Preparing for a Caribou Hunt
You've saved the funds, cleared it with your spouse, and booked the hunt. Your caribou hunting dream is about to become a reality this fall. But between now and then, you've got a thing or two to do.
Luckily, planning for an adventure like this is a whole lot of fun. It builds up the anticipation, gives you excuses to purchase additional equipment, and prompts you to visit the range more often. The excitement grows exponentially as that great day approaches. And in that excitement, things can get forgotten.
Here's a few important things that you need to remember.
One of the first things any traveling hunter should consider is his or her fitness level. This is especially true on a caribou hunt where lengthy stalks can take place across terrain as difficult as the open tundra of Labrador or the steep, wooded valleys of British Columbia.
No one is saying you have to be able to run a marathon, but you shouldn't be huffing and puffing when you have finally positioned yourself for the shot of a lifetime either. Remember too, that medical facilities are few and far between, so entering the hunt with a basic level of good health is critical.
Mark Reinert, a hunt broker with Outdoor Connection, says a pre-hunt regimen of daily exercise should include a challenging walk. "The idea is to slowly increase your endurance by lengthening the distance or adding more challenging terrain to the route. It's not a bad idea to wear your hunting boots and carry a daypack either. I advise clients to tackle at least one hill too."
Strength training your upper body for an hour or two a week is also a good idea. This is important when having to shoot offhand.
Of course, there are other great reasons for fitness, but the most important is that it will help you avoid the injuries that can occur when you are tired and getting sloppy.
Reinert also says "Every hunter should give his fitness level an honest self-assessment. When you are out there, you need to know your limits."
Hiking is one activity to get you in shape before your hunt.
The Outfitter's List
Once you've booked your hunt, most outfitters will provide a list of recommended items to bring. Don't ignore this. In fact, I suggest you pin it up in a conspicuous place and review it every so often, before the hunt.
These lists are based on years of experience as well as aircraft weight limitations. Most detail clothing, weapon selection, fishing equipment, and other personal gear that each hunter truly needs. They are pared down and practical. Better yet, they form a handy checklist to keep you get organized and on task, reminding you of things, like foot powder, that would have surely been forgotten.
If possible, contact one or two of the outfitter's regular clients. They often have useful advice on must-have items.
Caribou hunts take place in harsher climates than many of us are used to. Fortunately, they are slated anytime from mid-August to late-September.
Deer or moose hunting clothing is ideally suited for most caribou hunts. Quality, waterproof boots are especially important, as traversing tundra has been compared to walking on a sponge. Part of your pre-hunt prep should be breaking in those boots. And while we're on the subject of feet, make sure you settle for nothing less than comfortable socks too. If they are waterproof and breathable, so much the better.
Needless to say, when you are laying down more than $5000 on what might be the hunt of a lifetime, this is no time to skimp on quality. Buy the best hunting clothes you can afford and select them for maximum versatility - it could be springtime-hot or snowing, all in the same day.
Lightweight under layers that wick away moisture are worth their weight in gold too. Layering is key. I'm preferential to wool for cold weather; it keeps you warm even when wet and dries easily. But there are also a host of new, space-aged materials that equal or even exceed the properties of wool. Do your research.
A good set of binoculars or a spotting scope is helpful when planning stalks or assessing possible trophies within a herd of caribou. Unfortunately, most hunters do not practice enough with these tools. That's a mistake you should remedy before the hunt. Take these things outside and practice sighting in on birds or small game so you are familiar with these tools. In the field, you should be able to focus in on an animal quickly, before it gets lost in the herd or moves. That's the goal of your pre-season prep.
Let's not forget a camera. For the life of me, I can't understand why some people put so little priority on it. You're about to traverse a landscape that is wild, unique and wondrous. There will be a spate of unique flora and fauna, and incredible vistas that the folks back home would love to see. There might also be the standard trophy photos. Take the time to learn how to make the most of your camera. You'll be glad you did.
Learning to use your scope and binoculars is critical.
Though 300-yard rifle shots at caribou are not uncommon, few of us are confident taking these long shots. That's why long range shooting sessions are important. It goes without saying that you should be using the rifle, scope and ammo combo you'll be taking along. Sight them in to 200 yards.
Reinert says most deer calibers will do. "I prefer a flat-shooting rifle with a weatherproof scope. Some like heavier calibers, but I think accuracy is more important; if you hit a bull in the boiler room, he won't go far. You can't go wrong with a .270, 30.06, or .308 or anything in that class."
He also reminds hunters to practice acquiring targets in their scopes. "The last thing you want to do is lose a trophy bull because you couldn't acquire it in your sights."
Practice with your rifle: Don't blow that shot of a lifetime. Know what you and your rifle are capable of.
As for ammunition, thirty premium rounds, is generally enough.
Bowhunters should practice shooting at longer ranges than they would for whitetails. On the tundra, fifty-yard shots are within the realm of possibility. Some prefer the flatter trajectory of carbon arrows. Whatever your choice, the idea is to be comfortable at hitting the mark and estimating longer yardages. A 60-pound bow is standard fare, although bowhunters can get away with lighter if shots are kept closer.
A quality rangefinder is also important for both riflemen and archers - accurate range estimation in flat, open country is never easy. Again, familiarize yourself, so its use becomes second nature.
Wind is a constant too, so any opportunity to practice long shots on a windy day should be welcomed.
Don't discount the fine fishing or bird shooting that the north offers. True, the caribou is king, but those who tag out early will enjoy chasing ptarmigan or fishing for any of the trouts or chars the local waters might hold. It's a great way to pass time around camp while waiting for the caribou migration or flights out.
Keep tackle simple, based on your outfitter's advice on lures, line recommendations, and species.
Generally, a compact box full of spoons, spinners and diving plugs is all that's needed if you are using a spinning rod; fly anglers are well-served by a selection of streamers and high-floating dry flies. If possible, speak to anglers who have enjoyed success with your outfitter; they're sure to have useful advice.
Lastly, give your tackle box a thorough going over before packing it. Make sure you have enough of the little things like extra leaders, split shot, and swivels. Remove unneeded things so you have room for the handy items.
When it comes to preparing for ptarmigan, some trap shooting ensure those first encounters memorable. Bring your grouse gun and a few boxes of 7 1/2s.
Though it's often an afterthought, your packing system is important and should be well-organized and easy to deal with. This is especially true when you consider that good outfitters will fly you to other base camps on short notice if you're not seeing animals in your vicinity. Being organized at all times keeps the things you need at the forefront and prevents you from losing critical items during hurried relocations.
A compact, rugged and possibly waterproof duffel bag system is ideal. Use smaller cases or bags within for items such as toiletries and medications. Consider packing your GPS, camera gear, and other valuables in waterproof, crushproof cases like those manufactured by Pelican or Otter.
Preparing for a caribou hunt is no small task, but it's not rocket science either. Prepare yourself physically, follow your outfitter's recommendations, and take along proven, quality gear that you are familiar with. Then your only concern will be how you act when that bull of a lifetime walks by. And that's a worry that most of us don't mind thinking about.
Photo by Jim Oltersdorf
Steve Galea is a full-time outdoors writer who lives in central Ontario, Canada. He divides his time afield between hunting big game, chasing ducks, geese, and upland game, and fly fishing the lakes and rivers around his home. An award-winning columnist, his work is featured in several community newsapers as well as leading outdoors magazines.