An Empty Quiver: Chapter 13. Be Still My Heart – Pt 1

 

By: Dave Samuel
By: Dave Samuel

I’ve taken two woodland caribou hunts in Newfoundland.  Actually, the following story is about my second hunt while the main chapter covers my first hunt.  This second story describes a pretty typical day in the bowhunting of woodland caribou. 

 It was the last day of my bowhunt and we were returning to ‘The Hill’.  We’d seen several good stags there the first day, but the weather today looked like it just might do us in . . . very thick fog.  After a long hike, my guide, Junior Flynn, and I climbed a rocky promontory to await better visibility, when we then could begin to search for a woodland caribou stag.  The fog began to lift around 9:00 A. M.. Almost immediately we spotted one herd, but they were at least two hours away.  After five days of long, hard walks in the bogs, my legs were actually ready for another long hike.  But, being the last day of the bowhunt, we also had to consider the time needed to get the animal out if we were successful.  So, we opted to move in the opposite direction and try to find something closer.  As the fog permitted, we’d stop and scope the far hills.  Several groups of cow caribou were feeding on the far ridge.  Then three small bull moose appeared out of the fog, some of the many I’d seen during the week.    

After a half-hour walk, Junior went on point.  “Dave, there’s a good stag,” he whispered.   “Where?” I asked.  I couldn’t find him in my binocs, until Junior provided some landmarks.  “He’s feeding right beside that big rock,” he advised.  As I studied him, I suddenly realized something.  “Junior, it’s the same stag we tried to get on in here the first day, the one that had all those cows with him.”  “The rut is winding down Dave, he appears to be alone.  If we move to our left, there are some rock outcrops that can cover an approach” Junior noted, so off we went. 

Slowly we closed the gap, and finally only one hundred yards separated us from the feeding stag.  There was a small lake beyond the stag.  If he fed away, around that water, we were done.  If he fed toward us, there was a chance.  We hunkered down behind a rock and waited.  Within five minutes the stag began moving our way.  I gave Junior my Bushnell range finder and got ready to shoot.  At fifty-four yards, the stag laid down, facing us.  Darn.  There was nothing to do but sit and wait. 

 After fifteen minutes, Junior tossed a stone in his direction.  Nothing.  Then another.  Still nothing.  Junior was getting his pitching arm warmed up and the third stone came close.  The stag rose and moved our way.  When the right opportunity arose, my Parker bow came up and the arrow was away.  The shot went right under his chest and he slowly ran off.  One beauty of the bow is that there is no sound, so the stag was not alarmed.  I got another arrow nocked, and when he stopped, I shot again.  This time the shot was perfect, double-lunged, the bull only went sixty yards.  Not the biggest caribou in Newfoundland, but he’d make the Pope and Young record book so Junior and I were both very pleased.

This is the smaller caribou described in the Preface. Note the smaller tops, but bigger bez and brow tines.
This is the smaller caribou described in the Preface. Note the smaller tops, but bigger bez and brow tines.

 Newfoundland caribou bow hunts were very popular in the 60’s and early 70’s.  Then animal numbers dropped and bowhunters stopped going.  That all changed and as numbers increased via good management, more and more bowhunters headed to the Maritimes.   

 For me, the woodland is the most fun caribou species to bowhunt, because they are always there and you hunt them by ‘spot and stalk’.  Take the Quebec-Labrador species for instance.  Their migration patterns make them very unpredictable.  Sometimes you hit it right, sometimes you strike out.  Not so with the woodland caribou.  Most hunters make the Quebec-Labrador caribou their first hunt for this group of animals, and I’ve done that as well.  But I’d recommend the woodland species over the Labrador species because you can be assured that stags will be there. 

 Once you go, you will find that bowhunting Newfoundland is an adventure and one that every bowhunter should try at least once.

 My first hunt for woodland caribou was a great and unusual hunt for several reasons.  First, I scored on a Boone and Crockett caribou.  How special is that?  However, the way the hunt transpired was disheartening for me, because I just wasn’t able to ‘hunt’ with the vigor that I normally do.  My ‘illness’ wasn’t consistent and that had me totally perplexed.  One minute I’d feel fine, the next I was unsteady, out of breath, and several times I actually passed out.  It really hit me when we were putting a stalk on the big bull. As you will read, he was with a number of cows and a few smaller bulls, and when we got within one hundred yards, my guide got us down to crawl on all fours.  I was behind him when it hit me. I’d later learn that these bouts of what I thought was ‘buck fever’, were bouts of atrial fibrillation, very rapid heart beat.  In fact, I’d later discover that my heart was beating 200 beats a minute.  When that happens, the heart doesn’t pump blood as effectively and this can cause two things; you get light headed and may pass out, and your blood pools in the heart and forms clots.  Obviously blood clots are extremely serious and lead to strokes.  As we stalked that bull, and over the rest of that afternoon and evening, I was in serious trouble, but continued the hunt.  My doctor later told me that it was a miracle that I survived the exertion and strain I put on my heart during and after the stalk and harvest of that great bull. 

 One sad thing that bothers me even today is that my guide watched me shoot rather poorly at this bull, and felt that I just didn’t know what I was doing . . . just another overblown outdoor writer.  Maybe I am an overblown outdoor writer, but that wasn’t my problem on that day.  I was in atrial fibrillation and it was serious.  Had I known, I’m not sure if I’d have stopped hunting.  But the fact is that I didn’t know what was causing me to shoot so poorly and stumble around during the chase.  In the end, it turned out OK and made for a great adventure.

 There was one other very interesting aspect to this hunt.  My partner, Richard Krynicki, was following a big bull and just about ready to shoot when a bigger bull showed up and the fight was on.  Richard remained calm and harvested the original bull and the big guy rounded up his cows and added them to his harem.  Two days later and several miles away my guide and I found that big bull.   

 My hunting partner was all smiles as he followed bow guide, Francis Ogden, into camp on the second evening of our woodland caribou hunt.  No wonder.  They were packing a super bull and the story was a once-in-a lifetime adventure.  Richard Krynicki and I were hunting with Wayne Holloway at Pine Ridge Lodge in Newfoundland and we had just experienced the benefit of being there in mid-October, the peak of the rut.  That’s the time when bulls have harems and get into some major skirmishes.  It can make for some exciting bowhunting.

Francis and Richard spotted this big bull and six cows in late morning.  Francis grunted and brought the bull close on two occasions, but no shot was possible.  After two hours of stalking, Richard got close enough for a shot.  Before that transpired, a challenging bull came out of the timber and the fight was on.  Two really big Pope and Young bulls can do some damage when cow caribou are at stake and these guys meant business.  Francis laughed as he described the scene; moss, spruce limbs, and fur were flying all around the two as they crouched behind what little cover was available.  Throughout the fight, Richard remained calm and poised.  After ten minutes the two bulls paused for a moment, and Richard made a perfect 23-yard shot.  After the hit, the two bulls again went at it until the original bull they’d been stalking slumped to the tundra.  The bigger bull rounded up his new harem, added them to his own cows, and took off.

Bowhunting partner, Richard Krynicki, took this great caribou on his first ever non-deer bowhunt. The habitat in the background is pretty typical of the area.
Bowhunting partner, Richard Krynicki, took this great caribou on his first ever non-deer bowhunt. The habitat in the background is pretty typical of the area.

Woodland caribou are the least known of the caribou species.  Maybe it’s because they don’t have the huge racks of the other species.  Maybe it’s because their range is so limited or that they are a bit more secretive than other caribou.  Whatever the reason, that lack of appreciation is rapidly changing and his reputation as a great animal is growing.

Woodland caribou are different.  They prefer boreal forests of black and white spruce, balsam fir and white birch with mixed alpine tundra.  Once found in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Michigan and Minnesota, their predominant range today is Newfoundland.  (True there are small pockets of woodland caribou in Idaho and central Canada, but numbers there are small).  The pelage of the woodland caribou is darker than other species and their antlers are the smallest of all the caribou.  Antlers are often a dark-orange color, and their configuration, though impressive, is different than other caribou.  They have weak top points, average sized shovels (compared to the other caribou) and larger more impressive bez points.  Though woodlands move a lot, they usually do not migrate per se, as is common in the other species.  There are exceptions to this but in general the woodland caribou is not a migratory species and you won’t see the large herds common with the Quebec Labrador caribou during its migration.

You hunt this smaller-antlered caribou in spruce-moss muskeg with lots of sedges and wetlands.  There is plenty of thick alder and willows, especially along streams and lakes.  Your best chance to see this secretive animal is along the edges of small patches of interconnected spruce forests.  The habitat all looks the same, and it is easy to get twisted around when following a herd of caribou.   A compass or GPS is a must.  You don’t usually see large numbers in one herd; groups of two-six are common.  They are a fairly vocal species, and one common hunting tactic is to grunt (sounding like a pig . . . and similar to grunt calls we use to whitetail hunt).  They are similar to our whitetails in one other way; you can find extensive rub lines on the small spruce found along caribou trails.  They are similar to elk in that herd bulls gather up harems and fight to protect their herds.  As with all the other antlered animals we hunt, the rut can be very hard on the dominant males.  Studies show that herd bulls are especially vulnerable to predation and hard winters following a long, tiring rutting season.

Foggy weather kept me in camp on day three . . . well almost.  In late afternoon we spotted a bull through the scope from the living room of the lodge and Francis and I got close to the bull.  He had weak tops and was a borderline book animal, so we passed.  Day four was a typical day on the Middle Ridge area of Newfoundland; cold, cloudy, and spitting snow.  I hiked up the ridge behind the lodge with Francis and Wayne, headed for the area where Richard had been successful.  After three hours we stopped on a prominent rocky outcrop, unloaded our packs and made plans.  Wayne would go north to look for bulls.  Francis and I would go south.  We’d meet back at the overlook for lunch then go chase anything we found.

That was the plan, but an hour later found Francis and me looking at caribou.  A small herd was spotted moving along a spruce covered ridge, so we hustled over to that area.  They seemed to disappear, but after thirty minutes or so, I heard Francis above me . . . “Psst, Dave, come up here, you won’t believe what I found.”  Francis was motioning me up the hill.  When I got to his side he said, “I can’t find that small herd, but I have found a big herd, and the boss bull is the one that Richard and I saw fighting two days ago . . . come on, let’s have a closer look.”  We moved along the caribou trail that traversed the rocky ridge.  There were rubbed trees every one hundred yards and fresh sign was everywhere.  As we crept to the edge of the ridge, there they were, below us; twenty-eight cows, a few small satellite bulls on the fringe, and one huge bull trying to keep track of his herd.  Most of the cows were bedded, but the bull was constantly on the go, herding cows, running off the small bulls.

Tomorrow: An Empty Quiver: Chapter 13.  Be Still My Heart – Pt 2

For more please go to: The Future of Hunting

For more also go to: Straight Talk Interview: Dr. Dave Samuel

Be sure and visit Dr. Dave’s website, Know Hunting