In the minds of big game hunters, there is perhaps no greater icon of the Far North than the caribou. If you've ever dreamed of braving the last frontiers of North America in search of these tundra nomads, this two-part series will cover what you need to know. Part I will examine the distribution and ways of hunting the various sub-species, and Part II will discuss what to look for in a trophy bull and the gear you'll need to pursue him.
The Boone and Crockett Club recognizes five sub-species of caribou for North American record-keeping purposes. Each is found in different areas of North America, and each has some unique characteristics and methods for hunting them.
Distribution and Hunting Methods
Alaska-Yukon Barren Ground Caribou
The Alaska-Yukon barren ground caribou is found in Alaska and the northern half of Canada's Yukon Territory. Large herds of these caribou conduct an annual migration from their springtime calving grounds in Alaska near the Arctic Ocean, continuing south and east into the Yukon through the summer and fall, and back toward the ocean in late winter.
The largest of the five sub-species, in both body and antler, barren ground bulls can weigh several hundred pounds, or roughly the size of a bull elk, with cows usually weighing in at a bit more than half of that. Barren ground caribou carry the most impressive racks of all caribou, with long main beams and upwards of 20 to 30 points or more.
Alaska is about the only jurisdiction in the caribou's range that does not require non-resident caribou hunters to be accompanied by a guide or outfitter, and self-guided caribou hunts in Alaska are fairly popular with do-it-yourselfers. A fully-guided hunt, however, is recommended for anyone making their first trip to the land of the midnight sun and, at a cost of $6,000 to $7,000, is one of the more affordable hunts in the Far North.
Although there is some drive-to caribou hunting to be found in both Alaska and the Yukon, most hunts, whether fully-guided or self-guided, are conducted by means of fly-in drop camps. Day-trips from camp on foot in search of bulls is the normal hunting method.
You might just witness the spectacle of a massive caribou migration if you time it right. Go to bed one night convinced that there are no caribou in the entire North Country; wake up to caribou as far as the eye can see. Photo courtesy of Sabrina Cantafio
Most hunts are conducted starting in early August and run through to mid-October, with the animals becoming progressively more migratory as the season wears on. Some terrific fishing is also available in the early season and, depending upon the area, additional species such as black bear, grizzly bear, wolf, wolverine, moose, sheep, mountain goat and muskox, along with small game such as ptarmigan, may be available.
Author's Outfitter Pick: Phil Driver's Midnight Sun Adventures (907-277-8829)
These caribou are about the same body size as the Alaska-Yukon barren ground, with just slightly smaller antlers. They are found in the southern Yukon, the southwest corner of the Northwest Territories, British Columbia and even into western and northern Alberta.
These can be the most physically taxing of the sub-species of caribou to hunt, owing to their preference for higher elevations and rugged ridges. Seasons run from early August to mid-October, but bad weather can make access to the high country a problem late in the season. During the early season, however, access is by fly-in, horseback or even ATV.
In addition to being one of the most scenic caribou hunts going, mountain caribou also live in some of the best combo-hunt areas of North America, with much the same bonus species available as with Alaska-Yukon barren ground hunts, but with the addition of elk as well. Hunts are about $5,000, with additional species adding to the cost.
Author's Outfitter Pick: Folding & Terminus Mountain Outfitters (www.terminusmountain.com) or Redstone Trophy Hunts (www.redstonehunts.com)
Two distinct, massive herds of Quebec-Labrador caribou totalling nearly 1,500,000 animals roam the tundra of Quebec and Labrador, migrating annually from the most northern areas bordering Hudson Bay and the Labrador Sea down to the forested regions to the south, and back.
Water is not usually far away in caribou country, making float planes necessary for getting you and your gear into and out of remote locations, and boats invaluable for conducting your hunt and getting your caribou back to camp.
These caribou are a bit smaller than mountain caribou, but they grow very impressive antlers. Although their racks tend to have fewer and smaller points than the previous sub-species we've looked at, they usually make up for that with wider spreads.
While there are some drive-to opportunities in the more southern areas, the local hunting pressure can be noticeable and the trophy quality tends to suffer. You are far better off booking with one of the many reputable outfitters that have been operating in the northern region for decades. Fully-guided American Plan packages are available for less than $5,000, with a two caribou limit.
Much of this region is covered by water, and most permanent camps are established on large lakes. Much of the travelling is done by boat, which also makes getting your caribou back to camp a lot easier. Hunters and their guides typically set out from camp each morning by boat, and travel some distance before taking to shore when caribou are spotted or to glass inland areas.
While resting or feeding caribou can be stalked to within shooting range, no human can catch up to a migrating caribou headed straight away, especially given the rough, uneven terrain they call home. Although caribou off in the distance may not seem to be moving very fast, believe me, your only hope of getting a shot at a caribou on the move is to either sit in ambush near well-established water crossings or trails, or try to get in front and intercept it. But be warned: you have to decide fast if you are going to attempt it; think about it too long and it will be too late.
Although it is true throughout the caribou's range, the feast or famine reality of hunting these migratory animals is perhaps most true of the Quebec-Labrador caribou. As in all areas of the caribou's range, Quebec-Labrador caribou follow routes established over eons, but the timing and even the course of the migration can vary based on wind, weather and other factors unknown to man, and can even change dramatically some years. They can literally be here today and gone tomorrow, or you can go to bed one evening convinced that there isn't a caribou in the country, and wake up in the morning with thousands of caribou streaming past your camp. Nowhere else is there a greater possibility of witnessing the spectacle of a massive caribou migration. But it is also possible to experience a very tough hunt, with only a few stragglers around.
If you have booked with a reputable outfitter who keeps tabs on the herd's migration (data provided by the Quebec government based on satellite telemetry) and has mobile camps or established camps on active routes, your chances of success are high. Although you may get lucky and see hundreds of animals on such a trip, the migration in some areas is often more of a trickle than a steady stream. If you do time it right and catch the migration in full swing, a little bit of patience and restraint can pay dividends, as some of the best bulls tend to follow the main herd by a few days.
Hunts start in mid-August and usually end in late September. A few outfitters in Quebec offer November, post-rut hunts for majestic white-maned trophy bulls, often utilizing snowmobiles. Early season hunts offer bonus fishing opportunities, while black bears and wolves can often be taken for little or no extra charge during later hunts, and the ptarmigan hunting is usually fantastic.
Author's Outfitter Pick: Ungava Adventures (www.ungava-adventures.com)
Home sweet home for a week on the tundra of sub-Arctic Quebec, Canada.
Central Canada Barren Ground Caribou
This sub-species is found throughout most of the Northwest Territories, including Baffin Island, as well as Nunavut (which used to be part of the Northwest Territories) and northern Manitoba. They are smaller than all but the woodland caribou, but carry impressive racks for their size.
Like the Quebec-Labrador variety, their range is littered with lakes and rivers of various sizes, making boats and float planes the most efficient way to travel. Their historic migration routes take them around or across these bodies of water, making these good locations to sit and glass. A number of quality outfitters operate in this vast region and offer hunts generally starting in the middle of August and ending at the end of September, with great fishing available in many areas if you tag out early. Hunt costs tend to run a bit higher than most of the other varieties of caribou, owing to the remoteness of the region.
Author's Outfitter Pick: Courageous Lake Caribou Camps (www.courageouslake.com)
The smallest in body and particularly antler size of all of the caribou sub-species, woodland caribou are actually thinly scattered across much of Canada's north, but only on the island of Newfoundland are they taken in any significant numbers. There are several different herds on the island, and while some have experienced significant declines in recent years, good hunting is still available.
The habitat of these caribou tends to offer more available cover than all of the other sub-species, making spot-and-stalk bowhunting a particularly viable option. Outfitters on the island operate from August to the end of October, and some offer a two-animal limit. Due to reduced quotas recently, these hunts run about $7,500, but can be combined with a moose hunt for an extra $1,000-$1,500 and success rates are very high.
Author's Outfitter Pick: Bil Murphy's Adventure North (www.adnorth.com) or Ungava Adventures (www.ungava-adventures.com)
Please see Caribou Hunting Basics: Part II to learn about the basics of the gear you'll need to hunt these nomads of the North, and how to field judge a trophy bull.