There's something very special about dominant predators-whether it's a lion in South Africa, a jaguar in Central or South America, an Asian tiger, or a grizzly or brown bear in areas of North America. But as strong and fierce as these animals are as individuals, they’re often vulnerable as a species. If prey animals are in decline or too much contact with humans occurs, dominant predator populations have historically plummeted.
The grizzly of North America suffered greatly at the hands of man during the 19th and early 20th centuries, but after more than 35 years of protection and management, Ursus arctos horribilis has rebounded to the point that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is expected to discontinue its “threatened” status and turn management of these great bears over to the states in 2014.
So what does this mean to hunters? Simply put, Wyoming and Montana could conceivably have a very limited grizzly season in the near future in parts of the Yellowstone and Northern Continental Divide ecosystems, close to Yellowstone and Glacier national parks. That being said, the harvest quota would be very small, and the vast majority of grizzly hunting will continue to occur in British Columbia and Alaska, where populations are healthy and hunting is part of the grizzly management plan. British Columbia estimates its grizzly population at about 15,000, while Alaska estimates are at 32,000. Brown bears are so numerous in some parts of Alaska that the annual bag limit has been raised to two bears.
North American brown bears and grizzlies are taxonomically the same animal, but the various hunting record books define them differently and don’t even agree on where the “line” of distinction is. Generally, bears close to the coast (within 75 miles) or on Alaskan islands are considered brown bears, and interior bears—north of the 62nd Parallel—are considered grizzlies. The true difference is that bears closer to the coast live in a more moderate climate where the growing season is much longer and they have a diet that includes large amounts of salmon. These two factors result in coastal bears that can be twice the size of their inland brethren. A 600-pound interior grizzly is a solid bear, but boars on the Alaskan Peninsula can reach weights of more than 1,200 pounds.
But no matter if they’re called brown bears or grizzlies, these are special animals, and that’s evident whenever you’re in their presence. Just watching a grizzly walk across the tundra or a coastal brown bear fish for salmon is almost a religious experience. Any day of bear hunting when you see a griz is a great day in my book.
SPRING OR FALL
Bears are hunted mainly during spring or fall, although they’re hunted almost year-round in some areas of Alaska. Spring hunts are generally conducted one of two ways. The early spring hunts (March and April) concentrate on finding boars that have just emerged from their winter dens. For the first few days after hibernation, bears usually don’t stray far from their dens, and tracks in the snow are easily spotted. Small aircraft and snowmobiles are often used to find fresh tracks and dens, and then approaches on snowshoes are the norm. The bears taken this time of year might weigh less than at any other time, but the payoff is that their hides and claws will be at their best.
During later spring, bears are hunted mainly on food sources. They’ve been in hibernation for months and emerge with voracious appetites, so finding food equates to finding bears. In coastal regions, bears typically cruise the beaches looking for food that washes up, or they feed on the new grass that emerges first on coastal flats. Inland in British Columbia, grizzlies can also be found eating grass in clear-cuts and along logging roads.
In my book, coastal hunts are most fun during spring because bears are concentrated near water and encounters with high numbers of them are the norm in many areas. This type of hunting is often done from large boats or skiffs, which adds to the experience.
Fall hunts are all about food as well, and that generally means fish or berries. Large numbers of brown bears congregate around salmon streams during late summer and fall to gorge on the protein- and fat-rich fish to build up body weight in preparation for hibernation. Here you can glass from high points where you have a view of a number of creeks and small rivers and the areas between. This is straight up spot-and-stalk hunting, where you must first find a bear and then put a sneak on it, hoping it’s still where you first spotted it when you get there. Always play the wind to keep your scent away from the bear or you have absolutely no chance of getting close. Their senses of sight and hearing are decent, but their noses surpass that of the most paranoid whitetail.
During the last evening of a recent 9-day hunt on the Alaska Peninsula, guides Paul Brand and Bud Willard and I spotted a mature brown bear working a creek a mile away. We high-tailed it off our high vantage point and an hour later found ourselves in the general area where we’d seen the bruin. As usual, things looked different once we were on the valley floor, and we searched frantically for the bear among the torso-high grass and thick willows.
We finally spotted the boar about 200 yards off, and we circled to keep the wind in our favor. After 15 tense minutes, we couldn’t find him and figured he’d scented us and disappeared, so we dejectedly decided to head back. Then—from nowhere—the great bear’s head emerged from the grass only 50 yards away! I quickly got on my shooting sticks and centered the crosshairs of my scope on him, but I couldn’t see his shoulder area in the thick cover.
Light was fading, but my T/C is a tack driver, and I felt I could hit the bear between the eyes, so I took the shot. In the heat of the moment what I didn’t remember was that I was sighted-in a couple of inches high at 100 yards and there isn’t much above a bear’s eyes. Yes, I whiffed on a huge brown bear at only 50 paces during the last few minutes of a long, tough hunt!
Both coastal and inland bears love ripe berries, and hunting near berry patches is much like hunting near streams—only you can generally glass much more country and spotting the feeding bears is relatively easy. Watching a bear eat berries is amazing. They’re like giant, walking vacuum cleaners. I read years ago that a grizzly can devour 10,000 berries in a single day! If they find a good berry patch, they’ll often spend a great deal of time there, which can give a hunter time to make a lethal stalk.
This is exactly what took place on my first grizzly hunt. We’d seen a few bears, but they were mostly sows and cubs. On the third day, we left camp after lunch and planned a quick hike to a knob about 600 yards behind the tents. Shortly after we began glassing, we spotted a lone bear on an open hillside in the distance, and we decided to move closer for a better look.
The closer we got, the better the bear looked, so we kept moving toward it. When we glassed the bear from about a mile out with my Nikon spotting scope, my guide, Billy, and I both believed it was a potential shooter, so we formed a travel route that put us above the berry patch where it had been feeding for more than an hour.
After a couple of creek crossings and a steep trek up a hill, we were above where we hoped the bear was. We slowly inched forward, hoping to spot the grizzly feeding before it spotted us. Suddenly, a big blonde head popped up about 35 yards away, and the huge bear was looking me straight in the eyes. I immediately dropped to a sitting position, hoping the bear would walk on up the hill and give me a point-blank shot, but after 5 long minutes, I realized it had vacated the area.
We walked over to where we could see the valley floor just in case the bear ambled off that way, and then my videographer, Rob Snider, grabbed my shoulder and pointed up the hill. The bear had circled us and was peering down from an avalanche chute about 70 yards above us. I dropped down and prepared for the shot. When the bear quartered toward me, I sent a 180-grain Winchester Accubond straight into its chest. The bear did a front flip and then ran off into the head-high alders—reappearing seconds later on the valley floor about 200 yards below us. I quickly laid down on a rock and put an insurance shot into its shoulder.
Whether you decide to hunt inland or near the coast—grizzly or brown bears—stalking these apex predators is an experience like no other. Consider your options and tailor the hunt to your wants and needs—and savor every moment. I have another hunt planned in the Togiak National Wildlife Refuge in September, 2014, to try to redeem my big miss. I mark my calendar each day as the time gets closer, because I know it’ll be a fantastic adventure into the exciting world of the giant bears.