Caribou have always fascinated me. I don’t know if it is because of the giant antlers, the beautiful white-maned capes of the bulls, or the remote, roadless country they call home. It did not help growing up reading my grandfather’s Fur, Fish, and Game magazines. I can remember reading stories about hunters seeing thousands of caribou a day during the migration. For a small-town kid from Fernley, Nevada, the north country seemed a million miles away, but I knew in my heart that I would experience it one day. I still remember the smile on my grandfather’s face as I told him of all the adventures I was going to have hunting across Canada and Alaska.
There are five subspecies of caribou recognized by Boone and Crockett, Pope and Young, and the North America 29. These subspecies listed from west to east are Barren-Ground caribou, Mountain caribou, Central Barren- Ground caribou, Quebec-Labrador caribou, and Woodland caribou. The only other big game species that has as many different subspecies listed in the North America 29 is deer. All of the huntable populations of caribou are found in and spread across Canada and Alaska. There is also a very small unhunted herd that lives in northern Idaho.
If you are planning a hunt and you are looking to go self-guided, Alaska is your only option. All of the caribou hunting in Canada requires an outfitter if you are not a Canadian resident. I have been lucky enough to hunt Central Barren-Ground caribou in the Northwest Territories and Mountain caribou in the Yukon. Ten years ago, I spent two weeks with an outfitter in the NWT. After all the hunters had tagged out, it was my turn to hunt. Unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse and we had snow for the last three days with no visibility. On the day we were supposed to fly out, the pilot called and said they were unable to fly in that morning due to the storm. As luck would have it, a herd of caribou decided to migrate right through camp.
Wasting no time, I grabbed my rifle and a guide and took off after the herd. After catching up with them, I was able to put both of my tags on good bulls. My second caribou hunt was a mixed bag hunt with Jarrett Deuling in the Yukon. I harvested a moose and two wolves, but I chose not to fill my caribou tag as I did not find the bull I was looking for. However, there are some world-class bulls in Jarrett’s area, and his dad actually holds the Mountain caribou world record in the Boone and 56 Crockett record book.
Barren-Ground caribou are found mostly in Alaska, but they are also found in the northern Yukon territory. Usually, they are the highest scoring of the caribou species. Alaska has broken the Barren-Ground caribou down into 31 different herds based on their location and migration rates. Caribou migrations are awesome, and I hope all of you can see one at some point in your hunting career. The migration trails look like roads as they have been used by so many caribou.
The Alaska Porcupine caribou herd’s migration is amazing as their winter and summer ranges are 400 miles apart. There are a number of areas that are open to non-resident hunting on over-the-counter-tags. In the past, non-residents were able to harvest two caribou, but those days are gone until the populations within the herds rebound. There are also five hunts that are limited-entry areas where residents and non-residents have to apply through the draw. These units will be covered in our December issue.
For a hunter who is looking to hunt Barren-Ground caribou in Alaska, there are a number of options with the available over-the-counter-tags. The first option is a fully guided hunt. This is usually the option with the most success, but it is also the most expensive around $9,000-$13,000. Second, there are a number of transporters that will fly you into a caribou area and drop you off for your hunt. This option can be hit or miss based on how good your transporter is and if you hit the migration right. Expect to pay $3,500- $5,500. Third, there are hunt planning kits that can be purchased from outfitters. These are areas that have been scouted and have produced in the past. It is hard to say where you will end up as it could be a ridgetop hunt glassing big country or a lake hunt where the caribou migrate by. A fourth option is a river float hunt as there are a number of rivers that float through caribou country. There is also an overthe- counter archery option along the Haul road where there is a five-mile buffer that is archery only. This is a very popular hunt, and you can expect to see other hunters.
Mountain caribou are found in British Columbia up through the southern Yukon territory. They are the largest bodied of all the caribou subspecies. A mature bull can weigh up to 600 pounds and has more antler mass than the other caribou subspecies. These caribou do not migrate the distances that the Barren- Ground caribou do. They are more like elk and deer as they drop down in elevation to the winter range and then climb back into the high country in the summer to avoid the bugs. Mountain caribou are also found in smaller herds than Barren-Ground caribou.
As a non-resident, you have to go on a guided hunt to harvest a Mountain caribou. There are a lot of great outfitters in the Yukon and British Columbia that specialize in big Mountain caribou bulls. A number of hunters end up harvesting their Mountain caribou on a combination hunt for either moose or sheep. This makes the hunt more reasonably priced as it is an add-on animal taken on a trophy fee because you can expect to pay $10,000- $14,000 for a Mountain caribou only hunt. If you are planning a hunt in the Yukon or British Columbia, it is a good idea to try to take as many of your bucket list animals as you can on this trip. You have already paid for your flights and all other expenses, so adding another species saves you money if you are going to make a return trip later. Most Mountain caribou hunts are horseback or backpack type hunts. However, there are some areas that offer lake or river float hunts.
Central Barren-Ground caribou are found in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. They are smaller in body and horn size than the Barren-Ground caribou. These caribou can be found in bigger herds and migrate a considerable distance. They live in the tundra country and migrate between their summer and winter ranges. Some of the herds have changed their migration routes over the last few years, so hunters have struggled to fill their tags. These caribou live in remote, vast, flat country. Most Central Barren-Ground caribou have never seen a hunter, and more caribou are taken by predators, like wolves and wolverines, than hunters.
To hunt Central Barren-Ground caribou, you are going to have to book with an outfitter, and the guided hunts take place in Nunavut. A nice thing about hunting in Nunavut is they still offer two bull tags. When I hunted Central Barren-Ground caribou, I hunted in the Northwest Territories, but since then, the Northwest Territories game department closed all outfitted hunts for Central Barren-Ground caribou. Hunting Central Barren-Ground caribou is usually done off a large lake. You will start out each morning motoring along the shore, glassing. This way, you can cover a lot of country as you try to locate the caribou. You can also expect to hike to some high points and glass long distances. I was surprised at the number of wolves and wolverines I saw during my trip to the Northwest Territories. As an added bonus, the lake trout fishing was like nothing I had ever experienced. It did not matter what we threw in the water, we caught fish. A 17-pound fish was the largest caught, but the average fish was a five pounder. You can expect to pay between $5,000 and $8,000 for this adventure-of-a-lifetime.
Quebec-Labrador caribou are found in Quebec. They are smaller in body size than Barren-Ground caribou, but they are still a migrating herd. In Quebec, there are two main herds – George River and Leaf River. The George River herd dropped from an estimated 750,000 caribou to less than 10,000 in 2011. Quebec discontinued sport hunting on the George River herd in 2012. The Leaf River herd dropped from an estimated 600,000 caribou to 200,000 in 2017. Unfortunately, Quebec is closing all sport hunting on the Leaf River herd in February 2018. This follows the 2010 closure of caribou hunting in Labrador. This is a really sad time in the caribou hunting world as there will no longer be any sport hunting available in Quebec or Labrador.
It is unfortunate how many outfitters will be going out of business. The economic impact is going to be huge without sport hunting. If you had the opportunity to hunt caribou in Quebec, consider yourself lucky. If you don’t already have a Quebec-Labrador caribou, hopefully the population recovers and Quebec reopens sport hunting in the future.
Woodland caribou live in other areas, but the only huntable population is in Newfoundland. They are the smallest antlered caribou of the five subspecies, and a mature bull can weigh between 300 and 400 pounds. They live in the tundra and forests. Woodland caribou keep to smaller herds and do not migrate as far as most caribou. They move between summer and wintering areas, which in some cases is not very far.
Due to the small population, Woodland caribou is one of the most expensive subspecies to hunt. You can expect to pay $12,000-$14,000. A lot of hunters will add on a moose or black bear as the trophy fee is very reasonable. A Woodland caribou hunt is going to be much like an elk hunt. Be prepared to hike and utilize daylong glassing as you go. You are going to have to cover some country to find a good bull. Just like other caribou hunts in Canada, you are going to have to hire an outfitter. The good news is that most outfitters run near 100% success on mature bulls. My good friend and taxidermist Shawn Andres hunted in Newfoundland a few years ago and harvested a giant caribou that scored 369".
The bad news is that all of the caribou across Alaska and Canada are in a downward trend. Caribou populations have cycled in the past, and we can only hope that they will start an upward cycle again. A good example of the caribou cycle is in the Northwest Territories. In 1978, there were roughly 150,000 caribou in the NWT, and those numbers climbed to 470,000 by 1986. By 1996, they were still at 350,000 and then dropped to 128,000 by 2006. If caribou can once again cycle up, we will see a lot of the opportunities open up that have been closed.
We work with some of the best caribou outfitters in Canada and Alaska. If you are looking to book a hunt for caribou, give Jeff Warren a call at 435-865-1020. Now is the time to book as all of the caribou subspecies are in a downward trend and the Fish and Game departments are putting more and more restrictions on caribou hunting and are even closing down areas to non-resident hunters. Hopefully the caribou herds will turn around and trend upward again someday.