There are caribou along the Denali Highway. The summer — which I missed — was evidently hot. The couple of months I spent in the 50-degree weather of Bristol Bay left me ill-prepared for the 80s of the Interior.
However, the Denali Highway, which parallels the Alaska Range, is much cooler. Thus, the caribou tend toward the Denali.
One summer, 20-odd years ago, Jack Johnson and I watched a group of caribou that were more than a mile up an offshoot of the Maclaren River. Thirty animals strong, the group lay on the ice until 8 p.m. before they decided they needed to come off the ice to feed.
In less than 30 minutes they moved from the ice and down to where we — should have — waited. We came up empty for caribou, but we learned.
Heat, gnats and warble flies drive the animals to cool locations. This season, with relatively high temperatures, looks to be similar to other warm summers. I have seen caribou in the Mulchatna herd stand in the middle of shallow lakes for most of the day in an attempt to avoid heat and bugs.
My thought: If you have a caribou permit for Unit 13, look high.
Caribou season opens soon. Hunters and maybe-hunters are heading for the shooting range or nearest gravel pit to sight in their rifles. That’s a good idea. You want to know the firearm selected shoots relatively straight. Once you verify the rifle shoots correctly, you’ve done enough. Shooting over a rest is not necessarily a recipe for a successful shot at an animal.
Should you want or feel the need to practice shooting, there are a couple of things to keep in mind.
No. 1: You are not going to be able to step off the distance to the caribou you are aiming for. It is also a 1 in 10 chance, at best, that you are going to get a range finder on the animal.
No. 2: Very few caribou are shot over a rest these days, given the number of ATVs out there.
If you practice, shoot at targets ranging in distance from 100 to 300 yards. Use a brown piece of cardboard 16 inches square. If you have a safe area to shoot that has brush, locate three targets so they are half-hidden in the bushes. Run 40 yards with your rifle slung, stop, chamber a round and shoot as quickly as you can at all three targets. Fire one shot at each target. If you hit all three targets anywhere at all, then you are good to go. No kidding.
I hunted — once — with a dude who was on a military SWAT team. He was very proud of his shooting ability. He also was trying to sell me this “great” Cutco knife. We were watching a nice grizzly on a moose carcass. Trouble was, it was a 300-yard shot and the bear was on the edge of a heavy willow thicket.
This guy spent equal time trying to convince me he could make the shot — and that this wonderful knife would not need sharpening for at least 14 years.
We watched the grizzly for more than an hour. It appeared to be sound asleep. There was a good clearing on our side of the bear, and my thought was the grizzly might wander our way a bit to munch on some grass.
It was a sunny day, but I have endless patience in situations like this. My hunting partner did not. The only way I could keep him from shooting was to explain that if he shot and only wounded the bear, he was going to have to go into that willow thicket with his 14-year knife in his teeth to dispatch it.
In spite of his ability to shoot a gnat off an eyebrow, he hesitated. While he was expounding on the virtues of the knife, our attention wandered. I looked up — and the bear was gone.
We were on the edge of a low bluff, so we quickly ran to the edge to get a better vantage point. The grizzly was coming up our side of the ravine, maybe 60 yards out. The SWAT team cut loose. The bear, hit in the hind foot, turned and ran. The dude had a couple rounds in his mouth and an empty rifle. Fortunately, I was able to stop the bear.
My point is obvious. Shooting in a controlled environment is one thing. Real situations may be entirely different.
There were caribou along the Denali Highway last week. It is likely there will still be animals near the road when the first of the hunters show up a couple of days before season opens. The caribou will get spooky pretty quickly, but if you can get a good stalk with no disturbances, the shot over a rest may be a possibility. Indeed, a rest is certainly the best option.
However, those who have hunted the Denali Highway regularly over the past decade know that the running shot is fairly common. So spend some time practicing with those three targets.
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.