May 08, 2023
By Matt Palmquist
The splashing in the inlet to the ocean brought me back to life from my treestand stupor. I struggled to see through the trees, but finally spotted two bears. One was aggressively running the other bear off, but both looked like shooters to me.
As the bears continued to mill around on the open shoreline and the sun descended in the western sky, I decided to gamble and crawled down from my treestand to position myself on the edge of the grassy tidal flat. A bear emerged from the forest on the far shoreline. I watched him for a while before finally deciding he was worth trying to stalk, but the terrain was wide-open and I was running out of daylight.
When the bear would sink his head into the lush tidal grass to eat, I would move forward aggressively. I couldn’t believe my cameraman, Eric, and I were able to rapidly close the distance as the bear fed. This might actually work!
Prince of Wales Island (POW) in Southeast Alaska is known for its monster black bears. When I first started hunting bears, I didn’t expect that it would become a recurring hunt on my schedule. But my good friends Jason Stafford and Jesse Knock live for hunting these coastal bruins, and their passion for bear hunting has rubbed off on me. In all honesty, the hunting is a bonus; the adventure of exploring remote areas of Southeast Alaska with Jason, Jesse, and our buddy Daniel Peters is worth the trip north. We always have tons of fun with lots of laughs, and we leave POW with stories to tell for the rest of our lives.
This hunt started several years ago, shortly after our first hunt on POW in 2018, when Jason and I were both able to take Pope and Young bears. Alaska Game and Fish has a unique application process as far as the time it takes from submittal of application to the time of the hunt. We applied late in 2018, and found out in February 2019 that we would be hunting POW again in the spring of 2020.
Fast-forward to early 2020. Jason and I were getting amped up and regularly talking to Jesse and Daniel about the logistics for our upcoming adventure, when talks started in the media about something called COVID that was spreading across the world. At first, we didn’t think much of it, but that quickly changed when the world basically shut down.
We sat in limbo, not knowing what was going to happen to our tags after travel ceased and the spring 2020 bear season was cancelled for nonresidents. POW is increasingly difficult to draw. To some, hunting could seem secondary compared to what was occurring across the world, but to a couple of obsessed bowhunters anxious to hunt trophy bruins again, it was a big deal.
Kudos to the crew at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for making things right. The draw had already taken place for the 2021 spring hunt, and if they pushed our hunt to 2021, there would be double the hunters afield. So the next option was to bump the 2020 tagholders to the 2022 spring season, to allow adjustments to be made in tag allotments before the 2022 draw. We didn’t expect an application in late 2018 would result in a spring 2022 hunt, but better late than never!
Three years after learning of our success in the draw, we finally headed north to Alaska. Jesse is dialed in when it comes to baiting bears, and this year was no different. He spent months studying maps and areas we could hunt exclusively from a skiff, accessing the baits from the ocean. He had multiple baits set up before we arrived near large tidal flats adjacent to gnarly, dark timber.
After our obligatory hugs and greetings with our friends, Jason and I turned our focus to getting stocked up with baiting and grocery supplies for the week before heading to our friend’s cabin, which would serve as our base camp for the week.
Once settled, it was time to refresh the baits and see what intel we could gather from our Browning trail cameras. The first bait we checked was destroyed: There was zero bait left, and the barrel was torn off the tree and carried into the woods. We scrolled through the card and saw enough to get Jason’s attention. We quickly hung a stand, which Jason then climbed into for the evening hunt. He saw a few bears, but not the one he came to Alaska for. The bears he saw were leery as they approached the bait, and Jason was convinced the swirling wind was the culprit.
When Daniel and I went to rebait the second site, we found it to be in the same state of “bear disrepair” as the first bait site — a good problem to have, I must admit. The bait barrel was empty, but the camera was lying on the ground, so our intel was nil. Even so, the sign was great, so I set up on the ground between two large pines with Eric over my shoulder for the evening hunt. My anticipation level was high, but nothing showed that evening. I also felt like the wind may have been swirling, but we checked the spot the following morning and nothing had touched the bait overnight.
My experience hunting bears in Southeast Alaska is limited, but Jesse has been doing it for years. He couldn’t believe that no bears had hit that bait after we refreshed it, especially since the activity up to this point had been dynamite.
We left that bait and went to check another site. On our way there, we saw a nice bear on the shoreline. Daniel glassed him, and then said it was a good bear but a borderline shooter at this point. We closed the distance for a better look, and that’s when we noticed that the bear had an injured front leg and a noticeable limp. We were contemplating a stalk, when the bear decided that he had seen enough of the intrusion and ducked back into the timber.
When we got to the bait, we found a similar scene: The bait was gone, and the area was torn up. We rebaited and tucked into the brush less than 20 yards from the bait.
The weather was sunny and gorgeous, which isn’t the norm in Alaska, so I felt like sitting was our best option. Unfortunately, the results were the same as the previous day, and our only visitor that evening was a pine marten, which was still pretty cool.
I had been spoiled on previous spring bear hunts in Alaska, having killed nice bears on the first day both times. I was in unchartered waters going into Day Three, with very little action to speak of. To add to it, I hadn’t been sleeping well and felt like I was coming down with a bug. But with limited time to hunt, sitting out was not an option.
The boys and I strategized for a bit before making the decision to go back to the same location as the night before. When we got to the site, my eyes told me the bait had not been hit. But Daniel’s more-experienced peepers picked up on subtle things like sticks being moved and a track near the bait, which spiked my excitement level and caused us to hang two treestands close to where I had sat on the ground the night before.
Hours later, I finally heard a splash in the inlet and soon spotted a bear. He charged through the water toward another bear on the opposite shoreline. Finally, the action we had been looking for — even though it wasn’t on the bait.
Eric was above me, and from his vantage he could see more than I could. Eric told me that he watched the bear start heading toward the bait at one point, only to turn around and walk back toward the grass flat.
That was enough for me to decide it was time to make something happen. We crawled down and snuck to the edge of the trees. We could see a bear on the opposite shoreline, and after watching him I realized he was limping noticeably. It had to be the bear from the day before, I thought to myself. I debated on his size, but I ultimately came back to the fact that Daniel thought he was a nice bear and decided his experience with bears trumped mine. Couple that with an injured front leg, and I figured it was worth trying a stalk.
I have talked at length about stalking bears with Jesse and put those conversations to use. The wind was light, but it was in my favor. When the bear put his head down to eat, we would move.
I couldn’t believe it as we quickly closed the distance and soon found ourselves 50 yards from the bear! At this point, the bear noticed us and turned in our direction. The bear then took a couple steps, before sitting down and facing us. I contemplated a shot, but the angle was too risky at that range, so I waited. When he turned to walk back toward the trees, I double-checked the distance. The bruin stopped perfectly quartering away, and when he did, I settled my pin and sent my arrow on its way. The hit looked and sounded good — the former reinforced by the sight of my Lumenok lighted nock vanishing into the bear’s hide!
Daylight waned as Daniel idled up in the skiff. We replayed what just happened and Daniel grinned, because he watched the entire thing unfold through his binoculars. I didn’t hear a “death moan,” but I did hear branches breaking up the mountain as the bear charged off after the shot. We discussed leaving him, but after weighing all the options and evaluating the footage, we decided the shot looked good enough to warrant us cautiously taking up the trail right then and there.
Daniel took off up the mountain ahead of us. We weren’t even headed up the hill yet, when we heard Daniel hollering that he had found my bear. What a relief! It had been a long day, but the last 30 minutes made that miserable sit worth the wait!
The author is a regular Contributor to this magazine, and he lives in Kansas with his wife and children.
My equipment on this hunt included a Hoyt RX-7 Ultra bow, Spot Hogg sight, Vapor Trail Gen7 rest, TruFire release, Rage Trypan NC broadheads, TightSpot quiver, and clothing from Browning in Mossy Oak camo.
My buddy Jason Stafford has hunted black bears for years, dreaming of killing a true giant that ranks high in the P&Y record book. His dreams finally became reality in May 2022. On the fourth day of our hunt, Jason was back at the same bait he sat on the first evening. This time he opted to sit away from the bait near the shoreline, where the winds were more consistent. When the giant bruin he had been after came into the bait, he waited for him to get comfortable before stalking in for a shot. Jason’s arrow flew true, and he killed an awesome bear with a huge body and a skull to match!
Our baits were in remote locations, making it difficult to check and rebait them regularly. Action was slow at the beginning of the hunt, and after much discussion, we concluded that the bears had drained the bait barrels days before we showed up to refresh them. They moved off to “greener pastures” to eat, and it took time for them to get back on the baits again.
We blamed swirling winds for the apprehensive approach of the animals, but I think we were starting all over again and the bears needed time to become comfortable on the baits. In hindsight, we probably should have been more patient, given the circumstances, and allowed more time for the bears to once again get accustomed to the established bait sites.