Bowhunting Alaska's Trophy Black Bears
April 12, 2011
What do long-distance runners and trophy black bear bowhunters have in common? Everything.
My 19-year-old son, Tyler, and I glass for black bears feeding along the shoreline in Southeast Alaska.
The cold wind and salt spray stung my face like a bullwhip as the aluminum skiff bounced over the choppy sea. A hint of heat radiated off the tiny outboard motor, but the bitterly dank air swallowed that warmth before it even started to thaw my nearly frozen fingers wrapped around the throttle.
Snow blanketed the mountaintops and rainforest, making the season seem more like winter than spring. Yet, there we were, motoring around the Pacific Ocean in search of giant black bears foraging the beaches of Southeast Alaska.
"There's a bear," I said over the drone of the outboard.
"Where?" asked my 19-year-old son, Tyler, who was on his first Alaskan bowhunting adventure.
"Feeding in that green, grassy cove," I blurted, jabbing my other frozen hand in the direction of the bear.
As I cut the engine, Tyler pulled up his binoculars, and when he located the bear, I heard his teeth chatter with excitement. "Wow, Dad, that's a big boar, isn't it?"
Once the boat stopped bouncing, I found the bruin in my binoculars and confirmed Tyler's hunch. "Yep, that's a mature boar. We don't have much daylight, but that's a heck of a bear. Let's try stalking him."
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Moments later, we anchored the skiff in shallow water, waded to shore, and raced through the dense jungle of Douglas fir trees, alders, Devil's club, and moss-covered tangles so typical of Alaska's rainforest.
Daylight was dwindling fast, but if we hustled, we might get a chance. Crisscrossing from faint bear trails tucked just inside the damp woods to open sections of kelp-covered beach, we closed the gap in about 20 minutes.
One more bend in the bay and we'd be right on top of this big boar. At about 80 yards, we slowed our pace, being more careful of sound and movement. Forty yards from the feeding bear, I had some genuine hope Tyler might get a shot. But as happens in many beach stalks, the wind swirled at the most inopportune time, and the bear melted into the jungle as day turned to night.
Sweat-soaked from the mad dash, and disappointed from yet another foiled stalk, we slogged back to the boat. With the late spring and infrequent bear sightings, this could turn into a marathon of a bear hunt, I thought.
In the short time we had been away from the skiff, the tide had risen dramatically. If we didn't get to the boat right away, we'd either be swimming or spending the night marooned away from the boat! Over the years, I've spent too many nights out without provisions and didn't want to add another miserable night to my list, especially with my son along. So I just waded -- belly-deep -- through the bone-chilling saltwater, reaching the gunwale of the Blue Finn boat just before swimming depth. Luckily, it was a short boat ride back to the landing, where dry, warm clothes awaited me in the truck.
As the hunt wore on, days turned into weeks. Infrequent stalks came up short time and again, and bears hit our baits only sporadically. Each day seemed the same: Return chilled and exhausted to the cabin around 11 p.m., eat fresh shrimp and crab we had caught, dry clothes, sleep, get up, prepare bait buckets, refill the outboard gas tank, shoot bows from the cabin deck, drive to the boat landing, check and replenish our four baits, check trail cameras, glass all day for bears on the beaches, return to the cabin at 11 p.m.'¦
The repetitive nature of this 26-day-long hunt could be likened to running the 26 miles of a marathon -- plodding along, putting one foot in front of the other, enduring the pain and discomfort, and just trying to reach the finish line.
We saw this monster on the trail camera several times, but we had to hunt 14 days to get a live glimpse of him. With a hide squaring 8 feet 2 inches and a skull measuring 202â„16 inches, my bear weighed an estimated 600 pounds.
For Tyler and me, the finish line was tagging record-class bears. Having hunted this part of Alaska several times, I knew if we were patient and kept plodding along, like marathon runners, we'd eventually get a crack at a big boar.
This trip provided a great opportunity for some father/son bonding. Unfortunately, during Tyler's formative years, my profession as a photographer kept me on the road. Then, when Ty was eight, his mom and I divorced. So, a long-distance dad is all he's known. In spite of these challenges, we have both made a concerted effort to stay emotionally close, with great success.
Bowhunting since he was 14, Tyler has become quite an archer and observant student of hunting. Regardless of the cold, rain, and wind, we continued hunting, day after day.
Tyler never complained and just kept paying his dues. He didn't even complain when I backed over his Mathews Drenalin bow with the truck. Luckily, despite the beating, his bow kept right on shooting!
Finally, a really big-bodied bear appeared on the trail camera at our number three bait. After viewing the images, I said, "Tyler, this bear is worth waiting for." So for 13 straight days, Tyler sat in that stand. But no matter what time of day he sat or how long he waited, the bear apparently knew when Tyler was there and did not s
how up. We even tried the old "two hunters in and one out" trick. But this bear was too smart.
A three-day sequence of Cuddeback photos showed that the big boar generally fed about 10:30 a.m. So, the following day, Tyler and I both sat from 7 a.m. until 1 p.m. The big guy never came in.
A smaller bear, however, gave us quite a show. He even did a handstand while pawing at the syrup-covered dog food we used for bait. This bruin would have been a shooter just about anywhere but Southeast Alaska. Field-judging him as a six-footer with an 18-inch skull, I encouraged Tyler to be patient. "Hold out for the big one. He'll be worth the wait," I promised.
Finally, Tyler got fed up with bait number three. "Dad, I just have to see some new country, something different. Sitting there in the rain and not seeing that big boar is driving me crazy!"
"All right, I'll drop you off at bait number two. According to the trail camera images, there's a pretty good bear coming in there too," I said. "Do you mind if I sit at number three?"
"Dad, if you can kill that big slob, I'll be happy for you."
So on May 24, the 20th day of the hunt, after dropping Tyler off, I motored south toward bait number three. Trying to devise a way to trick the big boar, I approached the remote cove where the bait was located without even slowing the throttle. Then, about a half mile past the cove, I slowed the boat gradually to make the motor sound as if it was going out of earshot and tucked the skiff in behind a big volcanic rock bluff in a hidden bay.
Fighting my way through the rainforest with a full bait bucket in one hand and my bow in the other, I worked up a lather. About 45 minutes later, I tiptoed into the bait area, quietly replenished the food, and checked the trail cam for recent activity. I was pleasantly shocked to see photos of the big bear just prior to dark the night before. Those photos gave me confidence that my odds for seeing the bear were pretty good.
Tyler's first bear ever weighed an estimated 400 pounds. The hide squared 7 feet, 3 inches, and the skull measured 203â„16 inches. Even with fatigue setting in, Tyler persevered to claim a huge victory in our Alaskan Bearathon.
As the evening wore on, I stayed alert while listening to the calls of ravens, bald eagles, and Canada geese. Occasionally, I saw or heard the spouting of a whale or the splash of a sea lion.
With mere moments of daylight left, I heard a twig snap faintly. Listening intently, I heard a second twig snap and slowly reached to turn on my video camera to record the event. When I looked back toward the barrel, Mister Big was staring right at me!
My hand froze on the video camera as daylight faded by the second. The bear drilled holes through me with his little pig-like eyes. Had he picked up enough movement to spook?
For several minutes he would take a step, look up at me, sniff, listen, and then take another step. My extended arm ached, but I had to remain motionless.
Finally, he relaxed and sniffed around the barrel. Lowering my arm slowly, I never turned on the camera.
When the bear seemed relaxed enough, I reached for my bow. The boar whipped his head up and stared some more. This was the most cautious bear I'd ever seen at a bait. Finally, I gripped the bow, but the bear offered no shot. Even with the dwindling daylight as my biggest threat, I had to remain patient.
Eventually, the bear started tugging on the barrel and working his massive paw into the sweet goodies. When he finally stood, quartering away, I drew my bow in slow motion and concentrated on the shot.
When the arrow exploded out of the bow, the bear lurched away, and I heard a few branches breaking. Then the rainforest fell silent and dark.
Waiting in the gloom, I strained to hear a death moan but heard nothing. About 20 minutes later, I crawled down and left the area as silently as I'd approached three hours earlier.
I hate leaving any mortally wounded animal overnight. However, in the thick jungles of Southeast Alaska, waiting for daylight is the safest approach. Still, the boat ride back to the dock was long, and my night of fitful sleep was even longer. Dark thoughts of a wounded bear drifted in and out of my dreams like fog floating through the tangled rainforest.
In the morning, Tyler, along with Earl Chauvin and Blake Patton, two friends from Texas who were hunting the same area, helped me search. From the time we started looking, exactly 10 minutes had elapsed when Earl hollered that he had found the bear about 100 yards from the bait.
The big boar's hide squared an honest 8 feet 2 inches, and his chest girth measured 67 inches. Combining those dimensions with the weight of the meat and hide back in camp, we estimated the bear's live weight at about 600 pounds. His skull officially measured 20 2â„16 inches.
While butchering the bear, I felt something hard in the right lung and cut out a sandwich-sized blob of gristle. Dissecting this scar tissue, I found about four inches of 2219 aluminum arrow and an old style of expanding broadhead.
I was stunned. This bear had recovered from an arrow wound in the area of its right lung! I even had a hunch as to who had shot the bear many years before. Upon returning to the cabin, I talked with my good friend and longtime hunting partner Bob Ameen, who had been hunting this same remote section for about 15 years.
"Yeah, I stalked a bear on the beach not far from there about eight or 10 years ago," Bob said. "I shot him right before dark and looked all the next day. We found lots of blood but never found the bear."
Eventually, when I got a chance to show Bob the arrow and broadhead, he confirmed that they were his. No wonder that bear was so smart. He had survived a near-fatal arrow wound as a mature bear and then had eluded hunters for another decade!
While tickled at killing such an enormous bear, I also felt a pang of guilt. Tyler had hunted hard with no reward. Still, he accepted his fate with a maturity beyond his years. I was very proud of him.
With my bear tag filled, I did everything possible to help Tyler as he plodded through the remaining long days like the waning miles of a marathon. One evening a quality bear approached Tyler's stand and, anxious, Tyler reached for his bow too quickly. The bear got nervous and circled around and around before departing to the beach. Tyler eased out of the stand, took off his boots, and tried stalking the wary bear on the beach. With cold, soaked feet and a look of exasperation on his f
reckled face, Tyler explained how close he'd come to getting a shot. My heart ached for him to catch a break.
On Day 26 of our hunt, Tyler chose to return to bait number three. After shooting light I motored into the cove and found Tyler barechested, waving his arms like a lunatic. I wasn't sure what was going on.
As I eased the boat near the beach, Tyler started whispering about shooting a bear but not being sure of his shot placement. He wanted me to pick him up farther away from the bait to avoid disturbing the bruin. Thus the bare chest. He knew it would be easier for me to see his pale, white skin rather than camo clothes.
On the boat ride back to the landing, Tyler explained repeatedly how the big bear had come in and was eating but not offering a shot.
"We've spent so many days here without me getting a shot, I wasn't sure I could control my emotions," he said. "One time the bear was broadside and I came to full draw but couldn't see through my peep. So I had to let down, and then the bear changed his stance, and I couldn't shoot!"
Finally, after 20 frantic minutes, Tyler got a break. Sitting like a dog, the bear twisted his torso to listen back into the woods. This slight shift of the bear's body opened a shooting angle. As it turned out, Tyler made a perfect shot, and we found his bear early the next morning.
And a tremendous bear it was! Tyler's first bear ever squared 7 feet 3 inches, weighed about 400 pounds, and had a skull that taped out at 203â„16 inches. Again, I was very proud of him.
We spent another four days cleaning up camp, riding ferries, and driving home, and we pulled into my driveway in Spokane, Washington, almost exactly 30 days after we had departed.
With a road-weary smile on his face and the handshake of a man, Tyler said, "Dad, this trip wasn't a marathon. It was a bearathon!"