Hunting the largest carnivore on earth the giant Alaska Brown Bear – Ursus Arctos
There is something about moving silently along a salmon stream choked with alder and willow, scouring the landscape before your eyes for the first glimpse of an animal that may just be hunting you. I can easily recall the first time I sat along a narrow Alaskan salmon stream until the very edge of darkness, and I can vividly recollect moving along the well-worn trail, listening to my heartbeat, and of course the heartbeat of my client. Hair has the tendency to stand on end, and every leaf that flutters, or twig that snaps sends a rush of adrenaline coursing through one’s veins. A salmon surges noisily up the stream, and your knees grow weak. A moose jumps from its’ bed and you think your life has come to a sudden end! The truth is, few hunts can compare to an Alaska brown bear hunt, at least in North America, since the Alaskan brown bear is one of the few animals hunted on this continent that can, and occasionally do eat humans! While brown bear hunting is probably much safer than the average drive to work, there is this element of risk that is involved, and one simply has to be in close proximity to the big bears to even remotely appreciate such.
Brown Bear Facts
The Alaska brown bear, also commonly referred to as the Kodiak bear, is simply a subspecies of brown bear, which taxonomist refer to as Ursus arctos middendorfii. Scientist still debates various classifications, but most agree that the coastal brown bears of Alaska and western British Columbia belong to a separate subspecies, distinct from the grizzly bears known as Ursus arctos horribilis. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see the obvious differences in these distinct subspecies in the extreme edges of their environments, that is to say, the brown bears of Kodiak Island are quite different from the barren ground grizzlies of the North Slope of the Brooks Range, and this is obvious to even the casual observer. Adult boars from Kodiak, and most of the southern coastline of Alaska commonly achieve weights in excess of 1,000 pounds, and most seasoned bear biologist will agree that 1,500 pounds are not beyond the reach of some brown bear after a summer of feasting on protein-rich salmon. North Slope grizzlies on the other hand seldom exceed 500 pounds, with averages of around 300 to 400 pounds for most adult boars. As easy as it may be to see the differences in bears from such different ecosystems, the lines eventually get blurred as the ecosystems overlap and the habitat lines get blurred. In Alaska, the salmon runs are abundant from the southernmost communities near Ketchikan, all the way around the entire length of the Alaska Peninsula, and north toward Nome, but they eventually cease as one goes farther north. The salmon runs also penetrate farther into the interior of the state than what most individuals realize, and this penetration of good salmon runs into the interior greatly influences the size of the brown bear within this region. The Boone and Crockett Club draws a line across Alaska and proclaims that everything to the south is a brown bear, and to the north it is grizzly, but things are certainly not that simple. The fact is there exist no definite boundary between the brown bear and the grizzly, and many bears that will square 9 ft. can be found well over 150 miles into the interior of Alaska. The criteria for large bears all boils down to habitat and the availability of quality food sources. Berries will never produce bears of the same stature as protein-laden salmon. Brown bears have large, plantigrade feet (heel and sole touching the ground) and five toes per foot, the front feet have claws that can reach over 5 inches in length. Brown bear use these claws when they dig for everything from razor clams, to ground squirrels. Colors can range from almost black to very light blond; a few brown bears are pure white. Grizzlies typically carry deep chocolate brown fur with silver tips. Brown bears, including the bears of Kodiak Island, are typically more uniform in their color than the grizzly. Males and females are together only during the brief breeding season (May to June), but cubs may remain with a sow for two to three years. Brown bears hibernate for up to seven months, and typically the den will be found on a south-facing slope. The temperature of a brown bear declines only slightly during hibernation, but their respiration and heart rate drops dramatically. When active, they eat enormous amounts of fish, berries, and succulent plants, sometimes consuming 90 pounds of food per day. Females have their first young at five to seven years of age. They normally give birth to two cubs, skipping three to four years between litters. They can reproduce until almost 30 years of age, but few survive beyond the age of 20 in the wild. Brown bears belong to the family Ursidae in the order Carnivora, yet the great bears are truly omnivorous, that is they eat everything in sight. From blueberries to salmonberries, raspberries, roots, grasses and carrion, brown bears are not inclined to pass up a meal, but truly the salmon is what defines the brown bear more than any other food source, for it is from this source that the bear has derived its’ enormous size.
The Land We Hunt
Alaska has 26 Game Management Units, with many of these units being larger than my home state of West Virginia. At this time we are focused on guide use areas in the Alaska Range portions of GMU 19, the Cook Inlet region of GMU 16 B and the world-famous Alaska Peninsula in GMU 9.
The landscape itself varies tremendously within the unit, but the majority of our hunting will be conducted along the river valleys and foothills of the Alaska Range, and occasionally even the beaches of Cook Inlet. While the physical lay of the land is nothing in comparison to sheep country, we do occasionally like to get up on the slopes to take advantage of what I like to call “optical opportunities,” that is to say, some places are simply more conducive to using the binoculars than others. GMU 16 B’s weather is quite mild in comparison to interior climates, but the close proximity to the Alaska Range means the weather can change in minutes. This unit’s southern edge begins where the Aleutian Range and the Alaska Range collide near Mount Redoubt, an active volcano that last erupted 1989-90. The unit encompasses the huge flats of the western Susitna Valley, from the delta along Cook Inlet to the northern edge of the unit near Talkeetna. The flats eventually terminate in the west as the Alaska Range rises to over 11,000 ft. elevation in the Tordrillo Mountains. The vegetation in the unit has been largely affected by the last eruption of Mount Redoubt, and alder densities in the southern sections of the unit are unparalleled in the state. Areas along the beach at the base of Mount Redoubt are virtually impenetrable due to the dense growth of devils club, willow, and alder. Brown bear densities are nonetheless highest near this coastal region.
Unit 16 has hunting seasons for brown bear, Dall sheep, caribou, and black bear, as well as wolf and wolverine. Moose hunting within the unit is currently not open to non-residents, with the exception of sub-unit 16 A. One can expect to see a good number of brown bear along the salmon streams all through August and well into September as the bears will seldom range far from this food source during these months. The season on black bear is open year-round, with a limit of 3 bears.
GMU 19 is even more varied than Unit 16, but they do join right in the divide of the southern Alaska Range, but the other side of the range is certainly more difficult to get to, and it does provide some opportunities that GMU 16 does not. GMU 19 is substantially larger than GMU 16 and the terrain in Unit 19 would probably be considered more enticing to hunt, in particular in the fall due to the decreased alder densities in comparison to the eastern side of the range. Bears will range from 7 ft. to 9 ft.+ in both areas.
The Alaska Peninsula is a world unto itself with everything from mountains to relatively easy beaches and of course, the densities of bears in this great region are comparable only with Kodiak and the likes of Admiralty Island in the southeast. Ten-foot bears are always a possibility in this place of storm and wind, and truly if a big bear is what you are really after then this is the place to be, spring or fall, it can simply be like nowhere else!
GMU 9 is managed for trophy brown bears and this means short seasons and in even-numbered years we have a spring season running May 10th-31st and on odd-numbered years we have an October season running from the 1st-21st.
The Way We Hunt
Hunting brown bear is mostly a matter of determining what food source the bears are capitalizing on at any given period of time. Hunting in the fall typically has us focusing on salmon availability, and berry production and over the years I have concluded that there is nothing that is certain when it comes to these food sources, so this is why we are scouting the country and trying to stay a few steps ahead of the bears. When bears are working fish we will certainly try to set up on a vantage point and keep our presence on the streams to a minimum, with hopes we can actually get one of the big boys while he is feasting, but when most things are said and done I find berries quite a bit more reliable than fish. Time will be spent from looking at the streams and slopes of the region you will hunt that we may make a determination as to what the best approach will be during a given hunt.
Of course, spring bears are another subject altogether and these bears have to be hunted on different terms. It is either a case of early hunts with a lot of snow and snowshoes looking for bears coming out of the den or later hunts where bears are out and on the move looking for anything they can find to dine on after months in the den. Spring hunting has always been physically demanding on our clients and we do not recommend the April snowshoe hunts for guys who are looking for an easy hunt, but the spring hunting in May on the Peninsula is another story altogether and is typically much less strenuous.
Of all the elements that often conspire against bear hunters, the wind is the most unpredictable. Brown bear have a sense of smell that is beyond our comprehension. I have often read that polar bears can smell seal blood at distances of 10 miles or more, and brown bears are probably not far behind when it comes to their ability to detect odors.
The facts are, brown bear hunting requires patience, and the ability to sit with binoculars constantly scanning the horizon for hours on end is not only a virtue but often a simple necessity. Showing up in brown bear camp with poor optics, or even worse no optics is basically a red flag that says “I really don’t care about this hunt!” Be prepared, both mentally and physically, especially if the hunt is a mountain type hunt, and be prepared to listen to your guide and more likely than not your opportunity will come.
While many individuals discredit the eyesight of brown bears, I really don’t buy into the theory that they have poor eyesight. It may be poor in comparison to sheep, but that doesn’t mean they can’t see. Master guide (#62) Ed Stevenson once told me that he thought bears could see just fine, but they often pretend to be unaware of the presence of a hunter. I have the tendency to take a similar view. It is doubtful that a bears eyesight is inferior to that of a human, and humans can see quite well. Regardless, bears do not react to what they see in the same fashion that whitetail deer do. For one thing, they are quite aware that few things pose a threat to them, and everything that moves is basically on the menu, including humans. This being said, brown bear typically retreats when they detect the scent of a human, at least in areas where they are not acclimated to such. In areas where bears and humans have frequent contact, they often pay little attention to the dreaded human scent. Clothing for our brown bear hunts should be subdued, and camouflage is always helpful. Don’t expect a brown bear not to spot you if you are wearing a bright red parka.
Our brown bear/grizzly hunts vary in degrees of difficulty, with most hunts now being very comfortable in contrast to what we did in years gone by. Most of our hunts and all of our hunts on the Peninsula are run out of larger tents such as the Hilleberg Altai which is 12′ x 12′ with a 7 1/2′ center, and cots. Home-cooked meals are prepared for the main entrees and supplemented with side dishes of Mountain House and other items. Hunters should be in decent physical condition since bears can cover a lot of ground if they are on the move, and the difference between a good stalk and a bad stalk often boils down to how fast you can close the gap. We do expect all of our hunters to carry their share of the load when it comes time to put on the backpacks, but we don’t carry 60-pound packs all day, but for the hunters that are physically challenged, we can and do make accommodations. We normally have under 20 pounds on our back while in the field, and this is primarily optical, and camera equipment, skinning tools, lunch, and emergency supplies. Packers can be hired for any given hunt with adequate advance notice, but they cannot be hired after you show up in camp. The additional cost for a packer on a 10-day hunt is $1,000.
Our brown bear hunts are open to bowhunters, rifle hunters, muzzleloaders, and pistoleros as well.