Ever since I can remember, I’ve wanted to take a grizzly more than any other North American species. A stubborn nature combined with the primacy of establishing that goal so early in life never permitted it to diminish. The only thing standing in the way was the money needed to make it happen.
My first attempt was on the cheap, as I was living in Montana during the very last years grizzly hunting was allowed. I’d made arrangements with an outfitter who guided in the Bob Marshall Wilderness to be on call in case the big boar that caused trouble in his camp each fall showed up. If it did, and as long as the meager quota had not been filled, I was to meet him at the trailhead, ride to his back country camp and hunt the bear. A little voice kept telling Continue reading When Only Grizzly Will Do – A Hunters Journey to Realize a Long-Time Goal→
“There he is!” whispered Greg over the sound of limbs breaking.
I couldn’t see the bear with my rangefinder, but Greg located him in the alders. The Kodiak brown bear was just inside the brush and staring at us about 30 yards from where we stood. The bear started to walk away and Greg lost sight of him. We could hear loud noises farther away, so Greg used the call again, this time more softly, imitating a fawn in distress.
“Here he comes!” Greg said. We could hear crashing branches as the bear got closer. I stood just in front of Greg with my X-Force bow, arrow nocked and trigger in the loop. We were on the edge of a steep hill, where thick alders merged with an open meadow. A little open space no more than 20 yards in front of us was the only clear place where we could see. About 10 seconds passed as we both looked up and down the hill and in front of us. Then we both saw the big bear’s head and body, nine yards away, and above us.
“Shoot, shoot, shoot!” Greg whispered as I simultaneously raised my bow and pulled the string. The angle was a low percentage frontal shot, but with the bear above us, I could see the point where the neck met the chest and my pin settled right there.
It was my third time hunting in Kodiak. The first time was in 1992, and the second in 2000. Both times I had opportunities at mature boars, but could not capitalize. This third time was my biggest dream hunt since about 1987 when I began using a bow instead of a rifle. Since I started bow hunting, I had taken some of the most dangerous game in Africa, including lion, leopard, buffalo and elephant. I had a failed attempt at polar bear, but had taken black bear, a brown bear sow, and mountain lion. I’ve arrowed plenty of plains game and several species from North America and New Zealand, but dangerous game is special, and Kodiak brown bears are the largest predators in the world! I had fallen in love with Kodiak, so in 2006 I used the Internet to research it and found that Scott Mileur’s Areas 10 and 11 had some of the best hunting on the island. If you look in the pages of Alaska’s Fish and Game, you’ll find that they have all the info you can possibly imagine. I called the magazine and confirmed Scott had some of the best areas and that he was a true bear hunter who had hunted those areas for about 30 years. I checked his website, and while not really fancy, it had photographs of enormous bears.
I called him and he seemed to be a very nice guy. His first available opening for a May hunt was in 2009, so I took it. I was hunting in Texas in December 2008 when I received an email from Scott to confirm the hunt. I told him not to worry, and that I was going. My next deposit wasn’t due until the following March, but he was worried because of the economic crisis affecting all of us, and it’s hard to come up with a replacement hunter with only two months notice.
I sent my deposit the date it was due then spoke with Scott to finalize everything. We talked about equipment, the weather that was expected, and traveling arrangements. Scott told me my guide was going to be Greg Accord and that he would be guiding another bow hunter, Rick Hunt. If they finished Rick’s hunt first, Scott would join Greg and me.
I met Rick at Andrew’s Airways in Kodiak City. We got ready to take the flight to Olga Bay, but the weather was bad over there. To pass the time, we decided to go for lunch and to Mack’s Sport shop, and ultimately did not fly out until late the next afternoon. When we got to Olga Bay, Scott and Greg met us, and then we got to see our camp. There was one tent for Rick and me, another one for Scott that was also the kitchen/dining room, and one for Greg. The original plan was for the camp to be in a different place, but the lakes had been frozen longer than normal and the plane couldn’t land on ice. So much for global warming.
We ate and joked about how the minimum size skulls we wanted had just increased by an inch or two if the food was going to be that good all the time. The next morning, we woke up at 6 a.m., had breakfast, loaded into a small boat and headed north. Greg and I were dropped off first and Scott and Rick continued farther north.
Greg and I made it to a high point where we could see a valley and hills. The day went by and we saw five bears, one of which seemed a little bigger to me. Greg didn’t like it because it was rubbed badly, but I said I was looking for a big bear, not a rug, and maybe we should get closer and take a better look. Greg didn’t like the idea because he didn’t want to leave scent all over the area. On that he was right.
Back at camp, I was in bed by 11:30 p.m. after dinner and jokes about bear viewing. The next day, all of us went farther by boat to an old cannery, and then walked to Lake Akalura. Greg took Scott and Rick by inflatable boat to some other point on the lake and came back. We went in opposite directions and glassed from the beach. We started seeing bears right away–sows and cubs, plus a boar that I found right at the top of the hill. We kept glassing and napping for a few hours, and then I asked Greg if we could go to a very small hill nearby. The hill would put us in a better position to look at another hill on the left, which is where we kept seeing all the bears. Greg agreed and we went.
The view was much better there, plus we could see more of the valley, so we glassed and napped some more. At one point, Greg was napping while
I walked around a little bit, trying to look into places we hadn’t. I came back to where Greg was lying down and he asked, “Anything new?” “Not much…” I replied and, as I said the words I looked over Greg’s shoulder to see a big bear casually walking in the bottom, “…except for that!” I finished. We hurried to see the bear with the spotting scope, but even with my binoculars I could see he was definitely big.
“Let’s go,” I said.
We had a little discussion about the bear that I ended by saying, “I want this one.” We went down into the valley, crossed the stream, and saw the bear walking past a beaver dam as if his intention was to climb the hill in front of us–just not in a hurry. As we kept walking and getting closer we lost sight of him, so we got a little up and into the alders and started walking toward where we had seen the bear. We got to a point where the brush opened up a little bit and Greg said it was the last open space between the bear and us. He thought the bear was within 100 yards and that we should try and call it.
I got a little in front of Greg, nocked an arrow, and Greg called with a fawn in distress call—then, we waited. Greg called again, this time louder. Something like ten minutes went by and we regrouped. Maybe the bear was a little bit farther away and couldn’t hear us. The wind was good, so we climbed up a little bit and started walking toward where we thought the bear was.
We climbed a few yards, found a bear trail and started walking. Then we heard limbs breaking and saw the bear! In an instant I made the decision that, even though it was a low percentage shot, I was shooting. The pin settled and instinctively I squeezed my back and let the arrow fly. I saw the arrow hit its mark. The bear took the hit and started running down the hill, slowed, and took the bear trail ahead of us. It got just inside the alders and stopped.
“Shoot again!” Greg said.
“Too many branches!” I replied.
The bear started walking and disappeared. After a moment, we heard branches cracking almost from the same spot where we heard them before. “Here comes your bear!” Greg said. “I think the other one was a different bear. I saw a rub on his shoulders that I hadn’t seen in the other one.”
The second bear appeared and stopped at the bear trail just in front of where the first bear had entered the brush. He stood up and gave us a show as he rubbed himself against some branches, and then disappeared into the alders, following my bear. Greg was concerned that the second bear was going to eat my bear, so I told him we should go a little higher and try to see what was happening.
“Go bear, go!” Greg almost scared me when he started shouting. We continued shouting and getting closer and saw a bear in between the branches several times, sometimes standing up. “Cover your ears!” Greg said, and then fired a shot into the air to try and scare off the second bear.
We got to where we were just above the bear, some 15 yards away. We could hear noises and see the bear sometimes, and then saw the bear out in the open, walking away, slowly, like dignified royalty. We backtracked a little to where we had seen some blood and waited for half an hour before we started following the blood trail. “There he is,” we both said. We saw my bear laying still and started to approach; confident he was dead.
“Let’s see what you shot!” Greg said.
There he was, finally—a great Kodiak bear. I asked Greg what he thought and he said it was probably nine and a half feet, a very beautiful bear, and just a little rubbed but not badly. “Thank you very much!” I said to Greg, and then we started to get to work. We took some photos and video, then skinned the bear and cleaned the skull a little bit. The bear had bites all over the body and arms, maybe from the other bear or some other fights. Greg took the skin, then put the skull in a black plastic bag and attached it to my backpack.
“How does it feel?” Greg asked, maybe a little worried about my lower back. I had told him about two surgeries in 2002 on my lower back. “Actually, it feels pretty good,” I said.
We went back to the inflatable where we first took off, and then Greg went to pick up Scott and Rick. “Congratulations, bear hunter,” said Scott, as we started the walk back to the main boat.
We reached the camp at 11:30. I was exhausted, but happy, and after a quick dinner went to bed. The next morning Scott, Greg and Rick went to the same place, looking for the other bear. Back home, I called Scott from Mexico and he told me Rick got his bear a few days later and that it was a little bigger than mine. For those who would like to know, I used X-Force GX, Carbon Express Maxima 350 arrows and G5 125-grain Striker Magnum broadheads. The bear skull measured 25 6/8 inches at Kodiak’s Fish and Game.– Rodolfo F Barrera
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.
“Now,” I said, and held the crosshairs right on the shoulder.
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