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Hunting Caribou In Nunavik
My father-in-law thinks I’m nuts. He can’t understand why I go on some of the far-flung hunting trips that I do.
However, in a rare moment of weakness, he once mentioned to me that of all of the trips on my bucket list, one that he’d also like to do is caribou hunt in Quebec. So, when the opportunity arose for a caribou hunt with Sammy Cantafio’s Ungava Adventures in Quebec’s Nunavik region, he didn’t need a lot of arm twisting – especially when I mentioned that I was treating.
Although it’s true throughout the caribou’s range, the feast-or-famine reality of hunting these migratory animals is perhaps most acute with the Quebec-Labrador caribou subspecies found in northern Quebec. These animals follow routes established over eons, but the timing, and even the course of the migration, can vary based on wind, weather and other factors unknown to man, and can even change dramatically some years. They can literally be here today and gone tomorrow, or you can go to bed one evening convinced that there isn’t a caribou in the country and wake up in the morning with thousands of caribou streaming past your camp. Most of the outfitters in the area keep tabs on the herd’s migration using satellite telemetry data provided by the Quebec government, and if they have mobile camps or permanent camps on active routes, your chances of success are high, although the migration in some areas is often more of a trickle than a steady stream.
We booked our trip for Sept. 18 to 24.
After a summer of planning and assembling our gear, our departure date finally arrived and we drove to Montreal the evening before our flight north. Upon arrival at the hotel the outfitter uses for his clients, we were met by a representative of Ungava Adventures for a logistics briefing and to receive our paperwork. We also got a chance to meet the other seven hunters that we would be sharing camp with, consisting of a family group of four from California, two buddies from Wyoming and a lone hunter from Louisiana. We heard that the hunters just returning from camp had experienced a tough hunt with low caribou numbers, but that they had hunted hard and everyone ultimately tagged out with two bulls each.
Our two-hour flight the next morning to Kuujjuaq was uneventful, but the onward flight to our Charlie Lake Camp was stunning. From the moment we took off until the Twin Otter’s wheels touched down on the rocky landing strip less than an hour later, we all had our faces pressed against the tiny windows, staring at the landscape below. At first it was a mixture of rocks, trees and countless bodies of water, but slowly the trees disappeared as the lines of north latitude clicked away, replaced by boundless tundra. Our hungry eyes strained with the hope of discerning some caribou from the specks below, but the only visible evidence of their presence was the varicose vein-like migration routes carved into the tundra below by centuries of caribou hooves.
As we de-planed and got our first look at the row of red plywood cabins that would be our home for the next week, I was struck by the landscape that stretched before us and “ruggedly beautiful” was my best attempt at capturing it in words. It also dawned on me that I have a pretty good relationship with my wife’s parents. While most guys would look to avoid their father-in-law whenever he’s got a gun in his hands, I was, figuratively, and later literally, putting a rifle in the hands of mine.
We unloaded our gear and met our guide, Camille, and the rest of the camp staff. My father-in-law, Dawson, and I were hunting 1×3, meaning that three hunters share one guide, and that Dawson and I would have a guide only on alternating days.
There were still a couple of hours of daylight left to hunt, so after flipping a coin it was determined that one of the four hunters from California would hunt with Camille that evening by boat, leaving Dawson and me to hike out to a prominent rock about a mile behind camp, which caribou have historically used as a migration landmark.
We found a nice vantage point to sit, surrounded by countless sun-bleached caribou bones and racks, evidence that this was indeed a good spot to wait. We saw only one small bull at a distance before heading back to camp at dark, where we learned that one of the two Wyoming hunters had tagged a nice bull that first evening.
Most Quebec caribou camps are established on large lakes. Much of the travelling and hunting is done by boat, with hunters and their guides typically setting out from camp each morning by boat, taking to shore when caribou are spotted or to glass or to hike to certain inland areas. This is exactly what we did the next morning.
Dawson made it clear to Camille that he’d be happy just taking home some great caribou meat, graciously telling our guide that I should have the first opportunity at any trophy bull we may encounter. And it didn’t take long. We had only motored up the lake a couple of miles when we all simultaneously spotted a beautiful bull, majestically silhouetted on a distant hilltop. He looked big. We beached the boat about 150 yards away from him, but he spooked as soon as we landed.
Camille instructed Dawson to wait with the boat and for me to follow him after the bull. I was quickly on Camille’s heels.
When we crested the hill, we spotted the bull looking at us, about 150 yards away. I was afraid he would bolt, so I took a quick offhand shot and the bull kicked his back legs on impact before running off down toward the water. I knew my shot had been too far back and I simply chalked it up to the quick uphill climb, “buck fever” and a poor shooting position, but I was still annoyed at myself. I then missed cleanly with two follow up attempts at the running bull. Fortunately, we quickly followed after him and I was able to get closer and finish what I’d started right at the water’s edge. He was an impressive animal, about 400 pounds with high, wide beams. I couldn’t have been happier, and so was Camille, as he was able to drive the boat right up to the animal and he quickly quartered it after a few photos.
Dawson and I hunted on our own again on day three. We saw only one small herd of cows and calves moving quickly in the distance, but the highlight of the day was shooting a couple of ptarmigan, which the camp cook pan-fried for us before dinner. It was possibly the finest game bird I’ve ever tasted. From that point on, we always had a shotgun and a pocketful of shells with us to collect more of these tasty treats.
Day four was our turn again with the guide, hunting by boat. After going ashore near where one of the other hunters had shot a bull a couple of days earlier, Camille soon spotted a young bull about a mile away and the stalk was on.
When we got within a few hundred yards from where the bull had been feeding, we lost sight of him at first, but soon spotted him again and Dawson kneeled down for the shot. I ranged the bull at just over 300 yards. In his excitement, Dawson must have short-stroked his semi-auto .30/06 when chambering a round, causing it to jam. I lowered the bipod and handed my .300 Winchester Mag to Dawson for him to take a prone shot, as the bull had continued moving and was now nearly 400 yards away. He fired three times but missed, although he said at least two of the shots felt good.
The bull then disappeared, and although we spotted him again a short while later, we couldn’t get another shot. On the way back to camp we spotted a couple of cows that Camille believed Dawson could take, but Dawson felt it was too early in the hunt for a cow.
Others had better luck that day, a total of four bulls were taken.
I was puzzled by Dawson’s misses, and my own, as we’re both usually better than that. I decided to re-sight my rifle, so I set up a crude range behind camp. A few shots later, I discovered that my scope rings had come almost completely loose. I’d neglected to check them for tightness before leaving home (I always do now) and I didn’t bring an Allen key (I always do now). I’d also neglected to fire my rifle upon arrival at camp to check the zero (I always do now), and the result was that my rifle was out of commission. Fortunately, one of the California hunters had now tagged out and graciously loaned me his custom 7mm Remington Mag for the rest of the hunt.
Most of the next day was spent hunting within walking distance of camp, as high winds made Charlie Lake too rough to navigate in the small boats. Dawson had a couple of near misses, just failing to get close enough for a shot.
The next day would be our last full day in camp, and we still had three tags to try to fill between the two of us. Our already uneasy sleep that night was further disturbed by the sounds of wolves howling close behind camp, while the breathtaking view of the Northern Lights made sleep seem wasteful.
The morning dawned calm but foggy, with wind and rain forecast for the afternoon. Camille and Dawson decided to go for a boat ride before breakfast, just the two of them, and returned a short while later with the news that Dawson had filled both his tags with “meat bulls.” I wished I could have been with him to share the experience.
I hunted hard the rest of the day but came up empty. A total of 16 out of 18 tags were filled that week, and I was the only one who never got an opportunity at a second bull. No matter, as I was thrilled with the one I got, the biggest of the week, and it gave me a reason to return some day for an early season hunt in hopes of tagging a big bull still in velvet.
There is perhaps no greater icon of the Far North than the caribou. If you’re looking for an unforgettable adventure in some of the most ruggedly beautiful land Canada has to offer, with a great chance to bring home an impressive rack and some of the finest meat available, check out Quebec’s Nunavik region. And don’t forget your father-in-law.
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