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Interest appears high as the Forty-mile caribou hunt continues

  • Author: John Schandelmeier
    | Alaska Outdoors
  • Updated: November 7, 2020
  • Published November 7, 2020

The election has come and gone. I’m not sure how much it matters, because no matter who is president of the United States, I’m going to be on the snowmachine tomorrow. And I bet there will be many more hunters and snow enthusiasts out there also.

The Forty-mile caribou hunt is in full swing. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the herd is larger than is comfortable for their range. The caribou bag limit on this registration hunt is two caribou of either sex.

The early season was scheduled from Aug. 10-Sept. 30, and the hunt closed a little earlier in all zones when fall harvest quotas were reached.

The Forty-mile herd was accessible from both the Steese and Taylor highways. Hunter congestion was the rule in most areas, with numerous complaints of ATV users damaging tundra trails.

However, the winter hunt for caribou opened in all zones on Oct. 27 with decent snow cover. The hunt is scheduled to remain open until the end of March or until the quota of 5,000 animals is reached. As of Nov. 1, only 110 caribou had been taken in zones one and three. Registration permits may be obtained online or in-person at most Fish and Game offices.

The Forty-mile herd has ballooned to nearly 80,000 animals, and there are indications browse quality is beginning to suffer. The word from the woods is that the caribou are near the road on the Steese. That is good news for hunters, but expect crowded conditions, especially on weekends.

Snow conditions are presently marginal for snowmachines in the high country, due to low snow cover and windswept rocky areas. The same winds caused enough drifting to make ATV use problematical.

However, the Fairbanks and Steese Highway areas are in the midst of a winter storm warning that was expected to dump as much as a foot of snow over the weekend. If you choose to hunt the Steese, bring your snowmachine. Hunters can call the Forty-mile caribou hotline at 907-267-2310 to get the latest hunt information.

The Nelchina caribou season has also reopened, and Oct. 21 saw a fair number of hunters on the Richardson Highway and a few on the east end of the Denali Highway. The Sourdough and Paxson areas received good snow a couple of weeks ago. Snowmobile access is fair in most areas.

Remember there are walk-in-only areas near Sourdough. Most of the caribou in Unit 13B have crossed the Richardson and are now in Unit 13C. There are still some small scattered groups in 13B.

The Denali Highway is not passable to wheeled vehicles on the Paxson end. Sixteen inches of snow and drifting have closed the road for the winter not far out of Paxson.

Snowmobilers need to be very aware that the lakes in the area, despite some temperatures in the minus-20s, are not yet safe.

There’s a decent number of caribou in 13A. Hunters should look north and west of Eureka and can call the Nelchina caribou hotline at 907-267-2304 for timely information regarding caribou location and remaining hunt quotas.

The Nelchina herd had a rough spring, with late snow melt on the way to the calving grounds. The summer herd estimate was down from the previous fall estimate by several thousand animals, but it is still 5,000 animals above the upper end of the population objective.

Ten thousand permits were issued, not counting community hunt and federal subsistence permits, with a harvest objective of approximately 5,000 animals. There are 750-odd animals yet available for harvest in all hunts. The Department of Fish and Game is recommending that hunters harvest cows without calves to reduce herd size.

From my observations, most of the larger bulls have already dropped antlers. Harvesting a cow makes sense at this time due to the proximity of the rut. Those big bulls without antlers might be on the skinny side.

Wherever you choose to hunt, the odds of success are certainly better than they were in August and early September. There is snow in the forecast for the next week in all areas in the Copper River Basin as well as the Fairbanks area. The recent minus-30s we have experienced in the Delta Junction area have moderated. You can hunt in relative comfort and get a good shakedown cruise on the snowmachine.

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