Cracking The Caribou Code

Safari Nordik camp managers rate the daily Quebec caribou migration from CODE 1(trickle) to CODE 5(tsunami). This is one time you want to be caught in the storm.

I’d just met Elvis—in the flesh. And now as I walked across the tundra toward an outpost camp, I saw a petite brunette in a cook’s apron waiting to greet our hunting party of four.

I couldn’t resist: “If her name is Priscilla, then I know we’ve entered the Twilight Zone.”

“Hello, I’m Bonnie, Elvis’ wife. Welcome to Ptarmigan Camp. Three of you can grab bunks in that cabin, and one in here. Make yourselves feel at home.”

Thankfully I wasn’t “traveling through another dimension”—instead I was in a region of northern Quebec called Nunavik. Ptarmigan Camp is one of 30-plus outposts run by Safari Nordik, one of the largest caribou outfitters in Quebec.

A half-hour later, I had my sleeping bag rolled out and hunting gear stashed under my bunk. It was nearly 5 p.m., time to gather in the cook’s tent for a meeting called by Camp Manager Elvis Fequet.

“The hunters who’ve been in camp this week are seeing some caribou,” Elvis said, “but it’s been kinda slow. At the end of each day I have a radio call with Kuujjuaq (headquarters) to give my report on caribou numbers. Our first animals arrived about a week ago, and we’re seeing more and more each day. We’ve moved from Code 1 to Code 2, and I think you guys should hit Code 3, which is usually the best for hunting.”

Elvis went on to explain that Code 1 means each hunter is seeing less than 25 caribou (cows, calves and bulls) per day; Code 2 is approximately 25-100; Code 3 is 100-300; Code 4 is 300-1,000; Code 5 is more than 1,000.

“I like Code 3 better than Code 4 or 5 because you can stalk a particular bull without bumping hundreds of other caribou along the way.” Elvis had been camp manager at Ptarmigan since the outpost opened in 1990, so I had no reason to doubt him. “As you’ll find out at dinner tonight by talking with other hunters, the most animals anyone saw today is probably 75-100. The best is yet to come.”

The Calm Before The Storm

Even with Elvis’ words still fresh in my mind, I couldn’t help being pessimistic due to the slow start on the first morning of my 4-day hunt. My hunting partner, Karl Ricker, and I had spotted a handful of cows and calves far in the distance, but that wasn’t much to show for 2 hours of diligent glassing.

Our guide, Bruce, had chosen a vantage point 11/2 miles from camp, and said the animals should come over the horizon line from either the north or west. My instincts told me we should be hiking farther from camp. I was thinking: If the caribou won’t come to us, then we should go to the caribou—but I kept that opinion to myself.

“There’s a mature bull.” Bruce had been watching to the west, and sure enough a decent-sized bull was 200 yards away and steadily walking/feeding in our direction. Seconds later we spotted two smaller bulls trailing behind the larger one.

I’d hunted caribou twice before (British Columbia and Northwest Territories), and although I’m far from an expert on field-judging trophy bulls, it was clear to me that these three bulls weren’t shooters. “Karl, I’m going to pass. But if you want to smoke one with your muzzleloader, then go for it.” Even though this was Karl’s first caribou adventure, he insisted I “make the call” on our first mature bull sighting.

Before Karl could respond, a handful of other bulls—bigger ones—arrived from the same spot on the horizon— again, at 200 yards. “I like the bull on the far right,” Karl said, taking his eyes away from his binos just long enough for me to see his smile. “He’s bigger than the bulls in that first group. You want him?”

Without saying a word, I slowly handed Karl my shooting sticks. The bulls weren’t wasting any time covering the tundra, and they’d be within 75 yards of us in less than a minute.

When the smoke cleared—literally— Karl and I watched the final strides of the bull’s death run. Karl’s 60-yard double-lung shot dropped what turned out to be a double-shovel bull. Fittingly, our bone collecting had begun with a well-placed shot from Karl’s Thompson/Center Bone Collector.

As I took photos of Bruce and Karl quartering the animal, other caribou began to dot the horizon, and soon I could count nearly 75 of them within a half-mile of us. One group of a couple dozen animals had come in from the north and was now feeding 400 yards to the east, and two bulls in this group looked impressive.

“Bruce, do you mind if I try to stalk bulls while you guys finish up here?” With permission granted in the of, “Just don’t shoot toward camp,” speed-walked across the wide-open tundra an attempt to cut off the herd.

Let me be clear: Stalking within centerfire range of caribou, even on the wide-open tundra, isn’t as difficult as stalking muleys or pronghorn in Western prairie states because caribou often tolerate your presence, provided you don’t try to slip in too close. With that in mind, I cut the distance to the herd by quartering toward them; I walked fast in a bent-over position in hopes the animals would think I was just another migrating caribou. It worked.

Settling my .30-06 T/C Venture on shooting sticks, I planned for a shot of 100-125 yards, thinking the herd would pass between two football field-sized ponds. Then I got lucky. The lead cows and calves veered away from the ponds and began to walk and feed directly toward me. Soon, the herd was inside of 100 yards and passing to my left, coming closer and closer with each step.

As the caribou moved left, I shifted my shooting sticks and rifle to keep the biggest bull centered in my scope. Several times I was ready to pull the trigger when a cow, calf or smaller bull stepped in front or behind the big bull, forcing me to wait.

At a range of only 39 yards, the biggest bull picked up his pace and finally separated from the herd. I stopped him first with a loud, “Hey bull!”—and second with a 150-grain Hornady GMX bullet.

Tundra Tsunami

After shooting photos of my bull, Bruce, Karl and I celebrated our success by digging into our daypacks and feasting on sandwiches and homemade cookies. As we talked, more and more caribou arrived from the west and north; Bruce had made the correct decision to stay put and wait for the caribou to find us, rather than vice versa. Once again I thought back to the advice I’d heard so many times before from veteran hunters: “Always listen to your guide.”

“Guys, I’ll hike back to camp and get the four-wheeler,” Bruce was already on his feet and removing his warm jacket. “I’ll be back in about an hour to load the meat and racks of your two bulls. Walk 100 yards to that big rock on the hill and wait for more caribou to show up. If you see a real good one, go ahead and stalk it, but don’t roam too far and get lost. OK?”

Long story short, someone up above was kind to us that afternoon and opened the flood gates. The day had started at Code 1, then turned to Code 2 by 9 a.m. By 11 a.m. we were at Code 3; and I think we cracked Code 4 by 1 p.m. By the time Bruce returned to our glassing location with the four-wheeler at 2 p.m., Code 5 was in full swing.

At any single moment in time, it was impossible to look in any direction and not see caribou by the hundreds. And when you looked to the north, you could see a 100-yard-wide “highway” of caribou moving from west to east, horizon to horizon, so many animals I couldn’t begin to guess the number.

“Here comes a good one,” I said to Karl, not taking my eyes off my binos. “He’s got good tops and bottoms, and long main beams. He’s definitely one of the best bulls we’ve seen today.”

“You mean the one 50 yards north of your bull’s carcass?” Bruce’s words made me remember just how ridiculous—in a good way—this whole scene was. Not only was it difficult to call-out particular bulls simply because of the sheer number of animals in front of us, but we were using animal parts from previously harvested bulls to pinpoint their location. “Dave, you want him?”

I’d made up my mind I wasn’t shooting a second bull on the first day unless it was the new world record, so I again passed the shooting sticks to Karl. He liked the looks of this caribou, and as he tracked the bull in his scope, I realized the bull was on a near collision course with our four-wheeler, which was parked 60 yards away in plain view, with plastic bags of meat strapped to the back and two caribou racks tied to the front. Perhaps the loaded rig looked like a monster bull?

When Karl cocked the gun’s hammer, I plugged my ears with my fingers. A perfect heart shot dropped the bull nearly in his tracks, only 40 yards from the four-wheeler.

Two Isn’t Always Better Than One

You might be surprised to learn I didn’t shoot a second caribou during this 4 day hunt, even though I tagged one at 10:30 a.m. the first day. The reason is simple: I didn’t want the hunt to end.

It’s really impossible to “guess-timate” how many thousands of caribou I saw the first day, and even though the following day was a bit slower, I’m sure I still saw a few thousand. The third day was slower still— perhaps 1,000 animals. By the final day, the numbers continued to drop, but I still glassed at least 700 caribou.

In fact, one of my favorite parts of this adventure was during the final day, when Karl and I overlooked a 300-yard-wide section of Ptarmigan Lake that caribou swam across on their migration south. At times we watched nearly 100 caribou in the water at the same time, all swimming directly toward our ambush location.

We didn’t see any huge bulls swim across the lake, but it was fun to see just how close we could get to the caribou without spooking them. Like kids up to no good, we laid on the ground in knee-high bushes and giggled as caribou streamed past us at less than 10 yards. In fact, a couple times I was afraid caribou might step on me!

Had I shot a second bull on days No. 1, 2 or 3, I would’ve have missed out on watching the “big swim” during day No. 4. Although I didn’t “tag out,” I left camp knowing I’d hunted hard during every possible minute of my adventure.

Yes, sometimes you can have the most fun by not shooting an animal.

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