Strumming Bowstrings

For shear big game overload, northern Quebec may be the best place in North America.

With antlers wider than 55 inches, this is one of my largest Quebec caribou. Under the right conditions, such bulls are not uncommon.

Have you ever seen A thousand caribou per day, most within bow range? Have you ever had a steady stream of big antlers flow past your stand -- a river of massive top points, deep shovels, and long main beams? Have you ever had two caribou tags in your pocket and found yourself wishing for more because so many giant animals were passing by?I have. The experience was almost enough to blow my mind.

As an experienced caribou hunter, I had seen bad hunts, mediocre hunts, and very good hunts. But compared to this, those outings were uneventful. In one morning on this adventure, I saw more record-book bulls than I'd seen on all my other hunts combined.

Hunts for Quebec-Labrador caribou can be hit-or-miss, with caribou appearing and disappearing willy-nilly. I know hunters who have enjoyed incredible success on Quebec caribou, seeing hundreds of bulls per day, and others who have sat for days without seeing so much as one scrawny cow.

After years of nosing about for the "perfect" Quebec caribou hunt, I finally struck paydirt. The outfitter was Sammy Cantafio, and his reputation for success was amazing.

Cantafio first caught my attention many years ago after Carol Ann Mauch took the Pope and Young World Record Quebec-Labrador caribou from one of his camps. At 434 inches, that record still stands after 25 years. But it took several years of less-than-perfect caribou outings before I got serious about hunting with Cantafio.

After discovering that Sammy kept his camps mobile to keep up with the caribou, I got really serious. As migration patterns shifted from week to week, he moved his hunters to the animals. The results were happy clients and lots of trophy bulls -- enough to convince me to book a hunt.

Quebec offers many benefits. The abundance of bulls can be staggering. You can legally buy two tags, which lets you shoot one bull and then look for a bigger one. Another plus is cost. Like many outfitters, Cantafio offers fully guided hunts and semi-guided drop camps. A six-day drop camp is far less expensive than a one-on-one guided hunt. Both include bush plane fare and two caribou licenses. Food and camping supplies are included in the drop-camp price, and helpers assist with cooking, meat packing, and other camp chores.

It was early September when I landed in Kuujjuak, Quebec, for my landmark bowhunt with Sammy Cantafio. Quebec caribou hunts run from mid-August until early October.

August brings hot and sometimes buggy conditions, with antlers still in the velvet and not completely formed. October carries the risk of severe weather and more time in your tent than hunting. September offers a pleasing combination of hard-antlered 'bou and reasonably good weather.

For my three companions -- Peter, Randy, and Mike, all employees of Easton, a company known for quality arrows -- and me, the action started when the Twin Otter transport plane landed and taxied to our lakeside tent camp. Three colossal bull caribou trotted across the airstrip 50 yards behind us, followed by some smaller bulls and cows.

A typical Quebec caribou camp with a reputable outfitter generally produces piles of trophy racks.

Within minutes, we were clawing at duffel bag zippers and bowcase latches. It is legal to fly and hunt on the same day in Quebec, and we hit the ground running.

Even in an average camp, in an average year, Quebec caribou offer ideal bowhunting sport. They are big and beautiful, and they're so lightly hunted they often allow close-range stalks. During the late-August and early-September migration, they can be scouted and ambushed at logical movement points. Next to pronghorn antelope, I believe Quebec caribou are North America's best choice for an affordable out-of-state bowhunting adventure.

In northern Quebec, summer days are 18 to 20 hours long, and six days give more than enough time to bag your bulls. Quebec harbors roughly one million caribou, the largest herd in North America. When a competent outfitter puts you into these animals, the action is fast and furious.

"I can't believe it!" Randy exclaimed as he trudged into camp after dark on the first day. "I found a funnel point on that high ridge north of camp. I'll bet 300 bulls walked within bow range. This is too good to be true!"

Even with two tags in his pocket, Randy passed up all those animals in hopes of finding something bigger. Like my other pals, he was a crack shot with his "string gun." He could afford to wait with confidence.

According to the record books, Quebec caribou are second only to Alaska's barren ground caribou in overall antler size. Racks vary, but most mature bulls have long main beams that curve back to the shoulders and dramatically forward above the nose. More than 10 percent of Quebec bulls have double shovels -- the highest percentage for any caribou variety -- and many have colossal, widely palmated bez formations above the shovels. Spreads are unusually wide, with some bulls measuring 55 to 60 inches across the beams. I saw one on a recent hunt that would have pushed 65 inches.

The top tines on Quebec caribou tend to be short, and upper beam palmation is seldom deep, two traits that can reduce record-book score. Score-conscious hunters should reject animals with top tines less than 10 to 15 inches long. The Pope and Young minimum score is 325, and point length can make the crucial difference between making and missing the book. The Boone and Crockett gun minimum is 375, a difficult score to reach even with long top points. But quality is in the eye of the beholder, and some of the most impressive bulls have weak tops and lower scores.

On the second day, Randy and Mike each nailed record-size bulls at ranges under 30 yards. Peter and I continued to pass up caribou, but pressure to perform was building as we looked at the antlers our buddies carted back to camp.

You don't need special shooting gear for caribou. Any 55-pound bow will do. Quebec caribou weigh twice as much as deer, but their bodies are not much thicker or heavier boned. If you use a cutting-nose broadhead, you normally will shoot completely through broadside 'bou.

The kill

zone on caribou is about 12 inches. Commonly your shots will be 15 to 30 yards, but terrain, foliage, and unpredictable caribou movements can conspire against you to demand longer shots. You're wise to carry a laser rangefinder because shooting range is uncertain and constantly changing.

On morning three, after a ticklish stalk, Peter shot a high-racked bull. We were together, and I had the rare opportunity to watch as he nailed his first-ever caribou with a 20-yard shot. The Super Slam arrow tipped by a three-blade mechanical broadhead punched completely through the bull, and the caribou staggered 20 yards and pitched on his nose.

After snapping a few photos of Peter with his bull, I hotfooted up a ridge to look for caribou. No problem! More than 200 were drifting across the tundra at ranges between 50 and 500 yards.

Less than 20 minutes later, the best bull I'd seen all trip appeared through my binoculars.

He had everything -- long top tines with palmation below, spectacular bez, deep double shovels, and wide main beams.

I scurried into position, tried to predict which trail the bull would follow, and hunkered behind a ridge. Five minutes later, the animal strolled into view 50 yards away. He walked along the right trail, and stopped to feed at 35 yards. My bow thudded and the bull was mine. He scored 3636⁄8 Pope and Young points -- my best Quebec caribou to date.

During the next two days, the Easton crew and I nailed four more bulls. Three were bigger than we had taken before. All eight racks were different. Peter's best bull was tall with lots of points. Mike's had the longest top tines. Mine was the widest, with an outside spread of 56 inches. Randy's best caribou had thick main beams and bez tines as long as a man's arm.

As we lounged by our wall tent on the final afternoon, munching on caribou steaks and watching big bulls stream across the airstrip, Randy summed it up best.

"Bowhunting Quebec caribou is heaven without the harps," he said. "And with all these trophy bulls, I'd rather be strumming a bowstring anyway!"

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