Last week my wife Lea and I were checking out a section of the Little Blackfoot river. I spotted some rising fish along a run, and was saying something about the need to get out and put some casts over them when Lea exclaimed “Honey, did you not see that moose right there?”. Sure enough, in my excitement about the feeding fish, I completely failed to notice a bull moose standing just a few yards upstream of the run and looking right at us. “Guess I will have to fish this section another day” I muttered as I put the truck back in gear.
As the largest member of the deer family, the ungainly looking moose doesn’t exactly inspire the same kind of fear generated by a grizzly bear or a mountain lion. And to be sure, they have no interest in tearing the flesh from your body. Yet from a fishing perspective, I am probably more concerned about running into a moose than I am any other animal. Part of that is because there are a lot of them around, and they like to feed on plants like willows that are found close to water. If you spend a lot of time fishing in the mountains, you are likely to run into one. The other part of the equation is that while they look very docile, they are huge, and can have a definite mean streak if they get angry.
I recall an acquaintance who was treed for over four hours one day while fishing on Rock Creek. His only offense was fishing through a section that a moose evidently considered to be her private territory. She very likely had a calf nearby. Another friend told the story of two women that were hiking up a mountain trail with their trusty canine companion. The dog trotted up the trail to “check things out” and came upon a cow moose with its calf. No one is certain exactly what was said between the dog and the moose, the moose charged the dog. While fido had at least the minimal intelligence to run away, it ran straight back down the trail to hide between mom’s legs. Both women wound up in the ER!
Rule number 1 in moose etiquette is that moose don’t like dogs. Wolves are their primary predator, and moose seem to have a deeply held antagonism for anything canine. While a pack of wolves can successfully bring down a moose, one on one, moose have been known to kill an adult wolf with a single kick. There are not a lot of pet dogs that are as badass as a wolf, so moose dog interactions tend to end badly for the dog, and sometimes for the dog owner as well. Better to keep Fido under control when in moose country.
For me, fishing and moose encounters seem to go hand in hand. I have seen moose on most of the better known rivers in the state, as well as along many smaller streams and near the high lakes that I love so much. The good news is that the vast majority of times I run into moose, things work out just fine. Even when the encounter is in very close quarters. A good example is from earlier this spring. I had just arrived at an access point to the Missouri river and on parking my truck, walked over to some nearby willows to discreetly relieve myself. All of a sudden a moose stands up just a few yards in front of me! While she may have let out a brief giggle at my compromised position, she gave a snort that indignantly pointed out that these bushes were not to be used as a public restroom. I immediately but slowly took a few steps backward, and she calmed down and walked off into the willows. This illustrates rule #2 when dealing with a moose. If you suddenly find yourself in close quarters, just calmly back away. Most moose don’t start their day looking for a fight, so if you make it clear that you plan to give them some space, they are generally OK with that.
The vast majority of times that I spot a moose, there is plenty of distance, so panic is not a real concern. But there are important factors to keep in mind when fishing in and around them. If you are approaching your favorite place to fish and a moose is standing right there, just move on and fish somewhere else. Even if the moose is not fishing, it gets first rights to the water and will consider it rude if you try to intercede. Perhaps even more annoying, when you are on the water first, (especially when you are casting over rising fish!) and a moose comes up to the section you are fishing, its appropriate to give up your spot to the moose. Many times when a moose spots a human it will choose to leave the area. If this happens, all is well. But when a moose looks right at you, and continues to approach, this is a red flag. Moose are accustomed to being the biggest and baddest animal in the forrest, and if they approach you, they expect you to give ground. If you hold your position or try to scare the moose away you will trigger a fight or flight response. While the majority of the time the moose will choose flight and move off, if you are unlucky enough to have a moose that goes into fight mode, you could loose big time. This is especially important if you have run into a mama moose with her baby, or a bull moose in late fall. In these cases the moose is far more likely to go into fight mode, so beware!
Another fairly common scenario is when you come up on moose while you are floating a river. Given the fact that most of the time you are pretty committed to moving with the current, reversing direction is not possible. Planning how to move by the moose is key. My general advice is to move to the opposite side of the river from the moose as you float by, and by all means do not fish water close to the moose! The size of the river you are on becomes an important factor. If you have to pass close to the moose (say 10 or 15 yards) I might suggest dropping anchor and giving the moose time to move on (it usually will). If you can keep 25 yards or more between your boat and the moose, typically you can pass by undisturbed. Moose seem to have an understanding that boats are a thing, and that they are going to just float by. But I should also point out the the only time I have experienced a full on charge by a moose, I was in a canoe, and perhaps 200 yards from a cow and her calf. While she didn’t seem happy about it, my friend and I continued to approach. I figured with that much distance of water between us, what was she going to do? The answer had to do with the moose evidently knowing something that I didn’t. It turned out that most of that water was only about 18” deep, which doesn’t slow a moose down at all. Stunned at how fast she was closing the distance, we were in full retreat by the time she hit deep water and had to swim a small circle to get back on her feet. As we drifted away she looked at us with a defiant stare, as if to say “Yeah, my cove, and you stay out of it!!!”.
Again the key here is, are you approaching the moose, or are you trying to give it space? I think that moose are keenly aware of what you are doing, and as long as you are making some effort to leave them some space, they are usually going to be OK with things. I saw this in the extreme during another encounter this summer. Lea and I were hiking in Glacier National Park, heading in to check out a waterfall on our way to a high lake. The trail was moving through some thick brush when suddenly around the corner trotted the cutest, tiniest little baby moose! Looking right at me, bright eyed with his ears forward it stopped as if to say, “Hi, I’m a baby moose. Who are you?” As some other hikers came up behind us, the baby lost its bravado, and reversed course and scampered around the corner. At the same time I could hear shouts from some people that were on rocks far above us “mama is coming up the trail!” With only seconds to react, Lea and I, as well as the family that had come up behind us, all moved off the trail in the only direction that was available to us, which was uphill. Unfortunately, while the downhill side was effectively blocked by thick brush, we could only move about 15 yards to the uphill side before steep rocks cut off that direction. As we pushed as far as we could into some small spruce trees, mom came sauntering up the trail with two babies in tow. She was looking right at us as she approached, and stopped when she came to the closest point.
I had my canister of bear spray out and ready to use. A biologist had once told me that bear spray should be an effective deterrent to a charging moose, but I was really hoping that I wouldn’t have to test that theory. She gave out a soft snort, and turned to the other side of the trail, where she seemed delightfully surprised by some fresh aspen leaves, and immediately started feeding. For the next 15 minutes or so we watched as she grazed her way down the trail. Lea slowly pulled up her camera and took some pictures. We could hear her softly grunting, and her babies would bleat back in response. They were tasting the leaves near where she was feeding, and one even started nursing. Slowly she grazed her way off the trail and out of sight. While the fact that we were in a busy location where she saw people on a regular basis probably helped her to stay calm, I must give credit to other hikers who came up the trail, that also stopped and gave her space. I have seen situations in national parks where people kept approaching large animals and wound up starting a panic. On this day, things worked out the way we had hoped.
If you spend time fishing in Montana, sooner or later you are likely to find a moose. They are large, almost regal animals, and a joy to watch. While they may look gentle, they can in fact be very dangerous. The key is respect. Allow them their space. Back off if they seem in any way concerned about you. Then just enjoy the fact that you are fishing in a location with amazing wildlife.
By Scot Bealer
Scot first started guiding in the 1980’s, and has fished extensively through the rocky mountain west and many other parts of the world. When not on the water, he is typically out working with his wife, Lea Frye, doing wildlife photography. See their work at https://www.leaf-images.com, or follow them on Instagram @lea.f_images