Spot & Stalk
Jan 14 2021
By: Brian Strickland - @backcountry_brian
Out of all the big game species we are blessed with the opportunity to hunt across North America, bears seem to take a backseat for many hunters. I guess I can understand why to an extent. Their reclusive nature makes them a hard target for most, let alone their ability to sense and evade danger. Unless you’re really looking, the chance of seeing a bear in most regions is difficult at best. And even when you are intently looking it’s sometimes like finding a needle in a hay stack as I have proven so many times before.
That being said, for many hunters—especially subscribers of Bear Hunting Magazine—a bear tag or two seems to make its way into our pockets every season. Despite their lack of adorn-ing antlers, this iconic big game critter holds a fascination, admiration and hunting appeal that few others do. In fact, for some hunters, bears have been an obsession the instant they had their first encounter, and for Illinois traditional bowhunter Chris Parrino, that encounter happened nearly two decades ago.
While elk hunting in Wyoming in the early 90’s, Chris was glassing an isolated basin looking for bulls when he caught the flash of tan hide just a stone’s throw away. At first, he thought it was an elk slipping past, but closer inspection revealed it was a grizzly sow with a couple of cubs in tow. Although Chris didn’t have a grizzly bear tag at the time (Grizzly bear hunting was outlawed in 1974 in the Lower 48), in those few moments elk took a backseat as he watched what few Illinois’ bowhunters had ever seen before. His heart skipped a beat at first knowing full well what a grizzly sow with cubs was capable of doing if threatened, but that uneasiness quickly faded as they moved past unaware of his presence.
Mesmerized by their appearance, Chris couldn’t help but reflect upon Fred Bear’s famous hunt when he was kneeling behind a large boulder with his Bear Kodiak recurve in hand. In the background you could see the huge brown bear approaching as his heavy body lumbered forward and his head swayed back and forth. When his vitals appeared broadside mere yards away, Papa Bear pressed his bow into service and slipped an arrow between his ribs.
That hunt that inspired Chris to pick up the recurve in the late 80’s in the first place, and when he witnessed the grizzly on that no-name Wyoming ridge nearly a decade later, he couldn’t help but put himself in that same position. It was at that moment that bears were put at the top of his to-do list and by looking at his bear resume, he has done just that.
Since that fateful encounter this Bear Archery ProStaff member has killed nearly 20 bears. While black bears make up the bulk of the list, four of them were grizzlies, one was a brown bear and even a polar bear was added to the hide pile several years ago. But what’s even more impressive is that all were killed with a traditional recurve bow at 25 yards or less, which is a feat few will ever attain.
With several black bears under his belt stretching from the Lower 48 to Canada, it was time to finish his traditional slam. And although it seemed like a long shot for this blue collar plumber from Illinois, with Fred Bear as his inspiration and a traditional bow by his side, he knew that he could follow in his footsteps.
A Blueberry Bruin
Grizzlies were first on his list as Chris embarked on this traditional bear slam, and when the wheels touched down on the gravel runway in northern British Columbia during the fall of 2003, he couldn’t believe the next leg of his quest was beginning. It had been nearly a decade since he laid eyes on that Wyoming grizzly, and although he had killed several black bears since then, getting close to a grizzly would be the first significant test towards his goal. As he had learned over the years, it generally takes several attempts to take a grizzly with a bow; but like any optimist, he hoped his first would end with a well-placed arrow.
Like with many trips to far-flung locations, the travel itself ends up being an adventure. After flying in he boarded a float plane to fly even deeper into this remote wilderness. Needless to say, he was more than a little nervous when he saw the mangled wreckage of a float plain listing at the end of the lake when he took off. After the 45-minute flight over some of the most beautiful country imaginable, Chris had to pinch himself one more time to confirm everything was still real as he touched down once again.
The following morning he packed on horseback another seven miles with the outfitter to a remote base camp on the edge of a large burn, and then proceeded to backpack several more miles to a spike camp at the other end of the drainage. As the outfitter explained it, the plan was simple. Hike to the top of the ridge each morning and look for bears feeding on wild blueberries. The wildfire that had ripped through the area decimated the trees and understory nearly 10 years prior leaving a relatively open landscape filled with dead standing timber, deadfall and acre after acre of wild blueberries. This high calorie food source drew bears like a magnet and everyday they witnessed several bears feeding.
Stalk attempts were plentiful, according to Chris, but errant winds, bad positioning and just plain bad luck seemed to foil every attempt. But hunts like these are often a game of num-bers. The more attempts you make the better your chances, and on the evening of day five every-thing fell into place.
Spotting a large boar feeding about 600 yards below their position, they made a beeline in his direction. The closer they got the more Chris realized that this could actually happen; and as if he had written the script himself, the bear started coming directly towards them. With the mountain thermals in their favor, 150 yards quickly melted into 50, 40, 30 and then 20. “The closer he got the more immense he became, and it honestly looked like a 55 gallon drum was on his shoulders,” expressed Chris.
Needless to say, with each step he became more nervous, and when the bruin buried his head into a berry bush at just 12 yards away, he let the arrow fly. Adrenaline surged through his body when the arrow hit; and when the bear bit at the arrow upon impact and bounded away in a huff, Chris knew the shot was true. The second leg of his traditional slam was complete, and it was time to start planning for the next one.
Brown Bear Bliss
Brown bears were on his agenda next so Chris found himself in the middle of a coastal salmon stream just outside of Yakutat, Alaska the following fall. Like all adventures that require the use of an outfitter, hiring the right outfitter is the key to a successful hunt. Although Chris had checked references and was certain he had done his homework as he was making his final preparations, when he stepped off the plane carrying his recurve bow, “the outfitter looked at me like I had an eye in the center of my forehead,” explained Chris. The outfitter had clearly taken bowhunters before, but never a traditional bowhunter and he obviously had doubts of its effectiveness.
When Chris overheard the outfitter explaining to his young guide, who by the way had never guided a brown bear hunter before, that he would need to do a follow-up shot with his rifle if the bear didn’t go down “immediately,” Chris began to have second thoughts about the hunt. Chris hunts with a traditional bow because he wants to kill with a traditional bow. Although he understands a wounded bear is a serious situation; however, even a heart shot bear is not going to go down immediately. Needless to say, there needed to be a meeting of the minds if Chris was going to continue with the hunt. After a rather blunt discussion with his young guide, they came to a follow up shot agreement they both could live with.
Salmon are a key food source for coastal brown bears, and if a salmon run is strong in the early fall, it’s only a matter of time before you see evidence of bears in the area. Sure enough, salmon carcasses littered the creek bank and when they woke the first morning of his hunt and saw the fresh bear tracks in front of his stream side cabin, they knew that it was in a good spot. During high tide, sea run salmon will push upstream in search of spawning grounds, and when low tide hits they often get stuck in shallow pools making them easy targets for bears.
This style of hunt is generally a waiting game, and although they had only seen a couple bears the first few days of the hunt, it was only a matter of time before an opportunity would arise. Like clockwork, when the low tide settled in one afternoon, a bear appeared just a few hundred yards away, and with the wind right, a light rain coming down and the bear occupied with splashing salmon, it was time to make a move.
Getting to where they last saw him was the easy part; however, hoping he would still be there was another matter. As Chris eased closer to the creek’s steep bank, it brought the whole creek into view; and he soon realized the bear had made his own move and slipped 100 yards past their position. Call it fate, or maybe even a little luck, as if on cue a lone salmon began splashing just 15 yards in front of them. With the dinner bell ringing loud and clear, the bear turned and began marching their direction. When he reached his paw forward to pin the fish to the ground, Chris had the ideal shot. In an instant, the arrow was on it way, and when the broad-head plowed through his chest and blood immediately flew as the bear bounded away, he knew no follow-up shot from the guide was needed. An hour later he stood over his fallen prize and he soon realized that his traditional quest was almost finished.
Bear on Ice
As the plane touched down the following spring in Yellowknife, the capital city of Cana-da’s Northwest Territories, Chris knew this adventure was just beginning. He never thought in his wildest dreams that he would one day be hunting for polar bears, following in the footsteps of Papa Bear himself. With only the first leg of his journey complete, and a couple more days to go, his Arctic adventure was underway.
From Yellowknife he continued north to the Nunavut village Gjoa Haven where he meet his guides and then they embarked on another 75 miles by snowmobile to another village near the ocean. He was amazed by how the native Inuits lived in this brutal environment. How they literally chipped out a living from snow and ice, surviving in temperatures that can reach as low as -30 and -40 below. Although he brought the best Arctic clothing available, it was the caribou skins that was given to him by the guides that ultimately kept the cold out.
Nothing spells adventure more than an Arctic hunt, and for several days Chris was bound to his igloo waiting on the wind-driven snowstorms to pass. On the days where they had good visibility, Chris and his guides would climb to the top of small rock islands or glaciers and glass for bears. Pressure ridges seemed to dominate the landscape, and these ridge-like features were ideal locations for polar bears to hunt for seals and seek refuge from inclement weather. They saw bears virtually every day across the frozen ocean, but it was a matter of finding the right bear in the right position. If the bear is too close the ocean, which happened often, it would be to dangerous too release the team of huskies to bay up the bear.
Several days into the hunt as they were heading back to camp they spotted a loan boar working through some pressure ridges. Slipping to within a 100 yards or so, the pack of huskies were released, and with Chris following close behind he got into position. Unlike traditional hounds in the Lower 48 that bay a bear up a tree, these huskies merely slow the bear down in or-der to provide a close shot.
At 25 yards Chris released an arrow, and as the bear spun around he knew the shot was true. As the bear lay still on the frozen ocean, Chris stroked his clean white hide realizing that a dream spawned on a lonely Wyoming ridge a decade prior had finally come to fruition. Needless to say, he could not have been more pleased.