal.
Chances are you won’t need to drive very far. Maine has the largest population of moose in the lower 48 states — currently about 70,000 animals. The logging roads are laid like a spiderweb over virtually the entire moose habitat in the northern half of the state.
This vital bit of knowledge did not escape the hunters who took part in Maine’s first experimental, modern moose hunt back in 1980. Maine moose hunters are a utilitarian bunch — and sighting moose while driving along logging roads was so common that it became immediately linked with modern moose hunting in Maine.
The road-hunting tactics raised a lot of hackles among non-hunters. It was a big bone of contention among those who opposed the whole idea of a hunting season for the official Maine state animal back in 1980. The supporters of a citizens referendum to ban moose hunting (which included a lot of Maine deer hunters) cited the road-hunting ease of the moose hunt as evidence of a lack of sportsmanship.
But the referendum failed at the polls and in 1982 the hunt resumed — becoming a permanent fixture in the Maine sporting calendar. Since then the hunt has been vastly expanded. Three thousand permits have been issued for this fall’s hunt. Moose hunters will pursue their quarry in every part of the state except the southern tip and coastline. The hunt covers three weeks in northern Maine and the entire month of November in some southern and western regions.
Over the years, the tight connection between road cruising and moose shooting in northern Maine has remained intact. The vast scale of the industrial forestland stretching across the state demands hunter mobility. And moose range widely over the northern forest — they don’t stay in one small home territory like deer or other game.
But most importantly, the hard practical reality of what happens after the shot dictated the road hunting method. Early regulations required moose hunters to present the entire moose carcass, minus the entrails, for legal registration at a tagging station within 24 hours.The mammoth task of moving that huge carcass from kill site, to road-side, to tagging station is what prompted the road hunting tradition
Those regulation have since changed but a tradition was born in 1980. The tagging stations quickly became a big attraction for hunters and non-hunters alike. The annual spectacle of those huge animals being lifted from hunters trucks with chain-falls and winches — and then stretched to their full length for weighing — was irresistible to anyone who had an interest in Maine’s largest mammal. Mainers measure their moose in pounds not in antler points or spread measurements. The vast majority of moose hunters continue to bring the whole moose out of the woods after the shot.
“Where’s the best place to shoot a moose?,” the old joke goes. “In the middle of a road.”