The actual task of hunting a caribou is not that hard. Instead, the challenge of pursuing these animals is reaching an area that holds caribou and then trying to maintain your comfort and sanity when faced with everything that Arctic and sub-Arctic environments can throw your way.
Bush-planes delayed for days on end by un-flyable weather, tents and gear soaked by horizontally driven rain, late summer blizzards, persistent fog, waist-deep rivers, hordes of mosquitoes and black flies, ankle-busting tussocks, and the ever-present threat of grizzly bears claiming your hard-won meat.
Enduring these conditions for a week or so can feel like a great achievement in itself, and successful caribou hunters never come away from the experience lamenting the fact that the hunt wasn’t challenging, even in situations where the herds seemed intent on stampeding the camp. What’s more, caribou hunters get to witness a landscape that most Americans will never experience. The northern tundra is our last true wilderness, a place where you can be a hundred or more miles from the nearest road. When a hunter walks these landscapes, he cannot help but feel a deep and immediate connection to his ancient, primal self.
All caribou and reindeer throughout the world are considered by taxonomists to be one species. A total of seven varieties, or subspecies, are recognized worldwide. Of these, Alaska has barren-ground and woodland. Canada has barren-ground, woodland, and Peary.
Bar Room Banter
Caribou milk has the highest fat content of any member of the deer family. And caribou have the highest ratio of antler weight to body weight of any animal worldwide. Caribou are also the only members of the deer family in which the females have antlers. While male caribou usually shed their antlers in December or January, females retain theirs through the winter and well into spring. It seems that this adaptation allows the females to effectively defend limited food resources against larger but unarmed males during a time of nutritional stress.
Brown, with whitish or grayish neck, rump patch, and sometimes flanks. During the rut, bulls develop a beautiful mane of whitish hair as well as a pronounced dewlap. Mature males can weigh well over 400 pounds; females are around half that size.
Primarily lichens, but also grasses, sedges, mushrooms, and twigs from birch and willow.
Life and Death
Wolves are the chief predator of caribou, and the two species can often be found in close proximity. Grizzly bears and wolverines will kill caribou as well, particularly the young or injured. The life expectancy for caribou hasn’t been studied as closely as other species of deer, but 4-7 years seems to be typical, with some animals living to be older than 10.
Breeding and Reproduction
Caribou breed in October and November. Females drop their calves, usually one or two, between mid May and early June.
Tundra and taiga ecosystems, and also mountainous regions with coniferous forests and plenty of lichens.
Heavily used trails along migratory routes. From the air, the trails often appear in tightly packed, criss-cross patterns, especially in places where migrating animals are funneled by mountain passes, river crossings, and between large bodies of water.
Not the greatest of the deer species, but still quite good. Caribou flesh is tender, though some folks complain of dryness. A careful cook who keeps the idiosyncrasies of his ingredients in mind will find nothing wrong with this meat. Suitable for most red meat applications.
Heading to Alaska or Canada will be required for the caribou hunter. Once there, acquiring tags is easy. Most places, several caribou may be taken because of healthy herd numbers.
Spot and stalk is the best way to hunt for caribou. You’re pursuing a far-ranging and fast-moving animal on vast tracks of land, so maintaining a level of mobility is key. Most hunters who travel to caribou country are using services such as bush pilots or jet boat operators to reach their hunting grounds. These transporters are usually aware of the whereabouts of the herds, and they usually do a good job of putting you into the general vicinity of the animals.
If you get dropped into an area that reportedly has caribou and you’re not seeing any, you should spend your time traveling across the tundra or from valley to valley and ridge to ridge in search of the animals. It’s quite possible to be in a situation where your particular area is empty of caribou while dozens and dozens are passing through just a couple miles away.
Locating a Herd
Caribou do not like hot weather. If you’re hunting during a period of warm weather, particularly in the mountains, it’s wise to glass around snow patches and glaciers during the warmest part of the day. Caribou will lie directly on the snow or ice and stay there for hours. They also hate biting insects. Caribou can often be found in the vicinity of large lakes and at the feet of glaciers when bugs are bad, presumably to take advantage of the breezes generated by these features.
When a stiff enough breeze kicks up to keep the insects down altogether, caribou will often stop to feed in lower pockets of land and along the fringes of tundra ponds. The hunter who was watching traveling animals at a distance might suddenly not see any movement at all. When this happens, wait for the breeze to die. When it does, you might see the land suddenly boil over with caribou as the animals start trotting along in a mad dash effort to escape the onslaught of insects.
If you see a group of caribou traveling in the distance, make a note of the exact route they traveled. Other groups will usually come along, and they’ll have a tendency to follow that exact same route. Sometimes, you can hunt for a few days and then realize that every single caribou you’ve seen has come into view at the same point along the skyline. If they are traveling on more general routes, and not confined to a particular trail or valley bottom, then position yourself near natural funnels. Isthmuses between lakes work well, as do river crossing locations and saddles along high ridges.
Caribou travel farther and more often than any other species of North American game; they’ve certainly learned how to travel smart, and they move across the landscape in predictable and efficient ways. Once you identify the land features that are directing their travel, it might be a good idea to move your camp closer to these features so that you can glass right from home. When bugs are bad, it’s a tremendous relief when you can remove the rain fly from your tent and then glass from inside the mosquito netting.
Despite their wandering ways, feeding caribou will sometimes stay put for days on end. If you glass a way-off bull that’s feeding in one location for an hour or so, it’s worthwhile to head in his direction, even if that means a 2-or-3 mile walk. It’s quite possible that he’ll still be there when you arrive, or you might run into more caribou while you’re walking in his direction.
When it comes to caribou that are on the move, though, don’t make the mistake of thinking that you’ll catch animals that are walking away from you. Caribou can move ridiculously fast on the tundra, and a human traveling across tussocks is no match for them. Instead, you want to concentrate your efforts on caribou that are moving toward you.
When you get out in front of a herd, you don’t need to take too many precautions. Just hunker down into the vegetation and hold still. As often as not, they’ll actually veer from their course in order to satisfy their curiosity about that strange shape on the tundra. Sometimes, cows and young bulls that walk past you will then double-back and approach you within a hundred yards from behind.
Even though caribou aren’t easily spooked, don’t be lazy or stupid when you’re stalking them. One caribou might let you crawl within bow range across open ground, while the next might decide to run over the next three ridges at the sight of your head poking up above the horizon a couple hundred yards away. But don’t let your worries about concealment keep you from making a quick approach.
If you’re after a feeding bull and he seems a little restless due to bugs or whatever, then don’t be afraid to expose yourself from a few hundred yards out. And if your presence starts to make him nervous, try getting on your hands on knees. He might just get curious and close the distance for you.
Finally, when it comes to shooting, caribou are not that hard to bring down. And because of the openness of the country, you don’t have to worry about losing an animal that might run off a hundred yards before dying. For this reason, it’s a good idea to aim 5-or-6 inches back from the front shoulder in order to avoid ruining any meat. As long you punch a hole in a lung, either with an arrow or bullet, the animal will be down on the ground in a hurry.
The presence of antlers cannot be regarded as definitive proof of sex on caribou, as both sexes have antlers. The antlers of young bulls and mature cows are very similar. There are other reliable indicators, including the direction of urination. Bulls urinate forward of the penis sheath, while females urinate behind the rear legs. Also look for the sexual indicators.