Caribou Hunting 2007
I wanted to write an article on our drop-hunt caribou trip experience for those of you who are considering hunting the Western Artic Caribou Herd (WACH). Now that all of the meat is in the freezer and the salami is in the smoker I have a few minutes (hours) to sit down and write about our experience. Overall the trip was excellent. This was my second WACH hunt and by far the better of the two.
Planning for this trip started in November 2006. After our experience with the air transporter we used in September of that year I wanted to look around and do a little research and book with another transporter. It's a good thing because the outfit we used last year is not flying this year. In 2006, Northern Air Trophy (NAT), owned and operated by Matt and Julie Owen, had piles of antlers stacked up at the airport in Kotzebue. That alone told me these people knew what they were doing and their hunters were very successful. So I posted a few inquiries on some of the message boards specific to Alaska hunting and received a mixture of good and not so good reviews of NAT. The good reviews way out numbered the bad; so I decided what the heck and booked with them for 14 thru 21 September 2007.
Originally, my brother-in-law from Florida was supposed to come up and go on this hunt with me. Things did not work out for him and he cancelled early. Boy did he miss out.. My wife said that she would go in his place if he backed out; but, then she got tagged to deploy. So I called my buddy Joe and he gladly accepted the invite and we sent off our deposit to secure the dates.
Winter turned to spring and spring to summer. Between the fishing trips and when ever we had a spare moment we would run up to Birchwood and shoot at the range. I broke out my reloading gear and found a nice load for both of our .300 win mags. Joe bought a new Remington model 700 for the trip and I was going to take my lucky Browning A-Bolt. My riffle has put a lot of meat in the freezer over the years and I am very confident in my shooting abilities with it. So that was a no brainer to take it. Joe was shooting Nosler Accubond 180 gr bullets and I, Hornady Interbond 180 gr bullets. Both loads were being pushed by 73.5 grains of RL22 powder. I've shot Accubonds before; but, for what they cost, the Hornady Interbonds perform just as well. I think I bought a box of 100 for what a box of 50 Noslers cost.
Anyway, so our rifles were sighted in and bags almost packed. Joe brought his gear over the weekend before we were scheduled to depart. I messed around with all of the gear several nights after work to ensure we were not going to exceed our weight limit. The weight limit for us was 100 pounds per person. This was somewhat of a concern to me as we were allowed to take 3 checked bags each on the Alaska Airlines flight to Kotzebue. I ended up assembling our luggage in 1 hard sided gun case, 2 back packs and 3 military flyers bags. I decided to take the 3rd flyers bag to put our hip boots in and to store our dry/clean clothes for the return trip to Anchorage.
The big day arrived. I got up at 3:20 AM to get ready and left the house by 3:45 to go and pick up Joe. We both worked the evening before so we were only running on a few hours of sleep. He was ready and waiting outside when I pulled up. We were off to the Airport. I put the truck in the Diamond long term parking area and we took a shuttle with all of our gear to the terminal.
Checking in with Ak Airlines was painless. The only thing was that I forgot to put a lock on the gun case so I had to run over to the news stand and buy another one for $10. Yeah, make sure you bring a lock from home.
The flight pulled away from the gate promptly at 6:00 AM and we were on our way to Kotzebue. We touched down around 7:20 and had all of our gear by 8:00. It would have been nice to catch a short cat nap but we were both spun up and excited to finally be on our way for our hunt.
Julie met us at the terminal and we put all of the gear in her truck. She said there was a backlog of 11 people to get out to the field because of the weather they had during the two previous days and they would do their best to get us out. However, it would be late in the day. She dropped us off at the Bayside Inn so we could get a bite to eat and said she would return in about an hour.
For those of you who have never been to Kotzebue it's a different place. Expect to pay a little more for everything as it's a long way from anywhere and the cost to bring stuff in directly affects the price you pay. Unleaded gas was $5.50 a gallon for example. Actually, I did not think that was too bad as I heard some of the communities in the bush are paying $7.00 a gallon. So we had a big breakfast (I think we each had omelets, hash browns, toast and coffee) which came up to $35 for the both of us. We figured that was going to be the last hot breakfast for a while so the price did not really bother us.
Breakfast hit the spot and I had to go to the A/C Store to pick up a few items. So we walked there from the inn (about a 10 minute walk). Julie picked us up on our way back to the inn and took us over to the bunkhouse to hang out. That was great! It sure beat sitting on the airfield. We were dry and out of the wind. There were several other hunters waiting to go in the field there too. Some had spent the night there. That notion kind of lowered our spirits as the wind was still blowing pretty good and we did not see many flight taking off or returning to the airport.
So we pretty much spent the day watching TV, sipping coffee and BS'ing with a group of hunters from Texas. Like I mentioned before, it beat the heck out of sitting out on the airfield waiting. At this point we did not know if we were going to make it out to the field or not.
Around 3:30 Julie pulled up and told us to get our stuff and we were moving to the airfield. Sweet! That must have meant we were going to get out! We hung out near their airfield operation the remainder of the day. It was starting to get late and I seriously doubted that we were going to be dropped in the field. Then around 7:45 PM Matt walks over to me, between his flights (he was one busy dude that day), and tells me were are up next; but, Eric would be flying us out. I wasn't too sure who Eric was; but, that worked for us and we got our gear squared away and ready to be loaded on the plane.
About an hour later our gear was loaded in Eric's 206 and we were off. We followed Matt in his 180 the entire way to our landing strip (he had a load of hunters too). I am assuming that Matt must have radioed Eric to tell him where to set us down at. Regardless, Eric landed the 206 on the mountain top like a pro and there we were the place we'd call home for the next week.
By now it was easily 9:30 and starting to get dark. We had to set up camp and get water before calling it a night. We found a somewhat level and protected spot to set the tent up and finished off the site with a camp shovel. We were styling compared to the previous year as I did not bring a shovel on the last hunt. I slept for a week on uneven ground and that really sucked. The tent was pitched and secured and next was to get water for the next day.
We grabbed the water jugs and walked down the hill to the north of the ridge we were camped on. There was a nice little creek that had clear running water in it. We filled the containers and hauled them back up the hill to the camp so I could get them treated. I have a MSR pen purifier and brought salt from last year.. Buy new salt as I had a hell of a time getting it to work correctly. Each time I would run through a cycle the low salt light would come on. The only thing I could figure out was that the salt must have crystallized and was having trouble mixing with the water. Eventually I got enough brine solution made to treat one of the 5 gallon jugs and we called it a night close to 11:00 pm. What a long day!
Hunting Day One
We woke up around 8:30 and I told Joe to go and scout the ridges around the camp to see if there were any caribou close to camp before I started making lots of noise with making breakfast. While he was out I made up a pot of coffee and had a cup or two. Joe comes back pretty excited and says he spotted about 40 head of bou just up the valley from camp. He told me there were some nice bulls in with this heard so we opted for a quick power bar breakfast and were on our way.
We got situated on an adjacent ridge and started glassing this heard. By now there were only about 2 dozen in view but there was one whopper bull amongst a band of 8 bulls situated on the middle of a plateau between 2 creek drainages. I estimated them to be about 800 yards from this spot and knew that was too far and we'd have to come up with a different plan of attack.
After studying the lay of the land for a while I came up with a plan to drop down into another drainage and to come up below the base of a mountain about 3/4 of a mile to the west. There were some rock out croppings that would provide us with some cover and possibly a good shooting platform.
It took us about an hour to get into position and the bulls were about 400 yards away from my estimation. Being that this was Joe's first caribou hunt I told him he'd have first shot. The whopper bull I mentioned was still there bedded down. You could see his antlers clearly from our position without binoculars and he had very nice tops, big bezs and a large shovel. We scoped them for quite some time and finally he was ready to take the shot. I told him that if he missed I was going to take the follow up on the big bull. He steadied himself on my shooting sticks as I lay in a prone position waiting for his shot.
Bam! Joe shoots. The bull did not flinch and just stood there. I told him he missed and that I was going to take the follow up. I put my cross hairs about 12"above the bull's front shoulders and gently squeezed my trigger; Bam! My A-bolt barked (it has the BOSS on it and is very loud) and the bull fell like a ton of bricks in his tracks. Sweet!
I was curious as to how accurate I was in judging the distance so I marked the spot we fired from with my GPS. While I was doing that, the other bulls just meandered away over the ridge line like nothing really happened. There were several other shooters in the bunch but the one I had just dropped was the grand daddy of that bunch.
We walk up to the bull and boy was he a dandy! He was larger than the two I took last year so I was very happy. I told Joe to take a walk over the ridge to see if he could catch up with the other bulls while I dressed this one out. I marked this spot and it was a 450 yard shot. As I was dressing it out I hear Joe shoot again. Excellent, I thought to myself, he must have dropped another one. He did.
His had a very beautiful rack that was almost symmetrical. It had nice perfect double shovels, even bezs, kickers and palmated tops. It was a nice one for his first ever caribou.
So at this point, it's around noon. We have two bulls down, dressed out and are about 1 & 1/2 mile from camp. For those of you who have hunted up there you know that the terrain can be a pain in the butt to walk across. The tussocks are hard enough to walk across with out a pack full of meat. We had about 1/3 of a mile of muskeg to walk across before we got to higher ground at which point the walking was easier.
Unfortunately, the pack frames, game bags and saw were at camp. So we headed back to pick that stuff up and grabbed a quick bite to eat. Now I am sure everyone has heard the saying that the work begins after you pull the trigger. Well let me tell you what, packing these two bulls out really reiterated that saying to us and the last pack trip out we swore not to shoot anything that far away from camp again. It was a real chore to get both animals back to camp, but we did it.
It took us 3 trips each to get everything back not including the empty run back to get the frames. So on day one (if my math is right), we each walked over 12 miles! 4 1/2 miles of that were with full packs of meat. It was around 8:00 pm when we got back with our last loads and we were both beat.
Dinner consisted of Mt House meals and a cup of coffee. I wasn't really ready to hit the sack so I asked Joe if he wanted to walk to the south and glass to see what was in the valley below us. We walked over to the edge of the mountain and could easily see 5 miles in all directions. Besides the 500 or so head of bou spread out across the valley, He spotted a grizzly below us but it would have been a good 2 mile hike down the mountain and across the river to get into a position to shoot and we decided we had enough hiking for one day with hopes it would be there the next day. That was a wrap for day one and we slept well that night!
Hunting Day two
We woke up around 7:00, feeling the prior days pack. I know my calves were burning so I took an aspirin and that made things better. Joe and I had breakfast and decided we would look over the top again and see if we could spot the bear from the evening prior. We headed due south to the bottom where we seen a cow and a calf grazing in the river bottom. I suggested that we split up and he go back to the top and I would work my way around the base of the mountain and back up to where he would be glassing at, the same place we seen the bear the prior evening.
I met back up with Joe about an hour later and neither of us seen anything. We decided to head north and skirt the base of another mountain to get a view of some large stretches of muskeg that we could not see from the mountain top because of a ridge line that ran south to north.
There was a decent sized herd bedded down out in the middle of this large tract of muskeg. At the time they were at least a mile away and after yesterday's pack we decided to watch them for a bit to see what they were going to do. From where we were, we spotted a nice bull. He was a shooter but again too far away to put a stalk on him. This herd bedded down and after an hour of watching them we decided to head back to camp.
We got back to camp and made some coffee and lunch and Joe says there is a herd coming right from where we were glassing earlier. Sure enough, there was a herd of about 20 working their way right to our camp. At first a small bull and 2 pairs of cows and calves came within 50 yards of us sitting in camp eating lunch and drinking coffee. We joked that if they got to the top of the hill (same elevation as the camp) I would take one as it would be an easy pack to the meat pole. Having taken a large bull the day before, I was happy with harvesting a meat bull or cow. This first group of bou winded us and high tailed it back to the main herd which took off like a streak of lightening to the west.
About 10 minutes later, here comes another small group of bou right for the camp again. This time they are getting real close. From where I was sitting I could see antlers starting to break the hill not 10 yards away from us! I decided this was going to be too easy and worked my way towards this group of caribou coming right for us. They winded me and ran down the hill a bit and stopped about 60 yards away and I let one have it dropping it in its tracks. Joe got the whole thing on video, it was kind of cool.
After I shot, here comes more caribou from across the valley and lone and behold the shooter bull I mentioned earlier was with this herd and they were working the ridge line to the west. We thought they were going to come across and to the camp again but they did not. So rather than mess with the one I just shot and chance scaring the bull away for Joe, we sneaked to the west to get in a good position and to close the distance between us and them. From camp they were a good 1/2 mile away.
Within 20 minutes they were within to what I estimated to be 500 yards and the cows were headed to the north over the top of the ridge. The bull was about 50 yards behind them and I told Joe it was totally up to him as this was going to be the only shot he could take at this animal before it was out of sight.
He asked about where I thought he should hold over its back and I told him to hold it 18" high and let her rip. I was watching in the spotting scope to see if he were to hit or miss it. He took a few minutes to take a good solid aim and squeezed the trigger. Bam! I watched the whole thing through my spotting scope. The bull dropped in an instant in his tracks. Unbelievable! That was a long shot and he dropped the animal with one shot. Good job Joe! I marked this location too because I wanted to know how far it was. I will tell you I was a little off in estimating the yardage of this shot but will get to that in a bit.
So he went off to grab his pack and things and headed to his bull and I went and dressed the cow I had shot earlier. I met up with him about 30 minutes latter with my pack ready to start hauling quarters back to camp. This pack wasn't too bad, mostly down hill. Between him and I we were able to get his out in one pack load each. It was a heavy pack; but again, we did it. I marked the spot where his bull fell and would you believe it was 633 yards?? Unbelievably good shooting on his part. His bullet did not exit the animal as we found it yesterday when we were cutting up meat. That has to be the max killing range for a .300 Win Mag. I have yet to look at the ballistics to see what kind of energy a bullet still has at that range but it was enough to take that bull down. Anyway, we got his meat hanging on the meat pole and then we went back to my cow and got it into game bags and made the 100 yard pack to the meat pole. So by 4:30 pm on Day two we had each taken 2 caribou and had all meat back in camp.
Now what do we do for the next 5 days? We each had 3 more tags on us but did not know what we were going to do with all of that meat so we quit hunting caribou. It was that or pay $400/hour to get more than the 4 animals back to Kotzebue. We decided to call Julie and see if an early pick up was possible. This would give us time to process all of the meat before the weekend once we got back home.
Julie told me to call her back at 9:00 the next morning for a definite answer on getting out early. So I went and cut some firewood and we made a small fire to chill out by for the rest of the day.