Hunting Northern Caribou

DEPT_hunting-shootingHunting caribou in the North Country is a truly Canadian outdoor adventure.

Every big game animal has its own special appeal. Be it the “stick it your eye” cunning of a mature whitetail buck, the brute size of a monster bull moose or the regal stature of a bull elk guarding his harem of cows. And how could I possibly exclude the overpowering image of a great ram silhouetted on the pinnacle of a craggy mountaintop?

But when it comes to which is the handsomest in the land, there is little doubt that a caribou bull with its long white mane and those magnificent palmated antlers, stands alone at the top of my list. Whenever I think of caribou I think of wild and remote places, of tundra- or lichen-covered mountainsides, special places where wilderness still abounds and man is often but a short-term visitor. They can’t be found in your backyard or even the back forty. They require vast reaches of essentially uninhabited wilderness to survive. What even makes them more interesting is the variety of subspecies, from caribou as small as mule deer to as large as a young bull elk. They also inhabit regions right across Canada from Newfoundland to BC. While the Boone and Crocket Club lists five subspecies, the scientific community only recognizes four natural subspecies: Grant’s, Perry, woodland, barren ground, and one transplanted subspecies, the reindeer. By far and away the majority of caribou are barren ground, as they make up more than 50 per cent of the estimated 2.4 million caribou that call Canada home.

True Nomads: Barren Ground Caribou

One might make the assumption that with these kinds of numbers hunting barren ground caribou would be all but a sure thing. Well, anyone making that assumption may well be in for a bit of a surprise. In many ways it’s all about location and timing — particularly when hunting barren ground caribou, as these great herds can migrate many hundreds of kilometres between winter and summer ranges. Without question, they are the most migratory of all the subspecies and if you don’t happen to pick the right location to intersect their migration route or their destination, you could very easily return home empty handed. But having said that, with proper planning they offer the potential hunter the greatest chance of success of all the subspecies. First, the sheer numbers greatly improve the odds of success and second, they can be found over vast reaches of the Northwest Territories, northern Manitoba and the Yukon. The Boone and Crocket club lists two subspecies of barren ground caribou from these regions, the barren ground and the Central Canada barren ground.

They are generally smaller than woodland/mountain caribou with a body size that is often not much larger than a big mule deer buck. Their antlers however make up for their smaller body size, as they can literally dominate the overall look of a bull to the extent that mistakes can be made on trophy quality. To the untrained eye they often appear to be much bigger than they are. After having hunted a lot of deer, the first caribou bull that I laid eyes on was a monster, at least so I thought, but at best it turned out to be an average bull. Even after years of hunting caribou I still didn’t always get it right. I have a bull hanging on my wall with antler beams that are 58 inches in length. That is only two inches shy of five feet. When I first saw this bull I was sure it would readily make the Boone and Crocket record book — wrong. Despite this impressive length, they just did not have sufficient palmation and, to my chagrin, fell just shy of the all-time Boone and Crocket Record book. (For tips on field judging trophy caribou, Click Here.)

In so far as hunt strategies, I will break it down into two approaches. First, for the hunter who does not live in the jurisdiction he or she wishes to hunt, you, of course, will need a guide/outfitter. Both the Yukon and the Northwest Territories have a solid history of guided caribou hunting. But you will need to ascertain just what subspecies they offer if you are looking for a particular subspecies and what their success has been. Research the guide/outfitter and the area/time of your potential hunt thoroughly prior to booking a hunt. Contact references who have not only hunted with this guide/outfitter but also in the hunt area and at the time you intend to hunt.

As seasons can begin early for barren ground caribou, in fact as early as July, you will need to decide whether you want to hunt caribou in the velvet or in hard antler. If you prefer hard antler, most bulls have rubbed their antlers free of velvet by early September. But the weather can become a factor on later hunts, as can bugs on early hunts — but if you time it just right it can be a hunt of a lifetime.

Second — and this tip is for the hunter fortunate enough to live in a jurisdiction that has seasons for either subspecies of barren ground caribou — I have had tremendous success by selecting a river system that intersected the migration route of a specific herd and then planned to be there during the peak of their migration through the area. It was then just a matter of running that river with a riverboat or canoe and camping as I went until I found caribou. Once I had located a reasonable number of caribou, I would then just drift back downstream while constantly glassing the riverbanks and adjacent hills for a shootable bull. With this approach I have been able to drift right up on small herds or have readily found a good bull within an easy stalk of the river. A large lake, or even better a series of interlocking lakes, can offer somewhat the same opportunity, but on a more limited scale.

In some areas in both the Yukon and the Northwest Territories a hunter can even drive to locations that intersect migration routes. Just be sure that you are conversant with any regulations regarding hunting from or near these roads or highways. After a long stalk my son, Brent, shot his first big game animal, a very fine bull that I had spotted from just such a road.

As a last note, while caribou are not always considered the Einsteins of the big game world, as they are generally quite easy to hunt and stalk, there are going to be times that despite your best planning you may have missed on your timing or location, so plan on being disappointed on occasion. But persistence will pay off as the anticipated sighting of hundreds of caribou is more than worth every ounce of energy invested.

Woodland/Mountain Caribou

Boone and Crocket lists three subspecies of woodland type caribou. They are mountain, Quebec Labrador and woodland. While they flourish in many parts of Canada, in a number of locals such as in southern BC, Alberta and Saskatchewan, their numbers are in serious jeopardy and as such are totally protected.

They are without a doubt the biggest subspecies, with mature bulls potentially weighing as much as a young bull elk. After having harvested numerous barren ground caribou, I will never forget walking up on my first downed mountain caribou; it looked like a bull on steroids. I was more than a little surprised by the size difference even though I had been expecting it. At least I thought I did — was I ever wrong! And then I had to pack it off that mountain, which brings me to hunt strategies for this the most handsome of all North American big game. As woodland/mountain caribou tend to migrate far less than their barren ground cousins do, hunts can often be more readily planned around specific areas. In other words, if a particular outfitter has a solid reputation of producing quality bulls and if they don’t over-hunt their area, success can often be very good. So once again, check references and plan your hunt accordingly. One of the other upsides to an outfitted hunt is that not only will the guide/outfitter know the area where they are likely to find a good bull but also most often you get to ride there and back on a sturdy horse.

But for those of us that have the opportunity to hunt without a guide/outfitter, here are some of the strategies that have worked well for me:

I spend a lot of time in research by studying maps and aerial photos of potential hunt locations as well as reviewing record books, talking to biologists, trappers, guides, and other hunters to get a feel for an area. And don’t short change your research as your success can depend on it. I then find a lake in the heart of my planned hunt area and with the use of a chartered float plane, fly in and set up camp with a good view of the surrounding area. I also would often fly a boat/canoe in with me as well, which opened up the entire lakeshore and adjacent mountains for hunting. Which, when accompanied with a lot of glassing from camp or from vantage points around the lake, often produced quality bulls. While this approach has provided me with my most consistent success, I have also used a four-wheel drive vehicle to gain access to some decent caribou habitat. But be prepared for a long hike from roads end and a long pack back to your vehicle. However, if the truth be known, nothing can beat a mountain caribou hunt from the back of a horse. In mid-September with the mountainsides ablaze with colour, the sight of a mountain caribou bull is one never to be forgotten… Particularly when you know that the packhorse that is trailing to your rear is going to pack out that great bull.

The Right Firepower

While caribou are not particularly difficult to bring down, they may, at times, require some long range shooting, especially on the open tundra. I have shot caribou with everything from a .25-06 to a .300 Winchester Magnum and that included a couple of very flat shooters such as the .257 and .270 Weatherby Magnums. All did the job, but if I had to choose for a mountain caribou hunt, I would opt for a mountain rifle chambered in a .300 Winchester Short Magnum and for a barren ground hunt, one of the .270 or 7 mm Magnums would be a good choice. And don’t leave home without a good pair of binoculars, spotting scope and a range finder as not only can they save you a lot of shoe leather but they can make the difference on both selecting a good bull and on ascertaining distance over open tundra, which, unfortunately, is not that easy to do. (Especially when you have no reference points to assist you in determining just how far a bull may be, so my advice here is to pack all three.)

Three of the five Boone and Crocket world records have been taken within the last 20 years, so there are some monsters still out there waiting to be found. Have a go — as they make for a memorable hunt.

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