Itcha Mountain Caribou
Heading into the Itcha mountains on horseback was more then just a great hunting opportunity, it was more like a tradition in our family. Before it was about hunting our family would ride into that country just to explore it. As kids seeing home movies and hearing stories about the Itcha mountains made it feel like an almost magical place.
As I grew into my early twenties and began hunting harder and deeper every year. My dad (Gary) and I (Devin) had been talking about heading into to the Itcha mountains to hunt Caribou. In 2011 the 5 point bull caribou hunt was still and general open season that started on Sept.1st. We made the call in the spring of that year to go in on horse back the same way my dad and his parents went in almost 20 years before. My dad had to do all the prep work on his own with the horses as I was living in the Kootenays and he was up in Quesnel. The nerves/excitement are very real when preparing for a hunt like this especially when you haven't seriously rode a horse in over 8 years. This would be the first time that I had ever rode with a pack train and gone about 40 kms in one way on horseback. That first trip was allot of fun and we had a great time but the early septemper weather that year wasn't favorable to hunting as we were seeing mid afternoon temps in the high 20's. We had only come accross a few caribou no bulls, saw a couple wolves and one large boar Grizz. The trip was still full of excitement as we ran into some trouble with horse and had to work our way out of a couple hairy situation's. We spent about a week in the back country, the horses came out lighter after the trip but we actually might have put on some pounds as we ate like kings the whole trip thanks to Mom.
A few years went by and life hadn't allowed for another trip to the Itcha's before the season had moved from G.O.S. to LEH. My Dad and I started applying for the hunt but had no expectations of ever drawing a tag but thought might as well try. After only a couple years of trying I drew a tag in 2018. At first glance I hadn't given much thought to making the trip happen, but after telling my Dad I pulled the tag he was excited to get the horses in shape and head back into that country together. It took very little convincing on his part and I was signed up to head back. The nerves / excitement settled in again as the hunt drew near, again i hadn't rode a horse seriously since the last time we did the Itcha hunt. This time Dad had wanted to take 5 horses in with us instead of 4, it seemed like a good strategy, only worries were some green pack horses that hadn't been one many long trips. My draw had opened on Sept 10th so we had planned to ride in a couple days before and be ready to hunt opening morning. I had drove up to Quesnel from the Kootenays and arrived a day in advance to help prepare for the hunt. We had some trouble right out of the gate as one of the horses decided he didn't want to go into the trailer, and cost us about 2 hours that first morning. We drove west from Quesnel for about 3 hours arriving at the trail head about midday. We got everything sorted and began up the trail in the afternoon. Not really knowing where we would make it that day we decided to ride as far as we could and stop somewhere along the trail for the night. We ended up riding for about an hour in the dark and managed to find a flat spot on the the side of the trail to camp for the night, as seen in one of the photos below. The next morning we figured we were less then half way in and had what was sure to be a long day ahead of us. Riding on an old seismic line you are presented with some pretty spectacular views of the landscape as you ride up and down rolling mountains. Our goal was to make it to one of the cabins in the park, and call that basecamp for our hunt. We made to kettle cabin a few hours before nightfall. Kettle cabin is built right on kettle lake and close to the plateau we were planning to start our hunt at. Not seeing much activity on the trail in we had some hope that there weren't to many other hunters in at this time. There are only 2 ways hunters can come into this area to hunt, either by horseback or fly into Itcha lake and hunt by foot from there.
Opening morning had arrived and we started are way up the trail at first light, leaving our pack train back at camp while we hunted from our riding horses. We had noticed some fresh boot tracks in the mud on the trail now suspected some hunters to be in the vicinity. We passed one camp on the trail in, but knew that the country was big enough to continue onward. As we crested the summit and rode past the Itcha plateau shed pile seen in photos below. We were on the lookout for any movement in the distance as the Caribou were known to travel and graze across this plateau often. About 10 mins into riding we herd a gun shot straight ahead of us maybe a km away it was followed by a couple more and then silence. The first thought that comes to you when hearing other hunters shoot in an area you are also hunting is usually disappointment and uncertainty. After hearing the shots we decided to continue on and if we run into these hunters we might as well chat with them. Sure enough we crested a small rise ahead of us and saw three hunters about 300 yards off in the distance. We rode up to these guys and checked out there bull. It was a great bull still in velvet and the first bull caribou we have ever seen first hand. Chatting with them for a bit we learned that they only had only one tag, they had been in there scouting for several days and had informed us that there were other legal bulls in the herd. After congratulating them and saying our farewells we headed off in a direction where we all agreed might give us the best odds to find a bull for ourselves.
We began riding towards the highest rise on the plateau that would give us a great vantage point to glass from. About half way to this spot I notice movement way off in the distance moving along the tree line. I quickly dismounted and through some glass on the animal, it turned out to be a bull and he was on the move he walked along the tree line for about 300 yards and then disappeared into them. The trees weren't that tall so we decided to ride to the top of the hill we were headed for to see if we could pick him back up from a higher vantage point. As we made our way to the top we quickly noticed two Caribou about a km away grazing across the open terrain. After giving them a look with bino's from the tops of our horses we decided it was worth pulling the spotting scope out to have a better look at them. After glassing them up for a few moments it was decided quickly that they were worth a closer look, keeping in mind I was only aloud to take a bull with 5 points or more from the rear point up on one antler.
We made a plan to ride down the hill straight towards the bulls heading for a small patch of alpine spruce trees, that would hopefully put us in shooting range as long as they continued on the current grazing path they were on. Once we rode off the hill it felt like we were concealed well by the landscape between us and the bulls, from here to the patch of trees we couldn't see them anymore and wouldn't know if they were gone until we got close to them. After probably 10 mins of riding we reached the edge of the trees and dismounted. Since our horses were fairly inexperienced around gun shots Dad decided the best play would be for him to stay and hold the horses instead of just tying them up. I grabbed my spotter and rifle and started weaving my way threw the labyrinth of 10 foot tall alpine spruce trees. The patch of trees may have been 100 yards in Día and worked really well for keeping us concealed. As I approached the side of the thicket the Caribou should be on I decided to crawl to the edge in hopes I would go undetected. As luck would have it the bulls grazed exactly where we were hoping they would. I set up the spotter and started looking to see if either of the bulls would be legal. The front bull had cleaned off tan colored antlers and looked to be only a 4 point so my attention quickly turned to the other guy. At first glance he appeared to be the larger bull, his antlers were still covered in a dark brown velvet, which looked awesome but made it more challenging to pick up any extra points. He was also palmated on his tops which added to the challenged of verifying points as well. The bulls must of found a nice patch to eat on as they slowed there movement and ate still for long enough that I didn't need to make a quick decision. I ranged them at 250 yards, It took me a little while to pick up and be certain the velvet bull had a legal points as it wasn't evident in the traditional line of top points. I picked up about a 3 inch sticker on the inside of one of his antlers and ruled out a back top point that would make him six because with velvet on it looked a little webbed to me and i didn't want to chance it one that. Once I determined he was legal I had one more predicament to get through the bull i was hoping to kill had a radio collar on and both his ears were tagged. Having no experience with something like this i made the call to quickly head back to Dad and make a decision on what to do with him.
I explained him the whole situation and he was pretty confident that it was ok to harvest a legal animal that has been radio collared. I had a copy of the hunting regs loaded on my phone and quickly searched for the section on radio collared animals, this whole situation probably only took 5 mins but felt like it was taking forever and we might lose our opportunity on this bull. Finding the section in the regs and reading the words DO NOT AVOID hunting animals with ear tags and radio collars, i read this out loud probably 5 times to be sure we were understanding it properly we both agreed it was ok to take the bull.
Gear List to come...