Once the velvet starts to peel off a bull's antlers it cannot be saved and must be completely stripped off.
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 covers what you need to know. Part I examined the distribution and ways of hunting the various sub-species. Now we will discuss the gear you'll need to pursue them, and what to look for in a trophy bull.
GEAR YOU'LL NEED
Caribou inhabit some of the most deceptively rugged country in North America. From a distance, the tundra looks flat and featureless; however, as soon as you set foot on it you quickly realize that there is hardly a flat spot. Every step is rough and uneven and will challenge the quality of your footwear. Tough, waterproof leather or rubber-leather combination boots with good ankle support are a must, and make sure they are well broken in. Unless you are planning a November hunt, these features are more important than heavy insulation, as you will likely do enough walking to keep your feet warm in all but the most frigid conditions. Bring a second pair if you have it and rotate them throughout your trip in order to allow them to dry.
Don't ignore the importance of good socks, too. I nearly had a recent Quebec caribou hunt ruined due to blisters resulting from socks that were slipping down and bunching up at my heels. A thin sock made of a wicking material combined with a thicker, wool-blend outer sock works best for most people. Just make sure that they all fit snugly and won't slip. Bring two sets, and a spare. And don't forget blister treatments such as medical tape, antibiotic ointment, gauze and blister pads -- just in case.
There is a saying in the Far North: if you don't like the weather, wait a few minutes. It isn't uncommon to experience cold, snow, rain, sun, heat and bugs during a hunt, and possibly even in a single day. Be prepared for just about any weather condition, but a base layer consisting of a modern, moisture-wicking fabric will suit them all. Top everything off with waterproof outerwear or a light rain suit. In between, layers of wool-based or fleece shirts, sweaters and pants will serve you well. Bring a small pack to carry certain essentials with you while out in the field, which will also allow you to add or remove layers as conditions change throughout the day.
Caribou hunting often means spending lots of time with binoculars glued to your face. Quality, clear optics will make the job easy without causing eyestrain headaches.
Most outfitters will provide a list of gear to bring, and you should pay heed to it. But a few small items that may seem unnecessary and are not often listed but can be worth their weight in gold are sunscreen, lip balm and sunglasses.
Caribou are often spotted -- and stalks begun -- from a mile or more away, so good optics are essential. Don't leave all the glassing to your guide; two pairs of eyes are better than one. A quality 8x or 10x binocular will be your workhorse in this area, but a spotting scope can save a lot of wasted time and effort stalking a bull that doesn't measure up. Many guides carry spotting scopes, but many do not, so if you have one, bring it. Next to your weapon of choice, your optics will be the most important piece of equipment you bring. Because caribou are often spotted from a long distance, and because they can disappear over the next ridge in a matter of seconds, shots can occasionally be some of the longer ones you'll encounter in the world of big game hunting. As such, I consider a laser rangefinder to be essential too.
Despite the longer shots and the caribou's size, they are not usually difficult to put down. Flat-shooting, scoped, bolt-action centerfires ranging from the .25/06 Remington on up to the .300 magnums are the norm. Modern, in-line muzzleloaders of .50 caliber are also increasingly popular choices. Monopods, bipods -- whether attached to your rifle or not -- and tripods are a great aid for longer shots.
In areas at or below the tree line, or areas with lots of hills or rocks, bowhunting can be very successful, but make sure you select an outfitter who is used to bowhunters, or you may wind up with a guide that considers getting to within 100 yards of a caribou bull to be a good stalk. (Particularly for hunts in the more open tundra areas further north, bringing a rifle along in case the bowhunting proves particularly frustrating -- it can save your trip.) Bows, arrows and broadheads suitable for deer will do just fine.
Ptarmigan are common in much of caribou country and offer great sport, and table fare. If the season will be open, make sure you pack a shotgun and a box of shells.
Also, make sure you bring a 12 or 20 gauge shotgun and shells suitable for ptarmigan. Besides being very plentiful in much of the Far North and providing a great diversion when the caribou aren't cooperating, they are also one of the tastiest upland birds you will ever eat.
Finally, don't forget your fishing gear. Water is never far away in caribou country and, in season, some great fishing for pike, lake trout, brook trout, char and grayling is often available. A light-action, multi-piece travel rod with a selection of spoons, spinners and jigs can provide great sport should you fill your caribou tag early in the trip.
JUDGING BULLS IN THE FIELD
The first thing to know about a caribou bull's antlers is that it may not be a bull! Caribou are the only member of the deer family in which females routinely grow antlers. However, they are usually quite small and easy to differentiate from bulls. Nonetheless, although cows are legal in some areas, if you decide to take a small bull for the meat pole, it's worth learning to tell the sexes apart.
On that point, caribou is one of the finest wild game meats you will ever eat. However, all of the North American sub-species of caribou breed in October, and the meat of large, rutting bulls can be so strong-tasting during this time as to be inedible, so an August or September hunt is necessary if you are looking to bring the meat home for the freezer.
As with all members of the deer family, caribou drop their antlers each winter and re-grow them the following year. Because some caribou seasons open in early to mid-August, bulls are usually still in velvet during early season hunts. A full-velvet rack makes a very interesting and unique trophy, with rounded points that resemble fingers. If this appeals to you, book your trip as early in the season as possible, as once a bull has started to shed the velvet, the rest cannot be saved and must be stripped off. If you take a bull still in full velvet, it is important to preserve the velvet before you take the rack to a taxidermist, otherwise it will start to dry and peel off. Your outfitter should be able to do this for you by salting the rack and wrapping it in a breathable material such as cheese cloth or gauze, to keep it dry and free of bugs. If you are considering a hunt in an area that allows two bulls to be taken on one trip and you think you'd like to try to take one hard-horned bull and one in velvet on the same trip, think again. Bulls usually start stripping their velvet all around the same time, so you will likely need to return another year to complete this quest.
Caribou antlers are like fingerprints: no two are exactly alike. If you can find a bull with a balanced rack consisting of nice tops, good bez and at least one substantial shovel, you have got yourself an impressive trophy for the wall.
Caribou display more variety in terms of antler development than any other specie of antlered game, and no two bulls are exactly alike. The good news is that most mature caribou bulls are impressive trophies that look great on the wall. The bad news is that if you are looking for a record book bull, caribou can be very hard to field judge. However, as many areas offer the opportunity to take two bulls on one hunt, many hunters opt to take the first nice bull that comes along, and then hold out for a real monster for the second tag.
While all five sub-species vary somewhat in terms of antler size, they all share the same basic antler configuration, consisting of the main beams, the brow palms, the bez, rear points and top palms. Let's discuss each.
The length of the main beams contributes directly to a bull's final score, so obviously longer is better. Bulls will stand about four feet high at the shoulder, so look for a bull whose main beams seem about that height; symmetry counts, too, so make sure both sides are roughly the same height. Because the racks curve backward, look for ones that are deeply curved as they will usually have longer main beams than ones that are straighter, and the longest ones tend to flare out before curving up. If you only have a side view of the animal, note that a bull with a narrow spread between his main beams will seem to have a taller rack, while wide racks will seem shorter, but usually just the opposite is true. The inside spread also directly contributes to the final score, but note that, from a scoring perspective, the width of the rack can't exceed the length of the longest main beam. There are also four circumference measurements taken along the length of each main beam, so good mass is desirable.
The brow palms project out just above the caribou's face and are commonly called shovels. One on each side, or "double-shovels," is highly sought after and will help an animal score well. These can be fairly common in some areas and quite rare in others. If the bull has such a shovel on just one side, he will have either a simple spike or nothing at all on the other side. When viewed from the side, look for a bull with at least one well-developed, wide shovel extending forward to the back of his nose, with as many points as possible.
The bez is the section of antler projecting forward just above the brow palms. Most caribou bulls will have one on each side, and this measurement is all about length and the number of points. Look for a bull with bez that extend at least as far forward as the shovels with lots of points on each side. The bez is frequently palmated and, although impressive, does nothing for the bull's score. The bez is also sometimes curved inward, which will usually add to its length. Symmetry from one side to the other counts too, with deductions for differences in length and number of points.
Rear points are often called "back scratchers" and are single spikes that project backward from the middle of the bull's main beams. They can be quite rare in many areas and are usually just a bonus. Their length counts directly to the score, with deduction for asymmetry of length between the two sides.
A bull's top palms are his crowing glory, and what really separate the men from the boys in terms of a caribou's final score. It is also the area in which many otherwise impressive bulls are weak. Look for palmation and lots of points, including at least two long points on each side, as the two longest points on each side are measured for length. Again, symmetry from side to side counts.
Very few bulls will have all of these attributes, but given the sheer number of animals that can be seen on a given hunt, they are out there. If you do find one that has a number of these qualities, you may have found yourself a bull for the books. If this is important to you, make sure you utilize the services of a quality outfitter with guides that are experienced and knowledgeable when it comes to judging trophy bulls.