The Caribou Myth
November 04, 2010
Sure, caribou are easy. Just stalk a few dozen of them, and you might get one.
Just reaching caribou country can be an adventure. Hunters arrive via floatplane.
OUR FIRST MORNING in camp, August 19, my guide Charlie Kudlak, video cameraman Mark Grupe, and I boated across Desteffany Lake and climbed a hill. At the top we spotted antlers, and Mark and I took off after the four bulls as Charlie climbed to a vantage to direct us with hand signals. Ten minutes into the hunt we were after bulls. This was too easy.
Well, by the time we caught up with those caribou, they had moved more than a mile. When they bedded in a boulder field, we figured we had them. Good cover, good wind, quiet ground. To make it better, one of the bulls rose and walked in front us at 35 yards. I drew, ready to shoot.
Before I could release, he turned straight away, walked up the hill, and lay down facing us. Now we could not move. As we focused on him, another bull walked up behind us, and when he saw us blazed away like a scalded cat. The other bulls followed suit.
After a short breather, we hiked to the west and soon spotted a very large, lone bull on a far hill. Again, Charlie directed with hand signals as Mark and I circled out ahead. Throwing in a few sprints, we managed to get well ahead of the bull and set up an ambush. It appeared the bull would walk just below us, so I knelt, facing downhill. But then he veered above us at 30 yards, and I could not twist far enough to draw and shoot. When I tried to change position for a shot, he instantly spotted us and bolted. That was disappointing, because he was an exceptional caribou, and we had done almost everything right.
To locate caribou, we often glassed from boats. When we spotted animals, we beached the boats, and the stalk was on!
After another breather, we saw a bull bedded in a meadow. We could work down through some plumb trees to get a shot at him. But we were hurrying, and trying to coordinate our movements was tough. In short, the bull saw us, and that was the end of that.
To summarize our first day, we had two close calls and a blown stalk. Not a bad day on the tundra.
A COMMON PERCEPTION is that caribou are addled animals with poor eyesight, running aimlessly across the tundra. In short, they're pretty easy to hunt.
In my opinion, that's a misperception. A myth. Perhaps legendary gun writer Jack O'Connor started the myth. In his book, The Art of Hunting Big Game in North America, O'Connor titled Chapter 17, "Caribou: Beautiful But Dumb!" He then wrote, among other disparaging observations: "A handsome, high-stepping, beautifully antlered creature, the bull caribou, but Oh Lord, how dumb! ...the caribou is a pathetically easy animal to stalk...the poor caribou's vision is bad indeed...They are very easy to hunt once they are located."
I suppose a guy picking them off at 300 yards with a .270 might have that view. O'Connor never hunted them with a bow.
Some situations can make caribou seem easy, too. When you're in the midst of 10,000 migrating caribou in Quebec, arrowing a bull seems like child's play. But when you miss the migration and see a half-dozen caribou all week? Child's play indeed -- with a lot of crying.
Even when conditions appear ideal, killing caribou is not guaranteed. This was my second trip to Desteffeny Lake with Aurora Caribou Camp in the Northwest Territories (see "Never Too Early, " Bowhunter Big Game Special 2001). I had returned not only because outfitter Greg Robertson runs a good show, but because this hunt is as close to a sure thing as caribou hunting gets. In late summer, the caribou are scattered across the tundra, and you can always find some caribou to stalk. But pathetically easy? Hmmm.
Continued -- click on page link below.
On my sixth stalk, I finally found one of the proverbial dumb bulls and collected this "broomstick" bull.
ON AUGUST 20, a stiff wind was blowing, and Charlie, Mark, and I stopped frequently to put on and remove our raingear as squalls came and went. When we saw five bulls in the distance, we quickly agreed that Mark and I would hide in a saddle while Charlie would circle and push the bulls our way. The plan seemed to be working perfectly as the bulls milled within 30 yards of us. But suddenly they realized they'd been trapped and sprinted away before I could shoot. Now, that was easy.
Shortly afterward we saw another group of bulls feeding along a distant ridge. They seemed to be taking their time, and we were confident we could get in front of them as we jogged across a flat and up the ridge. But when we reached our anticipated ambush spot, the caribou were already a half-mile past us. How did they get so far ahead of us? I mused. They're dumb -- and fast!
An hour later we spotted a couple of bulls bedded below a rim. Again, Charlie gave hand signals as Mark and I stalked. One of the bulls had long, broomstick antlers that projected like, well, broomsticks, from behind a big rock. We homed in on those antlers, and when we'd crawled within 20 yards we settled in to wait, figuring the bull eventually would stand and present a clear shot.
Well, he finally did stand, but his body was still hidden behind the rock. Then, as if he knew we were there, he turned and walked straight away downhill. Still no shot. Dumb caribou!
Unfortunately for him, he didn't walk out quite far enough to get out of my range. When he fed into the open and turned broadside, he gave me a chance, and I wasn't about to pass it up. Planting my 40-yard sight pin on his chest, I launched an arrow. As we photographed and butchered the bull in a cloud of black flies, I couldn't help but think how easy that was. It had taken only six stalks.
WITH A BULL IN THE BAG, I traded my bow for a video camera and followed my pal Larry D. Jones the next day. Early in the morning we saw a grizzly bear and some caribou in the distance, but none we could catch up with.
Then, about noon, we located a group of three big bulls that looked very huntable. One was standing with his head down, apparently asleep, while th
e other two fed around him. When old sleepy woke up, they all meandered toward a brushy valley. Larry and I made a mad dash to ambush them there, but we could not get into position fast enough and suddenly found ourselves pinned down in the open as the bulls fed within 50 yards and bedded.
Larry and I scooted down into a couple of depressions out of sight, and for an hour we hunkered in our foxholes, unable to get a clear shot at the bedded bulls, unable to move without being seen. When one of the bulls finally rose and fed within 30 yards, Larry rolled to his knees and took the shot.
His arrow fell short and the bulls sprinted a short distance. Then they settled down, and as they returned to feeding we got on their trail. Three times we had good chances to close within bow range, but, again, it was as if the bulls knew we were there and simply kept a safe distance. Blind? Dumb? Yeah. But not the caribou!
ON SUNDAY, AUGUST 22, Charlie, Mark, and I headed to the far eastern end of the lake. No one had yet hunted there, and we were hoping to find some fresh bulls -- dumb bulls -- that would make mistakes.
As soon as we'd parked the boat on a calm bay and climbed the first hill, we spotted three good bulls bedded near an upland pond. To make a long story short, we stalked, crawled, ran, and set ambushes most of the day to get within bow range of those bulls -- and failed. When it seemed we finally had them in our grasp as they fed peacefully in a brushy valley, we walked into a spike bull we had not seen, and he ran straight through our group of bulls. Thus ended five hours of effort. Oh, so easy!
Bowhunter Magazine TV Producer Larry D. Jones produced with his bow as well as his camera.
Continued -- click on page link below.
When we saw this "backscratcher" bull asleep on his feet in a meadow, I thought, I've got to get that bull!
By now it was 4 p.m., and we were many miles from the boat. Feeling as if the hunt was over for the day, we started the long march back. But, then, a funny thing happened on the way to the boat. As we topped one of many hills, we saw a bull standing in a meadow, seemingly sound asleep. Quickly we swung downwind and stalked within 90 yards of the sleeping bull. In 45 minutes, he had not moved an inch.
We couldn't get any closer from that angle, so I circled around a knob to look for another approach. In the process, I saw another bull, also sound asleep on his feet, in the next meadow over. This one had very unusual antlers with long trez tines -- back scratchers -- and instantly I thought, I've got to get that bull!
I ran back to get Charlie and Mark, and soon Mark and I were stalking as Charlie directed us from a vantage point. We'd scarcely made our move when the backscratcher bull woke up, walked up an adjacent hill, and began feeding -- directly toward us. Now we were trapped in the open. And to make matters worse, the other meadow bull had come to life and walked up behind us. Now he was standing 50 yards away, watching us.
We tried our best to look like clumps of tundra, but that bull behind us would have none of that. To top things off, he walked over to the backscratcher bull and -- I'll swear this is true -- whispered to him about the two yahoos hunkered in the bushes.
Now totally suspicious, both bulls started circling us to get our wind. The bigger bull stayed a safe 50 yards out. But the backscratcher bull made a mistake by taking a shortcut that brought him within 30 yards. Somehow I got to full draw, and when I shot, the bull ran out onto a flat and went down.
By the time we'd butchered the bull, packed the meat and antlers back to the boat, and crossed the lake to camp, it was 9 p.m. Our day had started at 6 a.m. As Jack O'Connor had made so clear, Easy stuff, this caribou hunting!
MONDAY, AUGUST 23, WAS our last day. With both of my tags filled, I again went with Larry as cameraman. He also had taken a bull the day before and was eager to try for a second.
When we saw three bulls on a peninsula, Larry and I took a stand in a narrow bottleneck while our guides circled around to drive the bulls to us. To escape, the animals would HAVE to come by us.
However, as soon as the drive began, two of the bulls ran straight to the lakeshore and swam to the mainland. The third did head toward Larry and me, but when he topped a hill some 300 yards away, he stood and looked our direction, seemingly analyzing the bottleneck. He couldn't see us hiding in the brush, and there was no way he smelled us. Still, he knew he was trapped. At length he turned 90 degrees, walked down to the shore, and swam a bay to safety. Dumb caribou!
That seemed to end our hunt, but as we were boating back to camp, we spotted seven bulls on a small island. This seemed like a cinch. We virtually had them trapped.
One of the bulls was bedded by himself in a depression near the water, in perfect position for a stalk. We easily crawled within 60 yards and were analyzing the situation. It appeared we could cut that distance in half, and since the caribou seemed to be sound asleep, stalking him would be easy.
Just as we began to make our final move, we heard screeching and cackling above us and looked up to see a pair of peregrine falcons diving at us. They had a nest nearby -- we later found it -- and were trying to drive us away.
The bull we were stalking instantly awoke and looked up at the falcons. Without hesitation, he jumped to his feet and made a made dash toward the water. The other six bulls immediately joined him, and they all swam to the mainland and galloped away, never looking back.
For more than 30 years I've hunted big game across North America and have seen animals pull some amazing stunts. But an early warning system in the sky? That beats them all.
Caribou are so stupid. No wonder they're pathetically easy to stalk.
Author's Notes: This hunt was featured on Bowhunter Magazine TV. If you missed it, you still can catch all the action on DVD. For ordering information, visit our online store.
My equipment on this hunt included a Mathews Icon at 50 pounds draw weight; Easton AC Super Slim 400 shafts; Barrie Ti-125 broadheads; Nikon 8x42 Premier binoculars; and ScentBlocke
r and Whitewater clothing.
During the same week, my companions Larry D. Jones, Jeff Tusing, Leroy Burnett, and Brad Barr also took caribou. For more information on this excellent hunt, contact: Aurora Caribou Camp, PO Box 1266, Yellowknife, NWT Canada X1A 2N9; (867) 873-4818; firstname.lastname@example.org.