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Last-Minute Bull

December 2018
Story by John Rhyshek
State: Alaska
Species: Caribou - Barren Ground

In 2005, hunters in Alaska witnessed something dreadful. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game officially declared that the Alaska Peninsula caribou herd was suffering catastrophic decreases in their populations. The once endless numbers of caribou roaming the hills of southwest Alaska would soon be a past memory. I moved to King Salmon, Alaska in 2010 and soon got to know many of the town’s elders who told me story after story about the massive herds of caribou passing directly through town. Everyone had their different opinions as to why the numbers had crashed, including overgrazing, overharvesting, hoof rot, excessive wolf numbers, generous bag limits, etc. In 2005, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game permanently closed all caribou hunting in this area by emergency order. It wouldn’t be until 2016 that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game finally started to see population numbers increase for hunting. They cautiously allowed 250 tags, covering an area of over 19,000 square miles. The caribou herd crept up to approximately 3,000 animals. Finally, in 2017, I got a tag that allowed me to hunt this herd that had virtually been untouched for 12 years.

My good friend, fellow pilot and Huntin’ Fool member Adam Grenda, and I talked for weeks about some isolated pockets of caribou we had been seeing. Comparing notes, weather patterns, and our work schedules, everything finally came together. Due to Adam owning a Super Cub, there were pros and cons of how this trip would happen. Finding a spot to drop me off was the least of my worries. However, because Adam had to work, this meant I would be getting dropped off alone. I knew this was my opportunity at a true Alaskan self-guided hunt.

Adam flew me into a gravel ridge at around 6 p.m. after he got off work. This spot was 50 miles from the nearest road or village. Upon setting up camp, I had a lone bruiser caribou bull viewing my bright yellow tent. His curiosity led him to about 300-400 yards from me before he caught my wind and ran off. Since Alaska regulations do not allow hunting the same day you are airborne, that bull was off limits.

The following morning, I awoke before daylight and got all my gear ready for day one of the hunt. It wouldn’t be until nearly four hours later and three and a half miles from my camp that I would see a decent group of caribou. Taking wind direction into consideration, I snuck in to about 300 yards from a herd with about 300 caribou. I sat there and watched as they fed and the bulls established their dominance over each other. There were about six bulls in this group that would easily score over 350". I watched one bull spending his time running the other bulls away from his group of cows several times. He finally turned sideways, and I quickly wondered why he was the only bull still in velvet. A closer look revealed that this bull was out of velvet just like all the others. His tops were so palmated and heavy that it only appeared he was still in velvet. I made up my mind that this was the bull I wanted.

After about five minutes, he made a critical mistake and left the cover of his cows to attempt pulling additional cows into his area. I settled the crosshairs of my Christensen 300 WSM behind his shoulder and slowly squeezed the trigger. I heard the bullet connect immediately. His entire group of cows darted off over the hill, but he stood there, unable to move. I quickly moved closer, set up for another shot, and put it behind the shoulder when he finally tipped over.

I walked up to the bull and simply couldn’t believe his mass. He was incredibly larger than what I had originally thought. I snapped a few pictures and sent out a message to my pilot. It read, “Big Bou Down 3.5 miles west of camp.” I then needed to find a place smooth enough for the Super Cub to land. I found an area that would work about 300 yards from where the bull had dropped. I marked a landing strip with toilet paper to be easily visible. About three hours later as I was nearly done cutting up the bull, I heard the distant sound of an airplane drawing near. Adam landed and made one meat trip to the ridge my camp was on and then returned for one last load of my gear and me.

We reconfigured our gear, tore down camp, and packed the plane with our final belongings. We were soon airborne for the 45-minute trip back to King Salmon. I completed a true solo caribou hunt in Alaska the first day of my hunt with a bull that scored a whopping 420".