DONNELLY FLATS — I hunt for food. I trap mostly for economic reasons. I own a few guns, but I'm not really a "gun" sort of guy. I look at a firearm as a tool, much as I might view an ax. Now that the first of the hunting seasons are past and winter is nearly upon us, it's time to care for one's implements.

Caribou hunting remains on the minds of many. Another Nelchina season is about a week away and those who found their timing bad during the early season hope for success now. Hunters should always take care with their firearms, and winter offers some challenges.

Be sure your gun is clean. This is a "do as I say, not as I do" sort of deal. I carry a .300 Winchester Magnum and it is behind the seat of the truck for most of its life.  Usually, it rests on top of the jumper cables, which keep it from bumping around.

Your rifle needs to be sighted in well too.

300-yard shots

Winter shooting is different than fall hunting. Animals are often out on frozen lakes, where stalking is next to impossible. Shots of 300 yards are not uncommon.

When I was about 8 years old, my dad took me out to our gravel pit and set up a 4-by-8 sheet of plywood. He handed me an old 30.06 with open sights and a steel butt plate. "Aim at the center," dad says.  I did, and when I got up from where the old gun had knocked me, we walked over to look at the plywood.  There was a neat little hole about dead center.

The next couple shots still hit the plywood, but one was on the far right edge and the other to the far left.  "Good enough," dad says.

Well, that was OK for August moose at 50 yards but it isn't going to be "good enough" for caribou. Once the rifle is sighted, one should be sure they can also hit something from a standing or kneeling position, because that is the best you will likely get.

The rifle also needs to be clean. Too much lubricant can cause a sticky action. Clean it up, wipe it down well. Use a winter lube or none at all. Avoid silicon sprays, which collect moisture and dust.

Your rifle's caliber is a matter of personal preference, but be aware that caribou are tough. An animal could run several hundred yard after being shot before it goes down. A gun that can handle at least a 150-grain bullet is a good choice.

Shotguns are even more critical to have clean. The action needs to work fast and smooth, especially when hunting birds. In my view, pump guns are best for most shooting. They remind shooters to aim instead of just blasting into a group of birds. That said, I own a couple of autos — a .28- gauge that I like for grouse and a .12 that I don't much care for.

Consider a retriever

The long-barreled single shot is best shelved for the season as all of the cranes and geese have passed south. I have a couple of .12-gauge pump guns that work well for sharptails and ptarmigan. Both of these species fly relatively straight or in a shallow curve.

But remember, distances can be deceptive.  Full choke and No. 4 steel shot is good for either species.

Along with steel shot, a decent retriever might also be a good bet if one is targeting spruce grouse or sharptails before the first snowfall. Ptarmigan are white and it is relatively easy to chase down a wounded bird on foot. A .22 can come in handy in some situations.

Shotguns were too much for me to handle when I was a little guy. I practiced with a .22 constantly and it was my constant companion for grouse hunting, and that caliber can be a good choice for kids. It is important to stress that a .22 shell can carry a long way and every shooter needs to be fully aware of what might be behind the target.

Always remember, guns are always to be treated as if they are loaded. The barrel must be pointed down, actions in the safe position and clean so they don't stick. Take care of your tools, chose them properly, and they will be safe and valuable additions to your winter recreation.

John Schandelmeier is a lifelong Alaskan who lives with his family near Paxson. He is a Bristol Bay commercial fisherman and two-time winner of the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race.