2015 AK caribou hunt
Itís been said that when you hunt caribou on the Dalton highway, itís either feast or famine. In 2014 we experienced famine conditions for 6 solid days and only by pure luck were able to fill 2 out of 3 tags on the last day of our hunt. However, this year we enjoyed an incredible feast! Joining me this year was a friend of a friend (Nash) from Tucson and my good buddy (Dan) who lives in Fairbanks. Nash is an accomplished bowhunter but has never hunted caribou before, while Dan is brand new to bowhunting but has successfully hunted caribou with a rifle. We found a great camping spot late in the afternoon on Friday and started setting up. Before we had even gotten camp finished, I noticed a group of about 100 caribou moving across a hill about a mile from camp. We tried to guess where they were going and made a move on them but guessed wrong. The big herd bedded down in the tundra where there was no chance for a stalk, so we went to bed, hoping they would still be in the area the next day.
1st full day
That herd had moved on the next day so we headed south to find more animals. We didnít go far before Nash spotted 2 bulls feeding slowly about a half mile from the road. We watched those bulls for a long time, hoping they would lay down so we could attempt a stalk but they continued to feed away from us until they went over the ridge and out of view. In the meantime, Dan spotted a huge herd on the other side of the river a couple miles away. When we found 6 bulls bedded in good place for a stalk, we made the decision to cross the sag river in our raft to make a move. As we made our way to the river, the bulls got up and started to follow the parade of caribou that were moving across the hills to the south. We decided to change tactics and try to get in front of the group. Unfortunately, we misjudged their speed and were unable to catch up with them. However, there were more caribou moving through and we were able to get into position before the tail end of the herd made it through. We made a couple of moves on a lone bull that was following the group that had already passed and Nash was able to get off a 57 yard shot, but missed him clean. We had a smallish bull at 30 yards but he got nervous and trotted off before Nash could release an arrow. It was starting to get late so we made our way back to the river, crossed and called it a day. Day one was a rousing success with lots of action and a couple of close calls!
2nd full day
While Dan and Nash were getting organized in the morning, I climbed a hill near camp and started glassing. Within minutes I located some caribou a few miles from camp. We drove south down the Dalton to a better place to view them and watched 10 caribou feed slowly about a mile and a half from the road. After a while it became apparent that two bulls were hanging back while the other eight continued on to the south. When the two bulls bedded down, it was game on! The truck battery decided to die at that very moment so when we tried to pull the truck a little farther off the road, it wouldnít start. Dan, (who is quite possibly the nicest human on the planet) offered to walk back to camp and get his truck to jump the dead battery. He reasoned that I was the only one with caribou stalking experience and Nash was to get first shot so it made sense for us to go ahead with the stalk. So, Nash and I trudged off into the tundra and were able to successfully creep within 40 yards of the bedded bulls. At that point, itís my opinion that itís best to wait them out. They have no idea we exist, we have the wind in our favor and all day to sit there. When you try to make them stand up by making a noise or throwing something, often they will jump up and bolt. I prefer to be patient and let them get up on their own time. Several times, one of the bulls stood and repositioned himself but he was in the brush and never offered a clear shot. However, an hour and 10 minutes later, the other bull stood, stretched and walked out from behind a small patch of brush. Nash drew while I ranged the bull at 45 yards. The shot flew true and Nash had his first caribou bull! After some high fives and pictures, we started capping, quartering and boning the meat to make packing easier. In the meantime, Dan saw the bull go down and hiked the mile and a half to help us with the pack out. (did I mention that he is arguably the nicest human on the planet?)
So we head back toward camp and just as we are pulling into the parking area, I spot 3 bulls on the skyline, about 200 yards above the parking area! We quickly park and I grab my bow and Nash grabs the rangefinder and we check to see if Dan is behind us. Unfortunately, he is not so we go charging up the hill to try to get in front of the bulls before itís too late. When we reach to the top, there are some knee high weeds to conceal our movement. We belly crawl through the weeds to the edge of the tundra and the bulls are 100 yards out, but heading our way. Nash and I lay flat on our bellies until the bulls are broadside and as close as they are going to get. At that point, I raise up to my knees and draw back while Nash raises up and ranges them at 51 yards! There is a stiff cross wind so I aim a little to the left and release. The bad news is the wind died down at the shot and the arrow hit a little to the leftÖ The good news is that it hit the bull in the spine and he dropped in his tracks! I guess itís better to be lucky than good! Anyway, we were 2 for 2 in less than 4 hours! After the celebration, pictures and processing, we hung the meat and had dinner.
When we were done eating, I climbed my hill and started glassing again. Incredibly, I turned up a lone bull, feeding about a mile from camp! When the bull bedded at about 9 pm, it was game on! (shooting light lasts until after midnight that time of year) After making our way across the tundra, Dan and I discovered the bull was in a perfect position for a stalk and we closed to within 50 yards with another 20 yards of room to keep moving up! Dan is an excellent hunter but just got started bowhunting this year, coupled with the fact that he is using a 30 year old bow that belonged to his dad, meant that his effective range was 30 yards. Iím certain we would have been able to get to within 30 yards undetected if the bull would have laid there another 5 minutes. Unfortunately, the wind died down, and the bugs became very pesky. The bull decided heíd had enough and got up to feed when we were still 50 yards out. We moved closer by belly crawling and using the brush for cover a couple of times only to discover the bull had moved further away and we were still a little out of Danís range. We played cat and mouse with that bull for about 30 minutes before he was finally alerted to our presence and buggered out of there. It was still an awesome experience and we came very close to going 3 for 3 in one day!
On the way home!
The next day, we packed up camp and headed south. Dan was only planning to be up there for the weekend anyway and wanted to get back to work. Plus, we had a couple caribou to process! On the way south, Dan had one more stalk opportunity on a bull only about 300 yards off the road. He was belly crawling his way to within 100 yards of the bull when two guys in a blue truck stopped and tried a poorly executed stalk of their own. Obviously, the bull was buggered and Danís stalk was over. Iíve never understand what people are thinking when they do things like that but it solidifies my resolve to hunt at least a mile off the road or on the other side of the sag, when possible!
In the four previous years hunting the Dalton highway, I have never seen a grizzly north of Atigan pass but this year we saw three! Also of note, just south of Coldfoot, we found a black bear feeding slowly about 200 yards from the road so Dan and I attempted a stalk. We were in a good position but couldnít see the bear and tried to move up to get a better vantage when he caught our movement. Not sure if he would have come within range but trying to stalk into bow range of a black bear was sure exciting! Oh well, easy come, easy go!
This was, by far, the best year Iíve experienced hunting caribou on the Dalton highway and enjoyed adding new memories and creating new friendships! Within a day of returning to Fairbanks, I was already looking forward to going back up next year!
"Rather fail with honor than succeed by fraud"