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Live Hunt Alaska: Stalking Brown Bears in the Last Frontier

Tyler Freel Avatar

Battling harsh weather conditions in one of the toughest environments on the planet, my hunting buddies and I were able to take three huge brown bears on our 10-day fly-in trip in the Alaska Peninsula. It was one of the most fun and challenging bear hunts I have ever been on. Check out the story and photos from my adventure hunting one of the world's largest land predators.
As disgruntled as I was about getting up at 4:00 a.m. to catch my plane after packing until 12:30 a.m., I couldn't help but laugh when I saw the first leg of my trip down to the Alaska Peninsula would be aboard the Disneyland express 737. I made a wish alright, but it didn't have much to do with meeting Snow White and the seven dwarfs.
This amazing life-size mount in the Anchorage airport sure gave some perspective on the size of the critters we would be sharing the beaches and alders with for 10 days. The anticipation was almost more than I could take. Luckily I had a layover in Anchorage, as I had forgotten to print out my registration permit (bear tag) the night before. Fortunately, my sister lives in Anchorage and was able to print it and drop it off to me before my flight.
After being stuck in King Salmon–the jumping-off point for most of the peninsula–waiting on late baggage, we were finally in the air en route to our final destination. We hunted the Pacific side of the Alaska Peninsula, an area that is only open to bear hunting for 15 days at a time, during the spring and fall of every other regulatory year (the Alaska Department of Fish & Game's regulatory year begins July 1). The next time this season will open is fall of 2013.
We flew out in a de Havilland Beaver, and were put down on the beach in probably the smoothest bush plane landing I've ever had. Reality set in as the plane roared and lifted off the beach: We were finally here.
We got camp set up just in time to go to bed, and the next evening we got the glasses out. While we were watching a couple of bears, one of my partners, Gary, spotted this nice wolf trotting down the beach towards us. She came up to 138 yards and Gary dropped her with one shot from his .416 Ultra Mag. She had an excellent hide and the solid bullet just punched right through with basically no hide damage. While talking to Fish and Game after our hunt, we learned that the liberal wolf seasons are a must down there. On most of the peninsula, the only wolves that are killed year round are taken by bear hunters, which makes life on the peninsula pretty hard for the moose and caribou. Hear the recording of Tyler's satellite phone call-in.
The bears didn't really get moving till late afternoon/evening, so around 4 p.m., we kicked the glassing into gear. We had plenty of country to look over, as we saw bears everywhere from the edge of the surf up to the highest peaks. Most bears have just come out of hibernation this time of year, and since food is scarce, they just seem to constantly roam without rhyme or reason.
It's typically cold in that country this time of year, but this year spring was especially slow in coming. For the first week it was getting down in the 10- to 15-degree range at night, and I sure was glad that I came prepared. I used a three-layer system for my sleeping bag: a 20-degree Kifaru Slick Bag with a fleece liner and a military Gore-Tex bivy liner for an extra layer of insulation and moisture protection. Even with all that, I still had to crawl completely inside my bag and close it over my head like a caterpillar in his cocoon.
We flew in 2 days before the season started, and for the first week the weather was pretty terrible. On top of the cold, the wind blows constantly down there, and quite a few days it was blowing 40+ mph with snow, sleet, and rain. On this type of hunt, some motivational reading material can sure help keep your spirits up.
I like to keep the mood light too, and while reading through this comic strip book I couldn't help but laugh at the irony. I sure kept one ear open while I was huddled up in the tent. Luckily, it seemed that the bears didn't like to be out in the nasty weather any more than we did.
My tent vestibule worked pretty well as a kitchen/gear pile storage, and I was able to comfortably adapt to this scaled-down type of living. One of my favorite comforts was my GSI cookware kit with a coffee drip filter. It's pretty nice to be able to brew up a hot cup of joe before even crawling out of the sleeping bag!
Usually by the afternoon the weather became tolerable enough to get out and do some glassing. We saw this good-size boar digging and rolling around on a beach about 1½ miles away. All told, we saw roughly 35 bears, and the majority of those we spotted basically right from camp.
Like most hunting here in Alaska, brown bear hunting requires a ton of glassing. To hunt a bear, you first have to spot it. Then you have to judge whether or not it is a shooter. Then you have to observe it for awhile and get an idea of where it is headed. These bears were constantly roaming, and even at a relaxed pace, if it isn't walking toward a place you can cut it off, a person will never catch up to it. So only after all that could we begin to formulate plans for stalks. On opening day, we were sitting on a grassy hill like this when all of a sudden I spotted a huge bear walking toward us along the edge of the hills and a tidal pool at 200 yards. I grabbed my bow and we rushed to a spot 10 yards from where he would walk by.
As his tracks show, what we thought was a continuous shoreline had a gap in it that the bear went through. If we had taken an extra minute to look, we would have seen that the bear was headed straight for that gap and we easily could have cut him off. However, we were playing catch-up and had to sprint a couple hundred yards back the other direction and back up to the spot we were originally glassing from, where we saw that the bear was walking the other way at 173 yards and just about to go out of sight.
This is one of the tracks he left, and the cartridge is a .416 Ultra Mag. (which is a .375 RUM necked up to .416) One very accurate way to size a bear is to measure the width of the track at the front pad. If you measure the track in inches and add 1, that is what the bear hide will square in feet. This track measured was 8½ inches across.
I had set out to try and get this bear with my recurve bow, but he was one of those that was just too big to let go. So as we topped the hill, I grabbed Gary's .375 H&H Ackley Improved, and had just enough time to lay down and put a good quartering-away shot through the lungs. He spun around and took off back the way he came, and I hit him in the lungs again, then a third time when he stopped, putting him down for good. It was all over in a matter of seconds. Even with large magnum rifles, shot placement is absolutely critical for these animals. As long as your first round is a killing shot, the bear won't get away, but they are big and tough, and you will rarely drop them in their tracks.
This bear sure was a dandy, especially for my first brown bear! The average bear killed on Kodiak and the peninsula is around 8 feet, and this one squared 9 feet 6 inches. The "magic number" is a 10 footer. Much like a 40-inch ram, a 10-foot brown bear is a trophy hunters dream of. This one isn't far off, and bears like this don't come around every day. His skull measured 27 ¼ inces, which is ¾-inch from qualifying for the B&C record book.
I couldn't believe how massive this guy was when we walked up to him. It took all three of us straining just to roll him over, and it took me more than 4 hours to skin him! I'm not a little guy, and just his front shoulder was nearly as wide as my chest. These bears will double their body weight by the time fall rolls around, but right now they are just solid muscle.
His paws were just as impressive. I couldn't imagine getting swiped by these claws. This bear would be more than capable of killing a grown man with one well-placed smack. We watched several bears digging, and they tore up the ground effortlessly as they were looking for roots and clams. His mouth is just as deadly; I couldn't even get my hands all the way around his massive snout.
Just as important as a good rifle or bow, quality optics are key for improving your chances at a bear like this. We spent hours behind the trusty Swarovski 20-60×65 HD spotter, glassing bears at more than two miles away. I was also really impressed with their new 10×42 EL Range binocular. It has everything you could ask for out of a bino, plus a built-in rangefinder that barely increases its weight.
This is what we woke up to several mornings, not quite what I would have imagined for the middle of May on the beach, but it sure helped keep my hide cool. Our tents played an important role in making this a successful hunt. Even though we set them up in a depression, the wind still rocked them pretty hard. Several nights we got back to camp at 2 or 3 a.m., and if our tents had failed, we would have been in serious trouble. One night, Steve and I went to a spot to glass for the evening and got stuck because of the tide. We spent close to two hours in the dark curled up against a rock face getting blasted by snow and salt spray in 40-mph winds until the tide went out enough for us to wade around the cliffs. I crawled into my sleeping bag at 3 a.m., and I was never so glad to see that tent.
On one of the few nice afternoons, it was apparent how much stuff these storms wash up. The whole beach was piled with driftwood and a remote spot like this would be a beach comber's paradise.
On one trip down the beach I saw this and came to the realization that somewhere, a West Virginia football fan is bummed out because his flyswatter took a swim in the deep blue.
Two of the coolest things I found were a piece of worm-eaten driftwood and this old Japanese fishing net float. These are becoming pretty rare, and come in all different sizes. They are hand-blown glass balls that came loose from fishing nets off the coast of Japan. From what I've gleaned, green ones like this one were mostly made in the 1920s and '30s, so it's pretty cool to think that this could have been floating around for the better part of a hundred years before washing up in Alaska.
The day after I got my bear, the weather was still holding fairly clear and we spotted a gorgeous blond bear on this mountainside digging in the shale just below the lowest rock faces above the beach. Gary was looking for a good hide, and this was the prettiest looking bear we'd seen, so we set out after it. After a couple hours of walking we were 300 yards below the bear, which had bedded down on top of a rock pile, not giving us a shot. With darkness coming fast and the snow coming down hard, we decided to try something. I hiked up the upwind side of the hill from the sleeping bear until I was just 100 yards away. All of a sudden, the bear was up and it took off across the hill towards where Gary waited in ambush. I tried to stop the bear by hollering, and as it let up just a little, Gary put a 300-grain Partition right through her lungs.
His bear wasn't huge, but she was a gorgeous 8-foot sow. She looked like she had just come out of her den, and had an immaculate blond coat. Interestingly, in both black bears and grizzly/brown bears, the hides are almost always much nicer on sows than boars. Often, boars will have large rubbed-off patches on their hides in the spring.
With two bears down, our efforts went to finding a bear for Steve, and there were still plenty of them around. Many of the ones we were seeing, however, weren't what he was looking for. We had been watching a bear on the far beach to the right all afternoon, and even though the bear couldn't get around the cliffs because of the tide, that didn't stop him. He climbed to the top of the cliffs and came down a steep cut that led down to the beach. The problem was that the small patch of snow coming up from the beach was a 20-foot vertical patch of ice. It was funny to watch him as he realized he was in a predicament. After about 10 minutes he shimmied his was backward down the ice and made it safely to the beach. We nicknamed this bear "Patches" because almost all of his hair was rubbed off except for some patches on his side and his neck and head. We saw him several times during the hunt and he was always doing something goofy.
The whole coastline was lined with trails, but these aren't hiking trails. They've been worn into the tundra by generations of bears. This particular one was about 100 yards behind our camp, which wasn't exactly comforting.
Farther down this trail, I found this nice caribou bull that met an unlucky end. The moss was all torn up from this guy's last stand, which probably happened last fall. I think it's a tough life for caribou in those parts. With all the wolves and bears down there I don't know how any of them can even survive!
We also found evidence that this used to be somebody's favorite spot. This rotten drum has probably sat there for 30 years or more. It had a Yukon stove, a cast iron pot, bowls, and other cookware. Close by, there was another drum in similar shape that had what was left of an old wall tent. It used to be pretty common here in Alaska for hunters and guides to cache some of their camp supplies, as it was an ordeal just getting it there, let alone bringing it back out every year.
Just a few days after I killed my bear, the carcass had been reduced almost down to nothing. Bald eagles are the most common scavenger in these parts, but we were lucky enough to get a look at this gorgeous wolverine. I was wishing he was still in season, but it was still awesome to watch him do his thing. They have extremely powerful jaws, and he would grab a rip and snap it off in order to get to what was left of the internal organs. Some people don't agree with only salvaging the hide and skull of brown bears, but the meat, which isn't at all appealing for human consumption, goes down just fine for hungry eagles, wolverines, and a number of other animals that are constantly running on empty.
The wolverine is a ferocious critter, but pretty goofy too. Their name means glutton, and he lived up to it. After he ate his fill, he trotted off down the beach, most likely to sleep off his huge meal.
While glassing from my kill site, we spotted a nice looking bear walking across a snow field a couple miles away up on the mountain above camp. He was wandering around, then charged down into the brush, chasing a bear twice his size up the hill. He continued to follow the bear, but it clearly wanted nothing to do with him. Through the spotting scope we watched them snapping back and forth as they walked out of sight. About an hour later, the smaller bear (we figured he was at least a 9 ½ footer) came back and bedded down in the snow. Steve took off after him with only an hour and a half of light left.
These bears had been up in country that was more reminiscent of sheep hunting than bear hunting. Steve found him still up there and acting kind of funny. We only had one whole day left, and since he was a really nice bear, he wasted no time and put him down with the .416 as the very last hint of light was fading away.
We hiked back up to 1,100 feet the next morning to skin him out and he was quite the bear! He would square out 9 feet 9 inches (the average of the length and width of the hide), which made him just slightly bigger than my bear. Upon closer examination, we saw that he had apparently pestered the much bigger bear to the point that he got his butt whipped. He had fresh gashes on his head and his lip was torn in half. It was apparent that this bear was a brawler by nature, as he had no ears left and a bunch of scars from previous years of fighting. He had a great hide though, and Steve was very happy with this trophy.
Steve had wrecked his ankle, so we loaded the hide and skull up in the Kifaru Timberline pack. I was surprised it actually fit, as they take up a lot of space, and at around 130 pounds, it was quite the load! With that, it was one last pack down to the beach, and our hunt was over. Once in a lifetime for many, this was an amazing hunt, and one that I will remember for years. I always learn a lot on these hunts, and this was no exception. What a way to kick off Live Hunt Alaska 2012!

Live Hunt Host Tyler Free and his two buddies spent 10 days stalking one of the largest land predators in the world: the Alaskan brown bear. See the photos and story behind this epic hunt.