Sometimes we wait for game—crouched in a blind, perched in a tree stand, hunkered beside a moss-covered rock or gray deadfall. Sometimes we pursue game, come upon it suddenly and shoot. But few would deny the most memorable hunts of all occur when we see game far away and must carefully stalk in close for the shot.
In campfire and hunting lodge conversation the question often arises—What is the ultimate stalk in big game hunting? There is no simple answer. It varies from hunter to hunter with each individual’s life and hunting experiences—what location, nature, the quarry and chance have offered. I have thought about this question often, letting my mind drift back over the 40 years I’ve been fortunate to pursue big game. Many of the hunts involved challenging and difficult stalks. Mountain goat, elk and pronghorn come to mind. But the most memorable stalk I’ve made wasn’t the most arduous or the longest. It was simply charged with electrical energy from start to finish.
That hunt took place in coastal British Columbia, and the reason why the stalk was more intense than any other can be summed up in one word: grizzly. No other animal exerts such an undeniable magnetism over us, a beguiling mixture of fear and attraction. No other sport offers the intensity level of hunting grizzlies.
The landscape along the Summerhalt River in coastal British Columbia would be spectacular to view—if it wasn’t almost perpetually enveloped in low, scudding clouds, banks of fog and swirling mist. Spruce and fir-spiked mountains rise up almost vertically above the water, their peaks cloaked in snow already in early September. They are virgin stands of timber. Some of the tree trunks measure 20 feet across. But the rain and fog here are nearly constant, often shrouding all but the bases of those ancient trees and mountains. The dampness penetrates even the best foul weather gear, and creeks you must cross are almost always an inch deeper than the hip boots you wear. This is coastal grizzly hunting.
It is somber, depressing weather. But eagles fly overhead, bringing life to the scene. Salmon swarm in the creeks–brilliant red sockeye and silver coho that send sprays of water splashing in the shallows as they swim upstream to procreate. And in the thick, dark forest roams the ultimate big game quarry—the coastal grizzly. The bears grow far larger than their inland relatives, partly from the milder climate, partly from the abundant salmon that supplement their normal diet of berries, grass and roots. That is what brought them down along the Summerhalt and its feeder streams, the Sidewalk, Tchew and Indian, and that is why guide Joe Juozaitis and I were here.
We had hunted three days and enjoyed some memorable experiences. We saw one sow, perhaps 350 pounds, with two cubs, one brown, and one cinnamon-blonde with a dark stripe down its back fishing along the river. We watched them for an hour before they disappeared into the dense timber. Fresh tracks of larger bears littered the beaches and we had several close encounters with grizzlies that we only heard as they scented us and crashed away in the dense brush. But so far the big boars were proving elusive.
Seeking a fresh start, we packed a spike camp on the fourth day and headed out by johnboat to new territory an hour’s ride away. The cover was thick with ferns and alder. Lichen and moss carpeted the deadfalls. The stench of decaying salmon clung in the air and gulls scavenged for carcasses left by the wolves and bears. It was an eerie, yet strangely beguiling scene.
We made a lean-to with a tarp, gathered firewood, caught a few salmon on streamers, then started a late evening hunt at 5 p.m. Mangled sockeye carcasses lay everywhere. Some had just a few bones left. Those were the work of bears. Others had just a single bite taken out—signature of the wolf.
After hunting for a mile up the creek and with darkness coming soon, we reluctantly turned around and started to hunt downstream. Halfway back we paused to watch a wide stretch where we had seen fresh tracks on the way up. Like a painting that changes when you turn away, suddenly the scene was different now. A large, black, golden-tipped grizzly was in mid-stream, 150 yards away. It looked massive. It moved with a slow, lumbering motion and had a distinctive humped back.
Easing across the creek to push our scent away, we began wading downstream. The bear could disappear in the woods at any moment and light was fading fast, yet we tried to be stealthy.
I was shocked at how close Joe wanted us to approach. The bear was well within range of the Ultra Light .338 I carried. Yet onward we crept through the clear water. At 50 yards we finally had penetrated the grizzly’s tolerance limit. It seemed to scent and sight us simultaneously. Rising up on its hind legs, the bear rested its front paws against a boulder and stared at us, turning its huge head from side to side. The rock was six feet high, yet the grizzly towered above it.
Dropping onto my belly on the stones, I braced myself. I knew my nerves were too far gone for an offhand shot even at that close range. Settling the crosshairs on the bear’s shoulder as it dropped down from the rock, I squeezed. The .338 broke the silence of the stream. The grizzly shuddered and I fired twice more and it lumbered toward cover.
Joe urged me closer as I stuffed in more cartridges. We were within 30 yards, and suddenly the bear turned and came toward us. I knew he was hit hard, but instead of fleeing, he was coming at us. I fired again twice. Finally, the bear was down. It lay just 20 yards away.
“Is it dead?” I asked.
“I think so. It looks dead,” Joe replied.
I kept the gun trained on the bear in the dim light of dusk, trying to control the shaking. Suddenly the grizzly’s head began to rise and I fired again at the exposed chest. Finally, the bear lay still.
There was elation and relief, joy and sadness. It was a large grizzly, seven or eight hundred pounds. Joe said is would square about eight feet. There were golden honey tips across the back and shoulders of the thick, dark fur.
Joe tied his wool shirt around the bear’s neck to keep other grizzlies from eating it or hauling it off until we returned in the morning to cape it out. We sloshed our way back to camp in silence and built a roaring fire. Changing to dry clothes, we settled down with a bowl of stew and toasted the bear, the hunt and the stalk with Alberta Premium rye whiskey.
Sleep came hard. We stoked the fire all night, reliving the events in our minds. It was hard to key down after hunting for days, then stalking and killing a magnificent grizzly at dusk. Heavy shuffling sounds in the brush nearby didn’t make sleep any easier. Other bears were lingering close by.
Without question, that was my most memorable stalk ever.– Gerald Almy
* The grizzly the author took was later aged by biologists at 11 ¾ years old.