Alaska DIY Caribou (and So Much More)
By Billy Molls, Rokslide Guest Writer
After about two years of trapping coons, muskrats, mink, beaver, and fox with my grandpa near my parents’ dairy farm in Wisconsin, I knew I wanted more adventure: I wanted to explore a wilderness so vast I could never find it’s end. I wanted to pursue animals that had never seen a human. I wanted to touch the untouched…
“Alaska,” my grandpa told me, “that’s where I’d go if I were a young man. There’s places up there that no man’s ever been.”
My grandpa never went to Alaska himself, but he certainly didn’t steer me wrong.
The farm where Billy’s grandfather, Bill Molls, was raised, where Billy’s dad was raised, and where Billy was raised.
Bill Molls and his dog, Sport, 1922, with muskrats and mink trapped from the same lakes and ponds where he would teach his grandson, Billy, to trap more than 60 years later.
If you’ve longed to experience a land that is raw, unforgiving, desolate, and timeless, there is no doubt you’ve thought about hunting in Alaska. She ain’t the Alaska my grandfather read about in Sports Afield 50 years ago, but it’s still North America’s Last Frontier.
If you’re the hunter who’s tired of saying, “Someday I’ll go to Alaska.” I hope this article helps you realize your own ambitions. If you want a true Alaskan hunting adventure, in my opinion, a DIY caribou hunt is the most cost effective way to experience “The Great Land”.
When glassing a herd of caribou, Billy always looks at the whitest animals first. Those are generally the oldest bulls, and make for spectacular mounts.
In comparison to their body size, “wanderers of the tundra” have largest antlers of any deer. They thrive in some of the most remote, seemingly lifeless areas of Alaska where other species might struggle to survive. Their environment and habits make them such a unique species that even the most experienced and well-traveled sportsman seek to hunt these regal creatures. If you’re on a budget, but long to satiate your craving for the unique flavor that makes Alaska special, go for caribou.
Here are five reasons why:
1- It’s comparatively cheap. Though caribou herds are in decline in many areas of Alaska, they are still quite numerous overall. With high supply, price is low. Most fly-out DIY caribou hunts with food and camping gear will run $3k-$4k. If you want to furnish your own grub and gear you can certainly do that, and maybe save a little cash. To answer the million dollar question: All in, from your doorstep to Alaska, fly into the bush with a reputable air service, shoot a bull, ship it home, and fly back, you’re likely to have a minimum of $5k. Average would be more like $6K-$7K per person.
Pictured are Gus Quade and Billy’s father, Joe Molls, both in their late ’60s. Billy produced a DVD, “Hunt for the Unknown” about this hunt, his humble beginnings, and his journey to Alaska, (click here to watch the trailer)
2- All ages and abilities can hunt caribou. Depending on where you hunt, most caribou bulls are roughly 250-500 pounds. This is a far cry from a 1,800-pound moose! When a caribou is down they aren’t too difficult to butcher and pack out. Also, often times a lazy hunter like me (I prefer to consider myself patient rather than lazy), is able to shoot caribou very close to camp. If you’re a young buck looking to chase down the biggest bull you see, you certainly have that option as well. In the end, hunters of all skill levels and abilities have a great chance of success when hunting caribou.
3- When hunting most species, more than two hunters in a camp significantly reduces your chances. That’s often not the case with caribou. Thus, hunting them offers great camp life potential for parties of hunters. Caribou are a herd animal. Where you find one, you usually find many. If you’re looking to hunt with multiple friends or family members, this typically will not hinder your chances of success. Groups of four-six, or possibly more, are not uncommon for DIY caribou hunts.
Often times mature bulls travel together. Groups of hunters should plan ahead of time as to the maximum number animals they are able to ethically harvest, butcher, and process at one time.
4- Success for DIY caribou is typically very high. Some years, some operations will go 100% success on DIY caribou. That said, caribou hunting can be feast or famine. I’ve never seen it, or been a part of one, but there are certainly plenty of horror stories about guys not seeing anything on their hunt. Do your homework when searching for an air service or transporter, but know that no matter where you go or who you go with, it is still hunting,
5- When hunting caribou you never know what you might see. Depending on the area you hunt, you may see muskox, Dall sheep, moose, wolverine, wolf, grizzly bears, black bears, waterfowl, fox, etc. Sighting other species greatly adds to the experience. It is highly likely you will see many other game animals.
A herd of Muskoxen feed on the Alaskan tundra.
There are some areas in Alaska you can drive to and hunt caribou, but then so can everyone else. The best way to experience Alaska is to fly out into the bush. There are two main methods of hunting caribou: river floating and drop-off/hunt by foot.
I recently shared a two-part article about Alaska DIY moose hunting on Rokslide. In that article you will find information and things to be aware of when selecting an air service. Also you will find information about drop-off hunts and river floats. All the advantages and disadvantages listed there will apply to caribou, so if you came this far, please refer to that article here.
For the sake of this piece, I will focus on drop-off caribou hunts, because I feel it is the most common, generally less expensive, easier method of hunting for the novice, and I feel it typically offers equal, if not higher success than a float trip.
Four Keys To A Successful Caribou Hunt
1- Be patient. Don’t wake up your first morning and go charging off in search of caribou. Countless gung-ho caribou hunters have made valiant, yet unfruitful stalks, only to look several miles across the tundra and see a herd of caribou passing within rifle range of camp. Let your eyes do the walking.
90% of your time caribou hunting should be spent glassing.
2- Don’t be too patient! Most air taxis are going to try to drop you off ahead of the herd. When you wake up on Day 1 and see 1,000 caribou, just know they may all be gone tomorrow. As farmers always say, “You’ve gotta make hay while the sun is shining.” If the caribou are there, you’d best get after them.
3- Always be prepared. As soon as you step out of the tent in the morning you are hunting. I bet I’ve had a dozen hunters shoot their caribou right out of camp. In August in Northern Alaska it’s daylight almost ’round the clock. Often I’ll get up during the night and glass from my tent. You never know what you’ll find. Many times caribou will get curious of your tent and wander right to you.
A fine caribou bull passes by camp after hunters are tagged out. In northern Alaska bulls typically start shedding their velvet around August 25.
4- Observe the animals your hunting. Caribou are very unpredictable. At times they’re the spookiest critter in the world; but other times they’re so curious and stupid it’s not even fair. You must remember that they are herd animals. A client and I once pussyfooted our way through a herd of over 700 head to kill the herd bull. The herd was strung out for over a mile. As they fed by, we slowly maneuvered ourselves to intercept the big bull. Many caribou noticed us. When they did, we simply sat down, waited for them to pass, and continued on until the next one saw us. Some passed so close we could have almost spit on them. We never would have gotten away with that in a small herd. Those caribou felt very secure because they knew there was a high probability we would not harm them, but rather one of the other 699. Every stalk is different. Observe the “mood” of the herd and trust your instincts. Slow, indirect stalks often work best.
This happy hunter shot his massive bull at 120 yards out of a herd of 700 animals.
Time Of Year
Most caribou hunting in Alaska is going to take place August 1- mid-September. It’s typically a crapshoot as far as what time of the year is best. If you love wild game meat, I’d recommend going early. The flesh of an early season caribou is pretty hard to beat. If antlers are what you’re most concerned with, I’d go later in the year. You should expect the possibility of rain, snow, high winds, and all-around good-old-fashioned miserable weather anytime, but if you go in September you should expect freezing conditions. Many Alaskan hunters have been stranded for weeks when the lake they landed on by floatplane froze over before they could be extracted. However, late season often offers fantastic hunting as caribou join in larger herds.
1- Wiggy’s Waders. If you’re being dropped off by wheel plane on a ridge top, Wiggy’s Waders are a great lightweight option for river crossings (Rokslide review here) If you’re floating or expecting a lot of water fords, hipboots or chestwaders are advised.
2- Gaiters. I use Firstlite’s Brambler Gaiters You will often be in wet grass and brush, and also boggy terrain. Quality gaiters are a must.
3- Jet Boil. Most of your hunting time should be spent glassing. If you need to walk away from your camp to glass, having a lightweight, portable stove to heat food and drink will help keep you vigilant and warm.
Billy takes the foam out of his hard rifle case and fills it with clothing and other gear. The case will weigh exactly 50 pounds for commercial air travel, the maximum weight for checked baggage.
4-Zip-off insulated pants. After you hike to your glassing knob, you can put these on over top of your regular pants without taking off your boots. When you spot game, you quickly unzip them, and start your stalk. I’ve used Montbell for years, but I’m excited to try Firstlite’s new Uncompahgre Pants, which serve the exact same purpose.
5- For tips on trekking poles, tarps, game bags, knives, tents, communication devices, and more gear tips that will certainly apply to a DIY caribou hunt, you may again refer to some of my gear tips in my moose article here.
You never know what type of weather you might encounter on your Alaskan adventure. Good gear is critical for your enjoyment, success, and safety.
In many areas of Alaska caribou tags can be purchase OTC. In areas where you need to apply, you will need to purchase a non-resident Alaska hunting license for $160 and apply before December 15th of the year prior to your hunt. Caribou tags doubled in price this year, and are now $650. Where there are caribou there are wolves. Wolf tags are $60 each. Wolf season will most likely be open and bag limits are typically high, so I recommend buying at least one, if not two wolf tags. The wolf is one of the hardest trophies to come by. Do the caribou and yourself a favor; pay the extra money for the tag. If you don’t, and you see a wolf on your hunt, you will never forgive yourself.
This article is merely a scratching of the surface on various aspects of DIY caribou hunting in Alaska. With books, videos, blogs, forums, and other resources you will find so much information so quickly, it can become overwhelming. A good air taxi, transporter, or hunting consultant will simplify, and help you through the process. It really is quite a simple procedure, though, once you get started.
I was 10 years old when I knew that I was going to go to Alaska. By the time I arrived at the age of 19, my innocent yearning and dream to “live like a mountain man” had been corrupted by my ego and prideful ambitions of shooting record book trophies of every species. You know what happened to me when I flew into the Alaskan bush? My ego and pride got squashed. I was so scared on my first flight into the mountains, I’m surprised I didn’t pee my pants. I learned real quick the wilderness of Alaska isn’t a place you go to prove yourself; it’s a place you go to discover yourself.
A young Billy Molls packing out a client’s bull caribou.
I’m about embark on my 20th season of guiding hunters in Alaska. I’ve guided for hundreds of trophies, but haven’t yet tagged one of my own. If you go to Alaska focused solely on record books and inches, there’s a strong chance you’ll be disappointed. If you go to Alaska in search of adventure in a beautiful, rugged, desolate, untouched wilderness, you will certainly find that…and so much more.
Good Hunting and Godspeed,
Billy Molls high atop Alaska’s Brooks Range.
Now is the time to book your own 2018 Alaskan DIY caribou hunt with help from an expert! To contact Billy to book your own DIY moose and caribou, or other guided hunts in Alaska click here
To watch a sample of some of Billy’s Modern Day Mountain Man Alaska hunting videos click here
To see more photos of Billy’s Alaskan hunting adventures click here
You can ask Billy questions or discuss this article here