The first thing to know about a caribou bull's antlers is that it may not be a bull! Caribou are the only member of the deer family in which females routinely grow antlers. However, they are usually quite small and easy to differentiate from bulls. Nonetheless, although cows are legal in some areas, if you decide to take a small bull for the meat pole, it's worth learning to tell the sexes apart.
Once you've learned to tell them apart, next thing is to know what makes a trophy bull when you see it.
Understanding Basic Antler Configuration
While all five sub-species vary somewhat in terms of antler size, they all share the same basic antler configuration:
The length of the main beams contributes directly to a bull's final score, so obviously longer is better. Bulls will stand about 4 feet high at the shoulder, so look for a bull whose main beams seem about that height, but symmetry counts too, so make sure both sides are roughly the same height. Because the racks curve backward, look for ones that are deeply curved as they will usually have longer main beams than ones that are straighter, and the longest ones tend to flare out before curving up. If you only have a side view of the animal, note that a bull with a narrow spread between his main beams will seem to have a taller rack, while wide racks will seem shorter, but usually just the opposite is true. The inside spread also directly contributes to the final score, but note that, from a scoring perspective, the width of the rack can't exceed the length of the longest main beam. There are also four circumference measurements taken along the length of each main beam, so good mass is desirable too.
The brow palms project out just above the caribou's face and are commonly called shovels. One on each side is the norm, but "double-shovels" are highly sought after and will help an animal score well. These can be fairly common in some areas and quite rare in others. If the bull has a shovel on just one side, he will have either a simple spike or nothing at all on the other side. When viewed from the side, look for a bull with at least one well-developed, wide shovel extending forward to the back of his nose, with as many points as possible.
The bez is the section of antler projecting forward just above the brow palms. Most caribou bulls will have one on each side, and this measurement is all about length and the number of points. Look for a bull with bez that extend at least as far forward as the shovels, with lots of points on each side. The bez is frequently palmated and, although impressive, does nothing for the bull's score. The bez is also sometimes curved inward, which will usually add to its length. Symmetry from one side to the other counts too, with deductions for differences in length and number of points.
Rear points are often called "back scratchers" and are single spikes that project backward from the middle of the bull's main beams. They can be quite rare in many areas and are usually just a bonus. Their length counts directly to the score, with deduction for asymmetry of length between the two sides.
A bull's top palms are his crowing glory, and what really separate the men from the boys in terms of a caribou's final score. It is also the area in which many otherwise impressive bulls are weak. Look for palmation and lots of points, including at least two long points on each side, as the two longest points on each side are measured for length. Again, symmetry from side to side counts.
Very few bulls will have all of these attributes, but given the sheer number of animals that can be seen on a given hunt, they are out there. If you do find one that has a number of these qualities, you may have found yourself a bull for the books. If this is important to you, make sure you utilize the services of a quality outfitter with guides that are experienced and knowledgeable when it comes to judging trophy bulls. A good booking agent, such as The Hunting Consortium or Jack Atcheson & Sons, will be able to connect you with such an outfitter wherever you may wish to hunt.
Go Early for Full-Velvet Rack
|If you want to take a caribou in full velvet, you'll need to book your trip for the earliest part of the season.|
As with all members of the deer family, caribou drop their antlers each winter and re-grow them the following year. Because some caribou seasons open in early to mid-August, bulls are usually still in velvet during early season hunts. A full-velvet rack makes a very interesting and unique trophy, with rounded points that resemble fingers. If this appeals to you, book your trip as early in the season as possible, as once a bull has started to shed the velvet, the rest cannot be saved and must be stripped off.
If you take a bull still in full velvet, it is important to preserve the velvet before you take the rack to a taxidermist, otherwise it will start to dry and peel off. Your outfitter should be able to do this for you by salting the rack and wrapping it in a breathable material such as cheese cloth or gauze, to keep it dry and free of bugs. If you are considering a hunt in an area that allows two bulls to be taken on one trip and you think you'd like to try to take one hard-horned bull and one in velvet on the same trip, think again. Bulls usually start stripping their velvet all around the same time, so you will likely need to return another year to complete this quest.
Caribou display more variety in terms of antler development than any other specie of antlered game, and no two bulls are exactly alike. The good news is that most mature caribou bulls are impressive trophies that look great on the wall.