First Grizzly, First Day


I’ve been hunting since a very young age and, like many hunters, have dreamed of big game hunting, following heroes like Hemingway, Jack O’Connor, and J.A. Hunter.

I’ve hunted in most of the provinces of Canada, in South Africa, and in many Western states, and have taken moose, elk, caribou, black bear, deer, and all the plains animals that South Africa offers.  Those experiences are memories of fair chase and hard physical hunts, but I lacked a hunt for dangerous game.

It was a void in my hunting experiences. I knew at my age, closing on seventy-four, I was running out of time and made the decision to correct this hunting void and plan a grizzly bear hunt in Alaska.

My wife and I attended to 2011 SCI convention in Reno, looking expressly for an outfitter to guide me on this next adventure.  I interviewed several guides, and settled on Brad Saalsaa.  Brad was hunting in an area north of Iliamna Lake about 200 miles west of Anchorage.  I knew little of the area, but after some online research, checking kill reports in the area, and talking to several clients who had hunted with Brad, we made the deal for a ten-day spring grizzly hunt early that May.

We discussed the caliber best suited for the hunt and he recommended nothing less than a .338.  I ordered a Ruger R77 Alaskan on the spot by calling my dealer back in Pennsylvania.  I added a 2-14x tactical scope and began a regimen of exercise to get in the best shape possible.  Brad stressed that the country we would hunt offered an excellent chance for a grizzly, but was hard country.

I have always taken pretty good care of myself, but Brad made very clear that this was not going to be an easy hunt. To get ready, I worked hard, walked several miles every day, and carried a backpack containing weights of up to 20 pounds.

May 8 finally arrived. I boarded Continental Airlines flight 1581 from Baltimore to Anchorage and settled in for the long 12-hour trip.  I overnighted in Anchorage, and the next day checked into Iliamna Air Taxi airline for the 45-minute flight to the small village of Iliamna.  There I met Brad where he introduced me to our pilot, Tom Atkins, who would fly us into the hunting area.

So many stories have been written about Alaskan bush pilots that I won’t bore the reader with another.  Let me just say that Tom is among the best.  He has been flying in Alaska for 40-plus years, and when he straps on his Piper Super Cub, he looks the part.  Since the Cub had room for only one passenger, Brad flew in first to set up camp while Tom came back to pick me up.  An hour and a half later, Tom sat the Cub down, picked me up, and we were off.

firstdaygrzlyStockphotobearThe trip to camp took about 45 minutes and the weather was beautiful.  Cloudless blue skies and snow-covered mountains were visible for a full 360 degrees, while below, the green-brown tundra, spotted by Alder patches, was covered with snow.

Tom flew with no GPS in country that totally looked the same.  I could tell the wind had picked up by the bumpy ride and the constant crabbing of the Cub.  We flew over and around snow-covered mountains and through non-descript passes, until finally rounding through yet another pass where a tiny tent appeared several miles away.

“That’s it. Your new home,” Tom said.

The campsite was situated atop a 1,000-foot hill that had a flat top for the Cub to sit down.    Tom turned into the wind, added power, lowered some flaps, and set the Super Cub down gently on the hilltop.  The roll out was all of 40 feet.

After the engine shutdown, we unloaded my gear and me.  Tom restarted the Cub, turned into the wind once again added power and lifted off in the same 40 feet in which he just landed.  Brad and I were hunting alone, and I was excited.

That night the wind increased from 10 to 15 knots to 35 to 40 out of the north.  During the night, I was sure the tent would come apart, but it held.  We awoke to beautiful Alaskan day except for the wind, but I didn’t care–we were finally hunting. Brad was already out with his spotting scope by the time I dressed for the wind and cold.

“See anything, Brad?”  I asked.

He just shook his head and kept looking.  I found a spot out of the wind and scanned the valleys and hills for my grizzly.  About a half hour into the new day, Brad came over to my spot and said, “Let’s go. I found your bear”.  Holy cow! We had not been spotting for more than hour.  Brad took me to the spotting scope and had me look though the device.  I looked and looked but couldn’t see anything that resembled a bear.

“I don’t see it,” I said.

“It’s right in the middle of the scope,” Brad replied.

“Brad, all I see is a brown rock.”

“That’s your bear. Lets go,” said Brad, and so we did.

The bear was on the south side of third ridge north of our camp, and three to three and a half miles away, Brad estimated.  Everything going in our favor–the bear was asleep, the wind was in our face, and the first two ridges would cover us.  As long as the bear slept, we thought we could get within 300 yards for a shot.  I was fine with the range; I just hoped the bear stayed put.

We started down the 45-degree slope and ended at a small stream at the bottom.  I knew at that point we were into a major stalk.  The tundra was spotty and hard to walk on, however the real problem was going to be the snow in the alder patches.  The first patch we came to had thigh-high snow that was soft in spots and sent us falling though the crust into the wet snow.  We knew that once the sun and wind got to the areas that the snow would become more treacherous.  The alder patches were the worst, and I quickly found out I was not in the shape I thought I was in.

After some five hours, we reached the second ridge.  Up until that time, we were not able to see the bear, but had an idea he was still there.  The wind was still from the north, and if anything had increased in velocity.  Brad motioned me to get down and I crawled up to him.

“He’s still there. He’s lying with his back toward us,” said Brad.  “Let’s see if we can get closer and find a spot where you can setup on him and get ready. Just relax and catch your breath.”

I moved to an outcropping and set up the Ruger for the shot.  Looking though the scope, I could see the bear’s back and a lot of hair.

‘Brad, I can take the shot now, I’ve got his spine and lots of vitals after that,” I said.

“Don’t shoot.  We’ll get a better chance.  Just be calm and wait him out,” he answered.

Brad was the guide.  Over the years, I have learned to take their advice.

We had been waiting for almost 30 minutes when the bear started to stir, then stood up and shook his body, ridding himself of the winter dust.  With the sun shining down on him, he was beautiful.  His back was bright blonde-haired and his legs dark brown.

“Not yet, don’t shoot,” warned Brad.

I waited.

The bear turned and presented his left side.

“Now,” I said, and held the crosshairs right on the shoulder.firstdaygrzlystockhnt4evr121113

We had ranged the distance at 260 yards uphill.  I squeezed the two-and-a-half-pound trigger and the Ruger sent the 250-grain Federal Premium Nosler Partition bullet toward the target.  I was rewarded with the audible “thump” that all hunters know as a good hit, and saw the dust rise exactly where I had aimed.

The bear rolled down the mountainside 75 to 100 feet, caught his legs under him, and took off running for the nearest alder patch.  By that time I had another round in the chamber, put the crosshairs just forward of his nose, and fired again.  The dust puffed out of his neck; however, I didn’t see him go down.

Meanwhile, Brad had shot several times, backing me up with his .375.

“I’ve got one bullet left,” Brad said.

“Is he down?”  I asked.

“I don’t know,” Brad answered. “He went straight for the alder patch.  I couldn’t see him after that.”

“I know he was hit hard.  What do we do now?”  I asked.

“Give him a few minutes and then we’ll go get him,” said Brad.

I swallowed hard. I had thoughts of this happening while preparing for the hunt and wasn’t looking forward to getting into the alders with a wounded bear.

We went down off our ridge and started to look for my bear.  Brad got out in front of me, while I was imprisoned by the soft thigh-high snow in the middle of the alders.  I got free and called out for Brad.

“Over here.  He’s dead,” answered Brad.

I breathed a sigh of relief.

It took me 45 minutes to get to Brad and the bear. We took pictures and Brad began the tough job of skinning him out.  We had been in the hunt for about seven hours from the time we spotted him.  I was dead tired, and we were still looking at another seven hours-plus to get back to camp.

It took us more than 14 ½ hours camp to camp.  During the trek, I thought many times of having Brad just shoot me and leave me to the animals.  Not really, but it was a very tough hunt.  We spent the next two days waiting for Tom to pick us up, as the 40-knot winds just would not give up.

It was my first grizzly bear on the first day of a hunt in an unforgiving country, with one of the best guides I ever hunted with.– Roger Lynch

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