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Bowhunting Brown Bears on Afognak Island

Big bears and big adventure on the rugged Alaska coastline.

Bowhunting Brown Bears on Afognak Island

Author Tom Edgington took this nine-foot brown bear in May 2023 while hunting on the island.

"If some of our teenage thrill seekers really want to go out and get a thrill, let them go up into the Northwest and tangle with the grizzly bear, the polar bear and the brown bear. They will get their kicks and it will cleanse their souls." — Fred Bear

The small float plane bucked the strong ocean breezes as the pilot brought the pontoons onto the angry ocean waters. After four commercial flights and an overnight stay in Anchorage, I was glad to get to my final destination. I had arrived at Afognak Wilderness Lodge on the coast of Afognak Island to hunt Ursus arctos, otherwise known as the Kodiak brown bear. Afognak lies a few miles north of Kodiak Island in the Gulf of Alaska. Kodiak enjoys a long and storied reputation for producing some of the largest brown bears in the world. The same bears are found on Afognak; yet somewhat surprisingly, many would-be brown bear hunters never consider hunting on Afognak Island.

Tom Edgington, Afognak Wilderness Lodge
Afognak Wilderness Lodge lies on Afognak Island’s coast, offering bowhunters comfortable accommodations and easy access to hunting areas.

Upon arriving at the lodge, I was directed to a very nice cabin where I unpacked and prepared my bow for a few practice shots to confirm everything was ready for the next day’s hunt. The next morning, we boarded a 36-foot fishing boat and headed to the portion of the island’s coastline that my tag allowed us to hunt. The plan was to glass the shoreline as we slowly motored the fishing boat about a mile offshore. Keeping the boat far away from the shoreline minimized the chance of spooking the bears. However, spotting a bear at that distance while the boat rocked up and down in the waves was difficult. Once a bear was spotted, we tried to assess its size and fur quality. My guides were using 15X binoculars. My 10Xs were barely adequate and not particularly useful in judging whether a bear was rubbed. Although it was early May, many of the bears had started to rub and exhibited poor fur quality.

We saw 16 bears during our first day on the water. Most were sows with cubs. We did see a couple of eight-foot boars, one with fur that appeared to be in great condition. The other boar was badly rubbed. We decided to pass on the well-furred bear and look for one of the bigger ones the island is known to produce. On the trip back to the dock, we watched a couple gray whales breach a few hundred yards in front of the boat. It was a great first day, and I couldn’t wait to see what the next would bring.

A Swing and A Miss

The following morning was overcast and rainy, with temperatures in the mid-40s. The sea was relatively calm as we left the dock. Anticipation was high as we headed up the coastline, and it wasn’t long before we spotted our first bear. It appeared to be a nine-foot boar with good fur. My guides, Josh and Gary, quickly readied the small raft we had been pulling behind the boat to take us to shore. The three of us piled in and slowly motored toward shore. As the front of the raft skidded softly onto a stretch of beach several hundred yards in front of the unsuspecting bear, Gary and I quickly stepped onto the sand and headed for the wooded cover bordering the meandering coastline. Josh quietly reversed the raft’s outboard and headed several hundred yards from the beach to a position downwind from the bear.

Tom Edgington, Alaska float plane
Though not as well-known as Kodiak Island, Alaska’s Afognak Island offers world-class bowhunting for brown bears that roam its rugged coastline.

Once inside the tree line, we located a game trail that wound its way through towering spruce trees. The bear was walking along the waterline and about to go around a point on the shoreline that was formed by a collection of large rocks and boulders that jutted out from the tree line into the ocean. It was about 60 yards wide and choked with trees and willows. It formed a perfect location for ambushing the bear as it skirted the point’s rocky tip. It also put us above the bear, minimizing the chances of being winded.

Gary and I set up on the far side of the point. We were tucked under some overhanging branches of a spruce that was growing out of the moss-laden soil. It was a great spot, but the narrow shooting lane through the branches dictated that I shoot from my knees. Soon, the bear came into view.

My angle-compensating rangefinder revealed the bear was at the outside edge of my comfort zone, particularly when shooting off my knees. I came to full draw and let the pin settle on vitals. I mentally went through my shot sequence and the arrow was on its way. The arrow smacked the rocks just under the bear’s chest, sending the bear rocketing down the beach away from us. It was clean miss. As we watched the bear head down the beach, we noticed the off side of the bear was rubbed pretty badly. No one likes to miss, but in this case, it was probably for the best.

Bears Aplenty

Josh picked us up in the raft and we headed back to the boat. After about an hour of glassing, we located another good bear slowly working along the rocky coastline. The tide was out, exposing a large expanse of slimy rocks between the waterline and the sandy beach. The beach was lined with a variety of rocks and boulders, some of which were the size of a small car.

Tom Edgington, glassing from boat
When bowhunting brown bears on the coast of Afognak Island, the typical tactic is to glass the shoreline from a boat and then use a small, motorized raft to slip in ahead of the bear and set up an ambush.

We loaded into the raft and headed to a stretch of beach that was down the coastline from the bear. With the tide out, we couldn’t get very close to the beach, so we were going to have to walk across a long expanse of rocks and sand under six inches of seawater and covered with slimy kelp and seaweed. As I put one foot out of the raft, Josh warned, “Be careful, those rocks are going to be very slippery.” That was an understatement. It was like walking on a sheet of ice. I was about 10 yards from the raft when I stepped into a hole and quickly found myself up to my waist in water.

We had to keep moving so we could get to the beach ahead of the bear. As we struggled along, Josh took the raft several hundred yards away from the shoreline and cut the motor to watch the stalk unfold. Gary and I finally made it to the beach and hid behind a large boulder about the size of my wife’s SUV. My rubber boots were still full of water as I slowly looked around the boulder and spotted the bear. He was headed directly at us. My rangefinder indicated he was 62 yards away and closing.

As I nocked an arrow, I couldn’t help but think about the film Kodiak Country that chronicled Fred Bear’s hunt for a coastal brown bear. I could still see Fred crouched behind a big rock waiting for a brown bear to move into range of his recurve bow. All I had to do was wait for the bear to pass by our rock and then slip an arrow into its vitals, just as Fred did many decades ago. As I moved into position for a shot, I could feel seawater sloshing in my boots. I peeked around the rock to take another reading with my rangefinder. The bear was now 30 yards and still closing the distance. As I readied for the shot, the bear came another five yards and then stopped and raised its nose in the air. He was looking out into the ocean. The ocean breezes were fickle, but I could feel the wind hitting me in the face, so I knew he was not smelling us. The breezes were coming off the ocean. Based on the direction that he was looking, he must have smelled Josh anchored a few hundred yards away. Soon, the bear turned and ran back down the beach away from us. We were not going to get a shot after all.

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We were not dejected. It was still early on the second day, and we already had two stalks on big bears. The forgotten island was producing.

Wet & Wild

After a couple more hours cruising the coastline, Josh spotted another big bear. This nine-foot bear sported a golden coat that looked to be in good condition. We were soon back on the beach, heading towards the bear. It took us about 10 minutes of hustling through the tall spruce trees bordering the beach until we reached a position where we could see the unsuspecting bear.

edgington-brown-bear-paw

The big brown bear waddled along the edge of the rock-laden beach, stopping on occasion to flip over small rocks and boulders to look for a morsel of sea life left behind by the tide. He was about 70 yards away and facing into the tree line when we spotted him. It was too far for a shot, and we were not certain what path the bear would ultimately take. The bear seemed to be feasting on pieces of kelp or other vegetation that had washed ashore. We had to try to get closer so that if the bear headed away from us, I could still get a shot.

The portion of beach lying between us and the bear was bordered by some smaller spruce interspersed with thick, chest-high alders. We tried twice to ease closer through the alders, but it was too noisy. We had to wait and hope that the bear would head in our direction. It wasn’t long until the big bruin turned and started walking toward us. I nocked an arrow and waited. When my rangefinder read 30 yards, I quietly put it away and readied for the shot. Gary and I were in a small opening in the alders that afforded a clear shooting lane to the beach. The vegetation at that point was only about waist high, so we were not well hidden. As the bear neared our position, I drew and settled the pin behind the bear’s shoulder. Once the pin settled, the arrow was on its way. The bear let out a blood-curdling growl when the arrow hit home. He then ran directly at us.

I had taken the quiver off my bow and laid it on the ground by my feet; there was no time to grab another arrow. When the bear got to about eight yards, he noticed us and stopped. Then, he stood up to get a better look. Gary and I didn’t move a muscle. Although the portion of beach where the bear was standing was below us, its head still towered above us. I knew I made a good shot, but it looked like he was readying for a charge.

In an effort to change his mind, Gary sent a warning bullet past his left ear. At the rifle’s report, the bear spun around and ran down the beach. At about 30 yards, he left the beach and went into the trees. A little while later, we found him expired, 40 yards into the trees by a small stream.

My time on the forgotten island had surely cleansed my soul — and I am sure Fred would have been proud.

For more information about brown bear hunting on Afognak Island, visit the Afognak Wilderness Lodge website at afognaklodge.com.

Gearing Up for Big Bears

edgington-brown-bear-range

There are many options to bowhunt large bears such as the polar bear, brown bear and grizzly bear. Regardless of the species, it is important to use a heavy arrow and practice shooting from different angles and positions. The arrow and broadhead combination I have used on big bears weighs more than 480 grains. My peak draw weight is about 72 pounds. I also prefer a fixed-blade broadhead, both for their overall durability and to eliminate any worries about premature blade deployment, either in flight or while navigating through thick cover during a stalk.

Shot placement on the big bears is critical, which is why I am a big believer in using 3-D bear targets to practice before the hunt. Getting within 30 yards of a big bear can be intimidating, but practicing from a variety of ranges and angles with a realistic target can really help prepare you for the moment of truth.




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