The following appears in the July issue of Alaska Sporting Journal:
BY PAUL D. ATKINS
There is not a day that goes by that my phone doesn’t remind me, either with a text message or a call, that fall is just around the corner.
April and May are notorious for these alerts, as hunters start getting the fever of coming to Alaska. They usually want to know the what, where and how information.
“I want to come to Alaska and hunt caribou or moose,” they’ll say. “So what do I need to do?” “Where do I go?” And lastly, “Will you go with me?”
Ha-ha. I’d love too, but can’t; I’ve got too many irons in the fire as it is. But I can give you the basics and point you in the right direction.
WHERE DO I GO?
Depending on the species you plan to pursue in Alaska, you will first have to decide where to go. While many tags can be bought over the counter, others are available through draws only. For example, caribou permits can be purchased online or at the point of origin, but it depends greatly on where you plan to hunt. Also, in some units you can take more than one bull, while others only allow one.
But getting a moose tag has become much harder than just a few years ago. For the most part they are draw only for nonresidents, meaning that you have to apply during the November application period.
Times have changed and so do the number of animals in a particular unit, so the particulars of where and when to go become very important. Moose numbers are down across the state. If nothing else moose have become a very valued commodity.
Caribou and moose hunts, however, can be done without a guide, so if you’re looking for a cheaper hunt, then a do-it-yourself drop camp is the way to go. But if sheep and bear are your quarry, you must not only draw a tag but also hire a guide. This can get quite expensive, but well worth it if planning a hunt of a lifetime.
First and foremost, you should contact wildlife managers who work at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, as it’s called here, and ask about the area, animal populations and bag limits. Local biologists constantly survey the country and know what the animals are doing in terms of not only numbers but also track their migration patterns.
Secondly, check out record books to see where the big bulls are coming from or if you can contact people who have hunted in a particular area before. This kind of information is invaluable when it comes to the logistics of the hunt, while also helping a first-timer know what to expect.
Most areas in Alaska are public, while others belong to native corporations. Be sure to know where you can hunt and also if there might be a trespass fee. Some native land managers charge a fee to hunt, with others only requiring you to get a permit.
There’s also federal land, but that is under the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which has its own restrictions and many of those areas are strictly for the residents of that area. There is also National Park Service land, but it too is usually for subsistence hunts. Be sure and check all regulations.
Unlike the Lower 48, scouting will be out of the question, so ask a lot of questions and research the area long before you go. Once dropped off in an area, you will be left with what you’ve learned through your question-and-answer sessions. By gaining as much knowledge as possible you will be better prepared and probably a lot more successful.
HOW DO I GET THERE?
Even though I wish we could, you can’t drive to most of the really good hunting places, but you need to get there somehow. For most of Alaska it’s either by boat or by plane. If your plans include hunting by boat, then you will either need to know or hire somebody who specializes in that area. Most boat hunters usually cater to locals or those who live in the state. Boat hunting is fun, as it allows the hunter to move to a variety of areas along the many rivers and lakes that cover pretty much the entire state. However, for most transportation by boat isn’t in the cards and you will have to hire a transporter and go by air.
Transporters are pilots who get you from point A to point B and are probably the most overlooked and expensive aspect of any Alaskan hunt. Once you’ve done your research and know the area you plan to hunt, you will need to hire a transporter. You will need to do this long before your hunt starts, as most of the good pilots are booked years in advance.
You shouldn’t take this lightly if you’re serious about hunting up here, so check as many references as possible. Remember, your life is in their hands from the moment you leave town until you return.
WHAT GEAR DO I NEED?
After you’ve chosen what animal you want to hunt, researched the many great areas Alaska has to offer, decided on the unit you plan to hunt, picked your dates and hired a transporter, it’s time to select the proper gear to get it all done.
You should make sure that whatever gear you decide on works properly and is capable of getting the job done. Once out on the tundra or in the mountains it will just be you and maybe a partner or two for the weeklong or 10-day hunt. You don’t want to be carrying something that doesn’t work and is thus worthless and possibly prevents you from taking that bull, bear or ram of a lifetime.
First, you need to think about weather. It will vary depending on where you are in the state, but the one thing you can count on is rain. It will rain, I promise! The key to staying dry and comfortable is to make sure you have a set of high-quality rain gear. I’ve found that anything with the word “Gore-Tex” on it works perfectly for a September trip. Getting wet on that first day will make for a miserable hunt, unless you can get things to dry out, which most times you can’t. My advice is to buy the best rain gear you can afford.
You should also dress in layers. Fleece works best, as it dries out easily and quickly. Also pack four or five pairs of wool socks with cushioned soles. We all know how miserable wet socks can be, and if you’re in waders all day they will be soaked from sweating. After a hard day of hunting change into a dry pair and hang the used socks in the tent or somewhere out of the weather. Your hunting partner may not like it, but you will be able to wear them again in a couple of days. There’s nothing better than putting on a dry pair of socks at the end of the day.
Indeed, those socks and the proper footgear may be the most important tools you bring on an Alaskan hunt.
Choosing the right boot is a top priority and should be taken seriously. Leather hunting boots work great when hunting deer and elk, but when things get wet and sloppy you’ll wish you had something else. I recommend bringing hip waders; even though they’re cumbersome and not the most comfortable, you’ll be glad you have them for crossing rivers. I also recommend insulated knee-high rubber boots.
Depending on the number of hunters in your camp you will need to be thinking about your accommodations. Most hunters who come to Alaska and do the unguided drop camp have to sleep in a tent.
Some hunters like to sleep under nylon while others absolutely hate it. If a tent is in your future, I again suggest getting the best you can afford. You want one that can handle the weather and has plenty of room for your gear and people but doesn’t weigh a ton. There are a lot of great tents out there.
Knives and game bags are also needed if things turn out like you want them to. Good binoculars are also a big plus on any Alaskan hunt. Binos in the 10-power range work great and if you do have to buy a new pair, get the best you can afford. Whether you are trying to determine the antler configuration on a caribou bull or if the moose that is just ahead is legal or not, quality optics are worth their weight in gold.
Other than your rifle/bow and the abovementioned items, you’ll need a headlamp, matches, GPS, satellite phone and water filtration device. Also make sure you have a good sleeping bag and a comfortable sleeping pad.
Bring along dry bags to haul your gear in, a good Coleman stove with fuel, cooking utensils and a food list that works for everybody. Whatever you choose for equipment, you have to be very familiar with it and make sure you know how each piece works.\
IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE I SHOULD DO BEFORE I LEAVE FOR ALASKA?
Yes, practice and exercise! For most of us serious hunters, practice is pretty much a constant, whether it be with a bow or rifle. Long before you go trekking through the tundra, you need to be sure you can effectively hit what you are shooting at. This comes with practice in a variety of situations and knowing for certain what your “effective” range is.
Most shots on caribou, moose or even sheep will seldom be from a standing upright position. It has been my experience that you are usually on your knees or sitting flat on the ground with the wind and rain blowing up your backside. Practice from these positions as much as possible, and do it while wearing the same gear you will be hunting in. This means a full pack, rain gear and waders. This will give you a better feeling of what to expect when the moment of truth arrives.
You also need to exercise. Often as not, most of us are out of shape but still believe we can take on anything the great outdoors has to offer. If you are planning a trip to the Alaskan wilderness, whether it’s mountains or even on the tundra for that matter, you will definitely need to be in shape.
Most people show up not knowing what to expect. Sheep hunting is about as tough as it gets, and even if you are in shape it can be very, very demanding. On the other hand, if your hunt plans include only caribou, you still have to be able to navigate long distances through some pretty rough country.
GET ON IT NOW!
If an Alaskan hunt is in your future or maybe as early as this fall, now is the time to start planning. It’s an adventure of a lifetime, and will create memories that you’ll cherish forever. The feel of the tundra, the smell of camp smoke and that long, hard stalk that produced the big bull that now hangs on your wall and filled up your freezer were all made possible due to good planning Make yours today! ASJ
Editor’s note: Paul Atkins is an outdoor writer and author from Kotzebue, Alaska. He has written hundreds of articles on big game hunting, and fishing throughout North America and Africa, plus surviving in the Arctic. Paul is a monthly contributor to Alaska Sporting Journal.