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Big Game Hunting in Newfoundland

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Early September Caribou Hunt.

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March 26th, 2016

Newfoundland, September 14th-19th, 2015 

Woodland Caribou

            

I’m thinking to myself that this is going to be a long journey for me as I’m leaving to fly to Gander, Newfoundland. However it’s not the first time I’ve been there, the last time I landed in Gander…. was 53 years ago on my way to Cuba, together with my Mom and my brother.  An old story many moons ago…

 I set off on Saturday at noon from Warsaw, Poland flying via Paris to Montreal where I arrive at 10pm, local time. A brief night’s stay at a hotel near the airport and I depart the next day heading for Halifax, Nova Scotia where I quickly change flights and board a plane to Gander. I am picked up, as planned, by Craig - a big game hunting guide and the owner of Hinterland Outfitting Ltd. Some months before I had managed to reserve a hunting permit for Woodland Caribou - one of the caribou sub-spices which you can only hunt on this island, but what’s more, I also have a tag for an Eastern Canadian moose. I am the last hunter to arrive so upon leaving the airport we all head directly to the camp aptly name Quite Haven- our hunting base for the week. After a three and a half hour drive on gravel road through the endless forest we arrive. Very soon it’s 5pm, suppertime as they call it, me I call it dinner time. Over a great meal prepared by Craig’s wife Alice the camp cook, we talk to each other and I make acquaintances with the other hunters and Craig’s hunting guides.  

Monday, the first day of hunting, I wake-up at 4:40am, it is still pitch black. We have been told that the buzz from the generator will be a wake-up call for everyone. Suddenly the silence is broken by the diesel engine on the generator who’s murmur will stay with us throughout most of the day as it is used to provide electricity for the lodge. Craig and his wife are preparing breakfast: fried eggs, bacon, ham, bologna, toast tea and coffee.  I think to myself that this is enough food to last me all day let alone until lunch at 1 pm. I am sitting at the table with five hunters from the United States and Craig. The others guides are having their breakfast at another table as it is hard to seat twelve persons at one table. At 6:15am we finish breakfast and are off, we are ready for the road. Everybody leaves on ATV’s, Harold my guide and I are the second in the line. It’s still dark when we reach the “main” road and turn to the right. From then on we don’t see anybody for hours. It’s still dawn when we see a showy outline of an animal on the road; it turns out to be a cow moose. She flees immediately, disappearing into the dense thickets. While driving past where she had stood we see her again, moving slowly away from the road. However, apart from some squirrels, this is the first and last wild animal we see this morning but we do see a lot of sign but being a seasoned hunter I knew it was only a matter of time before we would meet our potential quarry.

We begin our afternoon hunting at 3pm after arriving back at camp just past 12:30. Soon, it starts to rain heavily, I have my waterproof jacket with me but have left my waterproof pants back at camp by mistake and after a few minutes I am soaked from the waist down and my dry upper torso is a tiny consolation as it’s the only part of me that’s dry. We decide to return to the lodge so I can change but suddenly, Harold notices a caribou, grazing some 250 meters from us. The animal is back on to us with its head in the undergrowth allowing us no way to identify the sex and to assess the antlers, if it has any at all. The only way to do so is to approach and see. Before I began stalking I was wet, now walking through the underbrush I am dripping wet, I can feel it in my socks as now my boots are also soaked. I manage to approach the feeding animal to about 60 meters and discover it is a young stag with its antlers still in velvet. I return to the road, still unnoticed by the caribou. Soon, we are on our way back to the camp and after 30 minutes in the rain we reach our destination, now completely wet to the skin from head to toe. I decide we should stay at camp and get things dried for tomorrow which we do.

andre3caribou

Tuesday starts just like Monday ended, a light but steady rain greets us as we mount our ATV, but now my clothes are dry and I am dressed well for the weather. I feel real comfortable in my waterproof garments so we hunt all morning but see nothing.  After a ninety minute nap after lunch we resume hunting again at 3pm, the weather improves a little and it’s not raining any more. We return to the place where we were the previous day, Caribou Road. Some other guests in camp have already spotted caribou there but they couldn’t shoot as I am the only one to have a caribou tag for the week. Each time the six quads would leave the lodge the other hunters would wish me good luck but this time I feel the chances are on my side. Later when we are on our way back to the camp at precisely 6 pm and after reaching another point of high ground, I spot a stag caribou just standing on the roadside. Harold stops the quad and I get off and load my gun. A short moment of watching through my binoculars and I know that antlers are not in velvet and I want to shoot. The caribou is 220 yards from us and Harold suggests that we could get closer but I am firm about shooting from where we stand. I prop the gun against the front of the quad, kneel and place the crosshairs on its chest. I squeeze the trigger and the stag reacts like it’s hit and runs along the road. After a while it turns left and disappears from sight. I pop my clip and jump onto the quad and we move quickly to the scene. There is nothing there, apart from the clear sign in the road where the caribou had turned and ran, but no blood or hair. We follow its tracks in the road and when we come to the spot where the stag had turned left, to our joy we see him lying dead a few yards from the road. It takes us forty minutes for photos, field dressing and quartering. We fix the front half to the front of Harold’s ATV and the two hind quarters to the back of the quad, a move Craig didn’t like as he has proper carts to carry game in!! After several hundred meters I comment to Harold that we will now probably see a caribou every day, and maybe one that’s even bigger. Sure enough my prediction comes true, quicker than I thought for around the next turn we see two stags in the road and one of them is much bigger that the one I had just shot. I am not the least bit depressed though as I already have “my” Woodland Caribou and I knew that’s the way hunting goes sometimes.

andre4caribouinroad

 Now, it’s time for a moose…

 Wednesday morning welcomes us again with a light drizzle, but it’s a little bit colder. This is a good sign because we are waiting for the rut to start and high temperatures are not good for mating moose. Bull moose need to start their wandering in search of cows in rut as they spend much of the time in thickets and the only chance to meet one it seems is in open field or bog. In the morning none of the hunters see a moose. We have seen so far ten caribou, but moose… not a single trace only the early cow Monday morning. The afternoon hunting is marked again by rain and a very strong wind. Despite that I spot three more caribou including two which approach Harold and I who are sitting to within seven meters. We return to camp at dark and learn that one of the American hunters has just shot the first moose, it’s a good sign.

Thursday morning, 7 degrees Celsius, no rain and the wind stays silent. All of this brings some new hopes for a good day. When Harold and I turn off the main road onto a branch road, we see a cow moose with a calf. We stand at eighty meters and we are in a slight stalemate. For quite a while they stand and don’t seem to be willing to allow us to pass. We drive closer, and they turn and very briefly run along in front of us in the middle of the road before turning into the brush. About forty minutes later we see a huge caribou stag which I know is surely a trophy animal and would have no trouble making the books. It takes me a while to convince myself that I am happy with the one I have taken two days ago. In the afternoon we see three more caribou and we also find very fresh signs of a large moose. Harold is truly amazed by the size of the tracks and he has seen many in his years. We are sure the moose had to be travelling along the road towards us, and most probably when it heard us approaching, it turned abruptly into the dense bushes on the edge of the road. We tried to follow it but the brush was too dense and we quickly lost its tracks. We try calling and raking but get no response and it turns out to be the last exciting moment of the entire day. In the afternoon the temperature rises significantly, and it seemed the animals just stayed still.

Friday the last full day of my hunting adventure has a promising start for despite the weather, which was still not very positive shortly after dawn we meet the first cow. She is standing by the road and we watch her for twenty seconds before she disappears in the brush. After fifteen minutes Harold spots another cow, on the left side of the road. Both cows as were all of the rest we had seen were without bulls and it confirms our beliefs that the rut this year is later than normal. We see no other game despite travelling through some very promising looking spots filled with young growth and open bogs.

Our bad luck stays with us even for the afternoon and we see no moose however we have again changed hunting locations. It was worth coming to Newfoundland just to be able to view the gentle slopes covered with a young forest and intersected with boggy meadows which are full of moss and swaying grass. The old trees were lost to insects in the 1970s and 1980s and what remained was transformed into pulp and paper, but the island is still very wild. A new forest has naturally grown and has covered the entire area except in the wetlands. The forest is so different from what we know in Europe. Gravel roads once used to transport wood during and after logging and which are now slowly getting covered with vegetation, are the only sign of man’s hand. At present these roads are used mainly by hunters from Craig’s lodge, I only saw one or two other people during my stay. Berries and mushrooms are plenty,  you just need to bend from the quad to pick a handful of blue berries. Small bushes of blue and red berries - a true titbit for black bears that live here - cover large spaces competing with ubiquitous moss. I marvel at the wildlife and am in awe at the view, truly amazing. There are pristine rivers flowing in all the valleys and the slopes are covered with green forests and yellow meadows. Here and there you can see smaller and larger marshes which add to the variety of colors. Now, a moose passing by would really do… In the evening, our hosts and guides prepare a surprise. There are folk songs, dances and stories about local customs. I understand but a tiny bit of their “perfect” English. Surprisingly though, the Americans, are laughing to tears. The party ends for most at 2 am but I manage to escape before 1 am.

Andre2

Saturday morning comes and so does my the last chance to hunt moose. Apparently I need to come back here because in a twist of fate I see three more beautiful caribou stags, but no moose. I like all of the guides and other hunters cannot understand how you can see so much fresh sign, see cows but no bulls. At 11 am my hunting adventure in Newfoundland comes to an end and we head back home towards the lodge.  Once there I quickly pack my luggage and Craig drops me off at the airport in Gander. My return flight is via Halifax to Montreal then I head to Alberta for another week of hunting whitetail deer.

We all feel a little tired on the way back and some of us enjoy a little sleep mainly due to the late party and the six days of driving and walking the countryside. What’s more we are all not in the elated good mood that successful hunters always seem to be in, we had planned on harvesting seven animals in total, but we take only three.  Apart from my caribou, the group has only managed to take only two bull moose, with not exactly very impressive antlers.

We have already decided that three of us are coming back later this year without having taken a shot at a moose. We all saw an abundance of good sign from both caribou and moose despite the weather and just about all of us feel that it’s all because of the weather which has postponed the mating season. It was too warm and too rainy. Although moose tracks were many, they were mostly left by these giants during the night while feeding. During the day they slept somewhere in the boundless wilderness of local forests giving us no chances to see them, though it was not for the lack of trying on our part. The rut is the only time when moose, especially the bulls become vocal, marking their presence with specific grunting sounds, and when they start to wander in search of cows. This is the time when hunters have the highest chances to meet them over the day. Anybody who has hunted a red deer outside the mating period knows how difficult it is. Although Newfoundland is the home of the most densest moose population in the world, you will not come across them if they spend the majority of their time bedded down, hidden somewhere.

 

Andre Bilip, Poland

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