Caribou are one of the coolest big game animals you’ll ever hunt. A “here today, gone tomorrow” kind of creature, they live in some of the last true remaining wildernesses in North America. The word “caribou” is French-Canadian for wild reindeer, and there are five subspecies of caribou in North America recognized by the Boone and Crockett Club. These include the Alaska-Yukon barren ground caribou (rangifer tarandus granti), found only in the western Arctic region of Alaska and the northern part of the Yukon Territory; Central Canada barren ground caribou (rangifer tarandus groenlandicus), located on Baffin Island and the mainland of Northwest Territories, as well as in northern Manitoba; mountain caribou (rangifer tarandus caribou), the largest of all the North American caribou subspecies, which inhabits the mountain and valley regions of the northern Canadian provinces; woodland caribou (also rangifer tarandus caribou) are found in New Brunswick, Newfoundland and Nova Scotia; and Quebec-Labrador caribou (rangifer tarandus), a category established by B&C in 1968 and found only in Quebec and Labrador. And though B&C doesn’t recognize them, Safari Club International recognizes the Arctic Islands (Peary) caribou (rangifer tarandus pearyi), the smallest of the caribou subspecies that inhabits the Arctic islands of the Northwest Territories and Boothia Peninsula.
Out West, hunters primarily pursue three caribou subspecies. The largest antlered caribou of North America, barren ground caribou have long, rounded main beams with very long top points. They have the highest all-time record book minimum score of 400 points, and the world record measures an amazing 477 points. Mountain caribou are found in British Columbia, Alberta, southern Yukon Territory and the Mackenzie Mountains of Northwest Territories. They have an all-time record book minimum score of 390 points, and the world record scores 453 points. The B&C minimum score for Central Canada barren ground caribou is 360 points and the world record scores 4334/8 points.
Most caribou hunting is done well before the winter snows come, during August, September and October. In Alaska it’s possible—and not that uncommon—for U.S. residents to hunt caribou on their own, but U.S. hunters must be guided in Canada.
On unguided Alaska hunts, sportsmen are generally dropped off in good country by small aircraft, where they set up a tent camp and hunt on foot. It can be a grand adventure to be alone in the vast Alaska backcountry, just you and your buddies and the caribou, with perhaps a few moose, black bears and grizzly bears, and some small game and upland birds for company. For the skilled hunter in good physical condition, these hunts can be a wonderful experience and highly successful. I’ve done lots of them and have never been disappointed.
Guided Hunt Options
Though some clients book caribou-only hunts, many caribou hunts are part of a mixed bag adventure that includes hunting for moose, bears or mountain sheep. Depending on where and with whom you book, these hunts might be conducted on horseback, from a boat or after being dropped off by a small airplane. Camps range from comfy cabins to Spartan tents.
To give you an idea of what guided Western caribou hunts cost these days, I contacted booking agent Wade Derby of Crosshair Consulting (Box 864, Dept. NAH, Oakley, CA 94561; (925) 679-9232). Here’s what he said about the various hunts he books.
“One outfitter in Northwest Territories offers excellent hunting for Central Canada barren ground caribou from one of two base camps or spike camps, with daily hunts conducted by boat along a massive lake shore,” Derby said. “Once caribou are spotted, hunters pursue them on foot. Seven-day hunts take place from mid-August through late September. Each hunter has the option of a second caribou for a trophy fee and there’s also excellent fishing. Costs range from $4,000-$5,200.”
Here are a couple of Alaskan options. “In the Far North, the Western Arctic herd population is estimated at 550,000 animals; you can take two caribou on these hunts, with the option of a third, and 90 percent of the animals taken on these hunts score high enough for entry into either the SCI or B&C record books,” Derby said. “An 8-day caribou-only hunt runs $3,500.
“Another Alaska option takes place along the Holitna River, approximately 250 miles west of Anchorage,” Derby said. “Base camp consists of a modern lodge with all amenities, but the hunts are conducted from spike tent camps. These hunts can be physically demanding and clients need to be able to endure long hikes in varied terrain and conditions. Seven-day, one-on-one caribou hunts cost $4,500, or $3,500 for two-on-one hunts, and caribou can be combined with hunts for moose and brown bears.”
In the Yukon, mixed-bag hunting is common, and caribou are often included in hunts for moose, grizzlies and/or Dall’s sheep. “One outfitter we recommend uses horses, backpacking, river boats or canoes, with spike cabins used to house hunters on most trips except sheep hunts,” Derby said. “This area has one of the highest densities of Alaska-Yukon moose and offers a great chance at high-quality caribou. Ten-day, caribou-only hunts cost $8,000, but if you add caribou to another species the cost is only a couple thousand dollars more.”
Northwestern British Columbia’s Cassiar Mountains are known for excellent mixed-bag hunting, including some top-end mountain caribou. “Here hunters arrive in base camp via air charter and are transported by horseback or boat to their hunting areas,” Derby said. “Mountain caribou-only hunts cost $6,250, while combination moose/caribou hunts cost $9,050 and mountain goat/caribou combinations run $8,550.”
Guns And Gear
Though each caribou hunt is a unique experience requiring specialized gear, there are some generalities. Caribou aren’t difficult to kill, and flat-shooting rifles from .25-06 Rem. up through the various .300 magnums topped with high-quality 3-9X or 2.5-10X scopes are perfect. Bowhunters should carry the same setup they use for deer, though keep in mind shots at less than 40 yards are hard to come by. In-line .45 or .50 caliber muzzleloaders shooting any of a number of today’s premium saboted bullets will do the job. Top-quality 8-10X binoculars and spotting scopes with top-end power of at least 45X are essential. A laser rangefinder is always welcome.
You’ll want to layer your clothing, beginning with a wicking undergarment like Under Armour and then adding layers of fleece or natural wool that retain insulation when wet. I like fleece because it dries relatively quickly. The very best rain gear you can afford is crucial. I’ve worn packable Gore-Tex rain suits in the Far North for 20 years and would never choose anything else. A ball cap and warm stocking cap along with some warm gloves will keep your head and hands warm, and a pair of well-broken-in waterproof, breathable hiking boots and, in some cases, an ankle-fit hip boot, are required. And you can never have enough dry socks!
For early season hunts, don’t forget the bug dope and/or a head net because insects can be brutal. A compact GPS unit is a great tool for marking downed animals in case you can’t pack them all out in a single trip, and for finding camp or the boat after a long hike over flat, featureless terrain.
Caribou hunting is a great first Far North trip. Generally speaking, there are plenty of animals, the hunting doesn’t usually involve a death march, success rates are high and the fun factor can be off the charts. Be sure to plan carefully and allow enough time for delays due to bad weather, and chances are good you’ll experience a hunt that will give you a lifetime of wonderful memories.