There are game animals I would like to hunt but never have. Because of some combination of cost, availability, and accessibility some of these I will never hunt…and certainly there are other animals that I have hunted but have been unsuccessful. Hunting is hunting; there are few guarantees, and lack of success can come from many factors: Weather, geography, timing, one’s own incompetence…and the simple fact that some animals are more elusive than others.
I am pretty well convinced that a wolf, hunted on purpose, is one of the most elusive and difficult of all animals…but the fact that, going into 2014, I still didn’t have a North American wolf cannot be attributed altogether to the animal. Few of us are brilliant all the time, so I trust it’s equally true that few of us are bungling idiots all the time. Over the years I’ve bought a lot of wolf tags, enough to acquire huge respect for the animal. It isn’t true that I’ve been totally inept or completely skunked on wolves. I took one in Mongolia in 2005 and another in Macedonia in 2010…but a North American wolf has eluded me.
I’ve actually seen quite a few wolves and heard many others—the howling of a wolf is one of Nature’s most wonderful sounds, on par with a lion’s roar. I am not at all anti-wolf, and I believe they hold an honored place in our American wilderness…so long as they are managed. The problem is the darn things are so smart that I’m not certain sport hunting will ever serve as an adequately effective management tool! Even so, over the years I’ve had a couple of cracks at wolves while hunting other game. I guess these were moments when I wasn’t very brilliant, because I blew them!
Chance encounters are always problematic. They are completely random and unexpected, and because of the surprise factor it isn’t uncommon to be less than brilliant—but a chance encounter with a wolf—within shooting range, season open, license in pocket—is a rare opportunity. If you receive such a gift and capitalize on it, you’re a hero. If you fail you may not exactly be a heel, but if you still want a wolf you’re going to have to go at it the hard way. Which is exactly where I was in January 2014: I’d had my chances in years gone by, I still wanted a wolf, and now I was going about it the hard way.
On wolves the hard way is to go wolf hunting, specifically and single-mindedly. We have some new opportunities developing in both our northern Rockies and the western Great Lakes, but the standard answer has been a wolf hunt in Canada or Alaska, usually in winter. Success is not assured, and generally not high. Aerial gunning, long ended, was one thing. Trapping is another. Skilled trappers take a lot of wolves, and trapping may ultimately be the most effective management tool. Hunting and shooting a wolf fair and square, on the ground, is difficult.
Like I said, I’ve bought a lot of wolf tags over the years, and as much as I hate Arctic cold, I finally figured out that if I really wanted a wolf I needed to suck it up and go in winter. I met Trent Packham of Groat Creek Outfitters at the Northeast Michigan fundraiser. A fairly young guy, avid trapper as well as hunter, Packham operates in northwestern Alberta, where the wolf season is long and liberal. He convinced me that he knew what he was doing, so we tried it in late January-early February 2013.
At the end of a long, cold week I was still convinced that Packham knew what he was doing—but I never saw a wolf. Although it felt plenty cold and miserable to me sitting on stands, the truth is it had gotten too warm—right at freezing and thus way above the norm. We saw lots of tracks, but actual movement was nocturnal. On the last day it cooled off and we had fresh tracks running down the Skidoo trail ahead of us. After following for a bit we heard them howling in deep timber below the road. Trent Packham speaks pretty good wolf, and we tried hard to call them in…I think we came pretty close, but it just didn’t happen.
So, in January 2014 I tried again. I only had a few days between SHOT Show and our own Safari Club Convention, so I honestly thought it was a fool’s errand…but I wouldn’t get a wolf sitting at home, so I had to try, right?
It was plenty cold and there was lots of deep snow. At least in theory this would somewhat confine wolves to movement corridors. There had been activity at a bait on a frozen river, so Trent set a ground blind on the bluff above. I would sit there while he checked for tracks in other areas. I was expecting a very long, very cold sit, so I wish I had a picture of the look on my face when, shortly after sunrise, three wolves strolled down the river toward the bait. The shot was steeply downhill at 200 yards. I was shooting a Blaser R8 with a .300 Weatherby Magnum barrel—a lot of gun for a wolf, but I know the cartridge and the straight-pull action is very fast.
In the past I’ve had a couple other shots at wolves that I apparently bungled (because I had no wolf to show for the effort). If I’d had time to think these would have added pressure, and I might have come completely unglued. Fortunately there was only time to get the rifle on the sticks, pick the largest wolf first, and remember to hold slightly low for the downhill angle. It may not happen often or for very long, but this time, for just a few seconds, I was brilliant.– Craig Boddington