It hadn't worked out yet. We'd seen plenty of caribou and gotten close enough to several. On an early weekend despite my stoved up back we had gotten within 80 yards of a band of six. They were nervous and moving through the brush and never presented many really good shots. I had some mixed feelings there- feeling a little frustrated that he was being kind of picky about what shots he'd take and happy that all the lessons about not wounding game and passing any shot you weren't completely confident in. We played cat and mouse with the band of caribou for about an hour. An experienced hunter would have had little trouble taking as many as he had tags for, but for a 13 year old with poor eyesight and limited shooting ability- discretion was probably the better course.
On another outing, a band of caribou moved through a wide valley and we had to do some hard uphill hiking to intercept. We were successful in the intercept- the lead cow stepped from the brush a mere 30 yards away and was oblivious to our presence- but the young shooter was panting like a dog in hot weather and couldn't steady the gun enough for a clear shot. As they moved off through the drainage, the brush concealed them and we caught numerous glances of antlers, or bobbing heads, or a tail- but nothing you could shoot at. Anyone who has worked hard with a young person to get them on a Western animal knows exactly the kind of frustration I'm talking about.
My own first animal was an Eastern white-tailed deer and was positively anti-climatic compared to this. No disrespect to the white-tail hunters, but in the big oak woods you're likely going to have different challenges, finding a spot to hunt and keeping the kid quiet on the stand (that was my problem). When both hunter and hunted are moving through semi-open country it adds an element of complexity not fully appreciated until you've been there. And we were there all season.
That is until the last weekend.
We awoke early and got the fire going. It was a very crisp 15F and the large lake we were on had rim ice around the edges and smaller ponds and puddles were frozen solid. We'd had a very warm fall and it had kept the caribou in the high mountains, well above tree line to escape the heat and the bugs, and delayed the migration substantially. In just the last few days the temperatures had fell into the teens at night. I took it as a good sign. The cold weather would start the animals moving and it would be a good thing, since the season was just a couple days from closing for the rut.
After a light breakfast, my frequent partner Gary, Evan an myself inflated Gary's Pro Pioneer raft. The plan was simple, float the raft down the lake a few miles to some areas that had been productive in the past and see what we could find. The hunters on the highway had been stymied to date and the herds were ganged up further back. The raft has proven to be a good method in the past since it got you out of range of the road hunters and had good carrying capacity for hauling back meat. In the cold dawn we launched and floated our way down the lake toward a series of steep mountains.
As we exited the first lake and wound through a set of narrows toward a second I glanced over at the pressure ridge just coming into view. Caribou. And lots of them. I was on the oars and tried to row as quietly and urgently as possible- aiming for a spit of land that would deposit us about a quarter mile from the group visible. As I was working the oars, the group fed to the top of the ridge and off the back side. When we hit the shore, we all sprang out ready for action. We had a fairly steep climb of a few hundred feet to get to the ridge top. I had been here before and new the area well. The lake was rimmed with a series of low pressure ridges and a open basins beyond and the vegetation was just low tundra grass and occasional dwarf willow- nothing over 6" high. In short- a perfect place to shoot caribou. I had taken a couple of caribou a half mile from this spot and help a couple friends take a couple more. As I was climbing, I was nervous- there would be no close shooting here- everything was wide open and devoid of cover and all the previous shooting here was in excess of 200 yards. Well beyond Evan's shooting ability.
We made a plan of war. Evan and I would creep forward and go after a couple of stragglers near the base of the ridge and Gary would hike out the ridgeline about another quarter of a mile and pursue a large band of cows. Shooting cows this late in the season was preferable. Some bulls would be going into rut and the meat would be strong flavored at best and inedible at worst. Many people who hate caribou meat have eaten just that, rutty bull. And it turns them off on the best game meat in the world forever.
Gary had disappeared off the lee side of the ridge and would be traveling quickly. I gave him a few minutes to get to a small knob near the cows. Judging enough time had passed, I simply aimed the rifle from prone on the nearest cow, placed the crosshairs behind the shoulder, and pressed the trigger. Shooting a rifle in open country is always surprising. Since there is little to direct the noise back at the shooting, the report has a hollow sound to it and not nearly as loud as you'd expect. I clearly heard the impact- a hollow "boom" of gunpowder, a brief "woosh"as the bullet tore thorough the air at several times the speed of sound, and a "slap" as the bullet found home. The cow collapsed in her tracks. I was tagged out. 2 cow caribou for the season.
I looked at what else was there. The remaining cows has wandered over toward the group Gary was pursuing and were over three hundred yards away. A lone bull stood there, just a few yards behind the now expired cow. He was fairly big, but I believe fairly young and had most likely been denied access to the breeding cows by the big bulls who dominated the herds a half mile to the north and south of me. He should be just fine. In fact, more than fine. I asked Evan, "Do you want that bull?" and he nodded rapidly.... "Yes!"
"Just get steady, that bull is in perfect position. Aim where I told you. Shoot when you're ready." I glanced over at Evan, he was intently concentrating, his breathing was controlled, the muzzle was dead still pointed downrange. I peered back through the scope and locked the crosshairs on the bull, ready to finish it quickly. I heard the oddly hollow "pop!" of Evan's 7-08 and it stunned me briefly. The bull didn't flinch or move, it stood there staring off into space. Absent the noise of impact and reaction from the bull- I reported back to Evan.
"A miss. Reload and shoot him again."
"It's going to get away...shoot him Dad!", Evan was getting panicky.
I calmed him down, "He's not going anywhere. Just breathe and shoot him again. You know how- just relax and do what you did a hundred times on the range." I peered back through the scope doubly ready in case of a poor shot or a bolting animal. Evan's rifle barked again. Through the optics in the morning sunlight I saw a giant puff of the bull's white mane explode from his neck and the bull simply collapsed. A neck shot.
"You got him Evan!" I exclaimed as he reloaded the rifle and searched desperately for the bull in the scope.
"Where is he?" Evan yelled, clearly panicked. "I don't see him!"
And the shaking started.
The shaking is often called "buck fever" and while many people use it to describe a hunter who is quick on the trigger when an animal comes into view it is certainly present in a large number after the shooting is over. As the tension, anxiety and adrenaline drain away- muscle spasms are not uncommon. I had to remind Evan that Gary was still hunting as we notched our tags. No need to actually lay hand on these animals. They were clearly visible and obviously brought to bag. I decided that Evan need some movement to ward off the shakes so I sent him the several hundred feet down the back side of the ridge- back to the raft- to retrieve my pack and field dressing equipment.
As Evan scampered back off the ridge. I turned my binoculars to the group of cows Gary had been pursuing. They had walked away form the knob and were now 400 yards out in the basin. I had watched several hunts through optics and it is always interesting. I saw a cow collapse, then heard the impact of the rifle and then heard the boom of the report. Exactly backwards of what the shooter normally does. Gary had scored a nice sized cow.
Thirty seconds later- he did it again. We had four caribou down. It was 9:00am.
We would work all day on these animals, dressing, skinning, butchering and hauling them load by painful load over the ridge. Evan did well, wielding the knife and the pack without complaint. Evan was delighted to find that his first shot had connected- a perfect 7mm bullet hole was obvious through both ribs. The bullet had imparted little shock but it would have been effective in a few more moments. His second shot had been entirely unnecessary. Whenever we reached the ridge top we would look at the large herds and watch the big bulls fight for dominance over the harem of cows while we rested. Near dusk we would start the long row back up the lakes and would finish the traverse in full dark, navigating the upper lake by moonlight. It would be 1:00 am before we reached camp as the northern lights erupted across the sky and Orion stood sentinel on the southern horizon. We were utterly exhausted but satisfied as the wood caught flame so we could warm ourselves. We were all hunters.