I’d been in the market for a grizzly bear for years. In fact, I’d carried grizzly tags in Alaska on six mixed-bag hunts but never punched one. One stalwart Alaska outfitter had promised me a make-up grizzly hunt, but I hadn’t been able to pin him down on a time. I’d seen dozens of grizzlies on various Nunavut, Alberta, and British Columbia hunts, but I never had a tag. This is one of a few North American species that I consider myself as “Hard-Luck-Harry” for. Wanting one is not enough, you have to pay your dues sometimes.
I heard that several Alaska hunt areas were overrun with predators, enough so that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game allowed grizzlies to be taken over spring black bear baits. Up to three black bear tags could be issued to individual non-resident hunters, and there was no license or tag required for wolves. Initially, all I really heard was grizzly! My outfitter was Arctic Alaska Adventures run by Stryker Overly of TOK. My wingman on the hunt was Terry Fleck from North Dakota. Terry and I didn’t know one another before the hunt, but we decided to share a rental car after talking and corresponding in advance. We really hit it off, which added a lot of fun to the hunt.
The hunt was run out of a cabin on the Tanana River – a big, bold glacial river which you did not want to go for an accidental May swim in. We had a boat available for baits along the river and six-wheelers ready to take us to upland sites. It was a one-on one hunt, and my guide was Brian Buss of Kona, Hawaii. He was one laidback dude if there ever was one, but he also spends four months a year guiding in Alaska, so he knew his stuff, too.
The Alaska sun is very high on the horizon in late May. It got dusky around midnight, but there was shooting light in openings right through the night. We’d rise in mid to late morning, start the day’s hunt around 1630 hours, and head back to the camp around 0100 the next morning. The actual hunt consisted of making beaver carcass drags, checking and refreshing baits, glassing from promontories into clear-cuts or burns, and sitting in tree stands or ground blinds. We switched things up as we learned which bait sites were hotter than others.
The stage thus set, we embarked on our hunt. Terry whacked a beautiful chocolate phase black bear on the first night. He followed up the second day with a giant seven-foot jet black bear. My heart was set on a grizzly, but it grudgingly became clear as the days passed that grizzlies were scarce. Brian actually spotted one in a clear-cut about 1,000 yards away, but it walked into the woods and out of my life forever. I was seeing and passing on very good black bears at bow range every day. Since I’d already taken several black bears, including two honest six and a half footers, I was not in a rush to kill another.
On day three, from a high vantage point where we could watch a lot of open territory and see the bait about 400 yards away, we saw a beautiful chocolate boar approach the bait. Did I mention that I’d always coveted the chance for a color phase black bear? Getting one was on my bucket list. Brian and I did the stalking part of a spot-and-stalk hunt down to the bear. We could not see the bear very well from our last covered position, and I had little interest in shooting one with his head in a barrel anyway. The bear left the bait and headed on a rough tangent to our location. At about 55 yards, I took him through the chest with Brian’s .300 WSM. He disappeared and then reappeared in third gear and was accelerating. I got a round off but missed. Moments later, we heard his death moan and I had my long dreamed of color phase black bear.
Late the next evening, Stryker relocated me via boat to a more promising bait site. Stryker led the way with his .44 Mag drawn to the small natural opening in an otherwise dense boreal forest. Contemplating our next move at 2300 hours, we heard branches breaking and amplified huffing. We’d never looked up on our approach and had unknowingly treed the biggest cinnamon bear Brian and Stryker had ever seen. I momentarily hesitated while I evaluated his size. He was, at first, bunched up accordion style. As he grew more agitated, he moved and I saw his true size. The shot was, of course, anti-climactic. He landed about 30 feet from us, and alas, there was no death moan, just a large thump when he hit the lichen-covered clearing. We were ecstatic. I no longer held out much hope for a grizzly, but who cares when you’re hip-deep into big black, brown, blonde, cinnamon, and chocolate bears all the time?
We didn’t get to town until well after 0200, but we celebrated like the teenagers we felt like. It was Memorial Day weekend, so there were many local luminaries in attendance at the local bistro, including many natives. I toasted more than a few brain cells. I showed phone pictures of my bear successes to anyone who was interested. We had to go to town anyway because I needed to buy a third black bear tag. You never know what’s going to happen or who’s going to show up. I’ve come up short in the license department before because of false economy, but not on this hunt.
Terry killed an excellent cinnamon bear the next day, which gave both guides and Stryker plenty of practice skinning, fleshing, and salting hides/skulls. If you haven’t been counting, Terry’s bear was number five, and we were becoming mini-celebrities at the local sporting goods store and at least one bar/grill. On my last afternoon’s hunt, we headed for a remote valley to spot for grizzly. The six-wheeler had universal joint problems, and rather than push it and break down further away from help, we did the grown-up thing and came back to town. We dropped off the six-wheeler at the repair shop, hooked up the boat trailer, and headed for the Tanana. We refreshed three bait sites. There was sign at two baits, but there was nothing at the site that we thought was the best looking. Along the way, we saw moose, lynx, and a plethora of waterfowl.
We approached the last bait, a spot where a big black bear had been seen. We stayed in the boat because the angle we had to the bait from the ground blind was dark and poor. Shortly, we saw movement near the bait and could tell it was a black bear, but the overcast sky and late hour had made viewing difficult. We skulled the boat closer to the bear. At 10 yards, the boat nosed sand. The boar was up a steep bank at ping-pong distance when I finally got a clear view of his head and body size. The shot caught Stryker and Brian, who were behind me, unaware, but when I make up my mind, I don’t wait around for something to go wrong. I take the shot when I know I can make the shot. The mortally wounded boar came down-slope to us. I gave him a second round at the tree line, which was the best insurance premium I’ve paid as of late. He was the biggest black bear I’d ever killed at 6 feet 11 inches. Later that night, I earned a nickname from my new Nabesna Indian friends, “Tree Bears.”
It was a great hunt and expanded my swizzle stick collection by three. I fulfilled a lifelong dream of getting a color phase bear, and then I got an even bigger one. Then, the pièce de résistance was taking the giant black bear late on the last night. Terry was terrific company. Stryker and his crew were great at what they do and were a lot of fun. Even the Alaska Department of Fish and Game got its wish of ungulate enhancement. No grizzly, but there’s always next year.
Alaska Bear Hunting