I whirled and grasped the rosewood grips on my .454 Casull revolver. Only a fool archery hunts in brown bear country without potent protection. A brown blob moved behind an alder bush 20 yards away, then antlers appeared above the shrubs. I relaxed.
A young caribou bull ambled out, his rutreddened eyeballs rolling in his head as he slobbered and made aggressive sounds. It was September 2013, and bull ’bou were on the prowl. Doyle and I were on a do-it-yourself caribou bowhunt in Alaska. Our bush pilot had dropped us on a lake in a secret hotspot I’d hunted before. The weather was clear and warm as we set up camp, but fog and pounding rain rolled in within an hour. Welcome to Alaska, I told myself as I crawled into my tent. We sat under cover for 3 days straight. Finally, fog and rain turned to high overcast.
Doyle and I spotted a small herd of caribou almost immediately after we climbed a hill above our tents. We moved in from two sides as the two dozen animals lounged on a tundra rise with 360-degree views. The herd bull was huge, with massive and palmated main beams, incredibly long top points, deep and multi-pointed bez formations and double shovels, and a spread I judged to be more than 60 inches. That bull would probably score at least 400 record-book points—huge by any standard—but there was no way to get within bow range. Doyle crawled 150 yards downwind from the herd, and I slipped in crosswind and ran out of cover 125 yards from the closest animal. We hunkered down to wait for the caribou to move into favorable stalking terrain.
The ’bou milled as they shook off biting flies. Occasionally, the herd bull would circle to sniff his cows or run off a smaller bull, but the herd’s position remained the same for several hours. Suddenly, a sway-backed cow stood and trotted directly away from me, and the whole darn herd followed. Before I could leap to my feet, the animals had vanished over a ridge. I saw Doyle scrambling to flank the herd, then he also disappeared. Five minutes later, I’d slogged across a bog and climbed a hogback. The caribou were a half-mile away, trotting and grabbing a bite here and there as they went. Doyle came trudging up, shaking his head in disgust. Nobody can catch moving caribou. As is usually the case in the vast habitat where caribou roam, we never saw those animals again. Fog and driving rain settled around us that evening and didn’t let up for 6 full days.
Running Out Of Time
I’ve had the good fortune to bowhunt caribou in many parts of North America. The weather is often bad during August, September and October in northern caribou habitats, but my 2013 Alaska bowhunt was the worst I’ve ever seen. Normally, you can figure that 25-30 percent of any caribou hunt is lost to bad weather. You sit in your tent, read a book and wait for better conditions. But by the next-to-last morning of our 16-day Alaska vacation, Doyle and I had spent 12 days stuck in our tiny dome tents.
Rain and fog were so bad that we sometimes had trouble seeing our little green cook tent 30 feet away from our sleeping tents. If you can’t see in caribou country, you can’t hunt. These animals wander vast stretches of terrain, and you normally spot them far, far away. That is precisely what happened on morning No. 15. Rare rays of sunshine pierced the clouds shortly after dawn, so Doyle and I hustled toward a knob that loomed 500 feet above the tundra 1½ miles from camp. We’d barely reached the top when Doyle spotted caribou several miles to the south.
The animals were so far away that they looked like ants on a green table top even through my 10X binocular. I could tell that most were bedded—a good sign given their fiddlefooted nature. As we rose to head for the ’bou, I spotted something a half-mile to the north. A mature bull was feeding along a ridge, his snowy cape flashing in the sun. “Go get him,” I encouraged my pal. “I’ll take the longer haul.” I didn’t have to offer twice. Doyle was nursing an old knee injury, and soggy tundra humps were making every step a pain. He grinned, wished me good luck and walked out of sight. Two hours and nearly 5 miles of tundra-hopping later, my adrenaline shot through the roof as the young bull caribou mentioned earlier in this story grunted behind me.
Five minutes after that, I re-shouldered my pack and topped a tundra rise. There, 200 yards ahead of me, were 3 dozen caribou. One bull looked exceptionally large, his nut-brown and many-tined rack rising high above the rest. The herd was lounging in a hollow with tall alder brush on the downwind side. Perfect! I dropped my pack, circled uphill into heavy brush and then inched forward. Go fast, but be quiet, I told myself. I knew those caribou might decide to shift from park into fifth gear at any moment, and if they did, I could kiss the herd goodbye. Thirty minutes later, I peeked past the last bush between the caribou and me. The herd bull was broadside, and my rangefinder said 38 yards.
A few seconds later, the brilliant 40-yard sight pin settled low behind his massive shoulder. The bow thumped, the arrow flickered, and the broadhead sliced completely through the bull with a dull, liquid thud. He took a few faltering steps and simply collapsed. Driving rain and pea-soup fog suddenly hit Doyle and me later that afternoon during the butchering and meat packing chores, but not even more bad weather could change our good moods. You see, Doyle’s stalk had also been successful, so each of us was tasked with backpacking more than 100 pounds of boneless meat and antlers. The way we looked at it, after you fill your caribou tag, who needs good visibility?