Moose Calling in Russia

In September 2007, my wife, Sue, and I left on a much-anticipated trip to Russia. We planned on sightseeing in Moscow, the ring cities and St. Petersburg. We had some extra time after arriving, so I called my old friend and Russian outfitter Alexander Lisitsin to arrange a hunt.

Alexander said he could arrange a moose and a brown bear hunt at a hunting compound near Pskov, south of St. Petersburg.

After nine days of touring capped by an evening watching Swan Lake at the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg, we departed by private car for the six-hour drive to the hunting camp owned by Oleg S. Pokrovskiy, a St. Petersburg admiralty lawyer, and his associates. It is located in a small village called Sobalitzy.

The moose hunt was to be conducted with a regionally known moose caller named Gena. He is one of only two or three men in Russia who are still masters of this ancient hunting technique. Gena is also capable of calling wolves – another hunting technique that is difficult to master.

imgp2700_MonsonThe camp was modern and comfortable. Sue and I were given a large cabin with a big bedroom, a sitting room and a full bath. I was told that Alexander would be waking me at 5 a.m. Gena had located a moose that was answering his calls.

I woke up a little before five, but the appointed time came and went without a knock from Alexander. I assumed that our plans had changed and gratefully went back to sleep. A good Russian dinner with some excellent Russian vodka had kept me up past midnight. At breakfast, I learned that the morning hunt had been canceled because heavy fog made it difficult to see as far as 25 feet, but the 5 p.m. evening hunt was still on.

At the appointed time, Alexander, Gena and I, along with Peter, our driver and assistant, got into our tough Russian UAZ 469 4WD vehicle and drove for 40 minutes from the camp to the top of a hill. From there we looked down into a long, sloping area of forest, bogs and swamp.

imgp2701_MonsonGena showed me the glass candle lampshade that he uses to amplify his calls. Alexander translated his comments on the different calls he uses to coax the big bulls from their boggy resting places. Gena uses a variety of cow calls and competing bull calls to call the big bulls to him. In this area of Russia the moose are nocturnal. They move, feed, fight and mate from twilight to dawn.

We walked about three kilometers through upland woods with boggy interludes and wet meadows to a spot where two well-traveled moose trails intersected. Gena had called a couple of bulls to that spot in the preceding days, a really good trophy bull and a smaller one. He knew their calls so he could generally tell which one was responding. But if the wrong bull were to come to his call, he would cross his arms in front of himself to signal me not to shoot.

We waited until sunset, which was about 8 p.m. that time of year. Gena began with a bull moose call, at first without his lampshade. When he got no response in three to four minutes, he amplified the call with the lampshade. He would give from about seven to 15 bull grunts, then listen for a response. After calling for about eight minutes, Gena signaled that he heard a return call back the way we had come. Before starting his calls, Gena placed me about 75 feet to his right and about the same distance behind him, and placed Alexander and Peter the same distance directly behind him.

imgp2704_MonsonWe walked quickly back to a spot where the trail looked down on a forest of immature pines and up to a far-off ridge covered with small hardwoods. This time Gena placed Alexander and Peter about 10 feet behind me and he took his place about 75 feet to my left. He called again and again, but received no response. So after a few minutes we again backtracked.

We tried twice more from different spots until we had returned to the top of the hill we started from. It was now dark and Gena had been calling for an hour and a half without any response. We got back in the truck and stopped a couple of times on the ridge road so Gena could call down into the valley, but the attempts produced nothing.

We drove back to the gravel road we came in on and followed it for a kilometer, then left it for our first foray. We crossed one small creek, and then stopped in the middle of a second. Exiting the vehicle in the dark into the mud and water was tricky. We all avoided falling, but I almost lost a boot in the mud.

imgp2702_MonsonThe night was still and a quarter moon was just coming up. We walked up a wooded road and sat on a birch log while Gena listened. After a short interval, we moved on to several open fields that we carefully surveyed before entering. Gena tried again, calling in two different fields. In the last one, however, Russian fighter planes on night maneuvers over the lightly populated area pretty much ended the calling. So we called it a night and arrived back at camp about midnight. Alexander promised a knock on my door at 5 a.m. Although nothing was said, I could sense Gena was disappointed that we had not succeeded.

We were back on the road by 5:30 a.m. and returned to the area we had last been in the prior evening. We again stepped into the creek but I was more practiced now and kept my boots from getting stuck. We walked to the last field we had called from the night before.

Gena called for several minutes, but with no response after several attempts, we started back to the truck. We were more than halfway there when a female wolf howled off to our left. The alpha male to our right immediately answered her. Gena pulled his lampshade from his pocket and gave a long return howl. Such sounds in the early dawn made the hairs on our necks stand up. Peter unslung his SKS and I cocked a .300 Win. Mag shell into the chamber of my borrowed Remington 700 BDL. The sound of my clanking shell seemed extraordinarily loud in the stillness. We waited five minutes but to no avail. The wolves didn’t answer, and we trudged back to our vehicle.

The wind picked up as we drove back to the hill we had started from the prior evening. Gena tried calling again, but concluded that the rising wind kept his calls from traveling far. We gave up just as the sun rose. Gena and Alexander were now concerned that the wolves might have driven away the moose that Gena had called several days ago.

imgp2703_MonsonBack at camp we had breakfast, and Alexander said we should catch up on our sleep and be ready to go again about 5:30 p.m. While we rested, Gena and several of the other guides left to scout an area a good 10 kilometers from where we had been hunting.

The area we hunted that afternoon was about an hour away. For most of the route, the road was arrow-straight as it traversed woods, alder bogs and swamps. In some places it was elevated 10 feet above the surrounding terrain. Alexander said he thought the road had been built by the Red Army for training purposes, and possibly for use by the mobile missile launchers of the Strategic Missile Forces.

The gravel road ended at the site of a long-abandoned village above a small lake. We parked at the edge of an uncultivated meadow and walked along an alder bog on an old cart trail. Alexander had told me in the truck that during the afternoon, Gena had called in a very good trophy moose in this area. After a kilometer along the trail, we were at the edge of a small field. Gena positioned us and commenced calling. He got no results after a few minutes so we moved on. This first spot, I later learned, was where Gena had seen the trophy moose.

We stopped again after about 500 yards, at a small opening at the edge of the alder bog. Gena positioned himself 75 feet to my left and Alexander and Peter were placed 15 feet behind me under the branches of the pine trees. I had a relatively unobstructed view that ranged from 20 feet to my right to about 120 feet to my left.

Gena called and almost immediately got an answer. I saw movement through the alders but no definite shape. Gena continued calling. Slowly, a trophy bull cautiously stepped forward. He came on slowly, step by step by step, and then paused behind a group of pines and alders 20 yards off my center left.

I was ready, with the safety off and my rifle poised. Gena had now moved back into the woods to my left. He had not crossed his arms as a signal not to shoot. The moose looked very big to me, but I still didn’t have a clear shot. Gena changed the tone of the call, and then dropped the volume, as though he was moving away.

The bull slowly emerged from behind the screen of trees. Time seemed to stop as I waited for the step that would bring him into position for a clear shoulder shot. Now his whole body was visible, his head and neck outstretched as he looked for the bull that was calling him. I brought the rifle to my shoulder, centered the crosshairs on the immense bull’s shoulder and squeezed the trigger.

imgp2707_MonsonThrough the scope, I saw him lurch sideways as though hit in the shoulder by a sledgehammer. Immediately he turned away from us and crashed into the alders. I worked the bolt and sent a second shot after him as he disappeared. We heard him crashing through the alders and circling around to the right. Then all sounds ceased.

Gena, Peter, and Alexander came over and shook my hand. Then Gena and Peter, who had his rifle cocked and ready, went into the alders to track the bull. After about five minutes, I heard Gena shout something in Russian.

“He’s dead!” Alexander translated. He and I walked into the swampy tangle of alders and birches. After about 75 yards, we found Gena and Peter standing next to my bull, which was on the ground wrapped around a huge alder.

The 180-grain, Grand Slam Speer bullet was perfectly placed in the moose’s shoulder. My second shot had broken his right leg about halfway up. Gena had a pine bough from which he tore two small branches. He smeared moose blood on both and placed one in my hat and one in the moose’s mouth in accordance with European hunting customs. After we took photos, Gena opened the moose, removed the liver and propped open the body with sticks to cool it. Alexander estimated the moose weighed between 600 and 700 pounds. It was now about 8 p.m. and the deepening twilight meant that it was too late to do more. The next morning, Gena, Peter and some of the other guides returned and cut the moose into pieces small enough to carry and hiked out with them on their backs.

The cook had a good Russian dinner prepared when we arrived back at camp after leaving the moose, but we waited to eat until the moose liver had been prepared with onions as a third course. The food was superb as we discussed hunting customs around the world, and I toasted Gena’s unique calling skills. Unfortunately, moose and wolf calling are dying arts. Perfecting them takes years of practice and a natural bent to begin with.

I shall always remember my moose slowly and cautiously emerging from the alders – so totally focused on defending his turf from a competitor that he never saw or sensed me off to his left.

The moose hunt was followed by six hard days of brown bear hunting in which I didn’t see a single bear. Too bad they cannot be called in.– John R. Monson, SCI Past President

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