Bear Thirty: Monster Bruins and the Coast
by Ryan Schmidt
As we wait for the weather to clear, the winds to die down and the rain to let up, I begin wondering what the next ten days will hold for us on the Alaska coast. We have been planning this trip for over a year now, and the excitement echoes through the dense air.
But before I had a chance to wonder too much, even if it was five days later, I found myself staring at a huge Alaska brown bear, ambling about its business over three miles away. At 60-power the bear looked to be a definite shooter.
As we began to stalk the bear, he continued to head toward us. We started closing the distance within a few short hours. The big bruin was on one side of the river, and we were on the other. There was no way to cross.
As I watch the large bruin move dirt like a D-9 bulldozer, he solves the issue by crossing the river on his own. Two jumps and a few doggy-paddles and the bear was on our side of the river, closing fast. As he approached us, we settled in for the shot. The winds swirled and he knew something was up. He let out a huff and stared eye to eye with us. I knew it was now or never.
I took aim with my Blaser .375 HH; the gun cracked and down he went, just like that. We could not believe he fell to only one 300-grain Barnes bullet. It was an incredible feeling, seeing an animal of that size lying on the ground. It took all we could do to process him and roll him over. The bear had 4- to 5-inch claws and a huge skull, with two abscessed teeth eating his upper and lower jaw bone, and three other broken canines.
The pack back to camp was where the fun really began, as I bounced and fell across the tundra with the sweat running in my eyes, my boots filling with swamp water and the lower back beginning to ache. Still, I know there will be no forgetting this experience.
Hunting brown bears is always an adventure, from the flight out and the kill to the pack back to camp and the trip home. Since childhood, I have dreamed of chasing these big bruins. Now this is one of my favorite animals to hunt. Their long claws, massive bodies and huge teeth make them a very addicting target. The pure adrenaline of a spot-and-stalk gets in your blood. If you have hunted them you understand.
The long spring days offer the hunter plenty of time in the field. However, the weather can be one of the most interesting parts of the trip. In coastal Alaska, you can expect high winds with torrential downpours and beautiful sunshine all in the same day. Or as the saying goes, if you don’t like the weather, wait an hour—it will change. Bad weather can also last a week or more, so you want to make sure you are prepared mentally and physically for a longer hunt if required. Good gear and common sense is a must for brown bear hunting, or any Alaska hunting in fact.
There is a lot of information out there on how to hunt brown bear and where to hunt them, but it comes down to a few things to make or break a trip. One of the most important I’ve learned is to stay focused and stay put. Bears have a great sense of smell and will spook a lot of time at the first presence of man. Some guys go tromping around the woods miles from base camp and still shoot bears, while other guys spook everything for miles. I have done both, but what works best for me is to trust my eyes. I spend hours upon hours glassing and watching for bears. As you glass you will see hundreds of bears; well, hundreds of things that look like bears, with only a few actually being bears.
If you are patient, bears will usually come to you. Time is the key factor; if you spend ten days in good bear country, where you have a good vantage point, you should see some bears. Going along with that, good optics are a must. When you spend all day behind the binoculars, a quality pair will really increase your odds of finding a bear. I’m not suggesting you have to have the most expensive pair out there, but you want a good pair if you’re going be attached to them for the whole trip. A good spotting scope is very helpful as well; it will save you miles of walking to an unwanted animal.
When it comes to judging bears, it takes some time and practice to be good at it. There are people out there that really know their bears, and other people who have no idea what to even look for in a big bear. Some key factors are taking your time and really watching the bear as it moves. When you see a 10-foot-plus brown, you will know it. It’s the 7- to 9-footers that are tricky, especially after hunting for a week and not seeing any bears, as that’s when a 7- to 8-footer can get the heart going. Experience helps, of course, and then it comes down to the hunter’s preference. I have taken some smaller bears with great color phases and perfect hides, and they are just as fun and exciting as the real big ones.
Otherwise, I generally like to look at the way a bear moves across the tundra. A truly big boar will have a swagger to his walk, with low belly clearance, the unmistakable large hump, and that big old head with little ears. Sows seem to move with more caution. They have the smaller features and act more like a younger bear would. But then there are also those big sows that can fool even the most experienced, so you want to really study them before taking the shot. Often the cubs are easily seen, but other times they stay hidden for some time, so it’s best to watch the bear for awhile to make sure it is what you’re after.
As with any animals you need to watch the wind and its direction. Bears have a great sense of smell, but have below-average eyesight. They live by their nose. Quiet clothing and watching the wind is a must when stalking bears. Take your time and make your move when you have as much advantage as possible; there will be times when you have to react fast and furiously just to catch up, while at other times you have all the time in the world. It really just depends on the situation.
In the spring I seem to find the big bears on the fresh grass sprouts or on a kill during the evenings. The spring bears also seem to stay higher up the mountains during the day, and are lazier at that time. I call it “bear thirty,” when I start seeing bears pop out and move, usually after 2:30 p.m. and on until dark. You can see bears at any time, of course, day or night, but in my experience early afternoon till dark is the best time to catch big bruins on the move. At the same time the bears can disappear just as fast in the thick alder trees, so it is best to keep a close eye on your animal when you find it.
A few other tips: when hunting these bears it is smart to always have a Plan B when flying to your secret spot. Even if you have never seen a person there before, all good spots come to an end, as I found out on a recent hunt. Next, always have good gear and respect Mother Nature; bring enough food for bad weather, because you can easily be stuck extra days with the storms that brew up over the coast. For example, on a recent hunt we got pounded by a huge storm for five days straight, with 60- to 70 mph winds and downpours that never let up. We lost a tent and ran out of food, so it does and will happen to you if you hunt long enough.
Another important tip is to bring a satellite phone with you in case of an emergency, or just to communicate with the pilot when it comes time for a pickup. Weather will impact your hunt, so just keep a positive attitude and look for the adventure in the trip, not the kill. Stay focused on the job at hand and remember you will always learn something from a trip, good or bad. And last, make sure you have a great hunting partner, and that both of you keep your wits about the trip and situation. You never know when a bear will just show up.
I personally will never forget staring eye-to-eye with that huge Alaska brown bear, as he huffed and the snot and saliva flew from his face. It was a true adventure and I would recommend it to anyone who loves a great challenge.
Ryan Schmidt has a passion for hunting the backcountry and remote wilderness of Alaska. He has over 20 years of big-game hunting experience and works as a rural educator in Alaska.
Five Trophy Areas for Coastal Brown Bears
Some areas that have produced trophy bears in the past are:
Kodiak Island: the heart of all trophy brown bear country in Alaska.
Admiralty Island: fortress of the bears in southeast Alaska, it has the highest density of brown bears in the state.
Alaska Range: GMU 16B has produced some quality bears over the years.
Kenai Peninsula: if you’re fortunate enough to draw a tag.
Alaska Peninsula: has growing number of big bears.
Wherever you choose to hunt, make sure to do your research and check the hunting regulations, as seasons change from year to year and permits are required to hunt some of these areas.
Which Caliber should you use for Alaska Brown Bear?
There are many good brown bear calibers to use in Alaska. Some are better than others, of course, but here are a few that I like and that I have personally seen take nice bears:
.338 Win Mag
.300 Win Mag,
There are others out there, but these are my favorites. If I had to pick just one for all occasions, it would be the .375 H.H. with a 300-grain bullet. It has plenty of power and you still get good distance with it. Plus, most guys can handle the recoil well. You can kill these bears with less gun of course, but if you have to go in the alders after one, it’s nice having a little extra power.