When I first got started in this industry nearly 20 years ago, you could hunt just about anywhere in the “North Country” and come home with a couple of nice caribou. Unfortunately, those days are long gone. Climate change, pressure, subsistence hunting, over grazing, predation have all played roles in the steady decline in caribou numbers. We are now down to four species (out of five) of huntable caribou and those have a one bull limit. Don’t get me wrong. If you time it right, and with a little luck, you may still see the “great migration” you picture when you think of caribou hunting. But, for the most part expect to hunt a little harder and hike a little more if you want to be successful. Oh, and it pays to be with the right outfitter in the right area.
The 2018 draw season was pretty kind to me. I can’t always say that! I was fortunate enough to draw, for the second time in four years, an Arizona elk tag as well as a Barren Ground Caribou permit in the Alaska Range. These are the largest sub-specie of caribou in terms of both antler and body size. While you can simply just buy a caribou permit over the counter for most areas in the state, this particular unit is managed, and requires you to draw the permit. One of the great things about the draw in Alaska is that it’s all random (no point system) so everyone has a fair shake each time you apply. I was lucky enough to draw this permit the first time I applied for it! There’s about 150 total caribou tags (residents and non-residents are in the same pool) in this particular unit and the odds of drawing are about 5%. Pretty tough, but definitely worth it, especially if you want a crack at a trophy bull. I feel this unit offers the best trophy class caribou hunting in the state!
My first call, once I found out I drew, was to a long time outfitter of ours who lives in the unit and has been outfitting there for thirty years. Born and raised in Alaska, this family-run outfit has a great track record for offering successful hunts for not only caribou, but dall sheep and moose as well. The caribou season here is from August 10 – September 20. I preferred to hunt them hard horned so I booked an early September hunt. This was my third caribou hunt so I had a good idea of what to expect. I also have a good friend who drew this same tag several years ago and took home a great bull. This unit is home to a relatively small caribou herd that don’t necessarily migrate to a certain extent. Similar to a mountain caribou, expect to find them in the valleys and mountain sides in small groups to solitary bulls (similar to elk hunting). Now the caribou and I don’t exactly get along. My first hunt to Alaska years ago brought 80 degree weather and sunny skies. Not typical of late August when you’re 300 miles north of the Arctic Circle! To say the least the caribou just hadn’t started their migration yet and the few bulls we did see were smaller one’s that stayed up high with the sheep, escaping the bugs and heat. My second hunt was to the Mackenzie Mountains of the N.W.T three years ago in late September. Here, you’ll find the mountain caribou sub-specie. Despite three days of bad weather that kept me from reaching camp, I was able to punch my tag on a great bull.
So this year’s hunt to Alaska was much anticipated. I had another chance to check the Barren Ground sub-specie off my list. I took a direct flight to Anchorage where I settled in for the night at a nearby motel. The following morning had me on a six hour shuttle north to a small town tucked in the middle of the Alaska Range. The drive was incredible with a clear view of Mount McKinley to the north. But, as I neared my destination I could see low lying clouds off in a distance and thought “here we go again”. Now in Alaska, you’re at the mercy of mother nature, and the prime hunting takes place in road-less areas. You’re dependent on bush planes to get you just about anywhere. They’re like cars in the north country. So, as I finally reached my destination by early afternoon my assumption was right. Flights were grounded for the day. The same weather pattern hung around the next day. This is the main reason why Alaska hunts are upwards of ten days. Expect to lose a couple of days to weather. Patience is key here. Plus you can’t hunt the same day you fly. Fortunately, clear skies followed the next day, and after a 20 minute flight deep into the Alaska Range, the Cessna 185 touched down on a gravel air strip at my home-away-from-home for the next few days. Base camp consisted of a large wall tent for 2-3 hunters with comfortable cots and a wood stove, cook shack and guide quarters, supply cache, tack shed, and coral for the sure-footed horses that would be our mode of transportation while hunting. Now, I have hunted Alaska many times and this is big, rough country. It’s hard to describe to someone unless you’ve been here for yourself. It’s deceiving at times just how big it is. So, having horses to access this country is a big advantage. This country is too big to walk. Plus when it comes to packing gear and supplies (tents, food, etc.), and hopefully a caribou back to base camp, the pack horses are a must. While there can be good hunting around base camp, it’s usually necessary to “spike out” for a couple days at a time, and go to where the hunting is best.
I was introduced to my guide, Parker, and wrangler, Brendan. I was told we’d be spiking out for a couple of days in search of caribou. I checked the zero on my rifle at the nearby range, and after a delicious meal of dall sheep backstraps (courtesy of the other hunter in camp), settled in for the night in anticipation of tomorrow’s hunt. The next morning came quick and I awoke to the sounds of guides and wranglers saddling up horses and loading the pack horses with panniers and gear. I have done several horseback hunts now and it amazes me at how much works go into it each day. These guys were good and knew their stuff! After a light breakfast and a cup of coffee, we were off in search of a trophy bull. We’d stop to glass the various drainages that cut their way through the mountains. The ride was incredible. That first day brought sightings of several white sheep on the mountainsides including a couple of nice rams. We also spotted a huge mountain grizzly feeding on berries along one ridge. As we neared our spike camp destination, my guide located two nice caribou bulls at the base of a mountain. We tied up the horses and put the spotting scope on them. They were both mature bulls and one had exceptional bottoms and good tops. We closed the distance and I laid down prone with my pack for a rest. Parker ranged the bull at just over 400 yards and my 7MM mag. found its mark. We spent the next couple of hours taking photos and caping and quartering the animal, taking small breaks to admire a band of nearly twenty dall sheep feeding on the opposite mountain. All in all we rode nearly eighteen miles that day, but were able to make it back to base camp as the sun was about to set. Paige, our camp hostess and cook, prepared fresh caribou backstraps that evening as we sat around a warm campfire and admired the northern lights. Not a bad way to end another Alaskan hunt!
My advice, if a caribou is on your bucket list, is don’t wait. Give the crew at WTA TAGS a call to learn more about applying for this permit. The adventure and the trophy quality is second to none! The deadline to apply for Alaska is December 15.