I saw the ice turn, but the Inuit must have felt it, too. He sprang from the treacherous floater onto a bigger block. Without so much as a glance underfoot, he motioned for the rope. I threw it. He strained to pull the loaded freighter canoe through the few feet of open water, and I jumped out to help. We skidded the heavy craft into another narrow channel.
We’d been at this since dawn when we’d left caribou camp. A south wind had come up the day before and piled thousands of acres of loose ice against the shore. Climbing up on one block as high as a house, I’d seen nothing but white rubble and not a sign of open water.
It was my first trip for caribou. Right away we’d seen plenty of animals. They were easy to spot far off, especially the old, chalk-maned bulls. Their blood-red antlers, fresh out of velvet, looked huge. “All look big. Don’t shoot quick. Wait one day, maybe two,” my Inuit guide had cautioned. For two summery days I glassed impatiently as caribou sifted past under blue skies, gobbling the tundra in their shambling, hoof-clicking march to empty horizons.
Then the weather soured. Rain came horizontally from sooty skies, and caribou got scarce. The clouds dropped to the deck; we couldn’t glass. By noon of the third day, I decided it was time to shoot a caribou, but the bulls I’d passed up earlier had vanished and the few animals we saw seemed bent on going somewhere else. Finally, a mediocre bull stopped moving long enough for me to slither to within 200 steps. The sleet rattled against my rain suit as I sighted through scope lenses streaked with water. The caribou dropped neatly to my bullet.
Caribou may be plentiful one day, then absent the next. You can’t pattern them because caribou seem to have no idea what they are about. In less enormous country, their stupidity would spell their doom, but although you might outsmart a woodlot whitetail, you can’t outwalk caribou. By the time a calf is a year old, it will have traveled several thousand miles.
Even when you see them, you must study them to be sure you are looking at what you think you are looking at. Caribou don’t measure as big as they appear. They are about the height of mule deer, but heavier, bulls weighing in at 400 pounds or so. Many cow caribou have antlers, though none as big as a mature bull’s.
Caribou antlers vary by subspecies-mountain, woodland, Quebec-Labrador, and barren ground. The most commonly hunted are the Quebec-Labrador and barren-ground caribou. Both live on open tundra. Feet the size of waffle irons help them cross marshes and snowfields and enable them to swim powerfully, tiny tails erect above their wakes. A bovine nose lets them crop tiny tundra plants in broad swaths.
Even where caribou swarm, there’s no guarantee you’ll find them the week you hunt. Looking elsewhere with bush planes is expensive. Most outfitters who have been in business have worked hard to learn where caribou are likely to be, and have set up camps there. Barry Taylor, Arctic Safaris, Northwest Territories, brings hunters 80 miles by air to find caribou. His tents have been replaced by bearproof, weatherproof steel grain bins with floors, heaters, and bunks. A generator and gas oven make life pleasant even when the weather doesn’t cooperate.
“I wanted a comfortable camp where I could hunt resident animals,” Barry explains. “We almost always see dozens of caribou bulls on a hunt. Sometimes we’re lucky and see hundreds. Most hunters like the plush camp, even if things get lean for a day or two. Dropping spike camps to waylay migrating herds is expensive and exhausting for everyone involved.”
Ron Parsons concurs. He runs several camps in Newfoundland, for hunters after resident woodland caribou. Ron’s Owl’s Nest Lodge, a large, modern lakeside structure, has most of the amenities of a hotel. “We can offer comfort and high success res because the caribou are always here in the fall,” says Ron.
“Sport hunters who come for caribou shouldn’t expect legions of migrating bulls,” says Steve Ashton, who has been outfitting hunts for Quebec-Labrador caribou for 30 years. “Novice hunters think that because we have motorized boats we can always get to the herds. But the land is bigger than they think, and because there are often miles of land between lakes, caribou can easily move out of reach of our boats. We fly 95 to 128 miles to reach each of our seven camps. They’re in the best places we know, but if the herds suddenly go elsewhere, we can get skunked. Any outfitter who claims he knows what the caribou will do next is either lying or inexperienced.”
Finding the Herds
Caribou movements affect hunting more than caribou numbers do. The 30,000 animals taken each year in Quebec amount to only about 3 percent of the population. Whether the herds are at all-time highs or in a slump, bulls abound for hunters who are in the right place.
But being in the right place isn’t as easy as it used to be. In 1997 the animals moved in ways and at times they had not before, and no one has figured out why.
Radio tracking has shown that caribou stay near calving grounds until well after the peak of calving the second week of June. By July the bugs get bad, and caribou bunch up to reduce their exposure. Blackflies, nose bots, and mosquitoes are especially nasty when the temperature climbs. Caribou often seek relief near big bodies of water to catch cool breezes, and they bed on ridges, also for the wind. In fall, when frosts hammer the bugs, the caribou move to fresh forage. Usually they stick to established routes, but not always.
Stories of caribou shot from the tent lull some hunters into believing a caribou hunt takes no physical effort. But selective hunting for big bulls almost always does. You may hike as little as several miles a day or go on a really prodigious walk. Bad weather can add to your fatigue, as can a full pack. If you are not in shape when you go, you will very quickly wish you were.
Preparation also means assembling the right gear. You needn’t fret about which rifle to bring. Caribou can be taken handily with anything that suffices for deer. A 4X scope works fine, but whatever you bring, do not forget lens caps. No matter your choice of rifle, double-check its zero (at 200 yards), and practice with it from hunting positions. Long shots are seldom needed.
Your duffle must include a rain suit and clothes you can layer. I wear shorts, T-shirt, and running shoes when I can, but I always have wool pants, shirt, and jacket handy, along with my cold-weather elk-hunting boots. A wool watch cap serves as a camera bag in my pack. Many guides wear rubber boots, a definite asset in marshy places and for getting into and out of boats. Remember that snow can fall even in August or September, and plan accordingly.
You’ll do lots of glassing for caribou, so top-quality binoculars make sense. I favor 10×50 Swarovskis or Leicas, or 10×42 Nikon Venturers. Before the hunt, make sure your guide will bring a spotting scope. If he doesn’t, you bring one and make him carry it.
When you’re sneaking up on a bull, keep track of other caribou. They seem to float in from nowhere just when you want to move. Though caribou won’t jet away like a whitetail buck when you surprise them at a distance, they will jog off and take other caribou with them. Then you have two options: Stay put and hope they stop so that you can stalk them again, or run after them. In my experience, spooked caribou seldom give you an easy second hunt.
Finding animals to hunt is still the main job in caribou country. One bush pilot told me of looking in vain for caribou during a contract flight for government biologists. Running short of census money, the biologists were getting edgy. “I flew for hours where the caribou should have been. That’s at 100 miles an hour. Nothing. I was about to give up when I spotted a lone bull. I homed in on him and found more, the tail of the main herd. For the next 65 miles I was looking at the backs of caribou. How many? Haven’t a clue. How many caribou can you pack into a herd 65 miles long?”
Enough to make a lot of hunters really happy. If they’re in the right place. logists were getting edgy. “I flew for hours where the caribou should have been. That’s at 100 miles an hour. Nothing. I was about to give up when I spotted a lone bull. I homed in on him and found more, the tail of the main herd. For the next 65 miles I was looking at the backs of caribou. How many? Haven’t a clue. How many caribou can you pack into a herd 65 miles long?”
Enough to make a lot of hunters really happy. If they’re in the right place.