As hunters wait for the next caribou season to open, the Nelchina herd is moving quickly

Caribou season is done for now. Drive a nail in that.

The state of Alaska seasons have been closed for awhile. The Feds leave their season open no matter what.

The federal reasoning is not based on biology, but rather on “what do you want?” In this case, that does not seem to be a problem. There are plenty of caribou, it’s just a matter of where they are.

It appears that a number of Nelchina caribou split off into the Fortymile herd. That’s not for sure, but it’s a reasonable theory.

The Nelchina caribou began to move quickly this year because of the very early snow in the Denali country. Caribou began crossing through Paxson three weeks earlier than usual, and a number of them were passing through the Paxson Reserve and crossing Paxson Lake more than a week ago.

I personally counted several hundred swim by my house a few days ago. Every day after that brought more. Hunters were around, though not as many as I would have thought.

Most were respectful, and many did not know the boundaries, especially in the Paxson Closed Area which has fairly limited federal access. Fortunately, BLM rangers were only noticeable by their absence.

Several caribou were shot in the ditch, meaning they were likely not technically legally harvested. However, all of us have seen far worse than anything I noticed this week.

I did startle one guy who had no idea anyone was around when he pulled up to some swimming caribou. He stopped, ready to shoot, when I spoke from the brush, reminding him he could not shoot while the animals were swimming. He did not fall out of his boat, but the possibility did exist for a moment.

There were boats running up and down Paxson Lake with limited success. Everyone wants to chase the animals ashore and then shoot when the caribou come out of the water. A running caribou from a bouncing boat is not an easy target.

There were numbers of caribou moving through the Maclaren on Wednesday. They were wasting little time. I watched a herd of 200 cross the Maclaren Valley at 8:30 a.m. Wednesday. At 3:30 in the afternoon the group had passed Glacier Lake and was still going.

The federal season will reopen in three weeks. My guess is most animals will have crossed the Richardson Highway by then. There’s another round of heavy snow in the forecast, which would hasten travel for this migration.

The Feds have a tendency to reopen the season earlier at times to allow access for local hunters. The issue with an early opening is hunters who insist on shooting the biggest bull they see — and thus harvest an animal that is in mid-rut and inedible.

I made the mistake of taking a big bull from the Porcupine herd on Halloween many years ago when I was trapping north of the Arctic Circle. Big mistake. My dog would hardly eat the meat. I could not.

All of that said, it has been a great opportunity for folks from Glennallen and surrounding communities to harvest winter meat. The moose season was dismal. Early caribou in the Federal areas were hard to come by. The Fortymile herd was available on the Taylor Highway for a short time, but it gets hunted hard and the herd is pushed back from the road fairly quickly.

There is one area of concern that I have, and it’s the lack of calves. The first cow I saw this fall had twin calves — something I rarely have seen. Since that time, I have seen very few calves.

The herd of 200 that moved through the Maclaren several days ago had maybe 15 calves. Of the hundred animals that swam by my house, there were only three calves.

I don’t mean to say this is representative of the entire herd. But it is concerning.

The federal season will re-open. Most of the caribou may have passed, but there will be snowmachine access, which will open a lot more country. Cold weather should freeze all but the big lakes. Some of the Tangle Lakes should be solid enough as long as the zero-degree and colder nights continue, but Paxson and Summit lakes will not have adequate ice.

Hunters, watch your weather, but ready your snowmachines. ATVs will not be an option this October.

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.