Winging it for caribou: Fly-out hunting trips provide a unique experience

Posted: Friday, August 20, 2010

Former Army man Frank Rosendale stared through his binoculars on a hill in the Mulchanta River area. He spied a group of caribou on a nearby mountain. Rosendale said that he examined the group for a target. He noticed one lying down and a mature bull caribou marking trees.

"It was just tearing up the world with those antlers," he said.

The hunter watched the resting caribou rise from the ground. He said that the big set of antlers caught his eye. Drawing on his army training, Rosendale adopted a sitting position. He slung his strap tight, stabilized his shot and raised the rifle to compensate for the wind.

Bang. One shot, one kill.

Rosendale harvested that caribou during a fly-out hunt, a practice where hunters charter bush pilots to remote locations. These excursions cost anywhere between $3,000 for unguided trips to $8,000 with the extra help. Pilots fly hunters out to remote locations like western or southwestern Alaska, or the Kenai Peninsula's tundra. According to pilots, the majority of outings occur during the month of September. Trips can last from a few days to a little over a week, depending on weather conditions and which guide one picks.

Owner and pilot at High Adventure Air Mark Bell said that finding a suitable location is necessary for the hunt. Bell's 30 years of flying experience have acquainted him with several spots to find moose or caribou. Even so, he does a bit of pre-season scouting. He said that the flight out often includes tracking animals from the air, as well.

On the ground, Bell helps the hunter set his compass on the ground then guides them to their query, or lets them loose.

Before the trip, pilots recommend packing layered clothing to accommodate for changes in temperature and weather conditions during the trip. A tent, game bags, gutting gear and freeze dried food are safe bets, as well.

"You're not going out to a fancy pre-set camp," said Bell.

Pilot and president of All Alaska Outdoors Bob Ledda recommends packing hiking boots with good ankle support to reduce the risk of sprained ankles when traversing more strenuous areas. Rosendale recommends a comprehensive first aid kit in case something goes wrong. He also carries a satellite phone as an extra precaution.

"If you don't get picked up right away, a lot of crazy things go through your head," he said.

Because of weight or legal issues, sportsmen can't always bring all-terrain vehicles with them. The pilots try to dissuade prospective clients that aren't in tip-top shape from taking the journey.

Even the right gear and plentiful game don't make the trip, though. Ledda, who primarily guides ptarmigan trips, said that pilots have to take weather conditions into account. Mountains can create heavy turbulence, caused by differences in barometric pressure. Rosendale recalls one trip where his group waited an extra night on their return trip because the plane encountered a "wall of fog."

Ledda said that finding a landing spot can prove difficult, as well. He primarily takes hunting parties to the tundra between the Peninsula and Anchorage. Float planes can't land without a properly sized lake, the pilot said.

He said that the best ptarmigan hunting grounds are dotted with alder, but are flush with willow. The terrain can be difficult to navigate because the grass grows over stones and other boot catching materials. He said that would be hunters should look for patches of blueberries, the bird's typical food source. A 28-gauge shotgun with a light load will do the trick, but the pilot has known hunters that use .22 calibers for headshots.

"That's not as much of a sporting endeavor," he opined.

Rosendale said that caribou hunters should use the same firearms as those looking to bag deer. He's used a variety of rifles, and recommends light weight bullets. Anything with a high bore or will ruin too much hunting meat for his taste. Rosendale recommends using dish washing gloves when cleaning out the guts. Peppering the meat helps keep the flies away too, he said.

Ledda said that prospective hunters should book flights a month in advance. He normally caters to visitors at his lodge, but said that he can squeeze a local in every now and again.

"It's a great sport," Rosendale said. "It's just time consuming."

Tony Cella can be reached at

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