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Caribou Hunting On Your Own
It had been quite the week. The weather had done the usual – sunny and nice one day, cold and wet the next – typical of mid-August at the head of the Alaska Peninsula. At least the biting bugs weren’t all that bad, thanks to a steady breeze. And the small band of woodsman-hunters hadn’t yet had the tent blown down by a hurricane, no grizzlies had torn up the food boxes, nor had anyone gotten lost. All in all, it had been glorious.
Oh, yeah … the caribou hunting had been spectacular! There were roaming bands of caribou everywhere. Sometimes they came close to camp, more often than not they were a mile or two or three away, but it seemed as though the caribou hunters had been constantly looking over animals. They had all taken nice bulls, though they had to work at it. Despite what you may have heard, most caribou hunting involves lots of hiking and most have yet to shoot a good bull that did not require them to bone the meat and backpack it a fair distance back to camp. Still this is some of Alaska’s most exciting and enjoyable hunting, something the average sportsman can do as long as he understands the pitfalls and is willing to work hard at it.
How to Find The Right Air Taxi
You can duplicate this hunt – which costs less than half the tab of a fully-guided caribou hunt – but the key is to hire an air taxi service that will drop you and your hunting gear in a good area, then come and get you on a specified day.
Many caribou hunters use air taxis for hunting especially in recent years. Most of the time, the experiences are good ones. Occasionally, though, they are not. All air taxi services are not created equal, and when the success or failure of your hunt is, in large measure, dependent on the plane dropping and picking your butt up, choosing a service is not something to take for granted.
One veteran hunting outfitter reflects on the nature of a Caribou hunt.“If a person is an experienced wilderness hunter, there’s no reason they can’t have an enjoyable, successful drop-off caribou hunt,” he said. “However, you have to be ready, willing and able to hunt hard, judge caribou antlers, care for your animal once it’s down, then backpack the meat and antlers back to your pick-up point. This is hard work, so be ready!”
His fees are in-line with most air taxi operations. Their 7-day unguided hunt costs $2400 2x1, plus hunting license and tags, which run a non-resident $85 and $325, respectively. This cost includes air charter service between the lodge and Anchorage, which would run well over $1000 if you had to book a flight to the bush separately. Fully-guided 2x1 caribou hunts cost a thousand bucks more, a cost well worth it if the hunter is unsure of himself in a wilderness situation.
There are lots of ways to locate air taxi services. Many are listed in the Yellow Pages, advertisements in hunting magazines.
It is important to plan ahead, and check references. Make sure there are no misunderstandings between you and the service on both price and the services to be provided before money changes hands.
How To Caribou Hunt
Early in the season, the caribou are generally balled up into herds that vary in size from a few to several thousand. The air taxi pilot will generally fly around until a good number of animals are seen, then land you as close as he can in a spot conducive to both a good camp spot and that will make caribou hunting practical. You cannot hunt the same day you fly in Alaska, so day one is getting camp and gear organized, and maybe a little afternoon scouting.
The best way to hunt caribou is find a high vantage point, climb up early in the morning, and set up a glassing station much in the way you’d glass for mule deer or elk. You then use both binoculars and spotting scope to find animals and evaluate antlers, then decide on a way to get to them.
This can be very interesting. When caribou are placidly feeding along, they can also be covering ground at a serious clip. And always remember that when they are on the move, there is no way on God’s earth you can outrun them. If they are ahead of you and moving out, “fuhegdaboudit.” So you have to think about it before committing to the stalk. A good tactic is to set off for a point way ahead of the animals, then let them come to you. Also, you have to always keep the wind right and stay out of sight. Caribou may be goofy, but they are not stupid and are quite adept at keeping their scalps out of the hands of careless predators.
Midday, you can often find bands of caribou bedded down. In hot weather this is usually at the tops of the hills, often on or near snowfields, where the prevailing breezes keep the bugs at bay and it is nice and cool. This requires you to hike and climb and work your body hard to get to them.
Guns, Loads & Gear
Most air taxi pilots will provide you with a list of gear. Regardless, never forget that Alaska can be harsh, even in summer, so never, ever scrimp on the quality of your survival and hunting gear. You will always need a lightweight, packable rain suit and should never leave camp without it. Both well-broken in hiking boots and ankle-fit hip boots are required. Wear layers, starting with wicking type underwear and moving on to fleece outerwear. No cotton!
For caribou, rifles in the .25-06 - .300 magnum class are adequate. A big bull will weigh perhaps 500 lbs. on the hoof, but caribou are not difficult to cleanly kill. Waterproof, fogproof scopes in the 2.5-10X class are perfect. A spotting scope with top-end power of 45-60X mounted on a sturdy, compact camera tripod will help evaluate animals “way out there.” Caribou hunters have taken several bulls with a .50 caliber muzzleloader and a bunch with the same bow-and-arrow set-up with which is common among whitetail deer and elk. A laser rangefinder is very handy when hunting with these tools.
When it all comes together, however, a drop-off, on-your-own Alaska caribou trip can be one of the most enjoyable hunting adventures in all Alaska. One group of caribou hunters crawled within 60 yards of a herd of 600-700 animals, most of them bulls, and looked them over closely before the shooting started. There were antlers everywhere! The same can happen to you, if you carefully plan and prepare for the trip of a lifetime.