As seen in the Sep/Oct 2018 Issue of Bear Hunting Magazine!
The cool fall air and dank smell of fishy waters was intoxicating as I hopped off the aluminum float onto the gravel bar. Our pilot landed the Beaver floatplane on an unusually straight section of river after a 40-minute flight from Anchorage. Overcast skies made the serpentine river look bright gray, like a trendy color of kitchen cabinets on Pinterest. The river seemed cluttered. It was littered with logs carved off the banks during its greedy pursuit of the Pacific Ocean. This is moose, brown bear and salmon country – that’s about it. It was September 6th and I was in iconic Alaska.
This was my second trip hunting brown bear. Strangely, I didn’t feel the pressure I did on my first hunt. Overcoming the fear of not bringing home a bear was realized in 2014, but it wasn’t nearly the struggle I thought it would be. The satisfaction of simply being able to hunt The Last Frontier was satisfying in its own accord. In some ways, Alaska is the magical and mysterious place I thought it would be, and it other ways it wasn’t. I was hunting the “mecca” for North American big game, but the region is no respecter of its own reputation. The title didn’t take away the challenges that every hunt brings with it. Time constraints, bad weather, and travel limitations of wilderness hunting are the reality. However, we would overcome all these challenges on this hunt-of-a-lifetime.
Alaska is the largest state and more than twice the size of Texas, the second largest. At a whopping 663,300 square miles, Alaska is truly is a giant place. I’d be hunting in the south-central region which is 100% forested except for the marshes that create natural openings. In almost every sandbar and mud hole you’ll find brown bear tracks, but bears are hard to lay eyes on. Densities are so high, in fact, they allow non-resident hunters two tags. In this zone there is no four-year wait to return after a successful hunt. However, it amazes me just how good these bears are at hiding.
The original plan was to hunt over salmon streams, but when the time came the water was high, making this method difficult. In this zone it’s legal to hunt bears over bait and the outfitter had put out a bait in case we needed a fallback plan. Bear bait is hard to come by in a remote fly-in camp and we were primarily using popcorn and oil, which the bears responded well to. However, since it was just a backup option, the bait had only been out for a short time. When I arrived a brown bear had yet to hit it, but we all knew that would quickly change. Usually these hunts are 10 days long, but I could only allot for eight. The clock was ticking.
The bait was located near a salmon stream. They weren’t hitting the stream consistently enough to hunt, but we knew they’d be passing through, prowling for salmon. The fish were there in droves, but deep water prevented them from being easily caught. With the bait close by we knew that it would be hit any day. We planned to moose hunt in the mornings and hunt the bait in the evenings. In Alaska you can “down tag” from a brown bear to a moose if you have a free harvest ticket. Basically, I was going to be thrilled to either take a moose or brown bear, and I didn’t care which one came first. A moose-brown-bear-combo hunt is at the top of my list for hunts. This was actually happening.
Our first day of hunting was on September 7th. Before sunrise the coffee was hot and our guide Dave explained while sipping, “We’re going to go a couple miles down stream to a place that usually holds moose.” He sounded optimistic. “It’s a little early for the rut, but there’s still a chance we could find the right bull.” As he sat down his coffee, one of the packers walked in the door.
“She’s back,” he said.
“Who’s back?” I replied.
“The bear,” he said.
They’d told us about a sow black bear with two cubs that had been hanging around camp. She’d become quite brazen and was often seen sleeping within sight of camp. I rushed out the door to see my first Alaskan bear of the trip. Surely this was a good sign? In the twilight of the morning with the hum of the giant diesel generator close by, I saw the bear lounging on a tree limb about ten feet off the ground. Our whole hunt we’d be watching out for the bear as we walked between our cabin and the lodge.
I knew it was early for finding moose that were responsive to calling. I’d never hunted moose and my intent was to take one with my Timberghost G3SS bow, but I’d also be carrying a Wild West Guns .457 Magnum with a Huskemaw 1x6x24 scope with custom turret. The .457 shoots a 300-grain bullet almost 2,000 feet per second. It’s a fantastic big game gun often used for Africa’s biggest game. The short-framed lever action would be perfect for the tight shots of south-central Alaska. This isn’t long-range rifle country, but with the custom turret from Huskemaw I was confident out to past 300 yards.
We drove the boat up a small waterway off the main river on the first morning then walked up the gravel bar. We immediately began to see moose sign, but nothing ultra-fresh. The silty mud of these glacial rivers can preserve a sharp track making it look fresher than it is, however we were seeing plenty. We also saw plenty of bear tracks. Visibility once you got off the gravel bars was almost zero. The plan was to call the moose to the river, but you’ve got get one to respond vocally and know he’s coming. As much bear sign as we saw you’d think you’d see a bear ambling down the river, but never did.
I found that I thoroughly enjoyed the pace of moose hunting. However, in five mornings of hunting we only had a handful of moose answer us and never stirred up much action. The moose rut is quite concentrated, and we were just too early. We knew this coming into the hunt. However during the evenings we would hunt the bear bait. It was being hit by a black bear, and we knew that any evening a brown bear might show up.
Day Five – September 11th
In the evenings we would sit between four and five hours over the bait. Treacherous waters prevented us from sitting until pitch-black dark, but that’s just one of the obstacles of hunting via boat. Traveling in the dark is dangerous. I’d been carrying my traditional bow as my primary weapon and I was set up on the ground roughly 18 yards from the bait. My Glock 20 10mm was loaded with the holster strap unbuckled ready for action if things got “Western.” Brown bears are much more intimidating than black bears, especially when you’re on the ground. Our guide would also provide firearm backup from a treestand several yards behind me. After three days without seeing a bear Dave said, “Just be patient, a brown bear is going to show up. When they do they’ll typically keep the same pattern for two or three days.”
I was getting impatient. On day four I decided not to hunt the bait, but spend the evening calling for moose.
On day five I told Dave, “I’d like to try sitting down on the salmon stream with the .457 Magnum. I’d rather not sit on the bait.” Having been here three years prior, I knew where the bears fed and the water had dropped since our arrival. Dave thought it was a decent idea, so he agreed, but he knew I was making a mistake. Dave’s an extremely cordial and knowledgeable guide. He was flexible and willing to change the plan.
“On the way to the stream we’ll stop and check the camera just to make sure a bear hasn’t shown up.” Dave said. His intuition after guiding in Alaska for so many seasons told him something mine didn’t. He was right. “Brown bear,” Dave exclaimed as he scrolled through the grainy pictures on the camera’s digital screen.
“For real?” I exclaimed as I quickly moved around to see the screen. An adult brown bear had fed at the bait during daylight the evening before while we were calling moose. “Should’ve been here yesterday.” I said. “You told me one would show up, Dave.”
“We need to get set up right now. It’ll be back.” Dave said. It was already getting late and we set up quickly, but this time I didn’t have the bow. Within 15 minutes we were settled in and hunting. As the sun dipped low the shadows got long and the hazy-dim light of the Alaskan fall encroached around us. I was on the ground and any second going to be eye-to-eye with North America’s largest predator – I hoped. We waited.
After an hour and half I saw brown fur moving into sight 25 yards away and coming fast. When the bear’s front shoulders entered into view, it immediately saw me and woofed. The bear stared for a few seconds then burst into the timber! Just after the bear went out of sight it turned around to have one last look. It began to pace back and forth on a bear trail behind the bait trying to decide what to do. The second time the bear showed its chest I pulled the trigger on the .457 Magnum. “Boom!” The 300-grain bullet hit between the front legs and exited behind the left shoulder.
The bear spun into the alders like a tornado and we could see them shaking as it plowed through the Alaskan bush! We knew the shot was good and my voice shook as I began to speak, partly from being chilled and the rest from sheer nerves.
We recovered the bear without incident 30 minutes after the shot. The blood trail was wide and easy to follow. The bear ran 75 yards before crashing in the middle of a bear trail. It was a mature, dry female that easily weighed over 500 pounds and squared seven-and-a-half feet. Claw to claw on the front legs she was eight-foot wide and nose to tail was seven foot. She had a nice hide and I couldn’t have been happier.
I feel extremely fortunate to have been able to hunt brown bear. I never thought this was something I’d be able to do. My involvement in Bear Hunting Magazine is what opened the door and for that I’m forever grateful. A hunt like this isn’t accessible to everyone and that’s truly unfortunate. No bones about it these hunts are financially challenging, however the trend is decreasing prices of some of these Alaskan hunts.
*I’d like to thank Clifford Smith for hosting this hunt.