Anyone who’s come across one knows what Fred Bear meant a half century ago when he said that the thrill of tangling with a grizzly bear cleanses the soul. It’s an experience that relatively few people on this earth will have and that none who do will ever forget.
When you live and spend a lot of time hunting in Alaska, your odds of eventually having an encounter with a grizzly drift more toward the “guaranteed” end of the spectrum. Some of my most exciting have happened while hunting black bears over bait. I’ve been charged by a sow with cubs and have had bears huff at me from the brush as I walked to my stand. And I had a large boar walk to within 3 feet of my rifle muzzle.
Over the past several years, the area where my hunting buddies and I bait black bears has become overrun with grizzlies. We used to see only black bears, but in 2011, I had pictures of more than 15 different grizzlies on my trail cameras. One of them was an absolute monster, and one evening I got a glimpse of him in person. The dark-chocolate boar dwarfed all of the other bears that had been hitting the bait, and was the biggest I’d ever seen. He was truly a creature of dreams. Or nightmares, depending on your perspective.
Unfortunately, shooting a grizzly over bait was illegal there, so I had to watch in awe as he walked off with the swagger and cockiness that only the biggest bears display. It always amazes me how an animal so big and powerful can appear and disappear like a ghost.
I could not forget this bear. A day after seeing him, I found a set of his tracks on a mud bar nearby. Seeing that bear had an unexplainable effect on me, and a few months later, I got a tattoo of his left front paw print on my shoulder. I don’t take my ink lightly. Each piece has great meaning to me. My tattoos include a map of Alaska, a Dall ram I shot set in a backdrop of a topographical map, a wolf trap and pack of wolves under the northern lights. Somehow, more than I realized at the time, this giant of a grizzly bear had become a part of me.
A Legal Window Opens
In the spring of 2012, Alaska Fish and Game announced that hunting grizzlies over bait would be legal the following year in the game unit we hunt. I was both ecstatic and nervous at hearing this, for the flats along the south side of the Tanana River that hold the Kantishna, Toklat, Teklanika, and Nenana tributaries are prime grizzly real estate. In the spring, the bears make their way down out of the mountains into the willow-choked rivers in search of newborn moose calves. After all the nights I’d laid awake dreaming of getting that big bear with my recurve, I would finally be able to try. However, I knew everybody with a boat and a bag of dog food would be on the water as well.
Taking no chances, I was on the current as soon as the ice had flushed out, which happened to be nearly a month later than normal. Contending with flood-stage water and spending hours snaking through huge log jams, I found that moving downstream was sketchy at best, but even with a late start, I managed to get my bait in and working.
As usual, black bears showed up first, and I was able to help my wife take her first bear with a bow. The grizzlies, however, were not so cooperative. Some people mistakenly assume that hunting grizzlies over bait is easy, or even cheating. I quickly found out that this was anything but true. I’ve observed that grizzlies behave completely differently around bait than black bears do. Griz will come in to a bait, but usually only once or twice before moving on. The few times I’ve seen big grizzlies on a bait in person, they were as spooky as the wariest whitetail; if they smell you, you will never know they were there. There’s a reason these bears get so big. They spend the hunting seasons along alder-, willow-, and brush-choked rivers—mosquito-infested waters with rarely more than 30 or 40 yards of visibility. So spot-and-stalk hunting is all but impossible, and as a rule, these bears have gotten big because they are very good at avoiding people.
My education on the “ease” of grizzly baiting involved night after night of sitting in a stand, waiting for bears my trail cams told me were in the neighborhood but that never showed up. I was hunting two locations, and after spending a fruitless night in one stand that had just been hit by two nice bears, I headed downriver to check the other bait. As soon as I walked in to the bait site, I knew a big grizzly had been there, as the bait was scattered everywhere. I immediately pulled the trail-cam card. The first pictures I saw were of two huge black bears from about 12:30 that morning. Anxiously, I scanned through the pictures, and suddenly, there he was. On the screen was a picture of the bear I had been dreaming about for the previous two years. The time stamp on the photo indicated that he had come in at 3 a.m. This was the first time he had hit the bait, so I figured the chances were good that he would be back at least once more.
I met up with my cousin Clint that afternoon, and we headed back out. We climbed into our treestands at about 10:30 p.m., just as the woods were settling down for the evening. Because of our extreme northern latitude, the midsummer twilight lasts until the wee hours of the morning. Shortly after 1 a.m., all was quiet, and we were straining our ears to hear the slightest noise. Then we heard the sound of a branch breaking in the distance. We looked at each other, then another branch broke. I mouthed the word “grizzly,” as I’ve found that black bears come in very quietly, but big grizzlies will break branches before coming to the bait in order to scare off other bears. My pulse quickened at the realization that I very well might be getting a chance at what I had come to think of as my bear.
We could hear the grizzly breathing before we could see him, and by the time he walked into view, I felt like my heart was going to explode. I could feel my pulse in my neck. It was him, the bear that had haunted my dreams, right there in front of me. I was actually a little embarrassed. I told myself, “You’ve got to calm down, Tyler. This is just a bear. Breathe.” The huge boar came right to the bait and flopped down, facing us but without giving me a shot, so I had a chance to collect myself. There was no wind, and the bear was oblivious to our presence. He had been there for a couple of minutes when I heard another bear coming in. From its relatively quiet approach, I assumed it was one of the black bears; every time it made a noise, the grizzly would look in that direction and become more and more agitated. I knew that at any moment, the grizzly would jump up and charge after the approaching black bear, and I might not see him again. I held my bow ready to draw.
I heard the black bear again, closer this time, and as soon as the grizzly started to stand, I drew my bow. As I reached full draw, he was standing broadside at 14 yards, facing the other bear. It was all a blur, but I watched my arrow bury itself up to the vanes behind his shoulder, pushing the Grizzly single-bevel broadhead out in front of the opposite shoulder. Instantly he tore off through the brush. I knew he wouldn’t go far, as I could hear him sucking air through the wound. He piled up within seconds, after covering only 30 yards. We heard his last breaths as he expired, and I sat there in awe, still pumped full of adrenaline—astonished but grinning from ear to ear.
This was the only bear I’d ever killed that actually got bigger when I walked up to him. We just stood there staring at him. “I think that might be the new world record,” I said, realizing that he seemed nearly as big as my peninsula brown bear. After some pictures, we started skinning at 2:30 a.m. We finally got all of the meat and the hundred-pound hide loaded into my river boat at 7:30, with little room or energy to spare. During the ride out, listening to the hum of the two-stroke, I reflected on the amazing experience, replaying it in my head. I had undoubtedly taken one of the largest interior grizzly bears in the world, ironically, with my Bear’s Paw recurve and Grizzly broadheads. To finally be able to encounter and possess him was an indescribable feeling.
“The very idea of shooting grizzly bears with the bow and arrow strikes most people as so absurd that they laugh at the mention of it.” —Saxton Pope, 1923
To endeavor to take a giant bear with a bow and arrow remains no less fantastic today than it did in Saxton Pope’s time.
Perhaps the most notable recurve-killed bear of all time was the behemoth brown that Fred Bear shot in 1962 (right). The bruin squared more than 10 feet, weighed more than 1,000 pounds, and had a 28-inch skull. Bear killed the brown with a recurve and cedar arrows tipped with his signature broadheads. It stands as the second-largest ever killed.
The biggest interior grizzly bear ever killed by a bowhunter was shot in May 2009 by Pennsylvania hunter Rob Debias. It was scored at 27 3⁄16 by Boone and Crockett measurers and stands as the largest hunter-killed grizzly ever taken by any method. It did not qualify for Pope and Young because Debias used a Lumenok on his arrow.
By comparison, Tyler Freel’s bear, which weighed approximately 650 pounds, was scored at 25 2⁄16, potentially placing it at number nine in the Pope and Young record book.