Like most big hunts made by folks of limited means, the one I did for caribou in 2017 started with a whole lot of procrastination. One is always finding excuses to put off a dream hunt—money, family, work, hair appointments—the list goes on and on. However, after I returned from my 2015 Alberta moose hunting adventure, I don’t think I even had all my gear unpacked before I was looking into where I could go to hunt caribou. I’m not sure if it was the allure of the North Country, my biological clock telling me to get more stuff done, or my limited means not being quite as limited anymore. Whatever it was, I felt a sense of urgency to go after the critter that I had watched, spellbound, on TV since I was a kid. I had always wanted to witness the caribou migration, but to do so with a longbow in my hand, and to have a chance to take one home for dinner would really be special to me.
The first thing I learned while conducting my research was that I was about twenty years too late in preparing for this hunt. The vast North American caribou herds I had grown up watching had shrunk in size to mere shadows of their former selves. In fact, this herd reduction had gotten so bad that the Canadian province of Quebec announced in December 2016 that it would indefinitely suspend sport hunting of these animals after February 2018. Since this was the area I was most focused on hunting, I was glad I hadn’t procrastinated any longer. I might never have gotten to go!
The caribou camp on Simon Lake.
With the dwindling number of caribou also came a decline in the number of caribou hunting outfitters, leaving me with only Jack Hume Adventures to choose from if I wanted to sign on with a reputable business. JHA has their base of operations in Caniapiscau, Quebec and runs camps all throughout the northern part of that province. They have been in business for over thirty years and have a stellar reputation. TBM editor, T.J. Conrads, and TBM photographer, Jerry Gowins, used their services in 2012 and had nothing but positive things to say about the operation. (See Bucket List ’Bou in the Aug/Sep 2013 issue of TBM.) That was good enough for me, so after a few conversations with Richard and Amanda Hume, I recruited five other stickbow shooters to fill out my camp. None of us had been caribou hunting before, so it was going to be a most excellent adventure for all of us.
After fifteen months of waiting, the blessed day finally arrived, and my group met for the first time in a Montreal Holiday Inn on August 27th. The size of JHA’s operation is immense and the logistics must be a nightmare. We were one of six groups of hunters going into the bush that week. To simplify things, JHA has all their clients stay at the same hotel. Beside the hotel, there is a collection of trailers where we went to check in and get our gear weighed. The following day, in the wee hours of the morning, all six groups met at the trailers to begin a process that would ultimately get us to our hunting camps several hundred miles north of Montreal out on the tundra. It was a very long day with a lot of hurrying up and waiting. Our band of misfits finally stepped out of our floatplane and onto the shores of Ronald Lake about 2:30 that afternoon. Our hunt had officially begun!
At the shoreline, we were greeted by two JHA scouts, George and Roger, who had been in camp for a couple of days checking out the local caribou population. Their report exemplified the “feast or famine” nature of hunting this particular animal. Back at base camp, a group coming out of the bush told us that they had seen over 100 animals a day at their location. Our two scouts said they were seeing more like three or four. This news dampened our spirits a little, but that quickly changed when we spotted a cow silhouetted on the ridge behind camp while we were unpacking our supplies. The work pace picked up quickly after that, and we soon had bows ready and waiting to be turned loose on the tundra.
Dax Hinton arrowed this bull within a few hours of arriving in camp.
My good friend and hunting partner, John Henning, and I opted to ascend the ridge where the cow had been in hopes of finding her brother or boyfriend. We ended up seeing three caribou that afternoon but none of the animals were tag-worthy just yet. When we returned to camp around 7 pm, we learned that Dax Hinton, a veterinarian from Tuscaloosa, Alabama had missed a black bear earlier that afternoon and then made a perfect 35-yard shot on a young bull. We had only been there a few hours, and already someone had tagged out! Then my buddy from the Boot-Heel, Todd Burns, caught six nice lake trout right in front of the cook shack that evening. Morale was high around the dinner table that night, and everyone went to bed with visions of double-shoveled bulls dancing in their heads.
Unfortunately, this great start would peter out into a caribou-free lull within three days, and we made a decision on Thursday evening to move to a different camp. We hated saying goodbye to Jimmy McKinnon, our camp manager, but we came north to kill caribou and that wasn’t happening where we were.
Mid-morning on Friday, our floatplane arrived to move us to our new home. Since it was smaller than the one we flew in on, two trips would be required to get our gear, our remaining food, and us to our destination. I was in the second group to leave, and we didn’t reach the camp on Simon Lake until early that afternoon. Jacques Dextradeur, one of the two scouts in camp, greeted us there and said that the other group was already in the bush. They had spotted bulls just behind camp, so hopes were high. We quickly stowed our gear, gathered our hunting equipment, and headed out, with Jacques leading the way. When we reached the granite plateau behind camp where the rest of our party had dispersed from, we met the other scout, Guy Fréchette. He took Dax Hinton and me to another patch of granite about a quarter mile north where they’d seen bulls earlier. Dax spent the afternoon hunting bear, while I sat in a meadow crisscrossed with caribou trails. I eventually saw a young bull about fifty yards away, and we all felt pretty good about our chances in this new environment as we ate supper that night.
The northern tundra colors after a heavy rain squall passed through.
I was hunting with John again Saturday morning, and Jacques took us west across the lake to a spot where they had been seeing some activity. The area consisted of two stair-stepped plateaus with a big meadow in between them. John took the one on top and I found a place to sit on the lower one twenty yards from a well-worn trail. In a rush to leave camp, I had forgotten to put fresh batteries in my two-way radio and didn’t realize this until I was already settled in. This oversight would play a big part in how events unfolded over the rest of the day. I was able to make one call to John to let him know my situation before my radio died. I knew the general vicinity of John’s location and he knew the same about me. What could possibly go wrong?
I sat through the morning enjoying the day but did not see any caribou. Around 11:30 I decided to go visit John to learn if he was having any luck. I found him reclining against a granite boulder looking out over the terrain below. When he saw me, he immediately jumped up and started relaying the story of his morning. He had a young bull walk right up to him around 9:30 and stand broadside without a care in the world. John sent an arrow his direction but misjudged the distance and hit the bull high. He then spent the rest of the morning trying to find blood, his arrow, or any other indicator that the caribou was mortally wounded. I looked over the meager evidence he had found and agreed that the bull was probably okay. Guy and Jacques came to check on us thirty minutes later and joined in the search. Guy did finally find the arrow and nothing on it suggested anything but a meat hit. We ate some lunch on the rock pile and then all went back to our respective spots. John and I agreed that we would meet at six that evening and call for a ride home.
After sitting in the same location for ten hours without anything much to keep me entertained, I decided to call it a day. It was 5:45, and I figured I would save John the trouble of trying to find me by meeting him halfway in the meadow. I hollered for him when I reached the midway point but heard no response. What I did hear, though, was the clicking of hooves on rock coming from the direction I had just left. I turned around to see three huge bulls walk within ten yards of the spot where I had spent all day sitting. I couldn’t believe it! Had I stayed there other fifteen minutes, I would have had a chance to kill one of those trophies. Now I was watching them walk away, taking my dream of a caribou conquest along for the stroll. Tomorrow was the last day of the trip, and we still didn’t know if we were going to get to hunt or not. It all depended on where we were on the camp extraction schedule. Needless to say, I was not great company that evening. I broke the seal on my half pint of Crown Royal, took a symbolic Drink of Sorrow, and went to bed with little hope of redeeming myself the next day.
Darren with a pike on his first cast the last morning of the hunt.
We woke up early Sunday and started getting our stuff in a pile. The scouts gave us the word around seven that we would not be hunting. Moods were sour, so John, Todd, and I decided to fish for a while to try to mellow out. On my first cast, I caught a nice pike and, as John took some pictures, I thought to myself that this was a very expensive fish. John went back to camp to do something and soon came running back yelling, “They said we could hunt!” Not knowing or caring why there was a change of heart, John and I grabbed our gear and headed up to the ridge behind camp.
We were told we had to be back by ten, which gave us a little over two hours to hunt. We decided to make our last stand on a little saddle where bulls had been the day before. John squatted down behind a small tamarack right in the middle of a trail, and I moved south of him about thirty yards and twenty yards off the trail. Although I had made peace with the idea of going home without meat, I wasn’t about to quit until they forced me into that airplane.
At 9:10, my luck turned for the better when I spotted a nice bull fifty yards away coming down the trail. I couldn’t believe it! From my hidey hole, I didn’t think I would have limb clearance to shoot from my knees, so I slowly pushed my bow out into the open and slid out toward it. When I looked back at the bull, he was staring right at me and my heart sank. I stayed hunkered down hoping that he would still walk past John if he didn’t walk past me. That dream imploded when the bull bounded away well out of bow range for either one of us.
We were now down to fifty minutes. Something good could still happen, but it didn’t look promising. Nevertheless, I went back to my hide and cleared away the low brush so I could shoot from where I was sitting. The odds of another bull coming by in the next few minutes were very low, but not zero, so I nocked an arrow and stared intently in the direction the last one had come from. I swear I could hear a second hand ticking in my head as I waited.
Twenty minutes passed by quickly, and then I spotted another bull coming our way 100 yards out. Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus—and I had just received an early Christmas present! I was also determined to make St. Nick short one reindeer this time. To be sure I didn’t spook the bull, I waited until he was broadside to me before I started to draw. I had to lead him quite a bit, since a caribou’s gait is deceptively fast and they never stop. By the time I let go of the string, he was well past me and quartering away. However, my luck held and the arrow hit him perfectly! The bull bounded off toward the nearby lake, and I will never forget seeing that big splotch of blood surrounding the shaft where it protruded from his side.
With the arrival of our airplane now imminent, I decided to skip waiting and immediately start looking for my bull. I normally never claim victory until I put my hands on the animal’s carcass, but this time I knew that caribou was dead and just waiting to be found. John and I went straight to the last place we saw him and then headed to the lakeshore since wounded caribou usually try to get in the water where they feel safe. Within five minutes John hollered, “Here he is!” and I broke through the brush to see my beat-the-clock bull floating near the bank.
All sorts of emotions went through me as I took in the sight—joy, relief, and a little sadness. John hustled back to camp to get the scouts and the boat while I stood guard and thought back over the week’s events. Going home empty-handed had seemed like a certainty just a few hours ago. Now I was waiting to skin and quarter my hard-won prize. Yogi Berra never spoke truer words when he said “It ain’t over ’til it’s over!”
I never knew old Yogi was a bowhunter.
Darren is a lifelong resident of the Missouri Ozarks, where he splits his time evenly between hunting critters and cussing them. His writing for this magazine has greatly improved since he started using verbs and punctuation.
Equipment Note: On this trip Darren used a Wild Horse Creek two-piece Quest longbow and homemade mahogany arrows tipped with 190-grain Meatheads.