Ian Harford Ian Harford

Date: March 17, 2012

Hunting Woodland Caribou in Newfoundland with Ironbound Outfitters

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Ian Harford is on the trail of one of the most highly sought after North American trophies

As usual, our day started before sunrise. Our epic journey would see us covering a considerable distance and we needed to make headway as soon as the first rays of light pierced the darkness. Despite our enthusiasm, the wilds Newfoundland are no place to be out in the dark.

Including myself, there were four hunters in camp. Three of us had already experienced success during the first two days of the hunt, with each of us taking good trophy bull moose. There was a positive mood in camp and I was eager to get moving.

Ironbound Outfitters operate numerous hunting camps in the Peter Strides area of southwest Newfoundland offering Canadian moose, black bear and woodland caribou.

It is one of the last places on earth you can hunt woodland caribou and has become an important destination for hunters wanting to complete their ‘Grand Slam’ or every species North American ‘big game’.

I knew just how challenging the hunting could be. After all, I’d hunted black bear with Ironbound earlier in the spring, and come away empty-handed.

I’d returned in the autumn to with renewed vigour to meet the challenge of the ‘Newfoundland Grand Slam’. Although slightly less grandiose than the name suggests, this involves hunting each of the island’s three species of big game.

Harvesting my first Canadian moose had been the realization of a lifelong hunting dream. Now my focus was on the elusive woodland caribou. Unfortunately for me, the two species like entirely different terrain.

Moose like the thick, swampy, densely wooded valleys, whereas woodland caribou prefer the open ‘tundra’ type environment. As our primary species was moose, we’d stayed at the ‘Sharon Valley’ camp, which was nestled into a deeply wooded hillside overlooking forests and valleys – perfect moose country.

However our destination was ‘Ironbound Camp’ perched on the side of the lake from which it earned it’s name. Between us was an epic journey through impossibly thick spruce forests, over towering granite mountains and across treacherous swamps – and that was before the hunting began!

By this time, I’d acclimatized to the conditions and had a better understanding of the gear I needed. Picturesque though it may be, the going here is tough.

From a distance, you can plan your route to take in what looks like ‘the path of least resistance’ only to find yourself battling with impenetrable 12 feet high spruce patches.

These claw at your ankles and tear at your clothes with an intensity that’s hard to describe. It sometimes feels as if these twisted masses of Kevlar-strong vegetation are deliberately impeding your progress – and boy do they sap your strength.

At times I took a breather mid-way through a patch, only to find myself completely suspended in mid-air, almost as if I was caught in a giant spiders web!

If I’d been wearing anything other than Rivers West, I’d likely have emerged naked from the other side of every spruce patch I encountered!

It may not be as breathable as some technical hunting apparel out there, but it’s stronger and more durable than anything I’ve ever used.

With their built in ventilation and multiple storage options, the Rivers West Ranger trousers we’re perfect for these conditions.

I’d also taken the new Rivers West Field Pro Smock, but this spent most of it’s time strapped to my pack, only emerging occasionally to protect me from the wind.

The temperature was unseasonably warm. Luckily for us, there was no shortage of water along the way. From a distance, the terrain here looks much like the Highlands of Scotland – my favourite hunting terrain.

The only difference is that in place of heather grabbing at your legs, there’s the spruce. But just like Scotland, there’s always a brook for you to quench your thirst.

My guide, Gary, didn’t carry a water bottle with him. Instead he had a small plastic cup clipped to his belt. Every now and again he’d scoop up a cup of the peaty brown water and pass it to me. It looked somewhat reminiscent of dirty dishwater, but after 3 hours of solid climbing, it tasted divine!

We’d made good progress from camp and after around three hours of climbing we reached the edge of a huge granite escarpment. This effectively marked the boundary between ‘moose valley’ and ‘caribou country’.

There was a pronounced change in the density of the woodland here. The higher we climbed, the more open the terrain became. As we began our ascent of the mountain we happened across a couple of the local residents.

A good-sized bull had spotted our approach and headed back into the thick stuff, turning back to peer at us from a safe vantage point. However, the cow that was with him came for a closer look, approaching within around 30 yards.

We were probably the first humans she’d ever seen and she studied us for some time before losing interest and following her beau back into the spruce.

“That’s the difference with this country” suggested Gary. “We could have walked past a moose at less than 10 yards back in the thick stuff and you’d never have seen. Once it thins out, it’s much easier to see them”.

It’s not until you’re up close and personal that you can really get an idea of the size of these creatures. One step can cover as much as 8 feet at a time, making them appear to float across the swamps.

We continued on, and I could feel that we we’re getting close. As we reached the top of the escarpment our environment changed dramatically. Out of the shelter of the mountain the wind was both strong and relentless.

The ground was littered with boulders and covered with a thick carpet of lush green grass, broken intermittently with colonies of spruce. The environment was harsh and I could imagine that in the deep of winter this place could be very inhospitable indeed.

We began seeing signs of our quarry almost immediately. Woodland caribou have a light tan back and almost pure white underbelly. With good binoculars it’s easy to pick them out from afar.

I’d taken my Zeiss Victory 10x45T* rangefinding binoculars, which were perfect for this type of hunting. The rangefinding facility is not only useful for calculating holdover, but they allow you to navigate between landmarks and also assess the best position from which to take your shot.

We’d spotted a number of younger bulls and cows grazing into the wind around 1500 yards away. As we approached, Gary spotted a mature bull, some 800 yards to our left. He wasn’t a particularly huge bull, but we decided to take a closer look.

However, the wind wasn’t on our side. We were forced to take a wide berth to get downwind. We lost sight of the bull for a short time as we maneuvered into position. All of the sudden he appeared less than 100 yards to our right – broadside, but looking straight at us!

We stood perfectly still and waited for him to move on. You could tell he wasn’t sure about us, but he wasn’t giving us the benefit of the doubt, walking on at a brisk pace.

As he disappeared over the ridge, I sprinted up to the top and took up position on a huge boulder, ready for him to stop. But he wasn’t playing ball and just kept on walking.

My Blaser R8 Professional in .300 WinMag was fitted with a Zeiss Victory Diarange 3-12x56T* range finding scope. This allowed me to get into position and continuously ‘range’ the bull as he walked. This meant I’d know the exact distance to the target and be ready to take the shot the moment he stopped.

I could feel the wind slamming me against the rock as I watched the readout; 280 yards, 320 yards, 360 yards and on. It was just too far in these conditions. I needed to get closer.

Our bull finally took up position on a plateau offering a perfect view down the valley, with the lake behind him on one side and a steep granite cliff on the other. If Newfoundland had a ‘Fort Knox’ it would be built right here!

We took five to assess our position and establish our strategy. It was not going to be easy as our bull had a perfect vantage point and the wind was on not on our side.

We had two choices – swim the lake to get up behind him or undertake a gruelling stalk back down the valley, around the mountains opposite us and then down the granite cliff behind and downwind of him. I hadn’t brought my speedos, so there was only one option.

The next four hours offered the most physically demanding stalk of my life. There were easier ways to cross the valley, but each would have put us in direct view of our bull.

We trekked all the way down the valley and crossed the valley on the shores of the lake below. Our climb was as arduous as the one we endured earlier in the day and our strength was waning.

The only thing that kept me going was that I could always see the tips of the bull’s antlers as we circumnavigated his position. “This is why we are here” I kept telling myself.

Slowly but surely we inched closer and closer. A thousand yards became 300 and we began to finalise our approach. Once we were within 100 yards, another problem presented itself.

Our bull was on an elevated plateau, surrounded by boulders. Even if I got close enough, it would be almost impossible to make a clean shot.

Gary held back as I made my final approach alone. Every movement was deliberate and careful. I was within 50 yards now and I could almost hear him breathing.

My heart was beating like a drum, both from the exertion and the excitement. But now was not the time for rash decisions. I could clearly see his antlers above the rock. Every time they moved I froze – just in case he was ready to stand.

Eventually I reached the base of his podium and was at a loss what to do next. I decided to wait until he moved and take a picture of the top of his antlers. He was just 41 yards away.

I took my compact camera from my thigh pocket and flipped down the lens cover. I saw his head turn towards me immediately. He must have heard this almost inaudible ‘click’ and was now alert.

I knew he’d move so I raised the Blaser and waited for my chance. I’d already turned the magnification down to 3x knowing I’d need to make a quick shot.

All at once he stood, looking directly at me. In one smooth motion, I pushed forward the cocking lever, placed the crosshair behind his shoulder and squeezed the trigger.

The 185 grain Norma Oryx found it’s home and he dropped to the floor. To say I was ‘elated’ would be an understatement. Although not huge, this was a mature bull, which had mastered the art of survival, both from the elements and intrepid hunters.

Ian’s Newfoundland Woodland Caribou Hunting Gear

To book your epic Newfoundland hunting adventure visit www.newfoundlandmoose.com

 

 

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