Putting in the time for Bear Hunting Success in Alaska…
Story from Brian Watkins
45 degrees. The sun is the strongest it’s been all year, and the snow is soft to the ground floor. It’s time for bears to be wandering around the mountains. There is no doubt in our minds that we have hit the timing perfectly and there will be bears galore in the mountains. Better yet, there is nobody else around to scare them away. April 11th, 2014. Spring bear hunting at its finest.
Contrary to what we had thought, my buddy Courtland and I rode 90 miles, by snowmachine, into the mountains and glassed for two days without seeing a single bear track. We were lucky enough to see over 100 ptarmigan, 4 moose and 2 fox. Sadly, fox season had just come to a close. This was the first bear hunt of the year so we weren’t too worried that we didn’t see anything. Hopes were still high that the brown bears would be around in the weeks to come.
April 16th came and it was time for a more productive area with the chance to see some big grizzlies. We headed north to Cantwell and had more of what the doctor ordered…blue skies, soft riding, and solitude. With only 2 days to hunt, we rode 70 miles into the mountains and glassed hard. Seeing a lot of bear tracks in the snow, it seemed like the culprit had made the slip on us. He’d been in the area within the last 36 hours, but was no-where to be found. Still, a day in the mountains is better than a day in Anchorage. We still held our hopes high that we would connect, and in short order.
Fast forward to May 2nd. A busy work schedule and personal life took precedence over bear hunting the week before. We were set to head up to Eureka to test our luck and connect on a bear. The call came in Thursday night, the night before we leave, that there is no snow in Eureka. Being in disbelief as there was good snow there the week before; we make a run to check things out. Sure enough, there was no way we could get the sleds up to the mountains, and no way to ride ATV’s in the mountains. It was the perfect snow conditions for the bears. No way for us to get out there to accompany them in their territory.
We were lost on options and decided to use my scanoe for the first time in 2 years. I have a scanoe and an electric motor to get us across lakes for local fishing outings. This time, the boat was to have another purpose. We set out of Anchorage at 4am, and were on a lake by 7. Boating across the lake was as easy as it comes. We had glass water and no wind. We spot our first brown bear of the year at 1030am. The chase is on. He’s in the perfect spot for a stalk. Being in an creek bottom routed out by an avalanche, we had everything we needed; wind in our faces for scent, cover of a flourishing forest for sight, and a running creek bottom for sound. From afar the bear looked like a TANK. We approached quietly, but swiftly. At 125 yards, we had a perfect line on his vitals and were set to take the shot. Unfortunately, he just wasn’t the bear we were looking for. He was around a 7.5 foot brown bear, and we were looking for his bigger brother. The bear walked off, and we were in hopes of finding a famous Kenai brown bear, a big boy. We never spotted another bear.
In the ensuing weeks, we would make “suicide runs” down along the Seward Highway and glass for bears. Night after night we would drive, glass, drive, glass, spot, stalk, blow cover. It seemed to happen all the time. The weather was gorgeous, but the ground was noisy. Every stalk; the wind would swirl, or the noise be too much. After 4 blown stalks, it seemed to get more and more frustrating. We were getting down, but had to figure it out.
May 9th was my Birthday weekend. We planned to chase bears with two wheels and a set of pedals! We knew the bears were in this particular valley and a 39 mile bicycle ride was in order. Three miles in and things were going good…all until we lost a bike. The chain snapped and was not fixable on the trail. Luckily, we were only 3 miles in and it was an easy hike out. Although we had no issues getting out, our egos were crushed, and our spirits vanished. We were down and out. Bear hunting was growing increasingly frustrating and it seemed easy to throw in the towel. This is why its called ‘hunting’ and not simply ‘killing’. Having many failures and adventures in the woods only makes success that much sweeter. It’s all part of the game. Soon our luck was bound to change. It had to!
I was solo for the next weekend and decided to give the lake another shot. I scanoed across the lake and glassed…for hours. Nothing was moving and there were quite a few hunters on the lake. I decided it was time to find a better area. I found another lake that I like to call Crown Lake. I named it that, because I figured it would be a gem of a bear lake. Within 20 minutes of glassing the hill side, I spotted a big old blonde brown bear. It was a long ways off, but I wanted to give it a shot. I high tailed it after the bear.
In the process of getting to the base of the mountain where the blondie was, I lost where he had gone. I perched up on a rock and glassed for an hour or so. I finally spotted the bear popping in and out of the willows. The wind decided to swirl at that time and blew right into the bears face. I was spotted with his nose. Logically, I should have left, but being frustrated I gave chase. I hiked for 2 hours up misery. Getting caught in thick willows, tossed around in heavy timber, I was climbing over deadfall, army crawling under deadfall, slipping, falling; it sucked. For the last 300 yards to get to where I wanted, I went bare foot trying to be quiet. Wouldn’t you know it, I was fortunate enough to walk through old devils club. Being stubborn, I didn’t care and continued on. I came out on a rock outcropping only to have no bear in sight.
That’s when I decided enough was enough and I was going to chase bears easier ways. I just had to think. There were bears in this area, cover was thick, there was a great water source, and stalks were impossible. Bear baiting was the way to go.
I GPS’ed a spot that I felt could produce, and had to figure out how to get the bait there. It was on the back side of a frozen lake. We grabbed a 14’ boat with a 35 horsepower motor on it and figured the ice was thin enough that we could break through it. Boy were we wrong. The ice was still too thick and passing with a boat would prove impossible. Down and out, we had to head home with no bait out. The very next day I had a change of heart and decided I needed to get this bait out! Doing things the hard way, I hiked a 55gallon drum half filled with popcorn 2 miles into the site. I turned around, grabbed a trash bag full of popcorn and put a backpack full of marshmallows on my back and hiked the 2 miles again and set the bait up. I put out 55 gallons of popcorn, 200 marshmallows, 2 buckets of molasses, 1 can on 907 Bait em’s anise spray and 1 jug of 907 Bait em’s blue berry scent balls. I also did a quick honey burn. Luck has it that 2 days later, the lake gave out and all the ice was gone. Luck of the Irish?
I would let the bait sit for 2 weeks before checking it again. The opportunity to hunt in PWS with a couple of friends came available and we were gone. Time to hunt beaches, the easy way to stalk! May 16th, and we were on the water for the weekend. We went to a secret spot off of Ester Island. The captain of the boat was putting a bait station out, so we helped him set up. While 2 guys were on shore setting the bait, 2 of us were in the boat hanging out and shooting the breeze. At about 9PM, I notice a black spot on the beach that wasn’t there before. BEAR! The guys at the bait had the skiff, and we were sitting ducks. We had the pleasure of glassing this bear for 2 HOURS before the other 2 came back to the boat. The captain and another guy from Washington gave pursuit to the bear, trying to beach the boat and put a stalk on. Sadly, the bear was well aware of what was happening and wondered off.
May 17th, it seemed like the perfect day to be bear hunting. Cool in the morning, low tide at 930, and calm waters. One guy went to sit at the bait as 3 of us cruised the beaches looking for bears. We rounded a corner and I heard “bears!” I thought it was a joke as I was staring at two “rocks” that they called bears. Boy was I wrong. It was a pair of black bears! We were in a flurry getting our stuff together to land ashore and stalk the bears. Unfortunately, my gun was hit by the metal door and that drew direct attention from the bears to our boat. They didn’t spook, but were wary of what was happening. A friend, Chris and I jumped in the skiff and started to row to shore. As I set up to take aim, it was the last time I saw the bear. He had given us the slip by a mere couple of seconds. I was destined not to get a bear.
A couple of hours later, we decided against bringing the boat in the channel where we saw the bear. We decided it best to just row the skiff into the channel and hope the bears were still around. Good call. As we turned the corner, we went wide, in hopes that we could glass the far shore and the bears would be there. Chris calls out bear and we were in the zone. We paddled to shore, only 75 yards from where the bear stood. I slowly crawled on a rock ledge and had the bear in my sights. It had a perfect hide and was a nice PWS black bear. I pulled the trigger and the bear dropped in its tracks. BEAR DOWN!!! I seem to become this little kid when I am lucky enough to pull the trigger on an animal. I jumped up in excitement and was thrilled. Finally success on what has been a long season, to say the least.
Over the rest of the weekend, we blew 3 stalks on other bears as we tried to get all 4 of us to tag out. We left with only having taken one bear, but that was a success in our books. The sun was out, we had porpoises swimming with us, eagles were soaring, seals were fishing, and we got 2 gallons of shrimp. It was an amazing trip.
A recent look at my trail camera told me that the bait station had recently been hit, so I planned to hike around the area and look for bears as I didn’t want to spook bears off the bait. I hiked up Friday night and regret every second of it. Usually I love hikes, but this one flat out sucked. It was straight up and down, thick alders, slick ground, cold, windy, and rainy. It was like goat hunting all over again, without the opportunity to get a goat. I was hoping to get above the bears and glass down, but the vegetation was too thick, and on the other side of the mountain were sheer cornices. I was actually above the goats and lucky enough to see 7 trophy class billies.
I camped out overnight, and headed down in the morning. It was a tough hike down, with a few thoughts that I may slip and kill myself. Luckily, I got down with only a few bumps and bruises. I stopped by the bait to check it and IT WAS HIT HARD! They had eaten upwards of 30 pounds of dog food along with a bunch of popcorn! I decided to do a honey burn and sit the night.
My bait is set up different than most others. I don’t have a tree stand, I just free-sit on the ground about 30 yards from the bait and watch. It makes the hunt more thrilling. I got set up and comfortable around 830 at night. My ThermaCell ran out of butane, and I was being attacked by mosquitoes. I covered every inch of my body; even my face with clothing. At 9:45, a little breeze picked up and all but knocked the mosquitoes out. At 10:30, I saw the trail cam flash. Instantly my heart started pounding, breathing got heavy, I picked the rifle up and had my sites on a huge bruin. I got comfortable and BAM. I hit the bear hard. He came crashing off the bait and directly at me. I chambered another bullet and had the rifle ready to blast. Luckily, the bear fell about 10 yards from me and let out the bear bawl. He perished within seconds and the hunt was done.
It took 3 loads to pack this big guy out. His skull measured 17 1/16, and he squared 6’8”. It took 4 hours to get him skinned and back to the truck. I was on my way home at 3am and happy as can be. Two bears, seven days apart. Finally, this season was far beyond a success! Blood, sweat, tears I tell ya! Happy, fun, as well as frustrating. I still had one tag left…
I brought in more bait for two more weeks, and checked it at least 3 times a week. Nothing came in and I figured the bears were out killing moose calves. Finally, early in June, a bear was on the trail cam. It was time to sit and hope for the best. Courtland and I sat at the bait all day braving the wind and rain, but didn’t see anything…as expected. Bears seem to stay put in those conditions. Courtland had personal responsibilities to tend to at home, but I stayed to hunt since the bears had previously been coming in. I had my Hoyt along on this trip, and was hopeful to see a bear. I slept for most of the day in the tent as it was windy and rainy, but at about 7PM, the wind slowed and the rain stopped. I set out to the bait and got set up around 8:15PM. I read a book and got lost in the pages and surprised myself to look at my watch and see that over two hours had passed and it was nearing 10:30! My routine switched to reading a page, then scanning the area. The routine change came just in time as only 15 minutes later, a bear lumbered into the bait station. The bear had a direct line of sight in my direction and saw the movement of me putting my book down. It knew something was there, but didn’t know what. Out of curiosity, it started to move in my direction! I was nervous it was going to be a close encounter, so I grabbed my pistol and waited to see what would develop. To my astonishment, the bear made a right at 10 yards and walked off. WHEW! I figured it was checking wind on me, and would sneak out of there. I got the bow ready, just in case and sat. A few minutes later, the bear came back down the trail and into my bait again! I drew, and held the 30 yard pin on the shoulder. I let the Full Metal Jacket fly and it found its mark. The bear only went 5 yards and balled up. The broadhead slipped into the bear just where I had wanted it to. A third success! Three bears, three tags!.
It was 3 months worth of hunting the hardest I’ve ever hunted for bears. It started off slow, but ended with glory. We ended up seeing 17 bears, and I was able to take 3. It was a spring I shall never forget. I learned that patience, staying positive, and persistence were key in success. Luck is defined as when hard work and persistence pay off, and boy did I get lucky. It was a year of learning, but I still have a lot to learn.
Spring Bear Hunting in Alaska By: Brian Watkins. Published July 2014