Of Bulls and Barrens

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"Did you pay the land?" queried Peter Enzo, my Dené guide. Having just arrowed a large bull, the onus was on me. A small gesture sure, but important nonetheless. Pulling knives from his backpack, Peter gazed up at me, half smiling but sincere in his question. He understood this native custom was unfamiliar to me.

"Sure did, in fact I put a quarter up there on that rock." I retorted. Fortunately, upon arrival in camp, my partner Greg Hartman and I had been informed of this important ritual.

Like most indigenous peoples, the Dené are proud and hold to a strong land ethic. In their view, it’s the gesture that matters, not so much the item of choice. The principle is simple. If you take something from the land, you must give something back in return. Seemed logical, so I became a willing participant in this exchange. In hindsight, I think it showed my new friend respect for his ways and the land he calls home.

Sometimes life presents opportunities and you just have to jump on them. It was mid-March last year when I began talking with Wayne Witherspoon, co-owner of Artillery Lake Adventures in the Northwest Territories. Conversations centered around a proposed muskox hunt in 2001. Bureaucratic red tape was the only barrier. In the meantime I received a call from Wayne in July.

"Still waiting on that paperwork Kev, but listen ... can I interest you in a caribou hunt this fall?" "Can he interest me?" I thought for a millisecond. That sounded like just what the doctor ordered! Clearly an opportunity I couldn't pass up! Besides I’d been unsuccessful in every one of my draws this year and, was contemplating alternative ventures for the early season calendar.

With details confirmed, I managed to coerce good friend, Greg Hartman, to join me for a week on Canada’s low arctic barrens. So Artillery Lake it would be!

With only 24 hours cushioning my return from a sheep hunt in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains and our day of departure, unpacking, cleaning and repacking transpired in a whirlwind. At 5:00 am, August 29th, my patient and loving wife stood groggy-eyed at the door and bid us farewell.

By noon we hopped aboard a Cesna 185 floatplane for a two-hour flight from Yellowknife, northeast to our camp. Upon departure, we immediately encountered turbulence; the tiny plane tossed about and pelted incessantly by heavy rains and snow. Propelled over mile after mile of taiga forest, eventually the landscape below began to open up allowing us to spot caribou, a black bear who appeared to be far north relative to its normal range, and best of all, a barrenground grizzly.

"Let’s go down for a closer look," chirped Ron our pilot. With a hard bank to the left, he brought us down right on top of the big grizz for an up close and personal look. Just like something out of a National Geographic documentary, the big bear began to run. With hair waving in the wind, he stared up over his shoulder at us in obvious concern. As we corrected and regained our course, I couldn’t help but ponder the immense openness of the barrens, how the Bathurst herd migrates annually and what the rest of the week had in store for us. It was finally sinking in … we were beginning an arctic adventure in pursuit of central barrenground caribou!

"Welcome to Artillery Lake guys. Go on up to the cook shack and grab a cup of coffee," invited Paul the camp manager. With a bitter cold wind nipping at us, as we jumped onto the dock, the invitation was well-received.

"Seems like winter’s coming a few weeks early this year. Could be a cold week ahead!" I had no choice but to agree, "if today’s any indication, we could be in for some tough hunting!"

In the Northwest Territories, you have to be on the ground for 12 hours following any flight before hunting. So our day of arrival was busied fishing and checking muzzle loaders and bows. Stomachs warmed with hot fluids and now dressed in proper gear, the temperature suddenly didn’t feel so bad.

Up at 7:00 a.m., we filled our bellies on some of the finest vittles known to man, and then wasted little time in grabbing packs and heading out on foot in search of herds seen not far from camp the previous day.

By noon we’d located and glassed over 30 different caribou and approximately two-thirds of them bulls; but nothing of real size. Then in short order, things changed.

"Hey, over there... that looks like a good bull!" Greg’s enthusiasm caught our undivided attention. “Not bad!” I agreed. Truth is, unless you’re accustomed to field scoring caribou, most bulls look impressive, especially when they’re carrying a heavy velvet rack. It takes a couple days to settle in to a comfortable judging mode.

"Double shovel, good bez, small back scratchers, and decent points up top. Yep, he’s a shooter," proclaimed Peter. The only thing missing was height, but we figured for the first bull, it was a definite keeper. In the Northwest Territories, each hunter is allowed to take two bulls.

The deal was this; Greg would get first crack. We’d do the stalk together, but should he miss for any unforeseen reason, I’d take the shot. As luck would have it, following a strategic sneak and a two-hour vigil for the bedded herd to begin moving again, we were back in the game. With the three of us hunkered behind an oversized boulder, the herd slowly ambled in our direction. With the topography working in our favour, natural contours subtly encouraged them progressively closer. It would be a maximum 180 yard shot; a long distance for our muzzle loaders, but not out of the question with a good rest.

Patiently waiting what seemed like light years, the big bull eased into view. At just 80 yards, he was finally broadside and clear of the others. It’s funny how even during intense interactive moments such as that, one tends to savor every special moment, regardless of any introversion, the time was now and focus was of the utmost importance.

“When you’re ready, take him!” I whispered. No sooner had those fateful words escaped my lips, when a blast erupted from his “muzzle gun” as Peter called it, and my field of view became momentarily obscured by a plume of white smoke. Regaining focus, the bull appeared unscathed. Now you have to understand, Greg is a seasoned hunter with many and varied trophy-class big game species to his credit. This was just one of those freak instances, where his sabot didn’t meet it’s mark. Fully exposed by this time, I asked if I should shoot.

“May as well,” he whispered, “can’t reload without being seen anyhow.” At that, I touched off. The 303 grain bullet from my .50 cal muzzleloader hit its mark . Anchored on the spot, he staggered for a brief moment and then stumbled to the ground. Caribou number one was mine. Despite Greg’s frustration vibes nearly knocking me off my feet, I had a good feeling we’d have plenty of opportunity in the days ahead.

Consuming the balance of the day with photos, skinning and taking the meat back to camp, it felt good to have one bull down.

Day two was most eventful. With calmer, but still relatively overcast weather at hand, optimism ran high. “We’ll go to the islands this morning,” suggested Peter. “Waves won’t be as big today. Traveling on the open water will be much easier.”

Not knowing any better, Greg and I agreed and looked forward to seeing a new area. Fulfilling my partnerly duty, I made a feeble attempt to counter Greg’s apparent dejection over his miss. “We’ll locate a cranker and you’ll have him on the ground by 11:00 a.m.,” I remarked.

No words were spoken, he just grinned. Once again, it was his turn to hit the switch, and I would do all I could to help bring his first caribou hunt to fruition.

By 9:30 am., as we cruised along the shoreline, off in the distance stood the bull of a lifetime! He boasted great big palmated tops, lots of points, plenty of character on his bez and enormous double-shovels. “Yep, I’ll hunt him,” blurted Greg as he pointed in affirmation. Frankly this one required no negotiation. No second looks. He was a keeper!

Cruising down the shoreline and out of site, Peter was quick to provide brief instruction and a plan was formulated. Due to the openness of the terrain, it was decided best for Greg to attempt the stalk alone. “We’ll cruise out slowly and I’ll drop you off down the lake,” insisted Peter. Pointing inland, he added, “if they move out of range, there’s a good chance those bulls will migrate down between those two hills.” Now hunting with archery tackle, I nodded my head. Easing in to shore, I made a quick exit and began my move into position.

Easing up to a rocky ridge amid the rolling tundra, I peaked over the boulders. There were, in fact, two decent bulls in that herd. The second was high and wide, but distinctly different from the monster Greg was after. I’d have no problem letting go of an arrow on the second bull if Greg got the other and he presented an opportunity.

Nearly 30 minutes elapsed and it became clear; plan A wasn’t working. The bulls were moving to higher ground and bedding down. Time for plan B. But wait, we hadn’t discussed plan B. “I guess we’ll just have to wing it!” Evaluating my options, I chose to ease around an adjacent eskar for a closer look. “Maybe I can close the gap or at least move the bulls back toward Greg,” I remember thinking to myself.

Following a quick move, I again eased up over the ridge. There before me, not 100 yards away were the two bulls! Unfortunately there was no way to close the gap, so I opted for a subtle drive. By exposing myself, the bulls gradually rose up and trotted back in Greg’s direction. Now 300 yards from me, they were still not close enough for Greg to shoot. So, again, I slowly made myself more visible. Eventually they trotted closer to Greg. Finally at 220 yards, they stood broadside. Unbelievably, shooting from a bipod, Greg seized the moment! Watching in amazement, the huge bull staggered and went down; an absolutely amazing shot with a muzzle loader!

Watching the other bulls make an exit, they were moving to exactly where I’d been sitting not 15 minutes before. Recognizing exceptional cover for a stalk, I quickly moved back around the eskar to try for the second largest bull.

Getting close, for the third time, I peered up over the ridge. To my astonishment, the big bull broke away from the others and was heading straight for me! Not to my right. Not to my left, but right to me. Well, in over a decade of bowhunting, I’ve learned that opportunities like this are not an everyday occurrence. The picture was perfect. This bull was high and wide, which was precisely what I wanted, and maybe, just maybe, he’d present a shot.

Hunkering down, I knocked an arrow and waited. In no less than a minute, there before me, were gigantic dark brown antler tips protruding from the horizon. Waving to and froe, they were undeniably getting closer. Going to full draw, in 30 seconds or less, the massive bull continued his stalwart advance. 40 yards, 35, now 25 and finally at just 20 yards, the bull realized that this camouflaged blob was something out of the ordinary.

Turning broadside, my 20 yard pin remained locked on his massive chest. I let fly, and the arrow zipped through my target, causing the bull to burst into a full out run, only to collapse 50 yards from point of impact.

“Thank you Lord!” I exclaimed. There are arguably bigger bulls out there, but the quality of this hunt couldn’t be beaten. This encounter was everything a hunting archer could dream of!

Pausing momentarily to admire this great specimen, I gazed across the tundra to see Peter and Greg standing over his majestic bull, not 600 yards from mine. Approaching, I hollered a hearty congratulations and asked if they’d seen my bull go down.

“You got one with the bow?” Puzzled, they both stared in amazement. “I guess we have our work cut out for us now.” Exchanging congratulations, I then reminded Greg of my 11:00 a.m. forecast. Inching up his sleeve, he checked his watch and again just smiled.

After each bull was carried back to the boat, Peter asked if we wanted to see how close we could get to some muskox we’d seen nearby. “Sure would be nice to get some photos,” I added excitedly.

Prior to this trip, I’d never seen a live muskox, let alone sneak in to close quarters. Over the next hour, we belly-crawled to within 70 yards of the closest, and what looked to me to be the largest bull. Magnificent prehistoric-looking creatures, their flowing dark coats look to offer the utmost in all-weather protection. Unfortunately, the only rain to fall the entire week, arrived just as I began to photograph. And, while the photos turned out alright, they were not really of publishable quality.

Day three passed quickly with Greg attempting a stalk with his bow, but no meat or antlers to bring back to camp for our efforts. Our fourth and final day of hunting, on the other hand, was another story.

Locating a lone bull on an island, this presented Greg with an exceptional opportunity to fill his second tag. Dropping him on the shoreline, Greg managed to play cat and mouse with the big bull for about an hour and a half when finally, at less than 15 yards, the caribou moved into view offering the shot. Apparently shocked by the impact of the arrow, the large bull made an attempt to leave the island and ran into the lake where he expired.

With four bulls tagged, this brought a satisfying ending to a spectacular hunt. With only 24 hours left before our floatplane would return to take us back to civilization, we spent much of it fishing for grayling and lakers. All told, our arctic adventure had been all we’d expected and much more. And now, as I sit at my computer, reminiscing of bulls and barrens, I can’t help but think of when I will revisit that rolling tundra landscape in pursuit of those majestic bulls again.

Caribou Facts

  • Many hunters are pursuing the “slam” of North American caribou. This involves harvesting all six subspecies, including Barren Ground, Central Barren Ground, Perry, Mountain, Quebec-Labrador, and Woodland Caribou.
  • The average weight of a mature bull is around 180 kg, but they can grow as large as 270 kg. Cows will average around 115 kg.
  • Central Barrenground Caribou, in particular the Bathurst herd, are found throughout the central regions of the Northwest Territories. They are generally smaller in body-size as compared to their mountain cousin found throughout the Yukon, Alaska and northern British Columbia.
  • Antler configuration can vary greatly between the subspecies. While woodland bulls of eastern Canada typically have smaller racks, the Quebec-Labrador bulls can grow significantly larger and wider. Central barrenground bulls are perhaps the most diverse in configuration and can grow to be very high and wide. Mountain caribou are typically the most massive, with trophy-class specimens boasting the largest circumference measurements of all six subspecies.
  • When field-judging caribou, the central barrenground subspecies in particular, you’re typically looking for double shovels, double bez, long and wide main beams, good mass, double backscratchers, symmetry, and more than two points at the top. Palmated points on top are best.

Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing, waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com.
Member of OWAA & OWC.

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