Bulls of the barrens
A biologist and veteran guide shares his top tips for judging and hunting big-racked bulls
Aiming for tundra-dwelling caribou? Here's how to make the most of your hunt
Two good bulls slipped down from an esker into a swampy stand of stunted tamarack and black spruce, then reappeared, slowly feeding and making their way toward us along a small, thin lake. This offered my client and me the time we needed to carefully glass and judge each animal, and by the time the bulls were still a kilometre out, we were satisfied they were big enough. It was a great opportunity, especially considering it was day four of a five-day hunt and my client still had two open tags.
Then seemingly out of nowhere, a monstrous bull appeared behind the first two, practically dwarfing them. I became weak in the knees, having instantly identified him as a true Boone and Crockett contender, big in all departments. One of the first two bulls was also of great interest, with double shovels and matching 9x9 point paddles up top. We felt confident the three animals would round the corner of the lake in front of us, so we quickly stalked our way into a suitable shooting position, hidden along the willow-choked shoreline. Moments later, the bulls appeared, the rifle barked and the rest is history.
As with wingshooting or fly fishing, it takes time and experience to master the art of rapidly judging and intercepting central Canada barren-ground caribou. The antlers are intricate enough to evaluate, after all—a task made that much tougher by having to select a trophy from among the masses of moving animals. The key is to know what to look for, and how to close the distance after identifying a shooter bull.
So, what do you look for? The answer, quite simply, is a beautiful bull caribou that makes you happy. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and in the end, it’s about the overall experience, not inches of antler. That said, what avid hunter wouldn’t love to connect with a giant trophy caribou? Sometimes, you know he’s your bull the moment you lay eyes on him. More often, however, you’ll need to evaluate all aspects of the antlers to determine whether the bull is a true trophy.
For central Canada barren-ground caribou, the Boone and Crockett Club requires a net score of 360 inches to earn all-time status in its record books. To confidently field judge a bull, you need to observe the rack both from the side and head on. From the side, you can inspect the top palm, brow palm and bez, and estimate the length of the main beam. From the front, you can gauge the antler spread, confirm the presence or lack of double shovels and get a better look at the bez. You want a bull with everything—some caribou only have good tops, while others only sport good shovels and bez.
When hunting selectively, it’s not unusual to pass on dozens of migrating mature bulls before finding something truly special. When bulls form loose bachelor groups, comparing animals can be easy; if there are too many bulls, however, the situation becomes trickier. The same goes when the caribou are sparse and you can’t compare bulls against each other. In either case, experience afield is invaluable.
Some hunters argue that caribou are scored unfairly, in that the actual amount of antler grown is not measured. Instead, caribou scoring follows criteria based on specific measurements and symmetry. As a result, a high-scoring trophy caribou on paper may not look overly impressive on the hoof. Conversely, other bulls may take your breath away, but as far as the record books go, they’re low-scoring animals. So, if you’re after a Boone and Crockett bull, here are the trophy antler characteristics to look for.
- Top palms Ideally, you want six or more tall tines per side, along with stickers and lots of mass. Extra-long tines make for a good overall score, since only the last two tines on each side measured.
- Beams Look for heavy beams forming an overall C-shape, which ensures good length in the 50-inch-plus range, and a wider, 40 inch-plus frame for the best score.
- Rear points Ideally, the bull will have one rear point facing backward off each beam; they should be longer than five inches for an easy extra 10 or more points on the overall score. Many bulls are missing one or both of these back scratchers, so this is something to watch for.
- Bez They should be at least 20-plus inches long, with at least five points on each. Ideally, you want more than 10 points or even an extra bez. Here, only the number of tines—not their lengths—impacts the score.
- Brow palms Look for a bull with shovels taller than 15 inches, covered with as many points as possible. Most bulls only sport one large brow palm or two small ones, so big doubles will significantly boost the score.
Fuzzy perspecitve Bulls still in velvet pose some extra judging considerations. For starters, velvet antlers appear bigger and heavier, so when scoring, a percentage is penalized and adjusted for the additional “velvet inches.” And as bulls shed their velvet, be careful not to mistake hanging pieces for extra points, drop tines or a third bez. Velvet also tends to pile up around the shovels, either making them appear much larger than they actually are or preventing you from properly evaluating them.
Hunting these animals in the Canadian Subarctic is typically accomplished using traditional spot-and-stalk tactics. Migrating caribou are nearly always on the move, so find a good vantage point such as a high hill to glass and judge incoming bands of animals. Keep in mind you probably won’t have a second chance at the same bulls—they’ll be in and out of your local hunting territory in a matter of hours, and never seen again.
Unlike savvy white-tailed bucks that know every rock and twig in their territory, these migrating caribou have likely never passed through the area you are hunting before. They will take whichever path of least resistance the land lays before them, provided it’s in the direction they want to travel. With that in mind, study maps and prominent land features in your hunting area to identify natural funnels that will concentrate caribou movement. Prime examples include land bridges between lakes, long north-south running eskers and narrow water crossings. These chokepoints are perfect spots to watch for bands of passing caribou. And they’re sure to keep coming, following the interdigital gland scent from earlier migrants.
Once you’ve identified a shooter bull, you must then close the distance for an ethical shot. First, study the band of animals he’s travelling with and try to determine what they’re going to do. Are they about to bed? Graze slowly in a certain direction or move quickly? Where will they be in about 20 minutes? All of this will dictate your approach.
Next, identify key terrain features you can use to stay hidden as you stalk in to intercept the bull. If the caribou are too far out or not headed your way, however, you may never get in range, so it’s better to wait for another opportunity rather than waste prime hunting hours. The secret is to efficiently negotiate the tundra faster than your quarry and get out in front of them, which isn’t always possible.
During the fall hunting season, the tundra is alive with various colours representing different types of vegetation and soil. You can use this to help guide your stalk. For example, low areas of green sedges, light brown dirt or yellow grasses indicate standing water and boot-sucking mud, which can handicap a quick, sneaky approach. Instead, stick to the high ground and follow ribbons of grey and black gravel. Crimson-coloured ridges of heath and willow also make for easy, dry walking—and hopefully lead the way to the end of a successful hunt.
Think of yourself as a pair of walking eyes while judging bulls out on the tundra, so the main gear you’ll be relying on boils down to optics, electronics and footwear. And once you’ve decided to hit the switch, you’ll also need the right rifle or bow to finish the job.
You’ll be spending hours each day staring through your binoculars, so I would rate them as your most valuable piece of gear. Indeed, consider yourself blind and helpless without them. Don’t skimp on quality or opt for anything below 10X power. Shooting sticks make for handy bino rests, which are indispensable for intermediate-range glassing. Depending on the terrain or the number of caribou you’re inspecting, a lightweight spotting scope of up to 40X power can help reduce the legwork; just ensure the set-up is mobile and can be used quickly.
Along with analog maps, a rangefinder and a GPS equipped with local topographical maps can help when it comes to identifying natural funnels, planning successful stalks and making your way back to camp. Likewise, photos of bulls can help identify trophy-calibre animals, making a compact digital camera with a good zoom an invaluable judging tool. Spotting scopes equipped with smartphone adapters also work well.
“All-terrain” is the magic word when it comes to footwear. Don’t hamper yourself on a do-or-die stalk by having to avoid wet areas and rough terrain. Tall, waterproof boots with aggressive treads and ankle support allow for day-long tundra hiking and keep your feet warm and dry.
Rifle or bow
Keep it simple. Caribou aren’t overly tough animals, and they’ll go down quickly with a shot to the vitals. For rifle hunters, a well-placed .30-calibre round works perfectly; my advice is to bring your favourite, most seasoned hunting rifle from home. As for bowhunters, stick with an accurate set-up with kinetic energy above 50 pounds, along with proven broadheads, in anticipation of windy conditions and longer-range shooting opportunities.