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Dec 18 , 2016

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Caribou Hunting on Top of the World

by Frank Ross
Caribou Hunting on Top of the World

From the air, Canada's Arctic Tundra looks like a vast, barren wasteland, but like so many assessments from a distance; nothing could be further from the truth. It had been a marathon effort but I was finally aboard a twin-engine otter en route from Yellowknife to a camp near the Arctic Circle.

Somehow it seemed apropos to be disembarking on the hunt of my lifetime from a town in the Northwest Territories named Yellowknife. Peering down as we flew just above the tundra, I watched, transfixed on the landscape, as we made our way northeast for the 225-mile hop that would take me to fishing and hunting Nirvana.

The Aylmer Lake Lodge is the last lodge outbound from Yellowknife, situated on a huge lake and surrounded by thousands of miles of pristine shoreline dotted with caribou, bear, musk ox and the occasional wolf. Somewhere in the distance, unseen at the moment, two herds of caribou collectively numbering over 600,000 animals were descending on our intended area. All I wanted was one record book bull, a few big lake trout, and a small ration of grayling. I reasoned that wasn't too much to expect from an area with so much game and a lake that was virtually untouched. After my two-day travel odyssey, I would have 6 days to create some magical memories and hopefully realize all of my hunting and fishing dreams.

As we clipped along, I tossed my backpack onto one of two 55-gallon drums of diesel fuel that were being delivered to the camp along with a load of groceries, pop and beer. This week's guests at the lodge included two father-son teams, Harry Heersema who just wanted to fish and myself. After seeing where we were headed, on the huge wall map at Air Tindi, the area seemed so vast that I wasn't concerned about hunting pressure. It looked like we would all have several hundred square miles to cover without ever seeing another human.

Denver hunter Greg Gray points to our ultimate destination.
Denver hunter Greg Gray points to
our ultimate destination.

Our departure from Yellowknife had been delayed for five hours due to a storm front that was rocking the area with high winds. Since this was my first float plane ride, I didn't mind the wait, even though I was pacing the floor with anxiety to get there. The hour and 40 minute flight went quickly, as we all strained our eyes looking for caribou. When one was sighted, a shout would go up over the drone of the Otter's two massive engines, and we all craned our necks to catch a glimpse.

As we unloaded our gear from the plane, a boisterous group of hunters were gathered to depart, hefting impressive racks and sporting tall tales of their adventure. Our host, Alan Rebane, was there to see the previous group off and meet us at the dock.

Since we arrived later than expected, on Saturday afternoon, the bulk of the remaining daylight hours were spent getting settled into our cabins and making sure we would be ready to go the next morning. After we stowed our gear in comfortable cabins and enjoyed a hearty meal, Alan met with our group to give us the lowdown on the area, the animals and what we could expect as well as what was expected of us. The instructions were simple. "Listen to your guide, don't shoot the bears, or wolves and have a great time." No problem here!

Alan laid out the caribou lifecycle and showed us on the map how it all came together. "We're in an ideal location. We're situated in the center of three migrating herds that pass this through area on their way to the tree line where they winter. The Beverly herd has about 275,000 animals, the Bathurst herd numbers 425,000, and the Queen Maud herd is the smallest with 175,000 to 225,000 animals according to our regional biologist. I've spotted the herds from the air. They're starting to mass up, but the bulk of the animals haven't made it this far yet. Actually, most guys prefer to hunt this part of the season where they can target individual bulls or small groups, instead of trying to pick one out of a herd of a thousand animals. We're seeing small groups of caribou, with some good bulls in several areas. Caribou travel about 30 kilometers a day and it won't be long before the large herds show up. It's just a question of where and when," he said.

Sunday morning dawned overcast and drab with heavy, dark clouds covering the sky from horizon to horizon on all compass points. However, the winds had died down and the day promised to be manageable. Everyone wanted to test fire their rifles prior to the moment of truth. After firing a few rounds through our rifles, to make sure that they hadn't been knocked out of line during their several baggage transfers and customs inspections we all felt confident that we wouldn't be able to blame our equipment for missed shots. For this hunt, I decided to use the new Howa Lightning .243, equipped with Cabela's new Alaskan Outfitter 4-12 AO scope. The first 100-grain round I squeezed into the target hit the bull's eye and I breathed a sigh of relief. Now all I had to do was find the right bull.

Guide Greg Rebane mans the helm on our first day's hunt.
Guide Greg Rebane mans the
helm on our first day's hunt.

Threatening skies hung ominously, draped with racing clouds that seemed to emulate the migrating caribou. Even if it did rain I had Cabela's MTO-50 raingear, so my guide and I headed for the long row of 16-foot Lunds that lined the shoreline. Greg Rebane, our outfitter's eldest son, was to be my guide for the week. Gregg Severinson, of Cabela's Outdoor Adventures told me that he was one of the best guides in Canada, and it didn't take long for me to figure out why. He was courteous, intently interested in providing a top quality adventure and an exceptional companion. He's a lad, of 26 years, tipping the scales at a solid 240 football-tested pounds. After sizing him up, it occurred to me that he was going to be valuable in two areas. First, for packing out the caribou and secondly, if we were surprised by a grizzly all I had to do was outrun Greg -not the bear.

Caribou use the water as a safety net. While they are forced to navigate many hundreds of miles of open ground, when they stop to rest it is usually near the water's edge. If a prowling wolf or bear threatens them, they simply bound to the water's edge and swim away. "The water is a caribou's second home," Greg explained. "They can swim great distances. The program we will be working to locate bulls is intended to cover as much ground as possible by boat, spot likely bulls and then put on a stalk to get within range."

We hadn't gone but a few miles from camp when Greg spotted our first bull. "There's a nice one," he said as I struggled to find it in the mire of a mottled landscape. Young eyes definitely have the advantage here I thought to myself, but I later learned that Greg wore glasses, that is until he dropped them into the lake. With a non-stop, 12-week stint at the lodge, he was going to have to wait to replace them and compensated by watching for movement with his binoculars.

Bear berries are abundant, growing from small sprigs.
Bear berries are abundant,
growing from small sprigs.

From a distance, the land appears brown and dull, and the bulls simply blend into a narrow swath of muted tones that separates water and sky. As you draw nearer the shoreline the actual colors are revealed. Wild blue berries, arctic cranberries, bear berries and other species grow everywhere. The dwarf foliage sports hues of bright red, purple and every subtle nuance of green that creating a 70's paisley tie effect.

Greg cut the throttle on his 25-horse Mercury outboard and drifted toward shore as we both glassed the bull. I had prepped Greg with my expectations for the bull that I wanted to take. I had set 340 points as my minimum trigger point. This bull had a nice top spread, with some palmation, and a single shovel but it's bezels were modest and the width between its main beams was too narrow. This time of year the bulls were still in velvet and that made their antlers look even larger. As I anxiously examined the bull, awestruck by its massive size and rack, Greg passed the verdict, "this is definitely a Wednesday or Thursday bull, but it's certainly not a shooter today. It'll probably score in the high 200's, maybe 300, is my guess," he said. I looked back several times as we motored away, excited to see such an impressive animal so soon, but hoping that I wouldn't regret having passed this one up. Even if it had been a bigger bull, I don't think I could have shot the first bull we saw, only twenty minutes into a week long hunt.

As we rounded a large point on our right Greg cut the engine and pointed to a ridge fringed with rocks. "There's the group of bears dad chased away from our lodge last week. It's very unusual to see adult male grizzlies traveling together and four hanging out as a group is very rare," he said. I frantically scoured the shore with my 12 x 50 binoculars, anxious to see such a rare sight. Finally, after looking further to the right, they loomed large against the barren ground. All four were busy eating ripe berries as they worked down an incline toward the water. I toyed with the idea of getting closer for photos, but reluctantly decided to push onward and take care of the number one business at hand, unaware that this quartet would come back into our lives at a much closer distance, drawn by the smell of fresh caribou meat.

By early afternoon we had made our way to the area where early arriving bulls had been seen in good numbers, at the far Western end of Aylmer Lake. Along the way we spotted several cows and small bulls and another good bull that fell short of my expectations. Making our way to a tall, island promontory we spotted what appeared to be one big bull and two cows. Upon closer inspection, with the 20-60 x 70 spotting scope, we realized that we had two nice bulls and one cow, and one bull was definitely worth a closer look. We quickly made our way back to the boat and crossed to an advantage point that would enable us to cut him off as he ambled along, grazing heartily in preparation for winter. We rounded a point and spotted him working his way along the lake's shoreline, nibbling as he walked. Suddenly he stopped and stuck his head into a stand of tall grass, then laid down behind it. The situation looked ideal for a stalk, even if it was over a mile to where he lay.

Greg landed the boat as quietly as possible, amid a spread of large boulders. After wedging the bow between two of the biggest rocks we quickly made our way to the top of a ridge, keeping our heads below the horizon line, and moved to within several hundred yards, glassing every time we stopped. All we could see was the top of his rack, and he was definitely staying put. By the time we got within 100 yards the only thing between us and him was a large marsh which we negotiated easily. I slogged through the ankle deep water trying not to arouse the bull with a splash, thankful for the waterproof boots I'd decided to bring. According to Greg, this normally arid area had received more rain in the last few weeks than the previous four years combined.

One of the many bulls I chose to pass on.
One of the many bulls I chose
to pass on.

Just as we closed on the last few yards Greg whistled to get the bull to stand up. He stood, craned his neck over the tops of the brush that line the shoreline and stared back at us with eyes that seemed only mildly interested. He half trotted up the adjacent rise and moved to our right as we quickly tried to assess his rack. "Nope, a nice bull, but this isn't the one you're looking for," he said. Man-o-man, was I nuts? This was a major bull. As it trotted slowly around the hill to wind us, I struggled with my self-imposed criteria. Sensing my dilemma, Greg offered council, "A lot of guys come up here and shoot a bull half this size because it looks so much bigger than the whitetails they are used to seeing. One guy last week shot what dad calls a peanut bull, but he was very happy with it. It's up to you," he said. "It's definitely a nice bull, just not one that would measure to what you're looking for. But, keep in mind that I'm just giving you a ballpark estimate. It's impossible to call it for sure. There are so many variables. One guy took a bull last year that looked average, but when we measured it out there were around 20 points on each shovel and all of those count toward the final score. His bull scored 417. This one's not in that class. I'd guess it would be somewhere barely over 300, but we won't know for sure until it's on the ground and then it's a done deal," he added.

The bull was as curious about us as we were about him, and as he circled to make his escape he came to within 75 yards and stopped several times, giving us an impressive broadside. What to do, what to do? Reluctantly, I passed again. While the other hunters in camp had two tags, I only had one chance to make the right decision. With two tags you have a second chance to redeem yourself after taking a lesser animal. With only one tag, pushing the safety off was all that more difficult.

Making our way back along the lake we noticed large trout feeding on the surface. Greg asked if I wanted to catch one? I didn't have my fishing gear with me, so he handed me his rod that was always at the ready. Spotting a fish rising, I cast a large Daredevil five of diamonds spoon and retrieved it slowly to no avail. Again it rose to feed on small bugs that dotted the surface. This time I cast beyond its swirl and made a slow retrieve. In the crystal clear water, I saw a white flash surge upward and the struggle was on. In a few minutes I had landed a nice lake trout in the 6-8 pound class. Going for a quick release, I grabbed the spoon and hefted it for a photo. With a quick, violent flop the fish was back in the water, and just as quickly it was gone. "That was almost too easy," I said. "Let's get back to the big boys, I'll get serious about the fish after we've got a bull on the boards."

When we arrived back in camp for the evening meal, there were three bulls hanging in the meat shed. Greg Gray and Steve Bratu both tagged nice bulls and 16-year-old Marcus Bratu, had bagged the best bull of the day. His father Steve was elated. This father-son hunting-duo had just recently returned from an African safari and Marcus also had several big Michigan whitetails to his credit, so he took bagging a bigger bull than his dad in stride, sporting a modest wide grin. I had seen over 30 caribou and passed on three 300-class bulls. What a way to start a hunt. It was nerve racking, with the pall of potential bad weather hanging in the air, but thrilling at the same time.

After a quick photo, this 50-pound laker went back into the lake.
After a quick photo, this 50-pound
laker went back into the lake.

On our arrival, Alan warned us about losing days to weather, noting that it had snowed two inches on August first, and the previous group had lost two days to high winds and rain. This thought haunted every decision that I made. Monday morning, just as Alan had warned, we awoke to bad weather. Since part of my mission was to produce good photographs to illustrate this piece, I decided to fish instead of hunt. We set out to test the lake trout and by 10 a.m. I had landed several small fish (if you call eight to 12 pounds small) and one 50-pound monster. The fishing was unbelievable but I longed to get back to the caribou.

That night we went to bed, exhausted by 9 p.m., with a howling wind coming out of the southeast. Sometime during the night I was awakened by increased wind and driving rain that sounded like an angry woodpecker pelting the stovepipe and windows of my cabin. It'll pass, I told myself as I lay back down, but it didn't. After breakfast, we sat in the lodge and played monopoly until noon. After a soup and sandwich lunch the winds had subsided somewhat and we went back out in a blow that whipped up the occasional whitecap on Rocknest Bay. Compared to the torrents we watched all morning, it seemed inconsequential, but beyond the narrows, as we made our way into the main lake, two-foot swells tested our resolve. Good rain gear and waterproof everything is mandatory for this trip. This too was another day of passing as I tallied another half dozen bulls in the almost column.

By Wednesday, we had located dozens of nice bulls that were "almost" and I was getting very anxious about getting my trophy. This was the fourth day of the hunt, and the pressure was beginning to mount. If we got hit with more bad weather I was going to be strung out beyond measure. Our destination for this day's hunt was the Clinton-Colden area east and south of the lodge, approximately two hours by boat. As we made our way across the lake it became increasingly obvious that we weren't going to reach our primary destination. At this point in the hunt everyone but Steve Bratu and I had tagged out. We were the lone holdouts.

Steve and Marcus Bratu pose with Steve's trophy.
Steve and Marcus Bratu pose with
Steve's trophy.

Steve owns and operates a hardwood lumber milling operation on Lake Superior, and curiously enough was limping badly from a serious fall that he had taken while running to a safety meeting, of all things. In April, he had broken both bones in his ankle and was currently recovering with a steel plate and nine screws that were holding his ankle together. Though he had a very prominent limp, he was very game, making repeated stalks up and down the hills.

Halfway across a large bay we wisely split our forces and each boat took a side, agreeing to work our way to the end and reconnoiter if we were unsuccessful. Almost immediately, we spotted a lone bull, lying at the crest of a ridge, but it too fell short of the mark.

As we made our way back toward the main bay we spotted Greg's younger brother Tristan, guiding the Bratu party. They were heading our way at full steam, disregarding the shallow water and numerous rocks. When we were within hailing distance it became readily apparent that they weren't on a lark. Over the din of two churning outboards, Tristen called, "Did you see those three big bulls?" We hadn't seen them, and fell in behind as Steve shouted that they were making their way to this side of the point to cut them off. Just as we spun our boat around Steve's arm shot up and pointed off to our right. Not three, but eleven caribou were making tracks in our direction, moving very fast. A quick head count revealed seven bulls and four cows, and at least two were 350 plus. My time had come, but Steve would get first choice since they had spotted them first.

At full throttle we surged ahead of the oncoming animals, but they quickly closed the gap and as I looked toward the shore the lead bull was even with our boat. Slowly we gained ground and as we jarred our way onto the rock-strewn shoreline I was out of the boat right behind Steve.

My bull was on the ground at last.
My bull was on the ground at last.

Things were happening too fast for me. I felt very uncomfortable with the situation, needing to wait until he took his shot. I worried about picking out the right bull and was concerned they would bolt once a shot was fired, but the bulls were here and my week was rapidly evaporating. I dropped to my knees and took up a position just to the left of Steve and steadied my rifle on shooting sticks. Suddenly a large bull popped over the rise just in front of us, then two more broke the horizon. A forest of big antlers broke the featureless sky. "Have you picked out one?" Greg whispered to Steve. He quickly replied that he would take the one in the middle. The bull to the right wasn't one of the three largest that I had seen, but it looked huge in my scope, even at a variable 8 power. The rest of the group was somewhere behind the rise. Would they show? Had they broke and run? I quickly tried to compare this bull to what we had seen up to that point. There was definitely at least one shovel, two back scratchers that were important to the score, and at first glance the tops looked impressive.

Greg asked me which one I wanted. "The one on the right," I replied. Steve's 7 mm barked and his bull turned away from the ridge. Seconds later I was still trying to decide what to do. The bulls stood there in what seemed like a slow motion time warp. There he was, a beautiful bull standing broadside in my scope, but I was pretty sure it wouldn't be the 340-plus that I set my sights on. Where was the other big bull I wondered? He was nowhere to be seen, and my mind was in a whirl, bad weather, two days left, nice bull and he was just standing there.....Bang!

I hit him hard, just behind the shoulder with a 100-grain .243. He walked slowly over a ridge and Steve shouted, "he's up and moving, hit him again." A second round placed just above the first dropped him instantly and the deed was done. My bull was on the ground and the illusive monster bull we had seen was gone forever.

After a brief photo session, I tried to assist Greg as he skillfully worked to cape and field dress the animal, but I was mesmerized by the massive velvet rack that lay before me. This one wouldn't make Pope and Young's treasure trove, but that was all right by me. This hunt will be in my record book forever in the "far beyond fantastic" category.

The thrill of stalking huge caribou was over. Now I could get back to those big lake trout, and there was a grayling stream waiting that hadn't been fished in two years. What an adventure this was turning out to be!