By Joe Blake
EVEN AT A DISTANCE of over 2 miles, we could see that the stag wore a giant rack that required closer inspection. From our ridge top vantage point nearly a mile above our remote camp, outfitter Tony Tuck and I followed the huge woodland caribou's every movement through our spotting scopes as he meandered across several bogs on the far side of the lake. Although it was only the first afternoon of my week-long bowhunt with Grey River Lodge, Ltd., and neither Tony nor I wanted to end our hunt this early, we couldn't pass up a chance at this monster. So, finally, we packed up our scopes and began the long, soggy slosh back toward camp and the boat that would ferry us across the small, unnamed lake.
As we motored slowly across the rocky expanse of water we discussed the likelihood of finding the trophy stag again, and both Tony and I agreed that we had two strong points in our favor: 1) the stag was alone, without the multiple eyes and ears of a harem of does that he would soon be courting as the rut took hold in force; 2) he seemed in no particular hurry as he fed nonchalantly across the semi-open boggy terrain above the south shore of the lake.
Reaching a spot near where we had last seen the caribou we beached the boat and began a long, downwind circle to make sure the stag hadn't moved back the way from which he had originally come. Then we simply began still-hunting into the wind until we found the brute, still feeding slowly along and still out in the middle of an open expanse of bog, safe from my 62-pound Lightning longbow, at least for the moment.
Eventually, the huge animal fed to the point of a steep ridge.
"If he disappears, I'm going to sprint over there to catch up to him," I said.
He did, and I did - 200 yards across open terrain, reminiscent of my younger days as a state-class sprinter. Unfortunately, as could be expected for a caribou, he had already moved 100 yards out into the next bog by the time I eased around the point, ready to shoot.
We dogged the big woodland for the next hour. I made three more mad dashes, but the nearest I could close was 60 yards, far our of longbow range. Finally the big 'bou tired of the game and climbed a steep ridge in front of us, where he turned his back to the wind and stared out over the open bog where Tony and I lay hidden by a small patch of cover. With the wind giving him scent coverage from behind, and with a good view in front, this animal had picked the perfect resting spot, and he was safe from all predators including us.
Except for Tony's ace card! Easing the cut-off tops of a set of caribou antlers from his pack, Tony crawled around the patch of brush to get some space between us, and then brought the antlers together hard to simulate two bulls fighting, much like rattling for whitetails. The caribou raised his head and stared intently toward Tony.
Now comes the point where all similarities to rattling for deer ends, as Tony extended his arms - and the antlers - above his head and walked slowly toward the now alert stag, swaying the rack from side to side as he tried to convince the animal that he was another stag coming to challenge his supremacy!
In my 30 years of bowhunting, this was one of the strangest sights I've ever seen as Tony walked out in plain sight of the record class stag. I'll have to admit to having some serious reservations as to the wisdom of this tactic, but with daylight fading fast, we had no more time for a stalk. So why not?
Shifting my attention back and forth from Tony's antics to the fully alert stag, I initially saw little interest on the part of the caribou. But as my outfitter kept up the show and added some serious brush raking for good measure, the bull started angling down the hill in our direction!
MY DESIRE TO VISIT Newfoundland had been building for several years, because Canada's most easterly province is the only place a hunter can pursue woodland caribou. Having hunted caribou in the Northwest Territories, Manitoba, and Quebec previously, I'd fallen in love with the wide-open spaces that these strikingly beautiful animals call home. And spot-and-stalk hunting caribou with a bow is exciting and challenging.
My 2002 bowhunt took place during the last week of September, but Grey River offers five weeks of hunts running through mid-October. Tony and I green-scored my bull in the 270-inch range. I have never hunted with a finer operation than Grey River Lodge. The facilities, the staff, the scenery, and the animals were first rate. If you're interested in hunting in Newfoundland, contact: Tony Tuck, Grey River Lodge, Ltd. (877) 466-2440; www.greyltd.com.
For additional information, contact: Tourism Newfoundland & Labrador (1-800-563-6353; email@example.com; www.newfoundland-labrador.com.
Indispensable gear included raingear from Whitewater Outdoors (1-800-666-2674); wool camouflage from King of the Mountain (970/962-9306); fleece clothing from Day One Camouflage (1-800-347-2979); Schnee's Boots (1-888-922-1510); Bausch & Lomb binoculars from Bushnell Performance Optics (1-800-423-3537).
On this hunt I carried a 62-pound Lightning Longbow (702/437-4196). My larch arrow shafts, finished with over-sized feathers and 3-blade Wensel Woodsman broadheads (641/664-2215), weighed 725 grains. I buy my arrow making supplies from the Bohning Company Ltd (1-800-253-0136) and G&M Archery (218/224-3263).
Woodland caribou are similar to other caribou in appearance and habits, but subtle differences exist as well. For one thing, while mature woodl
and stags often tip the scales at well over 400 pounds, their antlers are more compact than those of any other of the five recognized subspecies of caribou. In fact, the Pope & Young minimum for this species is 220 inches, compared to minimums of 300 inches or great for all of the other subspecies. While woodland antlers don't have long, sweeping beams and huge spreads, they often have lots of mass, good palmation, and multiple points on each side. Throw such a rack atop a thick, flowing, snow-white mane, and you have one of the most beautiful animals in North America.
Unlike the other caribous, woodlands generally do not migrate long distances, so you'll rarely experience the "feast or famine" situations hunters often describe in Quebec or Alaska. If you're willing to wear out some boot leather in good woodland areas, you should find good bulls daily.
The caribou of Newfoundland seem to prefer a mix of open, boggy terrain interspersed with high, rocky ridges and dense stands of timber - which describes a good percentage of the huge island. The hitch is that the terrain is rugged and extremely difficult to walk in. But nobody ever said bowhunting was supposed to be easy, did they?
My hunt had actually shaped up nearly two years previously when I first contacted Grey River Lodge, Ltd. about the possibility of a bowhunt. I could tell from my first visit with co-owner Tony Tuck that I need not look further for a quality experienceÃ‚€¦even via e-mail and over the phone it's clear that Tony has a passion for hunting and all things wild and outdoors, and as a bowhunter himself he understands and appreciates the needs of a fellow archer.
Grey River Lodge has been in business for 10 years and operates three camps: Salmon Brook, Rocky Ridge, and the newly opened Caribou Camp, which is where my week-long bowhunt took place. Hunting camps are accessed primarily by helicopter, although floatplanes are sometimes used, too. A maximum of four hunters per week is the rule. Over the last decade Grey River Lodge boasts an amazing success rate of nearly 100 percent for caribou and 75 to 80 percent for moose. Good numbers of big black bears roam the area as well, making this an exceptional destination for serious bowhunters.
THAT'S WHY I WAS crouched behind that brush, watching Tony act like a crazy bull as a big bull headed our way to investigate. The big bull didn't head directly toward Tony but fed nonchalantly our way. But it was obvious he was keeping one watchful eye on his challenger as he inched ever closer.
At 40 yards he began to cut between Tony and me, so I slide my longbow ahead of me and inched precious yards closer before drawing my knees beneath me and preparing for the 22-yard shot from behind a small clump of tuckamore, the nasty half-shrub, half evergreen tree that dots all of Newfoundland.
It seemed like an eternity passed as the huge stag faced me nearly head-on, preventing any kind of acceptable shot. I was vaguely aware of his massive, rocking antlers, of the stiff crosswind between us, of the cold water soaking into every inch of my nearly prone form, and of Tony still raking antlers somewhere off to my right.
Finally, the big caribou made his move, and as he turned broadside I felt my longbow tense and then spring forward. Although the wind played havoc with the flight of my arrow, even at that short distance, the heavy wooden shaft arched true and disappeared completely through the animal's side. As night finally blanketed the landscape Tony and I knelt to admire the massive rack and snow-white mane of my trophy stag. It was truly a rattling experience.