As I lowered my 10 x 42 binoculars, the reality began to set in. I had done it! I had just fulfilled a lifelong dream that had begun when I was a kid. Not two hundred yards away lay a central barren ground caribou that would surely make the record books. Well, my goal was to see and shoot a good representation of the species, but what had just happened far exceeded my expectations, hopes and yes dreams.
This adventure began over a year ago when Ken Gangler of Canadian Sub Arctic Lodge generously donated a hunt for Central Barren Ground Caribou at the Safari Club International banquet that I was attending. I knew that caribou hunting is becoming more and more difficult as the cost of the hunt increases and the number of animals seems to decrease. Just a few years ago, Newfoundland lowered the number of Woodland caribou tags from two thousand to approximately four hundred tags. Outfitters on the island who had previously received several tags for their hunting area were now receiving only three to four.
Another example is the Quebec –Labrador caribou. For as long as I can remember, the Quebec government allowed nonresident hunters to purchase two caribou tags. The ability to have two tags in your pocket made making the “which one to shoot” decision a little easier. A hunter could shoot his first bull and then, if he wanted, be more selective and try for a true trophy. This past hunting season, the Quebec government changed the limit from two to one. Times are changing. Those were just a couple of reasons that I knew that if I was ever going to make my childhood dream a reality, I needed to act on it now. So I placed my bid and was successful in winning the hunt.
Ken Gangler operates a lodge located in northern Manitoba, very close to the Nunavut border. At this time, Manitoba allows only five hundred nonresident caribou tags, but it is still a two caribou area. Ken offers a seven day hunt compared to other Manitoba outfitters that offer a four to five day hunt. I don’t know about you, but I love being in the outdoors and enjoying the sights and sounds that it provides. If you are going to offer me three additional days on the tundra for the same price, I am going to take it. Not to mention that it is three more days to put a caribou on the ground, if needed.
There are five sub-species of caribou as recognized by the record books. Barren Ground Caribou are located in Alaska. Mountain Caribou are mostly located in south central British Columbia. Central Barren Ground Caribou inhabit areas of the Northwest Territories, Nunavut, and northern parts of Alberta and Manitoba. The Quebec-Labrador Caribou are located in Quebec, and the Woodland Caribou can be found in Newfound- land and parts of Ontario.
Of these five sub-species, Woodland and Mountain Caribou could be considered non-migratory. The Woodland Caribou stay in their home range throughout the entire year while the Mountain Caribou move in elevation depending on the weather and snow. The other three sub-species travel hundreds of miles during a season. They begin in the calving grounds and move south towards the tree line for the winter months only to turn around in the spring and head back to the calving area. This explains the “here today and gone tomorrow” philosophy that caribou hunters have learned to accept.
The terrain of Manitoba is a little more acceptable for stalking game when you compare it to Nunavut. Manitoba has low-lying brush, rock formations, and even small pockets of trees that allow you to ambush the traveling caribou. Oh, I forgot to mention lakes. Manitoba has lots of lakes. These caribou can move over the high ground and hide in the small pockets of trees. Just when you think you might have them cornered, they will just plow head long into the lake and swim away. Caribou hunting can be challenging mentally and physically.
I arrived in camp in early September to an array of colors. The tundra was ablaze with orange, red, green and yellow. We quickly settled into camp, signed our licenses, and headed to the make shift range to insure our crossbows were not affected by the travel. After a couple of shots at the target, I knew I was good to go. I was ready to go hunting.
I walked to the edge of the lake and started to make some basic observations. There were nine hunters in camp and only four boats on the shoreline. After some quick math in my head, it looked like someone was going to do a little walking on the first day….. For months prior to this trip, I practiced walking eight miles a day with a seventy pound backpack so I was more than happy to volunteer. Hopefully I would walk out light and come back heavy.
Ron, my guide, and I headed out. First over one hill and then another and then another. Approximately one mile into my journey I spotted my first caribou. He was a magnificent animal among the tundra colors. He had a light brown coat, large antlers, a long white mane and he was only three hundred yards away. I gestured to Ron and asked if he was something we should try for. Because I live in Michigan where I hunt only whitetail deer, all these northern monarchs look like Boone and Crocket contenders to me. Ron just shook his head no, and he began with a basic lesson in judging these animals.
First, he said, is the length of the tops. You want long tops because the record books score the two longest points on each side. Next is the length of the front two “bez.” You want them long and with distinguishable points. The curvature of the main beams is also important; they should take the shape of a perfect “C.” Last, if the animal has double shovels or back points, it is truly a trophy because these are scored as bonus points. As I sat listening to Ron’s wisdom, all I could hear were my father’s words, “Son, a trophy to you is all that matters. If you like him, take him. You can’t boil and eat the antlers.” My father was right and it was only 1 hour into my hunt so we passed on him and moved on. I hoped I would not regret that decision later.
As the day wore on, we saw several beautiful bulls. Approximately three and a half miles from camp, Ron and I spotted a lone cow bedded down on the other side of a small group of trees. Ron mentioned that we should move around behind her to see if there were any bulls with her. As we began to circle around, we saw one bull, then another and then another. Three really nice bulls a couple of hundred yards behind her were lying down for an afternoon snooze. Ron and I both zeroed in on the furthest bull. I needed no lesson in judging caribou to know this guy was not like the others. Ron mentioned we should drop everything and move in closer for a better look and hopefully a shot.
The first one hundred yards were going to be tricky. We needed to walk over open ground behind the cow with our backs low and get into the tree line where we could slowly walk or crawl into position. What do they say, “Best laid plans…?” Well, you get the point. No sooner did we break cover when the cow spotted us and took off running. This motion alerted the bulls that something was up, so we hustled over to the group of trees that separated us from the bulls. As soon as we got into the trees, we moved quickly and got into position. The bulls watched us the entire time: we weren’t fooling anyone. I got to the edge of cover and noticed that the bulls were all up and looking right at us. It was only a matter of time before they ran off. I grabbed my range finder and ranged the biggest bull at forty-nine yards. As if they knew what was up, the three bulls started to slowly walk away. When the biggest started to reach my personal shooting limits, he stopped broadside and took one more look back in our direction. That was all I needed to see. I pulled the trigger and watched my arrow change my dreams into reality.
Ron looked over at me and asked “Do you have any idea what you have just done?” At that moment, I had no idea what he was talking about. He said that the bull that lay on the ground only a couple hundred yards away was a giant, and oh man was he right! There was no ground shrink- age with this guy. The closer we got, the bigger he got. He was tall, he had the deep “C” shape, double shovels, and even back points. I wasn’t planning to shoot an animal on the first day; but understanding the migration of caribou, I figured it is better to have one on the ground than two on the camera’s memory card.
As luck would have it, eight of the nine hunters harvest- ed better than average bulls on the first day. It was an amazing first day, so now it was time to be selective on my second bull and do a little fishing. The lake where our camp was located offered northern pike, lake trout and arctic grayling. As it turned out, during the week I was able to hook and land over 50 fish including 18 grayling. I think that was the icing on the cake for me.
The stress or strain of not seeing caribou was not present in our camp because all of the hunters in camp had their second bull on the ground by the fifth day of the hunt. It is important to note that some hunters travel to the tundra and see only a couple of caribou. Other hunters spend the same time and the money to see not even a single cow. The hunters at Ganglers Courage
Lake were fortunate because the caribou were all around our camp that week. It wasn’t a big migration of animals, but five here, ten there, and three more over the next ridge. The colors were perfect, the caribou were present, numerous wolverines were sighted. One lucky hunter even had a chance to harvest a wolf, but he missed at over three hundred yards.
If you share this same dream, I recommend you go after caribou sooner rather than later. Manitoba is a special place; and if you get the timing right, you just might get the bull of a lifetime.