Giant caribou bulls are only a fraction of the attraction to 'The Magnetic North'
By Jim Kinsey
Photos Courtesy of Jim Kinsey
Giant velvet-covered antlers reached up from the tundra like a stunted and denuded pair of alien oaks. My guide, Bernie Zimmerman, turned to me and said, "It's him," as the small aluminum boat glided to shore.
Perhaps 400 yards away was one of the largest caribou bulls I had seen in 14 days of filming other guys hunting the tundra surrounding Courageous Lake.
Bernie and I kept a low profile as we made our way toward the bedded bull. I wasn't about to mess up the first chance I'd ever had to harvest a record book animal of any kind. But just when I thought all was well, the bull rose, turned and looked in our direction. We were busted!
As photography director for "Nosler's Magnum TV," I've traveled the globe. Yet this was my first time to hunt caribou in the far north, a mere 150 miles south of the Arctic Circle.
Our camp was smack dab in the middle of the September caribou migration route.
During the last leg of my flight there, the 170 miles aboard a float plane from Yellowknife to Courageous Lake, I watched the trees slowly disappear as the landscape transformed into pure tundra. The colorful expanse was scarred by lines. "Those trails are from hundreds of years of the caribou migration," someone mentioned.
With 17 days to film, I was almost guaranteed a front row seat for one of the most amazing spectacles on earth.
Upon our arrival, the first order of business was camp orientation, followed by a wonderful meal fit for a king. I couldn't believe the food they served. One of the regulars turned to me and said, "It's like this every year. If you think that was good, wait until they serve dessert ... sex in a pan."
"Really? That sounds interesting," I answered.
He was right.
With the evening fast approaching, I looked toward the star-filled sky and realized I was literally on top of the world. Just then, Aurora Borealis, better known as the northern lights, flicked on. Brilliant hues of green and red arched across the night sky like finely choreographed dancers with ribbons - all reflected on the still water of the lake. I hated to abandon it for bed.
The first day's forecast called for sporadic heavy rains and fog, NOT optimum conditions for filming. After a hearty breakfast, we headed for the line of boats along the gravel bar. Larry Mills, a seasoned guide, turned to me with a big grin and said, "You ready to do some filming? I know where some great bulls are, so let's get going."
I was filming Magnum member David Laird, who'd traveled all the way from Phoenix to hunt the famed Courageous bulls. Within minutes, we were cruising the shoreline, looking for one. Larry slowed the boat to point out a big grizzly snapping up blueberries at 100 yards. The old bear never paid any attention to us.
After spotting a distant bull, Larry beached the boat. Upon stepping off into the sand, we saw the tracks of both a grizzly and a wolf.
Rain was coming down in sheets as we made our way toward the bull, which was decent, but not a monster. David didn't seem to mind. With two tags, he wanted to get the first bull under his belt; he'd be pickier the next time at bat.
By day 13, I'd collected some awesome footage of great bulls. With new clients coming in later that afternoon, I hooked up with Bernie, who said he'd spotted a massive bull two days earlier. With a tag burning a hole in my pocket, I grabbed camera, tripod and rifle, and off we went by boat to one of Bernie's favorite vantage points.
After tying off the vessel, we climbed an esker to get a better view of the endless tundra. After several minutes of looking, Bernie turned to me with a face-splitting grin. "I see a gagger, but he's bedded down more than four miles away," he said.
I took his word for it.
"We'll cruise over to the edge of the lake's outlet and ditch the boat while he's still in his bed," Bernie advised. That boat ride was the longest 15 minutes of my life.
"He's got great tops with lots of points," Bernie said, after we'd reached the shore. "Oh, look at him now!"
That's when I saw the bull for the first time. I can honestly say that my heart skipped a beat as the boat hit a rock with an echoing thud. The big bull was still in his bed 400 yards away, and he wasn't alone. We'd have to fool at least two more sets of eyes.
Bernie and I quietly set up the camera for an on-the-fly interview, and then the stalk began. Anyone who has hunted caribou on the tundra knows there is very little cover besides the lay of the land. Luckily, we had two things going for us: The wind was in our favor, and the terrain allowed us to cover a lot of ground without being visible.
As we eased toward the resting bulls and knelt, I hit the record button and zoomed in on the largest one. I couldn't believe the antlers were still encased in velvet.
Then, without warning, the smallest bull stood and looked directly at us. I knew this would start a chain reaction so I dropped the tripod to the ground and leveled out the scene, verified the time code was running and handed off the camera duties to my trusty guide. "Stay on the big bull when he gets up," I told Bernie.
Just as I expected, the massive bull stood and swung his heavy head in our direction. Seeing it that close, Bernie realized this had to be the bull he'd seen a couple of days earlier.
"That's him!" Bernie hissed.
With only a split second to react and no way to deploy my bipod, I simply stood up, found him in my scope and took the 250-yard, off-handed shot. The all-to-familiar "Whoomp" told me I'd connected. I love that sound.
Bernie looked at me and said, "Good shooting, man! Let's go check him out."
Camera still running, I looked at Bernie as if to say, "Can you believe that just happened?" The words that eventually came were: "Did you get the shot?"
"How could you not keep that thing in the center of the viewfinder," he smiled. "I got it!"
As we approached the bull, Bernie was getting so excited he began to shake his head in disbelief. "I chased this bull here a few days ago and couldn't catch him ... I'm so glad he stuck around."
There are no words to describe the feeling when I put my hands around that massive and soft rack.
I finally got to see "the migration" on Sept. 17. I was tagging along with another guide, Al McNay, who was looking to fill his own tag (because everyone else had). We went to the same lookout Bernie and I had climbed four days earlier. Once atop the esker, I couldn't believe my eyes. For as far as we could see, caribou were streaming toward the lake. There were herds of 50, 100, even 300. The tundra was rippling.
With so many bulls to look at, I wasn't sure how Al was going to pick out a shooter. But as luck would have it, a small band of bulls appeared out of nowhere only 300 yards away. One was a "gagger" with double shovels, massive bezzes and huge tops with lots of points.
Using the terrain to our advantage, I followed closely behind Al, who was carrying my gun. With the wind in our faces, we slinked up to the top of the ridge that supported several large rocks. As we peeked over a boulder, the largest bull stopped and looked directly at us. Al and I froze, and the stare down lasted 90 seconds.
Ninety yards separated us. We had gotten closer to the bulls than we'd originally thought possible.
"I'm going to take him," Al whispered. As soon as I acquired the bull in the camera's viewfinder, he squeezed the trigger.
As we approached the bull lying on the tundra, more animals came into view, several of which would've also qualified for the record book.
Al's bull grossed 385 inches, netting 371. Mine taped out at 383 and netted 372 4/8. The (all-time) minimum for central barren ground caribou is 360.
-- Reprinted from the October 2009 issue of Buckmasters RACK Magazine.