Bowhunting Alaskan Caribou
As I lowered the 10X40 binoculars I'd been staring through all day, my peripheral vision detected a rather large clump of hair moving my way. Immediately two realizations came to mind. First, the hair was on the back of an animal way too wide to be a moose. Second, it was time to make a quiet, yet hasty retreat. A pretty good-sized grizzly materialized about ten steps away. Luckily, I was on a bank that was higher than the than the bear's eye level, and was able to quietly get out of the area and leave him to go about his business. One thing is for sure, you never run into a grizzly bear while hunting antlered game where I live!
My grizzly encounter was part of a great caribou bowhunting trip out of Kotzebue that my friend Bob Condon and I made. We have also hunted the Mulchatna herd, where I was fortunate enough to take a small bull with my longbow. While tundra deer are available elsewhere, there is something special about hunting caribou in Alaska. With a little planning, a successful Alaskan caribou adventure is for a reasonable expense. This will typically be a self-guided trip where a reputable flight service puts you ahead of the migration, but after all, that's how Fred Bear did it!
The biggest difference between the Alaskan-style caribou bowhunt and the hunting offered in Canada is that Alaskan trips are typically drop hunts. The other operations usually use a series of fixed-base camps along the migration route. Alaskan caribou trips will not have all the amenities, but have the advantage of being readily adaptable to changes in migration patterns. On an Alaskan caribou trip, a pilot flies hunters into an area ahead of the caribou migration. These excursions are do-it-yourself, thus the accommodations are a week in a tent. While this may not appeal to everyone, a self-guided hunt is an option not offered elsewhere.
Simply getting there is a big part of the adventure. Most Alaskan outfitters and flight services offer three different packages. They will drop you off in good territory and have you bring all of your camping gear and food. Outfitters also will fly to a hunting location set up a camp, then drop their hunters off later. The final offering is a fully guided hunt complete with meals. The biggest variation is the price. The more an outfitter or pilot has to fly, the greater their expenses are. Prices also increase when they provide a guide. Thus the more self-sufficient you are, the more economical the trip.
Outfitters typically check on their hunters to make sure everything is okay. They also fly out meat and antlers if there are any in camp. Many pilots ask their hunters to use a prearranged signal so they don't have to land if it is not necessary. Getting meat out and into a cooler somewhere is certainly a big plus if the weather is warm.
For any Alaskan hunter, resident or nonresident, the success or failure of a caribou trip is dependant on picking the right flight service or outfitter. Hunters should take plenty of time and ask questions before they book a trip. Ask how much time the outfitter has spent in the hunting area, and what their knowledge of caribou migrations is.
More importantly, be sure and check references. A good service will easily be able to provide several references. You don't want to fly with someone who will be late getting you out at the end of your trip because their plane was in the repair shop. Good outfitters and flight services have plenty of happy customers. It also doesn't hurt to search Internet sites with forums used by hunters to discuss their adventures. Search the threads for the name of the outfitter and see if there are any negative postings.
Those of us who prefer to hunt caribou with the bow must find a pilot who understands the needs of archers. Much of the land there is wide open, and even though this poses no problem for a rifle shooter, it can make things impossible for an archer unless there is enough stalking cover to get close to the caribou. On one of my trips we camped in a valley with a lake and a pond at the base where the caribou would meander through the cover along the water. On another, we were on a riverbed with plenty of willow brush to hide in as we stalked passing caribou. Be sure the pilot understands you need features like this.
In Alaska, you can't hunt on the day you fly in to camp, so there is usually plenty of time to get things set up, do some glassing, and take a few practice shots with your bow. Find a good spot for camp, out of the wind and hidden as much as possible so the caribou won't easily spot it. Wind and weather can become foul in a hurry so establish a good campsite.
When dawn comes the next morning it is time to hunt. Caribou hunting is either feast or famine depending on the movements of an animal that can cover over 15 miles in a day! If you have never hunted them, forget what you know about other sorts of bowhunting. They have food and water everywhere, so these needs do not draw them to one area. Caribou are always on the move to survive, and if all goes well they will move by you.
The tried and true method of hunting caribou in Alaska is to find a vantage point and glass. Spot the caribou first, determine their likely direction of travel, and get in front of them. Hopefully the decision of where to set up camp was a good one and caribou will be passing by within a mile of camp or so.
One of the temptations inexperienced caribou hunters fall for is spotting them off in the distance and chasing after them, only to find out when they get there that the animals are long gone. Caribou walk faster than a man can run. It is important to assess which caribou offer the best chance at intercepting.
Caribou trails are everywhere on the tundra, and it is vital to find the funnels they will pass through within a reasonable range of camp. There are many features in the terrain that concentrate the trails into smaller areas. On my last trip, the caribou were funneling past an island on a dry riverbed. I built a blind near the point of the island and had several herds come by before taking one out of the last group to pass by camp. Hunting this funnel worked well. Unfortunately the biggest bulls wouldn't come by within longbow range.
Another good bit of hunting strategy is that caribou follow trails left by other caribou by scent. Caribou rely on others of their species moving out ahead of them. They follow the previous herds, so even if a group of bou gets past your location, others will often use the same trail. Find an ambush point and wait for the next bunch.
The trick is in knowing when to shoot. If you wait too long in the hunt and pass on too many shots waiting for a huge bull, you may be sorry. Everyone who goes to Alaska isn't coming home with a Pope and Young bull, so don't pass up too many chances.
Hunting caribou with a bow requires a good opportunity for an effective shot. Archers who have spent most of their hunting time chasing deer can easily be fooled by the size of caribou and the open terrain. The average shot on caribou is typically longer than it is on whitetails, thus it pays to practice and become effective at longer ranges. It takes judgment and restraint in choosing a shot, and the right shot is the one within your effective range.
Another rookie mistake is falling for the temptation to hunt further from camp than is necessary. Remember, any game you bag has to be quartered and carried back to camp. All of the meat must be recovered, and it takes three to four loads to pack a caribou to camp.
Hunters who are unfamiliar with proper meat care on a remote trip should take the time to prepare themselves to be able to quarter a big game animal and keep the meat from spoiling. If a trip to the taxidermist is in order, hunters have to cape out a big bull and preserve the cape. Antlers also have to be cared for. On most archery hunts in Alaska, the caribou will still be in velvet. Velvet either has to be peeled off by soaking it in cold water and peeling it after it loosens, or it must be chemically preserved.
Since much of your hunting will be done with your eyes, having good binoculars makes a big difference. Having found out the difference between a $200 pair of 10X40 binoculars and a good pair the hard way, I can certainly vouch for spending the money on a good pair. A spotting scope is another good item.
Alaskan weather can vary through the entire spectrum all in the same day. Quality raingear is a must on an Alaskan hunting trip, since there is always the potential you'll be wearing it for an entire week if you want to go outside.
There are some dangers involved in hunting in Alaska. The tundra looks pretty similar and if you get too far from camp, it all looks the same. Worse yet, have a fog bank roll in and now you have a big problem on your hands. Carry a GPS unit and a compass.
Bears can add an unwanted element of excitement on a remote hunting trip in the Great White North. Having a successful hunt with a couple of caribou down near camp can draw unwelcome company. Meat in camp can also be a problem. Meat should be stored at least a hundred yards downwind of camp. It is also important to safely store food items and make sure to keep a clean camp. Bear protection, in the form of a firearm or pepper spray is a personal choice each hunter has to make. For the most part, grizzlies in caribou country want nothing to do with people, but every situation is different.
Take the time to research safety in bear country. The best protection comes from having information and common sense.
No other adventure I have ever taken compares to the caribou hunting I've done in Alaska. When I close my eyes and dream I can go back to a yellow tent next to a small lake near the Mulchatna River. The feel of the light rain, as I sat on a small knob next to the lake is still there. I will always remember the bull, and his velvet covered antlers bobbed along as he came my way. I can feel the string of my 65# longbow coming tight and watch the arrow on its way, followed by the bull bolting toward the lake. My buddy has an 8X10 photo of me wading chest deep into the icy cold lake water to retrieve the bull, and he still laughs about it. Solid memories of my last trip are there too.
A remote hunt in Alaska doesn't have to be only a dream. Plan well, and make your own memories!
Licenses are available from the State of Alaska over the Internet at their web site (http://www.admin.adfg.state.ak.us/license). A non-resident hunting license is $85.00 and caribou tags for non-residents are $325.00. Lists of guides and air transport services are available from the Big Game Commission Services Board at (http://www.dced.state.ak.us/occ). The list is also available by sending $5 to the Department of Commerce and Economic Development, Division of Occupational Licenses, Big Game Commission Services Board, P.O. Box 110806, Juneau, AK 99811-0806.
Robert Streeter is a freelance outdoor writer from upstate New York.