My fascination with the giant brown bears of Alaska started when I was about 12 or 13 years old. While looking through a big game record book, It amazed me that eight out of the top ten Coastal brown bears listed, including the world record, came from Kodiak Island. From that moment, I wanted to hunt this mysterious and wonderful place in hopes that I could take a world-class brown bear.
Over the next 35 years, the desire to hunt the Kodiak brown bear only intensified. After reading Marvin Clark’s book The Last of the Great Brown Bear Men and looking at the incredible photos of the bears that Bill Pinnell and Morris Talifson guided their clients to, I decided it was time to quit dreaming about it and go hunt one. I was overwhelmed when the email came in, stating I had won a Kodiak brown bear tag in the Alaska Fish and Game drawing permit system.
The hunt dates were set for April, and I was scheduled to hunt with Master Guide and Outfitter Brian Peterson. I had hunted and fished with Brian several times in the past with great success, and through those adventures had built a wonderful friendship and admiration for him. He runs a first class operation.
As the Cessna floatplane touched down on Ugak bay, it seemed like I was coming home to spend ten days hunting with an old friend. My hunt was lodge-based and our plan was to hunt, using a skiff to access islands and beaches in the bays, and then glass the hillsides and snow-capped mountains for bears. Since the hunt didn’t start until the following day, my eagerness to see brown bears was limited to sitting on the deck of the lodge glassing the mountains across the bay.
I was soaking up the rare calm and clear Kodiak sunshine in my short sleeves while Brian grilled a couple of ribeye steaks for dinner. I knew it was going to be a great hunt because it didn’t take me long to spot a bear from the deck.
Eager to get my adventure underway, I was greeted on day one by a heavy, steady pounding of rain wrapped in fog. This continued for two days, on day three we not only had rain and fog, we also had snow and wind! We hunted anyway, enjoying the Kodiak elements and working with them to execute our plan. Low visibility equals tough bear spotting. We saw only three bears those first three days. I knew things had to get better, but I definitely didn’t expect the next seven days would be “clear and a million,” with the bright sun in the Alaskan sky.
With the clear, warm weather and sunshine, Brian explained, “The bears should really start moving.” I guess that is what 33 years of guiding experience will yield, as I no sooner got the words out of my mouth, before I spotted a bear at the head of the bay. “Little bear,” Brian said. “Keep looking. If you put in your time behind the binoculars you will see the bear you want sooner or later — you just have to put your time in,” he added. Things were looking up. The weather was great and we had just spotted another bear.
From that day on, spotting bears was a regular occurrence. Some were sows with cubs, some were small bears, but one was a beautiful nine-footer that got me pretty excited. Again Brian said, “Too small, keep looking.” I couldn’t believe the words that were coming out of his mouth. On day five I spotted a big nine-and-a half-foot bear that was completely rubbed to the wool on more than half of its body. Again Brian intervened, saying, “Too rubbed, keep looking.” I thought to myself: The hunt is half over and I have seen so many bears, but none of them was what we wanted. I think Brian could read my mind because he looked at me and said, “You have to put your time in, keep looking and we will find him.”
Days six and seven brought additional clear, warm weather and more bear sightings. Another bear, “too rubbed;” the next bear, “too small.” “Keep looking and we will find him, trust me,” Brian said.
About 2 p.m. on day seven, Brian spotted yet another bear. I knew this bear was different because he didn’t quickly blurt out too small or too rubbed, it was just silence as he analyzed the bear. After a few minutes, he said: “We might have found your bear! Let’s just watch him and see what he does.” He looked to be at least nine and a half feet with minor rubs. The bear was 824 yards away and he was about 400 yards above the beach on the hillside.
Over the course of the next hour, we watched the old boar meander across the hillside, walking from alder patch to alder patch, stopping occasionally to uproot some vegetation, looking for something to eat. While Brian was watching the bear, I was able to hook my camera to my Swarovski spotting scope and photograph him. Eventually, he walked into an alder patch about the size of a football field and didn’t come out. After a while, Brian said: “He’s taking a nap, let’s go get him.”
We bailed off the knob, got in the skiff and crossed the bay. After tying-off the boat, we stayed on the downwind side of the bear and climbed the 400 yards to the edge of the most open area next to the alder patch where we hoped the bear was still sleeping. As we sat with a good vantage point at the edge of an alder thicket, we used our backpacks to break up our human outline and to shield us from the stiff breeze that was blowing in our faces. I looked at my watch; it was 4:55 p.m. As the minutes passed I kept wondering if the bear was still in the alder patch sleeping, or had it meandered off while we were crossing the bay and hiking up the hill? Would I have to “Keep Looking?”
Thoughts of the bear not being there and roaming through the brush-choked slopes behind me instead kept running through my head. After about forty-five tension-filled minutes of looking and listening, I suddenly heard a commotion in the brush behind me. A bone-chilling shiver instantly went through my body and the hair stood up on the back of my neck. With adrenaline flowing I quickly snapped my head around only to see a willow ptarmigan just clearing the tops of the dense alder patch. Whew, that was intense!
A few minutes passed and I thought to myself, what made the ptarmigan flush? Was our bear behind us in the brush now? My whole body was on sensory overload at that point! A combination of anticipation, fear and respect is a constant reminder for all of Kodiak’s wonder. With a drop of sweat beading on my brow and a nervous trembling in my whole body, I sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Brian, he with his .416 and me with my .338, waiting for the moment when we would get a glimpse of the beast.
Another half hour passed and Brian was staring intensely into the alders in front of us when he leaned over and whispered in my ear, “There he is. I can see his face in the alders forty yards in front of us.” I squinted and the image of the huge old boar’s face magically appeared. In a matter of seconds the image was gone. He had been there, right in front of us, the whole time.
Relief overcame me now, knowing the location of the bear. However, it was quickly followed by nervous tension, knowing how close he was. About every five minutes we heard the bear take in a deep breath of air, process it, and then exhale. The sound of the exhale cutting through the silence gave me goose bumps. It had an eerie similarity to the whooshing sound a bus makes as it comes to a stop and the pressure is released from its air brakes. It was if he was breathing down my neck. Thirty minutes passed with only glimpsing small parts of the bear in the dense alder jungle while listening to him breathe and hearing an occasional footstep.
As I listened intently for another breath, I heard the light sound of footsteps coming closer in the grass immediately below us on the steep terraced hillside. The sound of his footsteps in the grass continued to get closer and louder until I heard a small twig break. I eased up and looked down to see the giant boar walking parallel to us at a mere 15 yards. How could something so massive move so stealthily? He didn’t have a clue we were just above him, crouched behind our packs. Brian whispered, “Kill him.”
I found his head in the scope and continued down his neck to his shoulders… and slowly squeezed the trigger. The .338 barked and the 225-grain Swift A-Frame dropped him, penetrating both front shoulders and both lungs. The mighty boar fell straight to the ground and rolled four or five times down the 30-degree slope and lay overturned in a narrow creek. Brian told me to shoot him a second time as a “cheap insurance policy.” My lifelong quest for a trophy Kodiak brown bear was now a reality. As we approached the bear, it was apparent that this was no ordinary bear. This was an old, white-clawed, 1,000-pound warrior that was at least 9 1/2 feet with a great battle scar on his back.
We both stood, enjoying the moment of what had just happened when Brian said, “That, my friend, is the bear you were looking for.”—Gary English