Some caribou migrates more than 3,000 miles each year—farther than any other land animal. They travel in herds every fall and spring from their wintering to their calving grounds and arrive just in time to think about heading back.
It’s hooves are wide, concave, and act like snowshoes, distributing the animal’s weight on snow, ice, and melted muskeg. These hooves also work like paddles when it needs to swim across fast-flowing rivers or even large lakes. But they don’t slow the animals down. It has been recorded running faster than 50 miles per hour.
Caribou Never Stop Moving
This is not the wiliest game animals a man can hunt, but that doesn’t make them easy prey. First, you have to find them. Then you have to decide whether or not to wait to shoot a trophy. You can’t pattern this because it never stays in one place. The herd you’re stalking today might be miles and miles away from the next. If you see a bull you like, pull the trigger, because you never know what tomorrow will bring.
Bring the Right Optics
Unless you’re a bush pilot, the hardest part of hunting caribou will be finding the herd. Bring high-power binoculars (at least 10 × 42) and carry a spotting scope. Make sure to use top-quality glass or you’ll lose your ability to hunt during the morning and evening hours.
Don’t Spook the Herd
When you’re sneaking up on a bull, keep track of another caribou. They seem to float in from nowhere just when you want to move. Though caribou won’t get away like a whitetail buck when you surprise them at a distance, they will jog off and take another caribou with them. Then you have two options: Stay put and hope they stop so that you can stalk them again, or run after them. In my experience, spooked caribou seldom give you an easy second hunt.
How to Field-Judge an Antlers
When trying to guess the length of a caribou’s antlers, use the animal’s shoulder as a measuring stick. Most shoulders will be between 48 and 54 inches high. Look for antlers with curved main beams, which will generally be both longer and wider than straight ones (though they may look shorter from the side). A trophy animal’s shovels will be broad, have multiple points, and extend far out over the muzzle. Kicker points, the spikes that grow off the back of a caribou’s antlers, will add to the score, as will palmation and extra points at the tops.
How to Read a Caribou’s Body Language
When it’s not distressed, they walk quite gradually, expanding the head forward and downward. When alarmed, it performs a special behavior to warn another caribou of danger. They’ll do this if a predator gets too close, but isn’t about to catch them (or after they figure out that you’re a person sitting on a rock). The troubled caribou will run with the head held high and parallel to the land, and the small, generally floppy tail held up in the air.
A Good Gun for Caribou
While a good shot won’t need more than a .270 to take down a thin-skinned animal like a caribou, the animals are much larger-bodied than most whitetail deer. It can help to shoot a bigger gun when you’re reaching out to knock one down at the long ranges you’ll often find when hunting in the tundra. One great caribou cartridge is the .338 Win Mag. Loaded with a 200-grain bullet, the cartridge will hit three inches high at 100 yards. Elmer Keith loved this chambering for both caribou and elk, and you will, too.
Winterize Your Caribou Gun
Always make sure to keep your gun clean, moisture-free, and either grease-free or treated with synthetic lube designed to function in extreme freezing temperatures. The last thing you want when firing your rifle at a caribou after a long, freezing, late-season stalk is for the hammer, firing pin, or trigger to malfunction because your gun’s oil congealed in the cold.
Don’t Put Wet Bullets into a Freezing-Cold Rifle
Always carefully clean any cartridges you’ve dropped on the ground if you’re hunting in the far north during the late season. They make pick up moisture that causes them to freeze to the inside your gun’s chamber, reducing your expensive rifle to a single-shot firearm.