So as some of you know, I'm moving to Texas in a few weeks. I cancelled my sheep hunting trip this year to focus on getting everything together to move. Well, I had a little bit of spare time on my hands so I cleared it with my new boss to relax and unwind a little. The first trip I had planned was a final big game hunt here in Alaska. I really didn't want to leave the state without something to put on the wall, but with limited time left and after selling a lot of my hunting gear, the odds were against me. I'd spent most of my free time hunting waterfowl apart from a few unsuccessful big game hunts, here and there.
My buddy (Duckslayer56) called and asked if I wanted to head up to Unit 20 with him for his annual caribou hunt. Aware of my dilemma, he assured me I'd be ok, time wouldn't be an issue, and he had all of the gear covered. After checking in with my two bosses (Texas and the wife) I told him I was in.
As I may have mentioned earlier in the year, I'd purchased a Kimber Montana in 7mm-08. I thought I may have had one of the infamous Kimber barrels/actions that just plain sucked. On a last ditch effort to finally use this rifle, I loaded up 10 different loads that I hadn't tried, yet, to see if I could find one that worked. We went to the range Sunday afternoon with 30 rounds (3 rounds each of the 10 different loads) and a prayer. The loads were all over the place. I was shooting at 100 yards off of a sand bag with a little breeze, so I didn't expect bench rest type results, but what I was getting was less than impressive at best. Some of them were > 5". I was not happy. As luck would have it, my final load of the day was a 145 grain Barnes LRX on top of 41.5 grains of IMR 4350 and a Federal GM210M primer in Nosler brass. The results were sub MOA and that was after 27 shots, again, from a sand bag with a slight breeze. I know it's only a 7mm-08, but when your rifle weighs less than 6lbs, even the lighter calibers start to tingle! Here are the results, which I'd expect to be a little tighter from a lead sled on a calm day and a spotless barrel...
We loaded up all of our gear Monday morning at 7:00 in my driveway and set out on our 8 hour drive to Chicken, AK. After a quick pit stop at Carrs and ADF&G for tags, we were on our way. We pulled in to the parking lot around 5:00 PM on Monday afternoon and unloaded the Ranger and the 4-wheeler. After we loaded everything up, we set out on the 20+ mile journey where we'd set up our base camp. Here's the view from camp.
We got in on Monday evening and the season didn't open until Thursday morning so we spent time messing around camp, reading, and I was trying to kill a pika with a slingshot (unsuccessfully). I made adjustments to my scope based on the group from the range and took a test shot which hit exactly where I wanted it to so I called it good. Tom (Duckslayer56) has done this hunt every year for the last 5 and swears a guy can kill a caribou from camp if he just waits. However, he already has a caribou on the wall and is quite happy with any legal animal that presents itself. Where I'd usually consider any notched tag in Alaska a trophy, this hunt was different for me. I really wanted to shoot a nice bull that I could put on the wall in my new house in Texas.
With that said, I figured a guy would have to do some work to harvest a trophy caribou in unfamiliar territory. Tom wasn't planning on leaving camp. The trail ran about 20 yards from our tent (east and west), and it seemed like most of the people who hunt that area either wait in their camp for a small group to pass by, or they ride their quads up and down the trail all day looking for a group with a bull to shoot. Since it's a quota hunt, my plan was to work a little harder and try to get off the trail a ways and see if there was a bigger bull to harvest early in the day so I could avoid eating tag soup due to an early closure.
When opening day finally rolled around, I left the tent at about 5:00 with our other buddy, Hugh (Duckhunter01), and headed for a knob on the north side of a saddle about 1,000 yards from camp. Tom stayed in camp and said he was going to wait until about 8:00 before he went anywhere. At about 6:00, Hugh and I saw a small group of caribou on the southern ridge of the saddle, working their way towards camp. We were absolutely floored when we heard the report of Tom's .270 and watched a bull tip over about 175 yards from our tent. Tom knew what to do, we were too hard-headed to listen.
One bull, which I'd deemed a shooter from the other side of the saddle, had hung up on the northern edge of the southern ridge of the saddle when the rest of them made their way towards our camp. This put him at about 300 yards, but since he had disappeared over the top, we weren't sure if he'd stayed or gone. Most people say it's a fool's errand to try to stalk a caribou on the move, but since we weren't sure if he'd bedded down or kept going, I gave it a shot. Throwing caution to the wind, I figured I'd drop back down the saddle, climb the 500', and see if I could follow suit and notch my tag shortly after Tom and almost as close to camp.
I was going up this ridge as quickly as I could and about 5 minutes later, I found myself within 50 yards of the bull, bedded down on top of the ridge line. However, the curvature of the mountain wouldn't really let me have a good look at him so I had to get down on my stomach and crawl to about 25 yards before I had a clear view of his head gear. I had finished evaluating his rack, and although he wasn't a great bull, I figured he'd be a decent sized guy to put on the wall in my house in Texas. I knew there was a camp on the other side of the ridge, so I'd planned to wait him out at 25-30 yards, on my stomach. With all the activity down on the trail on opening morning, it was only a matter of time until he'd get up and move to somewhere that I felt I could safely shoot. All of a sudden, he got up, and when he stood up, he looked like he was spooked and was going to run. No sooner than he had taken two steps, I heard a gunshot followed by the crack of a bullet passing about 10' by my head and then saw the caribou tip over. I crawled/ran/fell/**** myself back down the hill about 15 yards, then side-hilled to the left about 20 yards, and proceeded to walk back, cautiously, towards where the caribou lie dying.
So, I walked back towards the other knob on the northern edge of the saddle and told Hugh what'd happened. He said he thought I'd shot the caribou and then didn't know what was going on until he heard me yelling at some guy on top of the mountain. I told him we'd probably be best to look down in the valley on the northern side of the knob (away from the trail) so we wouldn't have to deal with anyone else. About 10-15 minutes into glassing, I spotted some caribou about 1000 yards away, almost to the bottom of this valley we were overlooking, on a small knoll down in the trees. We determined there were 3 shooters in the group and left everything but guns, a rangefinder, and binos on the side of the mountain and barely escaped with our lives after making it to the bottom of the mountain in what couldn't have been more than 5 minutes. If you look in the middle of this picture, you can see the little knob that we had to descend to in order to get a shot on the caribou, but, this was taken from about 3/4 of the way down the mountain so it doesn't really help with judging the distance.
Out of breath and running on adrenaline, we tucked up against a large rock to get a better look at the caribou. There were only 6 and 3 were indeed shooters. We quickly determined which 2 were the best and began to crawl into position to make the shot. Our plan was to do a 1 - 2 - 3 - BAM! When we judged them to be 178 yards, we both were in a prone position and they stopped and presented each of us with a quartering away shot. Just as designed, we counted 1 - 2 - 3 - BAM! Hugh's 7mm Rem Mag with a 168gr Berger VLD anchored his with the first shot. Mine was obviously hit, but we watched it for about 10 - 15 seconds and didn't see blood or any vapor from a lung wound. Knowing how easily he could cover hundreds of yards DOWNHILL in a matter of seconds, and heeding a buddy's advice that "bullets and taxidermy thread are cheap, shoot til they're down," I racked the bolt and put another one in him. A puff of vapor came out of his right side with each breath and I knew I'd hit lungs. He turned just a bit and Hugh and I could see, simultaneously, that both rounds had hit no more than 1 1/2" from each other (not bad from the infamously inaccurate Kimber Montana which I'd shortened the barrel to 20"). The first round ended up being a complete pass through and the second round lodged under the skin on the far side, each hitting both lungs. We retrieved that bullet and it was quite impressive; but, during the process of quartering and packing, we lost it. The second round anchored him and we'd done it. 2 wall hangers on the ground at 7:45 on opening morning. Here are a few pictures from when we walked up to the bulls...
Here's one with my notched tag in his antlers...
As we walked down to see the animals, it still hadn't occurred to us just what we'd done. Once we got there and looked over our shoulder, we realized that we were about 1 1/2 - 2 miles from camp and a mountain stood between us and camp. These were no small animals, so the grueling process of caping, quartering, and hauling all of this meat back to camp began. We quit on the first day at about 10:30 at night and had about 2/3 of the work done. We came back the next morning and started hauling meat again at about 10:00 AM and had it wrapped up and in camp by about 2:00 PM. It was some of the hardest work I've ever done, but in the end, it was definitely worth it. I have some great memories of the hunt, some great memories of Alaska, and a trophy to put on the wall in case I start to forget. We finally got all the meat and our camp packed out in two trips and back in the pickup truck at about 12:30 AM on Saturday and drove to Tok, AK and got a hotel room. We started the trip home Saturday morning and got home around 6:00 PM.
I hope you guys have enjoyed this little recap of the hunt. I've focused too much on waterfowl and missed countless opportunities to hunt some of North America's finest big game. At least I can say I had one really good hunt and notched my tag with an amazing bull that'll forever adorn a wall in my house and a chapter in my memories.