I did quite a bit of research in deciding which sub-species of Caribou to hunt before choosing Mountain Caribou, and also in selecting Arctic Red as my outfitter.
I also had a hard time deciding when to go; early season finds the bulls high in the mountains and they can be fairly stationary, so once you find a big one you have a good chance of killing him, but later the weather pushes the cows down and towards the valleys and the bulls follow and although it's not a true Caribou migration, the animals can be a bit more concentrated at this time.
Tavis convinced me that the best chance to kill a giant bull with a bow would be during August. And when I say "giant", I mean it, the trophy quality in this area is truly world class. It would not surprise me if they take a new world record P&Y bull up there someday. They kill a lot of bulls with rifles that would exceed the existing record, but not a lot of guys go there specifically to bowhunt Caribou, which is a shame because it is really a tremendous bowhunting opportunity.
Ultimately, I decided to go on the last hunt of the year for a couple reasons. I wanted to be there when it was cold and I was hoping for the chance to hunt in some snow; and I really wanted a hard horned, white maned bull.
After two days of travel and 5 flights from the east coast through Houston-Edmonton-Yellowknife-Norman Wells, I finally arrived in base camp on the bank of the Arctic Red River on Sunday, September 19 (which is my youngest son's birthday).
The cold and snow were obviously there waiting for me, and so I hoped, was a big white-maned bull, somewhere down there in those mountains.
This is a view of a pretty river valley we flew over between Norman Wells and base camp.
Here are a few hunters with their bulls, just before they flew back to town.
Here are Tavis and Jeff, getting the super cub loaded for my flight.
No horses, no helicopters and living out of your backpack is what you can expect and consequently, they typically attract a committed and serious clientele base.
Essentially, they still do it the hard way, as it has been done for years.
Most of the time that is, anyway. I was delighted to find that I'd be hunting in one of the few wall tent camps they have set up for their late season Caribou hunts.
Al was Tavis' neighbor in Whitehorse and brought Tavis up to Arctic Red as a packer in the early '90s when he was just 17 years old. Al proudly talked about Tavis' journey, up through the ranks from the bottom to the top, eventually purchasing Arctic Red from Kelly Haugen two years ago.
As we sat in our toasty warm wall tent, eating fresh blueberry pie, Al laughed about how he used to take care of Tavis and now Tavis was taking care of him.
And I, of course, was also benefiting.
Although Al has been guiding forever and has 113 ram kills and over 60 Caribou kills "under his belt", he has only guided one other bowhunter in his career.
That was on the first sheep hunt of this season and I really wish I could remember the other bowhunters name because he killed a great ram with a perfect 50 yard shot.
Hopefully, Al would finish his season the same way he started it, albeit in an unlikely fashion, with bookend bow kills.
We would start our hunt in the morning and after more than a few Caribou sightings on our flight into camp, I simply could not wait.
I promise to post some more details asap.
That wouldn't happen to be caribou backstrap for dinner? ; )
Can't wait for the rest.
We climbed out of our camp based creek bottom and started to see Caribou on the far ridgelines almost immediately. Anxiously, we had gotten an early start and we had to hang out a bit, waiting for good light so we didn't miss anything.
Here's Al checking on a group of 5 bulls we spotted on a ridge about three miles east of camp. None were big enough to go after so we decided to head up onto a big knob above camp to get higher and a better vantage of the area.
I was hoping it would prove to be a good omen.
Al had a couple questions for me, first he asked how far my effective range was. I told him I was deadly out to twenty. He said he was going back to camp to make a pot of coffee.
Then he asked me if I really wanted to hike all the way over to the mountain that these bulls were on, he said that it was "a pretty long way" over there to them.
I said that I had just spent 2 1/2 days and 6 flights and had come all the way from New Jersey, and to me, these things didn't seem very far away at all.
We were off.
Although there were plenty of smaller bulls hanging around with the cows, most of the mature bulls were either loners, or still together in small bachelor groups, waiting for the true rut to begin.
Hopefully, this would make things a bit easier since there wouldn't be too many sets of eyes/ears/noses to try to fool.
The bull we were after had huge beams and heavy, palmated tops, and he was with 4 other bulls just below the top of the same ridge, a couple hundred yards to the left of the point.
As soon as we entered the chute and started our steep ascent I realized the wind was now blowing stiffly, straight up the ravine, right towards the bulls.
I stopped Al and expressed my concerns. He had a pretty good feeling that we would find that the wind would be back to a strong crosswind once we got up on top. I trusted his mountain wisdom, admittedly with a bit of scepticism.
Here is Al, blazing to the base of the ridge.
But as we neared the top, sure enough, the wind swung back around, a hard crosswind again, and now I was really getting excited. The Sensai was right and we were getting close.
The view from the top of the deep ravine was spectacular. You can't see it in this photo but our camp is along the small ribbon of creek in the bottom of the valley, about where it peters out at the base of the mountains. We first spotted the big bull from the high rounded knob above and to the left of camp.
What I learned once we reached the bulls was shocking to me. The height of their antlers is really a tremendous disadvantage to them. In this mountainous terrain, the lack of cover was not an issue. All I had to do was get close enough to see the tops of their antlers, but not to close so that I could see their heads, and I was safe.
It was an awesome discovery and my confidence soared. I now knew 100% that I was going to kill one of these big bulls.
We soon spotted another bull, slightly bigger, but still not the one, bedded just 40 yards directly to our left, almost downwind but luckily still at enough of a crosswind that he didn't bust.
The big bull was not in sight and we were pinned down.
Ultimately, the smaller bull above us started moving out towards the point of the ridge and the slightly bigger bull to our left got out of his bed and followed. He went by me at 30 yards and looking up at him, he just looked huge. His big white mane was blowing in the wind and I was just staring up , mesmerized by those big antlers and thinking, I could kill this thing so easy, I hope this doesn't come back to haunt me.
But behind him was the palmated giant we had come so far to reach.
Al whispered "it's him, kill him"!
I came to full draw and realized a stick had somehow gotten jammed in my sight during our crawl/climb up the mountain and was now blocking some of my pins. Undaunted, (actually, pretty effing daunted to tell the truth), I did my best to ensure a perfect shot. The distance was a bit farther than I would have wanted, but still a very make-able shot.
The bull was locked in on us, moving from left to right and the x-wind was blowing the opposite way, from right to left. I waited for him to stop, settled in and released the arrow.
But the bull bolted as the bow went off and the x-wind blew the arrow harmlessly behind him.
They ran around the ridge as I watched in disbelief.
The Sensai simply looked at me, smiled and said "shake it off".
This guy is a living legend and at the time, I really had no idea who I was hunting with.
Last year alone, after he was done guiding for Arctic Red, he went out on his own in his home province (the Yukon) and killed a net Boone & Crockett Dall Sheep. I hadn't realized it but that may well be the most difficult animal in North America to put in the big book.
Here's Al's big ram and although this isn't the best photo, it will give you an idea of how big a Dall Sheep has to be to make B&C. And this one barely makes it.
So needless to say, I tried to follow Al's advice and shake it off.
Waiting for the traditional sun bathing pic with the "enhanced" speedos..........
Al reassured me that we were hunting Caribou, not Sheep and that they were probably already calmed down, feeding nearby.
Sure enough, we spotted antler tips as soon as we rounded the point, below us one bench and about 250 yards away. As the bulls went over the bench they were on, we raced toward their location. We quickly closed the gap and were within bow range of the bulls but once again, we could not see the big bull and could get no closer because of smaller bulls in the way.
Here's a photo of the area where this all took place (near the top of the ridge, well above the treeline). It seems pretty open but if you look close you can see that there are many terrain breaks that we were able to use to our advantage and slide right in on these bulls.
And one of the bulls looked really good.
We glasssed him carefully, with Al confirming that he was not quite as big as the one we'd been chasing all day, but telling me that I should seriously consider taking him.
He had heavy tops, heavy beams, long bez and a snow white mane. When he turned to face us I could also see a wide spread with his two longest points curving in, towards each other.
Hell yes, I should seriously consider him.
I tossed Al my video camera and slipped towards the edge, peering over the next bench just as the big bull stepped into range. My rangefinder read 40 yds on the broadside bull, who was calmly munching away.
Before I knew it, he was flying down the mountain with my bright green fletching nearly buried, perfectly behind his shoulder.
I've wanted a big Caribou for so long, and now, here he was, finally.
You can probably tell I was a pretty happy guy at this point.
We caped, quartered and deboned the bull and started our long trek back to camp, hoping to beat the impending snow.
After 13 hours and 12 long miles, I really needed this!
We woke up to a thick skim of ice on the water bucket inside the tent...
I never get a chance to spend a day with nothing to do and this was a welcome opportunity to relax and reflect on what a great hunt Al and I had experienced together.
My bull actually piled up on the flat bench that's shown here, slightly above and to the right of the center of this photo.
When I learned that the pilot was Travis Wright, the flight service owners son, I immediately recalled a story Al had told me in camp one night about Travis.
A few years back, when Travis had just started his guiding career with Arctic Red, he and a couple other guys walked a short distance from their tent to do some glassing.
A Grizzly suddenly appeared out of nowhere, in full charge, and sent all the boys scrambling back to the tent where the guns were waiting.
There was a small stream to cross and when Travis hurdled it he came down hard on his leg, causing a compound fracture which left the jagged end of his bone protruding through his pants. He went down in a heap along side of the stream and as the Grizzly jumped off the bank he actually flew directly over Travis, sprawled out in the stream bed.
Thankfully, the bear soon realized he was in the wrong spot and chose flight over fight.
But Travis spent a long cold night huddled around a fire the boys kept going until it was light enough for a medivac chopper to pick him up the next day.
He recovered but sadly, his guiding career was finished as he can no longer carry a heavy backpack in the mountains.
So he does the next best thing and is a bush pilot.
I really wish I had a better photo of Travis, but here he is anyway, loading the plane for our flight back to Norman Wells.
I think this has my vote for "Story of the Year" so far. Great adventure, great photo essay, GREAT trophy, and I really appreciate the time and effort you give to your guides, outfitters, and everyone else that had a hand in your success. Fantastic!
And it's easy to put together a good report when you have such a great trip.
I really can't say enough about Arctic Red River Outfitters and the fantastic area they hunt. I owe a huge thanks to Tavis, Al and all of the staff.
As I've mentioned, I believe this is really a tremendous bowhunting opportunity for giant Mountain Caribou. It's a long way to go and it's not cheap to get there, but a 2x1 hunt with ARRO this year was $6500.00 (I did a one on one which was slightly higher). With the escalating prices of Quebec hunts, along with the recent instability of the bowhunting success on Caribou almost everywhere, I felt it was well worth the extra effort and money it took to get there.
The added adventure of hunting in such a remote, pristine mountainous area was another huge reason why I chose to do this trip over other Caribou options.
I'm thrilled with my bull but realize that there are much, much bigger bulls still up there. I truly hope someone out there gets the inspiration to do this trip someday as a result of my experience and I also hope that I get a chance to return someday and try for a real giant.
If you ever get the chance to go, make sure you ask Tavis for AL to guide you, he's now 100% on bowhunts!
Thanks much for the story and pics. Great job.
And congrats on a fine trophy. He's a beauty.
"We caped, quartered and deboned the bull and started our long trek back to camp, hoping to beat the impending snow."
I can't believe you 2 packed out all that meat and antlers in one trip...how much do you think your packs weighed?
Al initially figured that we would need two trips for sure. But after we got all the meat boned, he just kept dumping it in our packs. Once he was satisfied that we had enough weight he stopped and when we both looked at what was left we agreed that it wasn't worth 6+ more miles of packing so we decided to just throw it all in and try it.
I started out that morning with my Mystery Ranch pack nearly empty (just my raingear, h20, a few energy bars and my cameras) and I can tell you that this was by far the most weight I've ever packed. Al had an old external frame pack and I'm sure he was suffering almost as much as I was. I noticed him lifting the bottom of his pack with his hands to take the weight off his shoulders as much as he could most of the way back to camp.
I very nearly couldn't get up shortly after this photo was taken. I was trying to roll off the tussock I was sitting on and get to my knees so I could pull myself up with the help of my hiking pole but the antlers kept snagging in the brush and I must have looked like a turtle flipped over on his shell. It was ridiculous.
When I finally got up I expected to see Al standing there laughing at me but he was already 100 yards away, trucking towards camp.
But please don't hold that against me.
Speaking of NJ, check out the bumper sticker that was hanging on the wall of the NWT Fish/Game office in Norman Wells. I had to stop in here on the way out of town to secure an export permit for my bull.
What an awesome hunt, congrats, I am very jealous!
I think it's great for Tavis and Arctic Red but even better for the two guys that are going to get to experience this adventure.
I cant wait for their post trip reports and hope they each kill a monster Mountain Caribou!