Spot & Stalk
Oct 09 2020
By Hugh Bevan
"How will we ever stalk that far without being seen?", my friend Will Eason said as we watched a big Alaskan brown bear through binoculars. The bear was at least a mile away, on the other side of the bay, and as an added challenge the animal was eating grass in the middle of a large open area with no cover nearby.
The decision to initiate a stalk is based upon several considerations such as the direction of the wind, the remaining daylight, the distance to the bear, the difficulties of obstacles that lie along the path of the stalk, and the days remaining in the hunt. Another major factor is whether the bear is stationary or moving. If the bear is moving away from the hunters, it may be very difficult to catch it without being detected. A large brown bear can easily walk faster than a man especially through rough country or along a rough, rocky beach. Will's bear appeared to be contentedly grazing on spring sedge grass so we decided to attempt a stalk.
The wind was in our favor and we began slowly moving across the bay in the skiff. Stalking from a boat has advantages in that hunters can cover a lot territory, but boats are noisy by nature and easily attract a bear's attention. Four stroke outboard engines are much quieter than two stroke models but in either case the boat's wake can be seen at a long distance. When stalking from a skiff a hunter must keep the boat's speed slow enough that the wake does not show any whitewater. A whitewater wake can be seen by a bear from a quarter mile away.
Sound travels very well across water so silence in the skiff is of major importance. Talking, moving gear, or thumping an oar on the side of the boat will give away your position. Another tricky part of hunting from a skiff is silently transferring from the skiff to the shore. The hunters must get out of the boat quietly, anchor the skiff and begin the stalk. Each person that is going ashore should wear waders so they can slip over the side of the boat without having to noisily run the skiff up against the beach. Hip boots are commonly used but I prefer waist or chest high waders that give a hunter the ability to move through deeper water.
One person can hold the boat while the other person(s) unload guns and gear. The boat must be anchored so it will not "go dry" if the ocean tide level recedes. Consideration must also be given to a strong incoming tide that could raise the boat enough to pull the anchor lose from the sea floor. I made this mistake once while spring bear hunting on Admiralty Island in Southeast Alaska and had to strip off my clothes to swim for the skiff, possibly breaking the world record for the 50 meter free style.
Hunters should not attempt to get too close to the bear before leaving the skiff. If terrain allows, try to land the boat at least one thousand feet downwind of the bear and complete the stalk on foot.
Personally I don't allow loaded guns in my skiff so Will and I had to load our rifles quietly as we started moving toward the bear. I also extended my Stoney Point shooting sticks so I would not have to fiddle with them as we closed the distance. We had removed our outer layer of noisy rain gear, leaving it with the boat. It is common for hunters to overheat during a stalk because they did not shed some of the heavy clothes they needed for riding in a boat or sitting in a ground blind.
The setting sun was behind us which is an advantage. We could see the bear very well while it had to look into the sun to see us. We had no cover to use, but luckily the strong breeze had put a chop on the ocean. If the water is ruffled, it is possible to stalk right along the waterline using the moving water as background camouflage.
Bears have decent eyesight and can easily spot a hunter at 200 yards if the hunter is moving against the skyline, against still water, or is just sneaking out in the open. I have found it is easier to stalk directly at a bear, crouching low, and stopping when the bear looks in my direction. A human's vertical shape is a dead giveaway to a bear. When I try to circle, cutting across the bear's line of sight, I get spotted more often. Bears also have good peripheral vision and can see a hunter from the corner of their eyes. When the bear's head comes up, the hunter must stop and remain motionless until the animal resumes feeding.
Bears have excellent directional hearing. If you make a loud noise, the bear will locate your position instantly and start watching you. You may have to wait quite a while for the bear to lose interest. With any luck there will be background noises such as wind in the trees or sounds from a nearby stream that will cover a hunter's approach.
Stalking along roads has its own set of challenges. In the spring it is common for bears to be grazing on new grass along old logging roads. In these situations a bear will be most attentive to movement up and down the road. When walking along a road try to avoid walking on the outside (downhill) edge of the road. A bear below the road will look up and see the hunter "skylined" and fully visible. I try to walk in the center of the road and just peak over the downhill side every few yards. It is also a good idea to move close to the road ditch as you walk around a corner using the uphill side of the road as background camoflauge.
One of the big challenges in Southeast Alaska is keeping track of the bear's location while stalking. Many times there are creeks or tidal channels that break up the terrain causing the hunters to lose track of the bear as they navigate through and around obstacles. If you lose sight of the bear, stop and wait until you have relocated it before moving again. Otherwise it is possible that the hunter and the bear could end up nose to nose which causes grizzly hunters to develop grey hair.
Many times the wind direction along a tree line is different from the center of an open meadow or beach. As the stalk progresses it is important for hunters to use binoculars to study wind movements in the grass or trees near the bear. In the final stages of a stalk noise control becomes very important. Little noises such as squeaky rifle sling swivels will give away a hunter's position. Shooters should practice releasing their rifle's safety so it can be done quietly without the tell-tale "click."
If the bear senses the hunters, its body will stiffen and its head will come up. The bear may stand on hind legs trying to locate the danger. Hunters will usually have less than five seconds to shoot. Most bears will run at the first whiff of man smell, but I have seen large males, both black and brown, just mosey away, looking back at me every few yards.
It is possible when brown bear hunting to have the bear charge if it is surprised at close range or guarding a food cache. Another potentially dangerous situation is a boar that is protecting a sow during spring mating season. In any case it is a good idea for hunters to discuss in advance how they will respond if a bear charges them. Staying out of each other's line of fire is obviously a major concern.
The optimum range for the first shot at a brown bear is 75 to 125 yards. At this distance the shooters have good chances for quality follow up shots before the animal reaches cover. At distances closer than 75 yards it is much harder to avoid detection by the bear. Bow hunters must get closer to make a killing shot with an arrow, a process made more complicated by the need for a second person carrying a backup gun if the bow hunter is pursuing a grizzly.
Will and I had stalked to 100 yards by being patient and lucky with the wind. His bear had moved closer to the tree line and was now only one jump away from the woods. We crawled out of a dry creek bed and Will set up on the shooting sticks. There was no other rest for his rifle and 100 yards is too far to safely shoot at a grizzly without a rest. Shooting sticks are a huge advantage when hunting in open areas. By using a rest the shooter can more rapidly recover from recoil and reacquire the bear for a follow up shot than if the shooting is done off hand without a rest.
Will put a 225-grain Barnes bullet from his .338 Winchester magnum through the bear's lungs, breaking the off side shoulder. I held my gun on the bear as Will approached to confirm it was dead. After taking photographs, I looked back along the route we had used to stalk the bear. It was amazing to see that we had successfully boated across a mile of ocean and sneaked over a thousand feet of open beach and short grass by using unconventional stalking and cover techniques. In my opinion the stalk is the best part of the hunt and this one had been super exciting.