November 04, 2010
Trophy size is relative.
Judged against other varieties of caribou, this caribou looks small; judged by woodland standards, my bull was a monster.
"Trophy size is relative," I told myself as a line of caribou trooped by. Even at 30 yards, the animals looked small compared to what I had seen in Alaska and mainland Canada. There were eight bulls in the bunch, including three with plenty of antler points per side. But even the biggest racks were short-coupled, with thin main beams, dwarf top tines, and narrow spreads.
As I crouched and watched the animals, my guide whispered in my ear, "Just average bulls. Decent trophies but nothing really great."
I was hunting woodland caribou, the smallest caribou recognized by major record books, in Newfoundland, Canada's easternmost chunk of real estate. I was well aware that the Pope and Young record-book minimum score of 220 inches is 105 points below the minimums for larger varieties like barren ground and Quebec-Labrador 'bou. Still, seeing my first herd of bulls was quite a shock. These critters had small antlers, no question about it.
I have had the good fortune to bag all five varieties of caribou recognized by the record books. I had delayed hunting woodlands because they have the least-impressive racks and because Newfound-land was so far from home. Still, I wanted to sample "Newfie" hunting.
So I started looking into guides, and after talking to several hunting friends, I liked the sounds of hunting with Gerry Pumphrey during the October rutting period. Weather might be bad that late, but Gerry had a track record for really large bulls at that time of year. After a few phone calls to clients on Pumphrey's reference list, I booked my hunt.
THE ISLAND OF NEWFOUNDLAND is so far east it has its own time zone -- 30 minutes later than any other place on the eastern edge of Canada or the United States. After two days of flying from my home through several airports in between, my wide-body jet finally touched down at the Stephenville airport on the west edge of the province.
The countryside looked like every other far-north place I'd been. Scrub evergreens clung to thin soil along with low-growing bushes, lichens, and moss. Granite domes rose between narrow lakes. Every landform pointed north and south, scoured to bedrock by advancing and retreating glaciers in ages gone by. It was a raw and rugged land.
Gerry met me at the airport. He was pleasant and efficient. Soon I was in a floatplane for the one-hour flight to caribou camp.
Some names fit the location, and Rock Camp certainly did. As the plane circled two plywood cabins beside a pale blue lake, I saw a lone lump of granite looming high behind the structures, and as we taxied toward shore, the giant rock seemed to rise even higher above surrounding hills. Throughout the hunt on clear days, Rock Camp's landmark was always visible, even from many miles away.
Shortly after landing, I met my guide, Tom Childs, who looked like a lean walking machine -- exactly what's required for open-country caribou. Tom had never hunted with an archer, but he was open to suggestions and eager to please. After a talk about how I preferred to hunt, we grabbed our binoculars and climbed a ladder roped to the tall landmark rock behind camp. It was flat on top -- a great place to sit and glass.
The rocky barrens of Newfoundland, dotted with lakes and ponds, provide tremendous views -- when the weather clears enough to reveal the scenery.
It was too late in the evening to hunt, but not too late to see caribou. With one sweep of my binoculars, I counted more than 200, most within a mile. A dozen were white-maned bulls with harems of cows. I shivered in the damp cold.
CLOTHES FOR CARIBOU hunting in October must be versatile, which means layers to match wildly changing temperatures and wind conditions. A good basic combo starts with wool or synthetic longjohns covered by wool or fleece. Breathable rainwear can make the difference between comfort and misery when precipitation begins to fall.
Even a woodland caribou weighs 300 pounds on the hoof. My 82-pound Hoyt compound bow was perfect for this hunt. With heavy aluminum shafts, this setup would shoot through a broadside or quartering caribou with ease.
As I sorted gear at Rock Camp the night before my hunt, I ran caribou-judging numbers through my head. To score well, a bull would need one deep shovel over the nose; two would be better. On woodland caribou, "deep" meant 8 to 12 inches from top to bottom. Bez beams should stretch forward to the tip of the nose, with at least three points per side. Each main beam needed four or five points on top. I knew from the record books that woodland bulls leaned toward good shovels and excellent bez, with short main beams and short top points. Double shovels were common in Newfoundland. Main beams seldom exceeded 40 inches, and 10-inch top points were good.
The first day of the hunt was disappointing in more ways than one. Fog set in, with flurries of sleet and snow. Tom and I went out anyway, glassing as best we could. At midday, the ceiling lifted enough for us to see. Not one caribou was in sight.
"You just can't figure caribou," my guide said, scratching his head, as pea-sized hail slashed his face.
We hiked the rest of the day and never saw a large bull. A few cows, calves, and junior bulls trudged past with their tails to the wind, but nothing worth a second glance. My high hopes from the evening before took a nosedive.
The next two days were a lot like the first. The weather was bad, and we saw very few bulls near camp. The highlight came when a bachelor band of 10 wandered past at pointblank range. Most had broom-handle tops with no points at all, and none had shovels.
Caribou in Newfoundland don't mi-grate long distances because they have no place to go. The whole island is smaller than Montana, with almost as many people. Caribou wander across unpopulated habitat and move between high summer range and lower winter ground. But towns, highways, and the ocean prevent the long-distance travel typical of other Canadian caribou.
DAY FOUR DAWNED with biting cold and rain. Donning raingear, Tom and I slogged out of camp. Four hours later, we still had not seen a single caribou.
"I'm farther from Rock Camp than I've ever been," Tom commented at noon. "Things aren't looking good."
According to my topo map, we were eight air miles from the cabin. I chewed a piece of jerky and continued to glass terrain.
When caribou did appear, there were plenty to choose from. We peeked past a ridge with the wind slicing our faces. There, in a shallow valley, we could see more than 100 caribou, and I counted nine mature bulls pushing cows. Fog and snow made looking difficult. Finally, a blue hole appeared overhead and a few rays stabbed through the mist.
Like magic, a large caribou strolled into the sunlight 500 yards away. He had double shovels, giant bez, and heavy main beams with a fringe of top points. He turned and walked away.
Caribou on the prod can cover mile after mile, and this boy lined out like a bird dog working pheasants. We stumbled and ran like madmen to keep up. The rain, snow, and hail took turns slapping our faces numb.
Topping a rise, we skidded to a halt. The big bull was standing 100 yards away. He had found bull heaven -- a basin teeming with cows. He lowered his rack, chased two small bulls, and started gathering females. I crouched, circled crosswind, and dropped on my belly to crawl. Tom stayed on the downwind side, binoculars pressed to his eyes.
When I reached the last bit of cover, a cow cruised past less than five yards from my nose. After she'd gone by, I groped for my rangefinder. The big bull was quartering away with his nose to the wind. Snowflakes sizzled past like bits of white-hot ash.
I rolled to my knees and drew the bow. Two cows turned to look. I steadied myself in the wind and released. The shaft sliced through the storm and smashed the bull through the ribs. He was mine!
Two hours of butchering and 10 miles of walking put us back in camp long after dark. Clouds had thinned and stars twinkled overhead, and a lantern shined from the lookout rock above camp, courtesy of our cook. It was comforting in the inky darkness.
Tom had never carried a caribou so far in his long guiding career. But the rewards were worth the work. My bull placed fourth in the all-time archer's record list with a score of 2864â„8 -- the largest woodland caribou taken with a bow in 22 years.
Woodland bulls might not be large, but they'll give you big thrills and a magnum bowhunting challenge. I highly recommend the experience.
Editor's Note: Parts of this column were taken from Chuck's popular book, Super Slam!, now available at a special Bowhunter Magazine discount rate of 20 percent off retail. To order a personally autographed copy, send $19.95 per book plus $3 shipping and handling to: Chuck Adams Books, PO Box 10, Cody WY 82414. For credit card orders, call toll-free, 1-800-916-2575. A limited number of collector's leather-bound volumes are also available for 40-percent off. Send $49.95 per book plus $3 shipping and handling, or order with credit card by telephone.