"I could smell the bull's breath and see the slobber coming from his mouth. He had no idea I was there."
This was almost surreal. My plan had worked too well, and now I was staring face to face with a monster caribou bull. The only thing that separated us was a lone willow. Now we were in a standoff.
For me, September means one thing -- bowhunting for caribou above the Arctic Circle. Heading north to caribou camp is the highlight of my year, and each fall brings new anticipation. Some years have been slam-dunks, while others have left me wondering if caribou even exist.
My transporter, Matt Owen of Northern Air Trophy, is anything but the typical Alaskan bush pilot. He is proficient with his craft and has been dropping hunters off in northwest Alaska for years. Every time I climb into his blue Cessna 180, I know he will do everything in his power to get me into position to be successful. I also like the fact that Matt doesn't just drop me off. He likes to fly the country to survey the action, and then he lets me make the decision -- pretty rare these days.
This particular year, warmer than usual temperatures had kept the animals far north, delaying the migration, but after an hour in the air, we could see fresh trails cutting through a narrow saddle between two mountains. These trails showed all the signs that animals had been moving through daily, and as the big rubber tires touched down on the loose shale rock, caribou started to appear in every direction. This was going to be awesome!
After landing and searching around a little, my hunting partner, Jake Hamilton, and I found a low, flat spot on the side of a hill for camp. It wasn't ideal, but we had little choice. All we knew was that we had caribou around us and maybe we could capitalize on this arrangement.
With darkness approaching, we quickly set up our two tents, one for sleeping, a second for storing gear. Most planes have weight limits, but two small tents weigh less than a large one, and even though some guys like to rough it, I like room and comfort. Besides, Alaska always promises rain, and two tents help you keep wet gear off sleeping bags, a huge plus.
With no trees -- or firewood of any kind -- in sight, a fire was out of the question, and water was somewhat of an issue. The nearest stream was at the bottom of a deep ravine a half-mile from camp, so we would have to pack water. Still, we could supply ourselves with plenty of water, a top priority on any hunt. Back in 2007, we got on some caribou early and I put off getting water until that evening. I became dehydrated, and unknown to me I was developing a kidney stone. This was the first day of a seven-day hunt, and that night it hit me. Luckily I had my satellite phone, or it might have turned tragic.
Even though the area Jake and I were in had little cover in terms of vegetation or boulders, it did have some deep cuts at each end of the saddle containing a small willow or two. Our hope was that we could crawl in and surprise an unsuspecting bull.
When we awoke our first morning there, the air was crisp and we could see for miles. From camp we could already see caribou moving single file across the saddle, heads down and hooves clicking. It was a picture perfect Alaskan morning in hunting camp.
My plan was to head to the edge of one of the hills and glass the saddle where I could get a better view of what lay ahead. After a quick breakfast on the Coleman, I grabbed my bow, checked my quiver, and made sure my pistol was safe in its holster. For me, the key to success on a caribou hunt is having time-tested gear and taking exactly what you need.
You never know what the day will hold and how far you will end up from camp. So you want to go prepared.
As I sat and glassed the surrounding hills, the sun was just starting to make its way above the horizon. Small groups of caribou roamed through the valley, but most were cows and calves with no big bulls in sight. I could see they were traveling down several well-used trails a foot deep across the open shale.
After some time there, I moved to a better vantage point in the middle of a low-lying cut in hopes of having a shot on both sides if a bull passed by. The key to hunting caribou this way is patience. A long time ago, while hunting with many of my native friends, I learned that a person just has to be patient. "Wait and they will come to you," they would say. It took years for me to figure this out, and I still have a hard time with it -- like today.
For the next two hours, caribou flowed through the valley, but they were either too high or too low, out of my effective range. Finally I decided to move farther into the bottleneck. I knew better, and I'd got only halfway across the flat when a monster bull and a young calf, heading toward my previous position, caught me out in the open and fled. Remember what I said about patience?
Coming to a narrow, deep cut where caribou had been coming through, I settled in for two hours but had no activity at all. I still had a good four hours of daylight left, but I was out of water and decided to head back to camp to replenish.
Climbing up the hill, I glanced back over my shoulder and saw antlers coming across the flat. A group of eight caribou was heading to the exact place I had been earlier in the morning. They were all mature bulls. Quickly I assessed the situation and decided to try to get in front of them. Despite my thirst, the water would have to wait.
On a dead run, I took off down the dry creek bed that cut through the canyon. Out of sight and out of breath, I made it to the other end before the bulls did. I figured they would go high, so I made my way to a lone willow bush still in full leaf. It wasn't very tall, but it sat above an undercut and would be great camouflage. I ranged the main trails on each side of me -- 42 yards to the right, 38 yards to the left. The wind was perfect.
They were heading to the high side, and they had no clue I was there. I sat and waited.
At this point I got the feeling that my setup was actually going to work -- maybe too well! Leading the pack was an old bull with super wide and heavy antlers, but instead of heading high, he came straight for the willow. Peeking through the small yellow bush, I watched the antlers coming closer and closer. Shaking, I slowly pulled back the 70-pound bow, really not knowing what I would do if he stopped on the other side. Less than a yard from the point of my Montec broadhead, the bull st
opped. This was unbelievable, almost surreal.
I could smell the bull's breath and see the slobber coming from his mouth. He had no idea I was there. I tried to find a hole in the willow but could find nothing. Seemingly, I had no choice but to stand and hope he would turn slowly and give me a shot.
Just as I was getting ready to execute the maneuver he saw me, did a 180, and headed in the other direction at a hard angle. When he paused at 40 yards, I hit the release, and the arrow disappeared into the bull's vitals. He went 80 yards and fell over.
After absorbing the moment I finally made my way to the bull and could hardly believe his size. The antler beams were not only long, but they were so heavy my hands would not reach around his bases. He was the biggest bull I had ever arrowed, and given the terrain and the lack of cover in this area, I considered arrowing a bull here to be a major accomplishment.
I took several hundred photos and then got to the task of field dressing. Camp was about three-quarters of a mile away, and I knew this would take at least two trips. After getting most of the meat on my pack, I got up to leave, only to see five more bulls standing nearby, looking at me. I did have another tag in my pocket, but I guess they knew I had enough to do for now.
Tomorrow, I thought.
Paul Atkins lives in Kotzebue, Alaska. When he isn't hunting he teaches for the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and serves on the pro staffs for BowTech, Carbon Express, and Trophy Taker.
Author's Notes: I used a BowTech Allegiance at 70 lbs. draw weight, Carbon Express Maxima Hunter arrows fletched with Bohning Blazer Vanes, 100-grain G5 Montec broadheads, Copper John sight, Scott Mongoose release, Leica Geovid 10x42 binoculars, and Cabela's Alaska frame pack.
With 62-inch main beams and 40 inches of width, my bull measured 3611„8 Pope and Young inches.
Alaska has twice as many caribou as people, about one million total. Although most herds are declining, the Western Arctic herd, which numbers about 450,000, is maintaining good numbers and remains the largest in the state. Tags are sold over the counter, and the bag limit is two caribou. The Porcupine herd, in the northeastern part of the state, also offers hunters the opportunity to take more than one bull.
The popular Mulchatna herd peaked at 200,000 in 1996 and has been on the decline since, to a current population estimated at 45,000. The decline can be attributed to predators, overpopulation at the peak, and dwindling food supplies.
Some 25 smaller herds throughout the state provide some hunting opportunities. Some are open to nonresidents, while others are open for local subsistence hunters only.
Seasons usually run from mid-August until the end of September. Some hunts are draw only and others can only be hunted at certain times. For full details on hunting caribou in Alaska, go to www.adfg.state.ak.us.