I met Lance Kronberger of Freelance Outdoor Adventures in 1994 while in Idaho on an elk hunt in the “Frank Church.” Lance was right out of guide school, and was the packer on his first elk hunt. Over the years, we have become enduring friends, and annually for the past five years, I have booked Alaska salmon fishing trips with him. Lance also offers float fishing camping, salmon fishing, and hunting for grizzly and brown bear, Dall sheep, and moose.
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.
The 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.
The bear turned and presented his left side.
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
I have wanted to hunt bear in Alaska since I started hunting 50-plus years ago. And now my guide and outfitter Erik Johnson was saying to me: “Shoot that bear!”
In the fall of 2008 I received a brochure from South End Adventures explaining their hunting opportunities. It sounded very good but I wanted to think about it a little more and discuss it with my hunting partner. Then in the spring of 2009 I received their brochure. It was spring turkey season, and I was going to hunt with Jack Nelson in Morrill County, Nebraska, so I took the brochure with me.
As Jack and I discussed this trip we decided it was just what we were looking to do ̶ hunt giant black bear, fish for halibut and salmon, catch prawns and Dungeness crabs plus see beautiful country. I called Erik and Tam Johnson of South End Adventures after talking to several references, who were very complimentary. I booked their last spring bear hunt, which was at the end of May 2010. What an adventure this was going to be!
I thought about the trip all winter, and I started working up loads for my .416 Taylor. I thought this would be a great bear cartridge. After trying several loads, I settled on the Barnes 300-grain Triple-Shock, powered by IMR 4350 powder. This load shot very well, and I knew it would do the job when the time came.
We were to arrive in Ketchikan, Alaska on May 22 to depart on our hunt. We would be hunting Prince of Wales Island from a 65-foot vessel, the Tamarik. We were met by our guide and outfitter Erik and assistant Jake Barfield. The drive to the dock area was quick and soon we were on the boat settling in for our trip. Jack and I had separate cabins, each with shower and bathroom. Tam prepared a great meal, we filled in all the necessary paperwork, and I went to sleep dreaming of a big black bear.
Our first morning dawned damp and cloudy with a little breeze as we departed for Prince of Wales Island. The trip was very enjoyable, lasting about four hours. We stopped briefly at Moira Island to make sure our rifles were still properly sighted in after the plane ride. Both our rifles were still dead on, and we were ready for bear.
Prince of Wales Island is very temperate and very mountainous, covered with brush and trees. We spent that first afternoon cruising offshore looking for bears prowling the beach. We also fished a little, catching several quillback rockfish and setting out some crab pots and shrimp pots. This time of year the days are very long as it stayed light until after 9 p.m.
We brought the Tamarik into a small bay and anchored for the night. After a brief planning session Jack and I went with Jake in one skiff, with Tam and Erik following in the other. There was a light rain falling. Not enough to make it miserable but you knew it was there.
We saw our first bear feeding on lush grass on the beach. After glassing for a couple minutes, we decided this was a small bear so we continued into the bay. As we rounded a small island we saw two more bears. Even I could tell they were much larger than the first one we had seen.
We beached the skiff on the small island and set up with our binoculars to glass. As we watched, another single bear appeared on the beach. We were probably 600 to 700 yards from the beach where all the action was taking place. The pair appeared to be a sow and boar. The single was a very large bear, probably a boar. The pair finally walked into the woods, but we could still see them at the edge of the trees.
We decided we should get a better look at the single bear. I won the coin toss between Jack and me, so I was up first. Erik, Tam and I got in the skiff and headed toward a place on the beach where we could see and stalk the bear. Jack and Jake stayed on the island to watch.
As we neared the beach we could see the large boar very clearly. He was huge, but his hide was very badly rubbed and would not make a suitable rug. As we got out of the skiff and started to walk toward this large bear, another bear came out of the woods. He looked very good at 400 to 500 yards so we began our stalk.
As we got near, he walked back into the woods and disappeared. He was a nice bear. The two original bears then came out of the woods. First the sow and then the boar came running down the beach toward us. As we watched they again disappeared into the woods. Even the large badly rubbed bear had disappeared from the beach.
We continued walking along the beach through the trees. As we came to an open area, we saw another bear, number six on this beach. We settled in the trees and glassed the bear. It was only 90 yards away, feeding on the grass toward us.
I had my rifle settled onto the bear, but Erik said he wasn’t sure about him. Its ears were too close together, and both he and Tam thought this was a sow. All of a sudden the bear turned and beat a hasty retreat into the trees and was gone.
What had happened?
Then, a large bear appeared. It was the huge, badly rubbed bear from before. He was feeding toward us. He must have frightened the sow off. Again we looked this bear over very carefully. He was a very large bear but so badly rubbed. He continued to feed towards us and was 34 yards away when we saw another bear walk out of the woods. Erik looked at the bear.
“Shoot that bear,” he whispered.
My shot was blocked by some branches, and I tried to get a clear shot.
“You need to shoot soon,” Erik urged, “or the bear will go back in the trees!”
The rubbed bear had now walked into the woods ̶ Man, he was close!
My bear was 78 yards away and slowly feeding toward us. At 74 yards, he presented a great broadside shot.
I pulled the trigger gently ̶ CLICK.
What a sickening sound.
The bear heard the click and looked directly at us. I jacked in another shell as the bear lowered his head and continued to feed. This time the .416 roared, and the bear dropped in his tracks.
As we walked up to the bear I couldn’t believe he was down. He was a beautiful, coal black bear with a white star on his chest. As I stood over him and knelt down to lift that huge head, I marveled at the sheer size of this beautiful animal.
What a trophy for this boy from Nebraska! And this was just the first day. We had nine more days of hunting for Jack’s bear as well as fishing.
We later green scored the skull at 19 14/16 inches and the hide an even seven feet. After the drying period the bear scored 19 10/16 SCI. What a trophy! I slept very well that night.
To this day I don’t know why my rifle didn’t fire on that first shot. That evening we took the bolt apart and there really was nothing wrong. Luckily, everything turned out perfectly.
The next day we continued to search for another bear. We saw eight. We made several stalks on bears that disappeared and got up on a couple that had rubbed hides. We also continued to fish. I was having a great time fishing and going with Jack in the skiff, trying to get on the right bear. On the third day I caught a really nice 60-pound halibut. We caught yellow-eye red snapper, ling cod, black sea bass, and a variety of bottom-dwelling rock fish.
We continued to cruise Prince of Wales, looking for bear and fishing. What beautiful country this was. The weather cleared up, the wind was calm, the seas were calm, it was perfect. We cruised south, rounding the southern-most tip of the island. As we looked for bear and fished, Erik saw a pod of orcas. We glided through this pod for 30 minutes or so, getting tremendous pictures. These are amazing creatures and they seemed to really like having their pictures taken. They glided under the boat and came up to breathe less than 10 feet away. They finally tired of us and off they went.
Retracing our steps back around the cape, we entered a beautiful, large bay. The walls along the entrance to the bay were steep and high. According to sonar, the water through these narrows was 760 feet deep. We found a nice calm bay, anchored the Tamarik and headed out in the skiffs for the evening hunt. We saw no bear.
As we cruised back toward the Tamarik, we saw a bear feeding on the beach half a mile away. From this distance it looked like a very good bear. We got to the beach and began our stalk. This was really a great bear and one that we wanted to take.
At 110 yards Jack settled his .416 on a rock and took a shot. The bear was hit hard but ran for the woods. Another shot and he was gone. It was nearly dark, so rather than push him farther into the woods, we decided to come back in the morning.
The next morning, Erik and Jake took up the trail and after an amazing job of tracking found the bear. He was a huge, old bear with most of his teeth gone. The green score of the skull was 21 2/16 inches with a hide that squared seven feet, five inches — truly a great bear.
We will find out the true age of the bear this next spring from the Alaska Game Commission, but Erik and Tam thought he was 25 years old at least. What a bear! Our bear hunting was over.
We continued to fish, catching halibut, ling cod, yellow-eye and a couple of very nice king salmon. This was such a memorable adventure — everything I had anticipated and more. I cannot imagine a finer group to hunt with. Tam, Erik and Jake were wonderful hosts, outfitters and now friends.
They were knowledgeable and capable hunters who knew the game very well. They were excellent at judging the size of the bear and quality of the trophy. Our beautiful bear rugs will be arriving soon from the taxidermist and will only help to make the memories stay vivid. I would love to go back on their fall hunt — maybe someday.– Richard Ashwood