Alaska is definitely a land of extremes, and it seems like when the scale tips far in your favor in one aspect, it balances itself out by tipping far against you in another. Such was the case in September 2018, when the opening week of the fall brown bear season brought weather more like that encountered on the sun-filled Baja Peninsula than usually rainy southeast Alaska.
Petersburg averages 109 inches of rain each year, with an average September rainfall of 13.66 inches. Average high temperature is 57 degrees, average low 44 degrees. The 10 days I was there beginning on the tenth? Bluebird skies, temps reaching the low 70s, and nary a drizzle. The ocean was flat and the winds light. In short, it was perfect weather for creeping up streams filled with the last of the season’s salmon run, searching for a big brown bear.
Except for one thing. The 2018 salmon run in most of Alaska, including Southeast, was the worst in at least a decade. Statistically, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) predicted a Southeast Alaska run of almost 1.3 million sockeye, 3 million coho, 23 million pink, and near 21 million chum salmon, but the run only produced 35 percent of the predicted sockeye run, 37 percent of the predicted coho run, 33 percent of the predicted pink salmon run and 89 percent of the predicted chum salmon run.
Bottom line? Rivers and streams that should have been choked with fish held handfuls. And when there are little or no salmon that means there will be few — or no — brown bears on the streams. When the fish are gone, the bears spend their time digging tidal flat roots and retreat into the thick old growth forest searching for other food sources as they try to pack on the pounds in anticipation of their winter hibernation.
For SCI Life Member Lee Franklin and hunting buddy Doug Bing, two bowhunters counting on being able to ease their way upstream and sneaking within spitting distance of a trophy brown bear, this was not good news at all.
Fortunately, the pair booked their hunt with Alaska Master Guide Scott Newman of Alaska Bear Guides (www.alaskabearguide.com; 907-723-1053; email: [email protected]), a lifelong Petersburg resident who has been guiding full-time in the area since 1988. Newman hunts Admiralty Island, which is located in the heart of the Tongass National Forest, the largest temperate rainforest in North America. Admiralty is the seventh largest island in the United States and home to approximately 10 percent of Alaska’s entire population of brown bears. In fact, it has a bear density of almost one bear per square mile. With fewer than 700 year-round residents, the brown bears outnumber humans here by a near 3:1 ratio.
Also guiding on this hunt were Master Guide Jim Boyce, who has been shepherding brown bear hunters in Southeast Alaska for decades, and assistant guide Craig Bisson, another veteran guide. I’ve known both Newman and Boyce for decades and they invited me along on a busman’s holiday to enjoy the show.
“With the salmon numbers so poor, what we have to do is find those streams that do have some fish,” Newman told us as he drove his mother ship, the Chester B, from Petersburg north to Admiralty. “But when we do find pockets of salmon, the bears should be concentrated on them. So we’ll make sure we have the wind in our faces, slip slowly upstream and see what happens.”
Scott and Craig were going to guide Lee, while Jim was guiding Doug with me along for the ride. The opening day alarm rang at 0400 and after coffeeing up we all jumped in our skiffs and headed out for separate streams just as it was light enough to see.
In Your Face!
Lee Franklin did not have to wait long. Working up a beautiful stream, the trio encountered no fewer than a 16 brown bears before 10 a.m. That’s when they ran into the bear Lee wanted, a beautiful black boar coming down the stream right at them. They set up and when the bear was just 12 yards away Lee made a killing shot. Just like that, he had achieved his dream with a bear that squared 8’, 6”.
For Jim, Doug and me, things took a bit longer – but not because we didn’t have early opportunities.
We weren’t on our stream for more than 30 minutes when Jim spotted a big boar splashing about a deep pool. We slithered our way upstream and got crosswind from the bear, who gave us a show for more than an hour. Despite Jim’s advice – “That is a really, really big boar, Doug!” – Bing chose not to take a shot. Later, looking at the pics, there’s no doubt this was by far the biggest boar we found during the hunt. But as Doug later admitted, “I had the first morning jitters and didn’t want to make a mistake.”
No worries. Midmorning we backed out and tried another nearby stream, which had zero fish and zero bear sign. So that evening we went back to our pool to see what happened. We were treated to quite a show, with four brown bears working the pool – but no real shooters.
The next morning we were back and saw several more bears in our lower pool before sliding around them and working upstream. After a mile of no more salmon, it was obvious that all the action would be at the first morning pool, so we were back in position three hours before dark. And what a show! We had no fewer than nine bears between 75 and 25 yards from us on three sides, including three studs – but none gave Doug a shot.
The morning of day three we decided to hike up the same creek where Lee had taken his bear, figuring if we didn’t find what we wanted we could go back to our other spot for the evening hunt. It wasn’t necessary.
Craig Bisson came with us and led the way, as he had been up this stream before. Within two miles we had seen 11 brown bears, including a sow with two big cubs that puffed herself up and created a 20-minute stand-off at 50 yards that had everyone’s hackles on red alert. After they thankfully moved off, we eased around the next corner – and there he was.
It only took a brief look for Boyce to hiss, “Shooter!” The bear was fishing in a pool 100 yards upstream, so we eased up to a downed tree across the river and waited to see what the bear might do. He caught and ate a salmon, and then, finding no more fish, started heading downstream right at us. When he was broadside at 28 yards and Boyce woofed and stopped him, Doug let an arrow fly. It hit the bear a bit high and back, but instead of running off he swapped ends and stood there, giving Doug another shot. This arrow hammered him, and the bear went only 20 steps before piling up on the edge of the stream bank. Just like that, Bing has a dandy black boar with a hide that squared 8’, 9”.
A Special Hunt
When I was an Alaskan resident I hunted brown bears a lot, sometimes on my own and often as an assistant guide working with Jim Boyce. To me they are the most special big game animal in the 49th state. They’re extremely powerful, lightning fast and very intelligent. You can’t ever let them get a whiff of you or they’re out of here in a blur. A trophy bear will be 10 years of age or more, with some reaching their mid-20s. Creeping up a fish creek filled with big bears with bow and arrow is one of the most exhilarating hunting experiences on the continent.
Don’t believe me? Just ask Lee Franklin and Doug Bing.–Bob Robb