May 28 2019

In Over Your Head

Grizzly Country by Billy Molls

                “Home sweet home,” huffed my client, as our two-mile hike back to the shack neared its end. I removed the old mossy 2 x 4 put across the tin-clad door that was there to keep the bears out while we were hunting for the day. I took solid hold of the handle so the wind didn’t rip it off when I opened it. Once inside, I fired up the lantern. We took off our jackets and wet clothes. As it always does, putting on dry socks felt like heaven. Feeling somewhat human again, my hunter grabbed his jug of Scotch. He sighed as he poured himself his “nightly double.” Sitting at the dirty, tattered plywood table, he looked as worn out as a rented mule. The Texan offered an easy stare up at me as I stood across our tiny hovel cooking supper. “You think I’m in over my head on this hunt?” he asked, as the hamburgers sizzled in the frying pan.

                I turned shaking my head. “Absolutely not,” I assured him. “This is just one of those fluke years. Normally, we’d be seeing five times as many bears.” Looking at my trodden hunter’s face, I wasn’t sure if I was helping or hurting the situation. “Even if I were guiding a triathlete, I wouldn’t be hunting any differently than I am right now. You’re doing just fine. We just need the bears to cooperate.”

                For eight long days we’d endured every weather condition imaginable, except for sunshine and calm winds. We hiked the grey sandy beach every morning before the sun came up. We’d dump our packs atop the day’s glassing knob, un-tuck our jacket collars to let the steam out, set up our glassing fly, crawl underneath it, and proceed to glass for bears from dawn ‘til dark. We scoured everything from the distant snowy mountain peaks to the Pacific shores. For nearly 100 hours, we stared at some of the very best brown bear country in all of Alaska. Aside from seeing the same two sets of sows and cubs semi-regularly, on day three we spotted a big boar that was halfway to Russia and still heading that direction, and on day four we caught a glimpse of another lone bear a mile from our vigil, but only for a second or two, as it disappeared into the alders, never to be seen again.

                The Alaska Peninsula had a record salmon run that summer. In turn, the commercial fishermen went home with fat wallets, and the bears lounged in the alder thickets with fat bellies. In 20 years of guiding, I’d only seen it this bad on one other occasion. Simply put, the bears had plenty of fat for hibernation and they knew it. The mature boars were feeding only at night and holed-up in the thick stuff during the day. Hunting was so tough many hunters quit early and went home, but not David. “I’m gonna hunt until I get a bear, or the season ends,” he vowed.

                The creek we were watching was littered with pink salmon carcasses. Every now and again I’d spy a very-much-alive coho shoot up the shallow river mouth. “This is a good spot,” I lobbied, as we packed up our gear at the end of each fruitless day. “We just gotta stick with it, and not let our guard down. When it happens, it usually happens fast.” With each passing day I could see less confidence and more skepticism on David’s face, but my client never offered any indication of quitting.

                Back in the tin shack, I handed a steaming plate of mashed potatoes and cheese-smothered hamburger steaks to my client. His wind-burned cheeks had an extra glow to them; the Scotch was working. “You ain’t much of a bear guide,” he snickered, “but I gotta admit you’re a half-decent cook.”

                David Riddle was an electrical contractor from the Dallas area. Like many of us, he grew up dreaming of one day hunting brown bear in the wilds of Alaska. He built his business, raised his family, and enjoyed a fair number of hunting adventures across North America. Well north of 60 years, and not the physical specimen he once was, David had come to the realization that with two days left in the hunt, a brown bear mount in his trophy room didn’t look very promising. “I worked out for a whole year and lost 20 pounds to get ready for this hunt. I knew I would it would be a challenge, but it’s been a lot tougher than I thought it would be,” he said, under the dim lantern glow after supper. “We goin’ back to that same hill tomorrow?”

                “Yep,” I nodded.

                “I’ve come to the conclusion that we very well might not get a bear. And you know, I’m okay with it. I might not have said that couple days ago,” he grinned. “I don’t know how much gas I have left in the tank, but this is my one shot at a brown bear. I’m gonna give these last two days all I’ve got.”

                The wind was dead wrong as we trudged along the beach in the faint pre-dawn light. “We’ve got nothing to lose. Let’s set up a little closer to the creek this morning where we saw that bear a few days ago,” I suggested. David agreed.

                It meant an extra mile of hiking. The tundra didn’t catch fire under David’s boots, but he made it without complaint. We sat for two hours enjoying our first dry sunrise of the hunt. With our scent blowing into the upper portion of the creek, we decided to go back to our original glassing knob, which offered better visibility and less chance of blowing out any bears. We’d just set out when I looked back. “Bear!” I hissed, pointing a half-mile out near the mouth of the creek.

                I knew it wasn’t a big bear, but this was our chance. David and I wasted no time.  In fifteen minutes time we were 300 yards downwind of where we last saw the bruin. We slowly stalked into the wind along the edge of the brush. We finally eased into the tiny draw where we lost sight of him. We stood motionless, scanning for movement. I was starting to believe he’d given us the slip when dark mass at the base of an alder clump caught my eye. I drew my binoculars and peered into the shadows. Fifty yards away, I could make out a bear’s nose and his beady eyes staring right at us. “There he is!” I snapped, stepping behind David and pointing out my find. The bear took off as my hunter took aim. “Take ‘im!” I urged.

                “Boom!” The bear tumbled. “Boom!” His head was still up as he rolled down the hill.

                “Hit ‘im again!”

                “Boom!” The bear was down.

                We cleared our chambers and gave each other a hug. “Did you think it was going to happen?” I asked.

                “No, I really didn’t. I thought I was in over my head on this hunt,” David admitted. “I guess this old man learned a lesson in perseverance.”

                “Hell,” I chuckled, “gettin’ in over your head is what bear hunting’s all about!”



Billy Molls is an Alaskan guide and outfitter for brown bear, grizzly bear, Dall sheep, caribou, moose, and wolf. He is also an author, freelance writer, renowned public speaker, and producer of The Modern Day Mountain Man DVD series. For more information call (715) 205-7766 or go to