Starting a few years ago, Huntin’ Fool began covering the handful of barren-ground caribou draw hunts in Alaska, and one of those hunts is DC001. Not only do I live in this unit, I also have the rare opportunity to hunt the Kenai Mountains caribou herd each and every fall. This is possible because both the state and federal governments share dual management of Alaska’s vast fish and game resources. Designated as a rural Alaskan by the federal government, I can obtain a subsistence permit yearly.
Although it’s usually a lot of work, finding caribou is predictable. Going after this herd is more like chasing sheep than the typical barren-ground hunt. The caribou are thinly and somewhat randomly distributed across a large area of very rugged terrain. I find bulls every year, but for the last several years, it’s been increasingly difficult to locate a mature bull. Both the federal subsistence tag and the state draw tag DC001 are good for any caribou, but I only target bulls, preferably with some age on them. Due to my selectivity, most years I don’t kill anything on this hunt, and I didn’t really expect to kill anything in 2017 either.
At the beginning of the season, my wife, Gyöngyi, and I spent six days backpacking through our favorite spots in the northern end of the mountain range. Although we found caribou, none of them were what I was looking for. At the end of August, we switched to sheep hunting and I was fortunate enough to kill my eleventh Dall ram on a nine-day hunt in the Alaska Range. With all my vacation days spent and Gyöngyi gone visiting family in her home country of Hungary, I was forced to hunt caribou alone on weekends in September.
I hunted close to home on Saturdays and Sundays and found bulls every time I went out. Surprisingly, on two of those days, I located three different mature bulls, the first I’d seen in several years. Hunting in Alaska is never simple. I decided not to go after any of these bulls because they were too close to a couple giant brown bears. Killing a caribou at last light near two brown bears is not smart even for a group of hunters, and I was alone. A big brownie is a force to be respected, and I had no desire to tangle with one if it could be avoided, so I didn’t make caribou meat in their area.
Finally, on September 30th, I found the right bull. He had a beautiful white and gun metal gray coat and a decent rack. Although his fronts were a bit weak, he had good mass and overall size to his antlers. Furthermore, no giant bears were around. He was about 800 vertical feet and one-half mile away dozing in the sun. The uphill thermal was a perfect wind, and I was able to sneak to 156 yards undetected. I had spotted him at noon after hiking three miles and 2,000 vertical feet to my favorite glassing spot. At 1:00 p.m., I put two quick shots into his vitals and he was mine. He was a big bull, so it was quite a job to get him broken down alone. By 4:00 p.m., I had him boned out, bagged up, and ready for packing. I was happy, but by this time, I was getting really worn out. Also, there was no chance of getting back to the trailhead before dark.
Three trips were made halfway back up to the ridgetop to get the meat and antlers away from the guts and carcass with the purpose of avoiding bear problems the next day. Then, taking only the tenderloins, backstraps, and my hunting gear, I made the trip up and over the mountain. Beyond exhaustion, I arrived back at the road in complete darkness. A good friend helped pack the rest of the bull out the next day, and I was happy to call the 2017 caribou season a success.
Anyone who ends up with this tag should be prepared for a very physical hunt that likely will not provide a trophy bull. However, the Kenai Mountains are very beautiful and even an unsuccessful hunt there is an awesome experience. Who knows, maybe a hunter in the right place at the right time will find the right bull. That’s just one of the reasons I call this corner of Alaska home.