During the first couple of centuries that followed the arrival of the English, the Irish, the Scots, and the French in Newfoundland, an intensive extermination program took place that aimed to rid the island completely of its large, healthy, wolf population. By the end of the nineteenth century, the last of the wolves was thought to have been extirpated. I am here to tell the reader, however, that today there is still at least one wolf on the Isle of Newfoundland. I know, because I was hunting with him in October of 2007.
“Buckdism” is his name. In the Micmac aboriginal language, that means “wolf.” My recent guide, Wolf, has another moniker, as well—one that reflects the early settlement by the French of the southern and western portions of Newfoundland. He also goes by the name of Yvon John. Yvon’s stepfather, Andy Joe, was the camp manager at Dolland Pond, the site of this 2007 woodland caribou hunting adventure. His uncle, Michael Joe, was the Chief of the Micmac Nation, and—even though the hunting rights to their lands surrounding Dolland Pond have recently been leased to Roy Goodwin of Tag-Along-Consultants (Hopedale, Massachusetts)—hunting in that camp is strictly a family, tribal affair. All the guides and cooks are Micmacs.
I ended up hunting there that fall because Roy had donated a caribou/moose combo-hunt to the Pope and Young Club’s 2007 Biennial Convention for their big auction-fundraiser in April. I lucked out as the successful bidder. If I’d been able to go earlier, during the first or second week of the season (as Roy had wanted me to), the peak of the moose rut would have been underway, and I would have had an excellent chance at taking a good Eastern Canada bull. Safari Club International distinguishes taxonomically between the Western Canada moose and the Eastern Canada variety, although Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young do not make that distinction in their records-keeping.
My reasons for bidding on the hunt had little to do with moose, but everything to do with woodland caribou. First, although I’d hunted them three times before and “claimed” the species back in 1999, “Mr. Elkhorn” had not been of Pope and Young trophy quality. It remained one of eight species—among the 28 accepted for entry—that I was hoping to “upgrade” before my hunting trails finally lead me right into the Happy Hunting Grounds.
Secondly, although the wolf population of Newfoundland may now be down to one, the predator population of coyotes is exploding at a frightening rate. The result, alarmingly, is a steep decline in the caribou herds. The numbers are down so much that this year—without warning—all outfitters on the Island were cut back on their quota of tags-issued by a figure equal to 40 percent of their annual, average number of tags filled over the past three seasons. Conventional wisdom attributes several causes to the drastic drop in caribou numbers. Overhunting is one. An ever-increasing black bear population is another. The coyote phenomenon is thought by many to be the biggest factor of all. Ten years ago, coyotes in Newfoundland were unknown. It is thought that, sometime around the turn of the millennium, a few coyotes succeeded one winter in making it across the frozen sea from the eastern tip of Labrador.
Regardless of when they came or how they reached the Island, the coyotes’ numbers are now going through the roof. Andy Joe told us in hunting camp last week that they had never seen so few caribou around Dolland Pond in October. My New Jersey friend, Greg Bo-kash, had his stalk on a good stag suddenly ruined for him by a coyote that erupted from cover and chased their mutual quarry for over a mile—at an all-out run—until they both disappeared from view. If present trends continue, there may be no caribou hunting left in Newfoundland in a few, short years. Newfoundlanders of the twenty-first century may soon have to become as serious about coyote extermination as their ancestors once were about wolf extermination.
It was, indeed, these fears regarding the downward spiral of the woodland caribou population which impelled me to pay a rather high price at auction for my Dolland Pond hunt. I was simply afraid I might never again have a chance to hunt the species. In addition, however, I had not failed to notice that during the 2005-2006 biennial scoring period, all of the top Pope and Young awards for the species had gone to animals taken in the environs of Dolland Pond. My old friend, Gerard Beaulieu, had sold his outfitting business, and it certainly seemed as good a place as any to find and harvest a mature, records-book bull.
Despite the 33-year difference in our ages, Yvon John turned out to be a good guide for me on this hunt, and we got along very well. Though not a bowhunter, he had guided many since the start of the decade. His cheerful, upbeat personality meshed well with mine, and his great passion and instincts for the hunt were undoubtedly derived from the aboriginal marrow of his bones. Bad weather delayed by a whole day my Sunday-scheduled flight into Dolland Pond, but late Monday morning the ceiling lifted enough to allow us access to camp. Because a very large bull moose had been seen nearby a few days earlier, Yvon suggested we try to find him again that first afternoon/evening of my hunt. If no luck there, the rest of the week would be spent looking for a trophy caribou.
Well, we struck out on moose Monday evening, but in the top of the first inning on Tuesday morning I hit a home run on caribou. It was all over by 11 a.m. The wind was so strong that day, and boat travel on the lake so dangerous, that all four hunters and their guides hunted on foot right out of camp. Yvon and I took our time hiking up through one of the most beautiful boreal forests I’ve ever seen. After a mile or two of trail had brought us up into “the barrens,” we began a vigil on top of a promontory known as Bonney’s Knob. The view from there was superb in all directions. For as far as the eye could see, countless little lakes and ponds speckled the landscape with their silver reflections of the pewter sky. Though most of the terrain appeared to be bogs or open tundra, the patches of green vegetation scattered about were large enough and numerous enough to assure us that—at any given moment—caribou might materialize “out of nowhere.” I suggested to Yvon I’d be happy spending the whole day in that one location. If a stag showed up somewhere—near or far—then we’d go after it. He concurred with the plan.
The wind and rain were doing their standard, horizontal tango, making it a real chore to keep the lenses of my binoculars dry and free of condensation. I was in the process of cleaning them for about the fourth time, when Yvon abruptly stuck out his arm, pointing nearly behind us, and exclaimed, “There’s one! There’s a stag!”
Once I understood where he was looking, I lifted my 10×42 Leica binoculars and got the stag in my field of view. He was, in fact, a very nice one, and I said to Yvon immediately that I had no doubt he would qualify for Pope and Young. Having forgotten his binos in camp that morning, Yvon borrowed mine for a look and quickly agreed he was a “shooter.”
The stag was all by himself, devoid of any harem. Perhaps he had just lost a battle to a bigger stag and was now looking for new does. For whatever reason, he was clearly traveling, and I knew we were going to have to get moving if we were to have any chance of putting ourselves in his path. Yvon understood that also. As soon as we could shoulder our daypacks, we were off and running.
When first spotted, our quarry had been a good 250 yards from us, across a small lake. As he was traveling up the far lakeshore, we paralleled the near one, trying our best to stay out of sight. Fortunately, he was occasionally feeding as he moved along. That gave us the chance to dart across exposed openings whenever his head was lowered. Luck was with us, and we made it around the end of the lake without detection—and in the nick of time. The stag was now entering an area of fairly thick vegetation: mostly closely-spaced, six- to seven-foot tamaracks, known as “junipers” to the Newfies. The golden-orange needles of the larches (tamaracks) made stunning contrast mixed in with the bright green of the young spruces.
Yvon had been leading the way—largely because I was having trouble keeping up with him. Suddenly the moment of truth was upon us. The handsome animal with his polished, yellow antlers appeared just 20 yards away and walked straight toward Yvon, not seeing him as he dropped to his knees. I was 10 yards behind my guide, with an arrow already nocked, but I still had to move three strides forward to reach the only shooting lane available to me. As the stag passed behind a tight clump of three tamaracks, I took those final steps and immediately brought my Black Widow recurve to full draw. By then, my quarry was about to walk over the top of Yvon, and “Buckdism” dove for cover. Now flat to the ground, his face buried in the grass, the Wolf knew he dared not lift his head to look at the animal or watch my shot. For my part, I was confident he was fully aware of the imminent danger of suddenly acquiring a new, painful head-ornament.
The stag was now entering my shooting lane, seemingly unaware of our presence. As he walked past the Wolf—mere feet beyond him, and fully-broadside to me—I took dead aim at his moving rib cage. The arrow disappeared right through him into the tundra-type ground-cover, and he turned and trotted out of sight. My arrow shaft had passed perhaps 28 inches over the top of my guide.
As soon as the stricken animal was out of sight, I ran up to Yvon, assuring him the shot had been true, and that the stag was “dead on his feet.” “He won’t travel even a hundred yards,” I stated with conviction. He had, in fact, gone only 75, and we quickly found him lying in the heather on the edge of a small bog. Once again, my 125-grain, three-blade Savora broadhead had done its incredibly-efficient job. It had also made a wolf dive for cover.
For bowhunting readers with an interest in such matters, I green-scored my Newfoundland trophy stag at about 25 points more than the Pope and Young minimum of 220. With the paucity of animals around Dolland Pond at the time of my visit, however, I headed homeward knowing I’d been extremely lucky even to see a records-book animal. And first-day success on an archery hunt is rare enough—all by itself! I was, indeed, one lucky dude.
The other great plus to the hunt for me was that I had made new friends with a nifty bowhunting couple from Colorado named Wayne and Judy Thurston. They each managed to take a nice stag for themselves, but they really had to work for them! It seems that, with rare exceptions, something really worthwhile almost never comes easily. Perhaps it never should.
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Author’s postscript: On Sunday, February 17, 2008, Yvon John—known as “Buckdism” to the members of his Micmac Nation—died tragically one night at the age of 34 in a freak snowmobile accident near his home in Conne River, Newfoundland. He left behind his wife, Yolanda, and his small son, A’ntile John. He was one of the most pleasant and competent guides I’d ever had the privilege of hunting with. Because I had not quite finished, at that point in time, the writing of BAREBOW!, I was able to dedicate Chapter 18 to his memory, and it was with sincere and heartfelt emotion that I did so. Once the book came out in the fall of 2008, I had my good friend, Harold Pelley, deliver a complimentary copy to Andy Joe, who had raised Yvon from childhood.
Editor’s note: This article is the thirty-eighth of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from accomplished hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s award-winning book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks—join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work and purchase a copy on Dunn’s site here. Read the thirty-seventh Chronicle here.
Top image courtesy Dennis Dunn