Awhile back, a friend of mine handed me his idea of a hunting rifle. I shouldered it the way I have shouldered probably a million long guns in my 45 years in the hunting business.
The rifle had the balance and handling dynamics of a weed eater and was about as sleek. It had less metal, more plastic, and more dials and numerals. I had to put on my glasses just to understand all the controls. I never thought my iPhone would be more intuitive than any rifle. To move through the woods or climb hills with it would have been about as handy as packing a small step ladder.
I was confused.
I wanted to say, “What the hell is this?”
Instead, I said, “Wow, this looks like it would really shoot.”
“I don’t think twice about shooting a deer at 800 yards,” he boasted.
The year before I had gone on a mule deer hunt in Nevada. While interviewing the young outfitter over the phone, he said, “You need to be prepared to shoot 600 yards.” I replied, “You need to be prepared to get closer.”
On that same hunt my friend Wade killed a great, non-typical mule deer at 515 yards. His young guide slapped him on the back with disbelief.
“Dude!” he said. “That was old school! You didn’t even use turret knobs. How did you do that?”
“I held over,” Wade replied.
Hunting with a vintage rifle with iron sights and chambered for an “obsolete” cartridge is perhaps like hunting with a long bow. You have to get closer. It’s more rewarding personally and puts a lot more hunt in the chase. So last fall I went on a moose/caribou hunt carrying vintage rifles with my friend Lon Paul, who sees it the same way I do.
Arguably one of the finest gunmakers in the world, Lon was carrying a Winchester Model 95 lever action in .35 Winchester, built in 1906 with a “climbin’ Lyman” 21 aperture sight. I had a 1949 Winchester Model 71 Deluxe in .348 with a period-correct Redfield receiver sight. We both had the same idea of how it should be. Wool clothes, Marble’s knives and compasses, canvas packs, and standard 8X glasses without rangefinders.
I was happy to find Newfoundland—the country, the boats, the rivers, mountains, and ocean—all looked exactly how I imagined. We had a great old cabin that had been hacked out of the forest, 20 feet off the shore of a big lake with a river and rapids on either end of it.
I lined up my guide based on the fact that he mentioned in the winter months he was a trapper—always the sign of a woodsman. Also, he was my age, but faster. I was looking forward to hunting moose, but what really had me going was the dream of woodland caribou. As a boy, I had a Pictorial Wildlife and Game Map of the United States taped to the wall over my bed. That map showed woodland caribou in Montana, and I always loved the idea of hunting them there.
Now there are probably less than a dozen left in Montana, and currently the only place where I know I can actually hunt them is Newfoundland. So while dinner was boiling (they boil a lot of food in Newfoundland), I asked my guide, Gary, “Have You seen a lot of caribou?”
“I’ve seen two,” Gary said.
I flinched a little at the way he said it.
“Only two this season?”
“Only two in my life...out here anyway. In 18 years.”
Dumbfounded, I answered in the only way I could.
“Well, I guess we better get an early start.”
The next morning we left before daylight.
By 3:00 that afternoon, between the hiking up, down, over, and through the beautiful landscape of Newfoundland and the berserk weather patterns it throws at you, I felt like a character in the The Lord Of The Rings. A woodland caribou had taken the form of a quest for me.
We were sitting on a promontory 30 minutes later, glassing through yet another rain squall, when I saw a patch of white moving about two miles away. When I was sure, I said, “Gary, I’m looking at a bull caribou.”
“You’re shitting me!”
I walked him in: past the gray patch above the last lake, below the skyline, look to the far right.
“I can’t believe it,” he said.
We took off and maintained a fast pace for about 45 minutes in a direction we hoped would intersect the bull. And as those things usually go, you find yourself over your head in dense brush, thinking: “He’s close but I have no idea where, and he has to be spooked because I sounded like a Bush Hog getting here.”
Then I saw him dip down into a fold of a hill about 175 yards away.
“That’s too far to shoot,” Gary hissed. “Why did you bring that old gun?”
“Because I didn’t realize we were hunting unicorns.”
We never saw that caribou again.
But I was okay with it. I knew if there’s one, there has to be two. And I was actually happy. I’d seen a woodland caribou in the wild. Gary was not so convinced. He figured there was one, and we didn’t have the right scope on the right flat-shooting rifle. We’d lost our great opportunity.
About an hour later we were floundering around through a shin-tangle bog. I looked up, and as if in a dream, there was another, bigger bull with two cows picking its way down a draw.
I gave Gary “the sign.” The caribou obviously saw “the sign” because I was waving and pointing like an idiot. It disappeared into the alder-choked draw. We paralleled the draw best we could, trying to not make a sound. I held the rifle at port arms, round chambered, hammer on halfcock, knowing the caribou were close. Then suddenly, about 200 yards ahead of me, the bull was standing quartered and looking right toward me.
He was beautiful, with maple-colored double shovel horns, a solid white ruff blowing in the wind, on a background of late fall Newfoundland. Until then, the only thing I could use as reference for this kind of real-life, beautiful image was a Carl Rungius painting. I had to wonder if the bull had ever seen a human.
I slowly raised the rifle, thumbed back the hammer, put the ivory bead high on his shoulder, then raised it a bit more, because he looked so far away through the aperture, slowly squeezed the trigger and shot right over his back.
The bull stood there.
I immediately levered another round in, held where I originally knew I should, and pulled the trigger. The bull dropped like a stone. Right then, all I could hear was the sound of God Above. Then Gary went wild.
“I can’t believe it,” he shouted. “You shot him offhand at better than 200 yards with that old rifle.”