Bright and early Monday morning, 720 lucky moose hunters — along with assorted relatives and friends — will head into the woods of northern Maine to embark upon adventures that some have been looking forward to for years.
You? Me? The rest of us unlucky folks? Well, our names didn’t pop out of the computer-hopper during this year’s moose-permit lottery.
We’re sad. We’re left out. We’re simply out of luck.
Or are we?
Of course we’re not. Trust me.
As it turns out, I’m a bit of a (self-proclaimed) expert in enjoying this uniquely Maine spectacle. Except for that one time back in 2006, I’ve become quite adept at not winning in the lottery. Heck, you might as well call me an expert on moose hunt enjoyment (when you don’t know anyone with a permit, but don’t want to sit home and pout about it).
Over the past dozen or so years, I’ve gotten into the woods — or, more accurately, close to the woods — for nearly every moose hunt.
Notice I said, “close to the woods.” That’s an important distinction. It’s the basis for Rule 1 on our list of Having Fun on a Moose Hunt You Haven’t Been Invited To.
Rule 1: Don’t horn your way in on someone else’s hunt. Maybe your mother-in-law has a permit. Maybe she hates you, and doesn’t want you around, even on holidays. Don’t pester her to include you on her hunt. Don’t promise to cook all the meals, or to field dress the moose. Don’t.
If mom-in-law wants you around, she’ll ask. If she doesn’t, don’t fret. Move along to Rule 1-A.
Rule 1-A: Don’t got into the woods in an active hunting zone to try to call a moose if you’re not a part of a hunting party. Prospective hunters don’t think this is helpful. They won’t appreciate your efforts. They might even get angry. Leave the calling to the actual hunters and their pals. Or to your mother-in-law. Heck, if you obey this rule, she might even invite you to Christmas dinner.
Remember: The best way to enjoy moose season as an observer is to go where you’re absolutely sure the moose will be.
Luckily, as a self-proclaimed expert in permit-free experiences, I know that secret. And since I’m not allowed to charge folks for my knowledge (I’m not a guide, after all), I’m required to tell you my secrets … for free.
Go to a tagging station.
Up in Ashland and Houlton and Presque Isle and Fort Kent, those stations will be booming by noon on Monday, as successful hunters bring their moose back to town.
If you’ve never spent any time around a successful hunter at a tagging station, let me tell you how this experience will play out.
First, you say, “Hi. Nice moose!” Next, the hunter will tell you their entire story, starting with what they ate for breakfast and finishing with the long drive back out of the woods. No detail will be left out. I promise. (Trade secret: Us grizzled old journalists call this process “interviewing.” Sounds like a pretty grueling job, doesn’t it?)
Then, after laughing at the right times as the tale unfolds, move along to the next smiling hunter. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Eventually, in order to get a true taste of Maine, look around for some local fare.
Some tagging stations even have concession stands on site, which can be very handy. A warning: Don’t set yourself apart as a flatlander by trying to peel the beautiful red casing off a Maine concession stand hot dog.
One of our photographers — new to Maine at that point — made that faux pas at a tagging station in Greenville. That was a long time ago. And I’m still telling the story.
During the tagging process, you will likely see a few burly moose hauled skyward by tagging station workers. This is the weigh-in. It can get a little grotesque at times, but don’t worry about that. I will offer a simple pro-tip, however.
At some point in the hoisting-and-weighing process, the hunter and his pals will start yelling numbers. One might say, “800.” Another might say “750.” A third might say “1,000.” Those are guesses. Each is trying to establish himself or herself as the top predictor of moose weights. Most will be wrong. Way wrong.
If you choose to add your guess to the chorus, feel free. (Hint: Guess high. Hunters love it when you tell them their moose is bigger than a house).
Another hint: Don’t, ever, ever, ever, say what I said at one of my first moose rodeos.
To set the scene, the moose in question looked enormous. I had guessed high. Very high. And as it turns out, this moose was apparently an optical illusion. Its weight was low. Very low.
At that point, I found out that “That’s all?” is not a suitable response at a moose weigh-in.
The moose hunter — a burly critter himself — turned on me. He had been in the woods for hours. He and his crew had struggled to get the moose back into the truck. He was grimy. He was tired. And he’d had enough of me.
“You go out there and try to haul that moose’s ass out of the swamp for six hours, then you can say, ‘That’s all,’” the hunter snapped.
Duly chastised, I silently slinked away.
Luckily, there was a concession stand nearby.
And that seemed like the perfect time to enjoy a red hot dog.
John Holyoke can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 990-8214. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnHolyoke