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DIY Alaskan Caribou Hunting Adventures: Part 3 – Antlers in our Midst

For Part 1 of this series, click here: Part 1 – Getting There

For Part 2 of this series, click here: Part 2 – Flying In

 

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First Evening at Tundra Camp

In the second part of this story, we were settling into our tent on the tundra in the Brooks Range, watching caribou pass in the distance, anxiously waiting for the morning to come. Despite the anticipation, travel and setting up camp had been tiring, and sleep came surprisingly easy.

It was around 6AM when I awoke to Dad unzipping the tent door, heading outside to take care of morning business. A heavy mist had settled into our valley and creek bottom, but whispers from outside the tent quickly cut through it – whispers telling me to get my bow and get ready, the caribou were still here, and they were close.

That gets you out of your sleeping bag really quickly. A fast stash of essential gear went into the pack, and I suited up to head off into the bushes. Caribou were traversing the small slope across the creek, heading South along the creek, towards the same area I had seen them and scouted the night before. The plan was for me to slip down the creek using the wolf trail I had found, and Dad would cross the creek directly across from the tent, and go up the slope to a small knoll for the best vantage point and shot chances for him. I was going for a bow shot in the little cover the creek bed offered, but also carried my Marlin 1895 SBL 45-70 Guide rifle in case the bow game didn’t materialize, or I came across any grizzlies. A quick ‘good luck’ and off we went on our separate ways.

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Tracks in the Wolf Trail

Hopes were high at least one of us would be successful the first morning. When hunting in areas that allow two tags, good policy is generally to try and get a respectable bull or nice cow on the ground the first day for meat, then spend the rest of the hunt trying to find that trophy bull. It’s a roll of the dice with caribou, and their ‘here one day, gone the next’ nature. They can easily walk over 20 miles a day, putting them all around you one day, then all alone the next. On a prior hunt in Quebec, I passed on the nicest bulls of the trip the first day, and never saw any mature bulls again. I even took their photos at 80 yards. In the end after a lot of hard work I ended up with some great meat from a small bull and cow, but I was really hoping for a mature barren-ground caribou bull on this trip.

The first caribou cluster I really keyed in on was a group of three bulls heading South along the creek. All were shooters in my book. More caribou were scattered along the face, and I suspected more were in the creek bottom on a large gravel flat and bend in the creek where I had seen tracks the night before.

The initial cluster of bulls were around 250 yards away to my right, and I used the thick bushes in the creek bottom to creep their direction when they weren’t looking my way. Eventually I made it into the wolf trail, and as long as I crept low and slow, I was relatively out of their sight. I used that trail and a steep embankment about 10 feet high off to my left to keep from silhouetting, and sure enough, eventually I came to that flat bend in the creek to find numerous caribou feeding there. I was ahead of that group of three, but there were now more antlers rising above the horizon line of the embankment to my South, and new, closer bull was only around 80 yards away.

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Looking Over The Bushes at Caribou Feeding in the Bend in the Creek

My wind was good for the closer bull, so I proceeded tighter into the bushes to try and close the distance and get a closer look. He was a smaller bull, but had no idea I was there, and would give me a bow shot if I could get to 40-50 yards.

The light was starting to get better, and fog thinning, and eventually I had the bow shot if I wanted it. By now though I had seen a very large bull crest a far horizon line across the creek heading my way. I decided to wait and see what other options would present themselves, and enjoyed the show. That far, wide bull was working his way down the far side of creek, straight for me.

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The Smaller Bull Within Bow Range

What I didn’t pay enough attention to though was the wind, and by now I had crept into the herd, while loosing my visibility to the left over the embankment. Right about then is when I saw a cow heading straight for me, just entering my view around 30 yards away, on top of the embankment. Behind her, was a very large set of swaying antlers. Definitely a shooter bull. Eventually she froze in her tracks, looking down at me. I could easily see her nostrils flaring and breath in the heavy air. I knew I was busted. The bull was still coming, but froze behind her.

Next came the inevitable turn and run. Busted. What I didn’t expect however was the other hundred or so caribou that also blew out of that bend in the creek. Caribou could be seen or heard splashing all around me, heading up the rise on the far side of the creek. The other large bull heading my way even turned and joined them, and suddenly I found myself alone in the creek bottom, with countless eyeballs now grouped together on the highest ground available, ready to watch my every move.

Time for a new plan. That plan was to quickly swing wide, South, getting out of their view as fast as possible. Get the wind back in my favor, and try to find a way across the creek, then up the far ridge to try and pop into view close enough for a rifle shot. There was no cover up there, so I’d have to use contours of the land to time it right to try to pop into their view within rifle range. It was no longer a bow game.

Off I went, moving fast while they could watch me, then quickly getting out of view. I found a shallow area to cross the creek, and moved as fast as I could on the unstable tundra to get up a low gulley on the far ridge. If the caribou were still in the vicinity of where I last saw them, they should move back into rifle range if they maintained their general travel patterns that I’d seen so far.

As I crept up on top, the views open widely, quickly. Antlers came into view first, and the large group was now breaking up. Some had already moved South of me, out of range. Some were where I wanted them. Some were heading North, towards Dad. My quarry was around 400 yards away, out of range of my Marlin 45-70.

A trick I learned in Quebec was to put a bow on your head, or arms up in the air, and walk like a caribou, head swaying, to get closer to caribou. Sounds silly, but it works, so that’s what I did. Zig-zagging my way towards them, dipping down now and again, I walked, and they watched. They stood still and watched me until I was within 250 yards or so, and then started to realize I was a funny looking caribou, and started to move. There were still some large bulls in the group, trailing in the rear. Now or never I thought.

I threw my pack down on the highest grass hummock I could find, and went prone. I had practiced with the 45-70 out to 300 yards with the Hornady LEVERevolution ammo, and was amazed by it’s accuracy. It’s a 30 inch drop at that distance, so two feet over the back of the bull I wanted is where I aimed. All I needed was a clear shot, and as the caribou line started to walk and get single file, I waited for it. I put the cross-hairs two feet over his back, right on the front leg. Once I thought clear, breath and squeeze.

Bang.

I could hear the crack of round impact from my position, and immediately saw a caribou on the ground in the chaos of others scattering. Bull down. Take a second to breathe and relax, collect your thoughts, collect your pack, and make a new plan now I told myself. Success.

It was around that time I heard a shot to my North, then another, and I knew Dad had also had taken a shot opportunity. The workload just doubled, but I was glad our original plan when we left the tent was working out.

Little did I know things were about to get more interesting.

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Approaching the Fallen Bull

As I approached my bull, a little ‘ground shrinkage’ began to settle in. It was a nice bull, slightly palmated tops with multiple points, dual back scratchers, nice bez’s and shovels, but not the overall size of arc and width I was confident he was when I pulled the trigger. I distinctly recalled a very large and full shovel and bez profile this bull just didn’t seem to have, and some forked points on top, that this bull also didn’t have. The shot was higher than I wanted too, and a little back, breaking its back.

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The Caribou I Had Seen Fall

I was happy with the bull as the first of the trip, but the feeling of slight disappointment of perhaps mis-judging a bull in the heat of the moment triggered an old memory and feeling, and an ‘uh oh’ set in. What if this bull wasn’t the bull I had wanted to shoot?

That feeling and memory was from a time Dad and I were wild hog hunting in South Carolina. While stalking them in the swamp, two large groups of hogs came running out of the palmettos and converged down into a wallow in a low spot of the swamp, mostly out of view. From my position, I didn’t have a shot, and could only see their backs milling around in the wallow. Most were black, but one was a large brown one whose motion I could follow. As they began to leave the wallow in single file up a drainage, they came into view in a shooting lane. I placed my crosshair right where they entered my view, and when that big brown one came up and out, I pulled the trigger right at the horizon line. When we walked up to it, Dad says, ‘oh no, you shot a little black one’. Sure enough, there laid a 30 lb black hog, not a visible hole on it. I said, ‘no, I shot a large brown one, and look, here’s a blood trail’. Sure enough, we followed it and soon found a large brown one. I had accidentally killed two with one shot. When we walked back and re-recreated the events, we picked up the black one, and the bullet had just clipped the top of it’s skull, killing it instantly before going into the brown one, which had a larger than normal entry hole. It had been running out of the wallow at the same time my target one was, completely out of my view, even being in front of it.

I felt very bad when that happened, but was glad the kills were each clean. I didn’t like having anything like that feeling again, but something didn’t seem right. I started to look around to see if I could find anything that looked like sign of another caribou being hit, and this one was actually by accident. Tracks in the soggy tundra are impossible to find and follow, and blood on the vibrantly colored leaves would be nearly impossible to see.

I didn’t need to look around very long. Something pointing up in the near distance told me I wouldn’t have to. As soon as I looked up in the direction most of the rest of the caribou left, there, pointing up in the horizon line, were the large antlers of another bull. My heart sank.

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Antlers Rising Above the Tundra 

As I approached it, it was clear this was in fact the bull I was shooting at. Larger everything rack wise, forked points that I remembered, double shovels with multiple points, and nice bez rack features. There was also a perfect lung shot placement right behind the front legs.

Two bulls down. My hunt was over. Two tags filled the first morning. Dad likely with another. Mixed feelings now set it – shame for a similar mistake twice. Concern over the amount of work I had now created. Mixed with the excitement of finally getting a trophy caribou bull.

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The Bull That I Remembered

All I could determine happened was that the smaller bull was standing behind my target bull, head down, out of my sight, blocked from view by this one. When I laid down to shoot, I lost view of the caribou’s lower legs over the horizon, but had clear views of their entire torsos and racks. Even though single file, or so I thought when I took the shot, clearly they weren’t. As I hunter, responsible and ethical shots are of the highest importance to me. This is a lesson I will never forget. I’m very fortunate in that in both of these similar instances, no wounded animals resulted.

There wasn’t much time to dwell on it. I was very fortunate that the power of the 45-70 did it’s job, double duty, at that range. It was now 8AM, and time to find Dad. What was done was done. It was now my responsibility to take care of the meat from all of them. I marked my two bulls on my GPS, it was 2.5 miles to the tent. I started hiking in the direction I knew Dad should be.

Two miles later I was standing on the ridge, looking across the creek at the tent in the distance. Dad didn’t appear to be there. As I scanned the area, he came into view around the knoll. Sweaty and concerned over where I was, we recanted the events of the morning. Dad had in fact taken a bull himself, about a half mile from our current position. It was around 9 AM now, and the weight of knowing I had 3 bulls down the tundra to deal with settled in. I made the call to go back to camp, unload all the weight we could from our packs, get enough game bags for three animals, and rest a little over a proper breakfast. It was still mid morning, so the rest the day would be dedicated to getting all the meat from each caribou into game bags, and whatever loads we could get back to camp.

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Dad’s Bull, Down About 1.5 Miles From Mine

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Getting Back to Dad, Tent in the Distance

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Heading Back to Camp Before the Hard Work Begins

That’s where we’re leave this story. Back at camp, three bulls down. With full bellies, packs with lots of water, game bags and knives, heading back out to Alaskan tundra to begin the hard work of processing our animals and getting them all back to camp….

 

 

Gear Highlights:

1) Marlin 1895 SBL 45-70. The 45-70 Gov’t is one of the original rifle cartridges in American history, and still one of the most effective. Popular in Alaska for it’s compact size, powerful punch, and 7 round capacity, and all stainless weatherproofing, the 1895 SBL ‘Guide Gun’ is well suited to shots in both thick brush, or mid-ranges with modern ammunition. It features an over-sized loop for better gloved use in cold weather, and a Picatinny rail on top making adding a removable scope or other optics very easy.

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2) Hornady LEVERevolution 45-70 Gov’t, 325 Grain. My ammo of choice in the Marlin is Hornady’s LEVERevolution. Packing 325 grains of punch, it’s a modern take on a classic round. I’ve used it on everything from whitetails and hogs, to bear and caribou. It’s amazingly accurate in the Marlin, even out to relatively long ranges for a round that big (300 yards). The Marlin and Hornady ammo are my go-to combination for any rifle hunting in North America.

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3) Sitka Cloudburst Pants. The Cloudburst Pant from Sitka offers complete Gore-Tex waterproof protection, in a lightweight, yet fully featured package with oversized, forward facing thigh pockets to keep things like gloves, facemasks, or range-finders handy, and full side zips for excellent venting. There’s a built in, thin, lightweight belt that is comfortable under a pack waist belt. When I stepped out of the tent that morning, everything was wet and soggy. Without protection for my lower body, I’d have been soaked from all the thigh high wet brush. Even though I was moving fast and active for part of the hunt, I was completely comfortable and dry.

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