Caribou hunting offers a special kind of adventure in the far north. If you’re looking for a real wilderness experience, a thrilling hunt, and a big trophy bull with breathtaking antlers, then caribou hunting will deliver on all fronts. Here’s what you need to know to hunt these nomads of our last wilderness frontiers.
A caribou is not just a caribou. The Boone and Crockett Club recognize five subspecies: the mountain, woodland, Alaska-Yukon barren ground, Central Canada barren ground, and Quebec-Labrador varieties in North America. Additionally Safari Club International recognizes an additional category called Arctic Islands Caribou, or formerly Peary Caribou. We’ll cover the similarities first, then outline the differences (body size, antler configuration and habitat factors).
Both bull and cow caribou carry antlers. Bulls wear the impressive headgear – flaring, palmated antlers up to 5 feet long, adorned with large scoop-like brow tines called shovels that often extend out over the nose. Cow antlers are small and spindly, rarely reaching 2 feet long.
The caribou’s coat in hunting season ranges from brown to gray, with mature bulls sporting a creamy- or white-colored mane over the neck and front shoulders. The belly and rump patch are also light colored (look for the bright rump when glassing).The tail is stubby.
All caribou have an excellent sense of smell. Eyesight and hearing are very good. Caribou can be numerous during migration, but it’s still important to respect these senses when hunting, or you will blow the stalk or spoil the stand.
All caribou migrate: Move between summering and wintering grounds. Sometimes you can hear a herd’s bony ankles “clicking” as they trot across the tundra; and caribou grunt to communicate as they move. Rutting often takes place toward the end of the fall migration, and that also helps make this a good time to hunt caribou.
Caribou often travel at an effortless trot that really eats up ground. And they can run up to 40 mph – that’s faster than a whitetail. Also, caribou are excellent swimmers. Swift rivers and broad lakes do not slow them down. They just wade right in and go. It’s not uncommon to see caribou swimming in the middle of large lakes even out of sight of land.
Besides differences in physical characteristics, subspecies of caribou are designated by the region they inhabit. Here’s the slate of the different North American varieties:
The largest subspecies, with bulls weighing 400 to 600 pounds and carrying long, wide antlers with long tines. Mountain caribou live on steep mountain slopes covered with firs, spruce and other conifers, and migrate downhill for winter. They eat grass, and brose on leaves and buds. Range includes the mountains of the Northwest Territories, British Columbia, Alberta and the southern Yukon Territory.
Woodland caribou bulls weigh 300 to 400 pounds, with narrower antlers sporting shorter points, narrower spreads and less palmation than other subspecies. Woodland caribou live amongst bogs, rocky ridges and forested hills of Newfoundland and other forested areas in Eastern Canada. They eat grass, leaves, twigs and other browse. Rather than “bulls” the male woodland caribou are often referred to as “stags.”
Alaska-Yukon Barren Ground Caribou
These are the classic caribou of the northern tundra. Their range extends from Alaska to the southern Yukon Territory. Alaska-Yukon bulls weigh 175 to 300 pounds, and their antlers feature very long main beams, wide spreads and impressive palmations. Tundra lichens serve as the main food source.
Central Canada Barren Ground Caribou
These caribou are very similar in appearance and size to their Alaska cousins, but are slightly smaller at 150 to 275 pounds. The antlers are still impressive. Their range includes the Northwest Territories, Nunavut and northern Manitoba … and these are some of the most remote places to hunt caribou.
This is the open-ground caribou of eastern Canada, in the namesake provinces. Quebec-Labrador bulls weigh from 200 to 400 pounds, and their impressive antlers spread wider than any other subspecies. At peak migration herds are massive, though like all caribou their populations are cyclical. They migrate south to forested areas for winter, eating lichens and mosses on the way, then leaves and buds from dwarf trees on snow covered the wintering grounds.
Arctic Islands Caribou
Previously called Peary caribou these are the smallest North American caribou with mature bulls weighing 250 pounds or less. It has the lightest coloration of any caribou, with the winter coat nearly all white, and the summer coat a much lighter shade of brown than in other caribou. The antlers are smaller and less developed, being spindly and rather straight instead of in the usual “C” shape. Restricted to the arctic islands of the Northwest Territories and Nunavut, plus the Boothia Peninsula. Tundra lichens are nearly the small caribous’ exclusive feed source.
Hunting caribou successfully is all about hitting the migration right. In that respect, a good outfitter is essential. He can get you there, knows when to hunt and where caribou migrate through, and can move you to a new spot when you need to find the animals. Always be sure to observe local laws regarding hunting on the same day as you’re in the air.
Most caribou hunts are from fly-in camps, and you take day hunts from there. Options for fully-guided, semi-guided, and self-guided hunts are usually available with quality outfitters anxious to provide the hunt that suits you best.
There are two basic ways to hunt caribou. One is to hide out behind a rock outcropping, ridge or other terrain (usually elevated somewhat), and wait for caribou to move through. Many camps are located near age-old traditional caribou river crossings which are great places to set up a bow hunting ambush. You can wait for caribou to come into range, but most hunters will spot a group of animals, scope them to see if there’s a good bull, then head out for a stalk or to head them off.
Another good approach to move and glass, looking for groups of caribou. Some outfitters will transport you by watercraft to find the herds. It’s important to be mobile, cover ground and be willing to move out fast to get on the bulls. Use all the terrain you can to get ahead of them, then head them off on their travel path. However, once you’re behind a herd that’s moving directly away, you’ll never catch them even if you run and they are walking.
Rare is the non-native hunter who has conducted a totally do-it-yourself caribou hunt. Outfitters have the transportation, camps and hunting rights you need. With some outfitters, you’ll hunt with native guides, adding another element of cultural experience to the overall adventure. Always be sure to check out the references for any caribou outfitter. Ask them about their camp and accommodations, and their plans for getting you onto the caribou if the herds aren’t there yet.