hey everyone, had a couple requests to spill a few details of the hunts that go with my album pics. thought i'd start with a combo hunt a few years back. i'm just figurin out the picture thing so i hope this works. hopefully it will fill a few bored minutes while everyones waiting for spring. this was a memorable hunt for me, and close to being about as much fun as a couple guys can have in sixteen days...
Arctic Alaska mixed bag 2007
“ A bear, Zack! , right there” I looked over at my client Jim Durant, and took notice of the area his European glasses were trained on. When I saw that it was the same piece of riverbank I had so thoroughly scrutinized just minutes before, I grunted a unenthusiastic “where?” and halfheartedly brought my Leupolds to bear…literally.
We’d been hunting hard, and it was early on a hot evening in arctic Alaska. I really wasn’t expecting much movement until later. Three days into sept. grizzly bear season, Jim and I were on our fourteenth day afield together. His hunting buddy and business partner; Dennis Pettite, and him booked their hunt a year earlier with Deltana outfitters. It was to be a caribou/grizzly combination on the north side of the brooks range.
We hunted the bulls in the tundra and up and down the mountains for nearly two weeks before Dennis had to depart for Colorado on business. He left with lots of memories and two new additions for the trophy room. Though the meanderings of the big wads of bachelor bulls never seemed to quite get to us this season, we managed to scrape up a pair apiece for the boys, had lots of fun, and enjoyed some great stalks while we were at it.
It had been a memorable hunt, though a bit pressured for me, the guide. Two clients with one guide isn’t that uncommon, but five tags between the two, with one being a barren ground grizzly…well that’s a tall order anywhere. But so far the big man upstairs had smiled on us, and we’d had great weather, and made ourselves some decent luck throughout the hunt. By sept. first, the guys had two nice bulls apiece, and we’d seen six different bears. It got to the point we’d spot a bear every other day. I was amazed at the numbers we were seeing in this tiny little valley tucked in tight next to sheep country. Trust me when I say that seeing a DIFFERENT arctic grizzly bear every other day, for twelve days, is amazing. These bears have vast territories and are nomadic when compared with there coastal brown bear brothers (same species, products of different environments). We were seeing some great bears. To this day, I’ll swear that one big dark boar I found in late august, will push nearly nine foot squared…an honest to goodness monster in the grizzly bear world. Needless to say; when sept first rolled around, Jim and I thought we “had er licked” so to speak, and were chomping at the bit for opening morning.
The first day was slow, though we did have some action early on. Just as the guys and I were preparing to leave for the morning hunt, we spotted a bear cruising up-valley about a mile from camp. I immediately dropped my pack and flopped down to get a better look. It turned out to be a sow in the 6’5” to 7’ range with two little brats with her. No dice, but we sat and watched this trio make there way to one of our caribou gut piles. Mom seemed quite the grumpy gal and made her cubs keep their distance while she cleaned up the tasty morsels. We watched and had a few chuckles as the cubs bounced around, frustrated and hungry, but always a safe distance from the gorging she-bear. It seemed the little guys knew what was good for them. I’ve had the opportunity to witness numerous sows interact with their young while working in the field as a guide, and while tromping around in the woods on my own time. It always amazes me how different each bear is. Testimony to their individualism, every sow acts differently with there young. Some are pushovers and seem to let there cubs push them and play there way through the woods, always being attended to first at the instance of food. Other bears seem to be very short tempered with there cubs and tolerate very little nonsense. Many times I’ve witnessed mother bears send their cubs rolling down the river bank squalling with seemingly mortal blows from their big paws. Other momma’s are constantly “speaking” (woofing and grunting) with their little ones and put up with quite a bit of play with their routine.
Evidently our sow finished up all the organs and loose scraps, because she grabbed up the backbone and headed up valley with her cubs in tow. We hunted hard for the rest of the day. No boars were spotted. We arrived back in our tents that evening, close to midnight with tired legs, and weary eyes from hours of hiking and glassing.
Morning came quickly, as it tends to do when one falls into the sleeping bag exhausted. After lots of coffee and a quick breakfast, Jim, Dennis, and I climbed onto a spotting knob not far from camp to put a few hours behind the glasses. Not seeing much of anything save for a few head of caribou in valley below, we knocked off for lunch around noon.
After lunch I decided we should stay near camp for the remainder of the day and really put some time behind our binoculars. We manned our post atop the spotting knob and glassed deep into the afternoon. Our efforts produced more caribou, and a big male wolverine bouncing around the same gut pile our female guest of the day before had ravished.
Mr. wolverine didn’t stay long, and we watched him hump his way back up into the high mountain drainage he had immerged from. No telling how far away that little varmint had smelled the gut pile from. They have extremely keen noses. While trapping here in Alaska, I’ve seen there tracks go amazing distances in a straight line to a baited set they’ve smelled. A cunning, curious, high-mountain weasel, the wolverine is more adapted for scavenging than hunting. Hence the superb sense of smell. However, a respected bush pilot, and former Alaska State Trooper once told me about seeing a particular old male wolverine ambush Dall Sheep lambs up on a ridge in the northern Brooks Range. As winter progresses and the snow gets deep, mountain sheep have to stick to well used trails to get back and forth to there feeding areas. The snow is deep enough that, if caught outside these trails, the lambs just flounder and cannot move forward. This old veteran had apparently caught on to this and would lie in wait burrowed into one side of these trails. As the band of sheep walked by, the wolverine jumped right into the middle of them and scattered the whole lot. It then swiftly killed the young lambs as they drowned, immobile, in the deep powder. Tell me that isn’t efficient. Little energy expended, lots of nourishment gained.
Late afternoon found Jim, Dennis, and I, eating a snack of candy bars up on the spotting knob. We were quietly chatting, as hunters do when trying to fill in the monotonous hours of glassing, while taking turns scanning the local terrain. “Gotcha” I exclaimed, after sweeping my 10x42 Leupolds past a small drainage that sloped into flooded tundra, two miles distant. I’d managed to spot our first legal bear since bear season had started. It would be the eighth bear seen in eleven days of hunting together. At this distance it looked to me to be a lone boar…a lone bear for sure, a boar I thought because of the way it moved. “Theres your bear Jim, you guys get your stuff together, we’ve gotta be quick, we have a long way to go and not much day left”
As the wind was in our favor and we had plenty of cover between us and the bear, I took off in a straight line for our side of the strip of flooded tundra where I last saw the blond bear. There were one, two, three, rock precipices that jutted out from the side of the moutain into the flooded, marshy strip of tundra. The river had changed course sometime earlier in the summer during one of the rains, or maybe during spring break up, and after changing course again later in the summer, left this long strip of flooded, swampy tundra in it’s place. This strip of muck lay right along a steep mountainside with the main river valley lying between us and it and the bear. The last good look I had at the bruin was at the base of the second rocky precipice. We hiked our way over there at a brisk half run/fast walk through the willow brush.
This was the first time throughout the whole hunt that I could feel Jim and Dennis’s presence directly behind me while hiking. Adrenaline does amazing things. They were actually gonna keep up this time! We boogied and made our way to the first rocky outcropping without any trouble at all. As the boys caught they’re wind, I climbed up the hill about one hundred ft elevation or so, hunkered behind a clump of mountain, and went to work with my glasses. I wanted to spot blondie again before we went any further. I sat watching the area for about five minutes before climbing back down to the guys. I couldn’t find the bear, and saw no movement, but I had a feeling he was still there. There just wasn’t any way he could have got out of there in time without me getting a glimpse of his escape. I figured the blond boar to be feeding right out of sight behind the second outcropping, and set jim up behind a little rise in the terrain. We still had the wind and it seemed all there was to do now was wait. I stayed glued to my glasses for what seemed like hours, and was about to convince myself to settle in for a long wait when I felt the wind ever so softly kiss my neck.
Man I hate that! No sooner did I register the misfortune than that platinum blond bear came streaking out from behind the second rocky outcropping like he’d been sitting on red coals and just figured out it hurt.. That bear didn’t stop, or even change speeds, till he was out of sight…and in that country, that’s suggesting a great distance.
Spirits plummeted, and while Jim, Dennis, and I walked the couple miles back to camp, I couldn’t help but feel the pressure. There’s nothing I can do about the weather, and I’d played the wind as well as possible. Just didn’t work out that round, and I had to pick myself up and figure out what my gameplan was for the next morning’s hunt. Blondie won that round, and he’s better educated in the process. You can bet he’d smelled human scent before, and knew its sudden appearance in his day to day routine meant him harm. The game we pursue, as do we, lives and learns.
The next two days were slow. We probably covered twelve to fifteen miles hunting the opposite direction, up valley. The wind switched for the worse by mid evening each day. It was frustrating to say the least. Dennis had to go back to Colorado and Jim and I continued the hunt together. This was turning into a real HUNT now, and if we were going to get a bear, we would earn him. The easy ones are nice but not near as gratifying as trophies won the hard way, on foot, with lots of fair chase. That’s still the equation for successful hunting. Sometimes guys just gotta put in the work…that’s what separates the lucky hunters from the consistently successful ones. The afternoon of that second day we ended up back on the spotting knob not far from camp. That‘s when Jim spotted his “bear” mentioned at the beginning of this story.
“That IS a bear!” “Good eye, Jim!” It was late afternoon on the 4th of Sept. when we spotted the big rolling bruin pouring over a rise, sky lined just for a moment, up top of a big cut bank. I couldn’t help feeling the hairs on my neck stick up a little. My blood had a thin feel as it pounded in my ears and I relished the big shot of adrenaline that comes to me at the prospect of up close encounters with my favorite of all game animals.
This was absolutely perfect. It was a beautiful chance laid right at our feet after two days of literally beating the bush for miles trying to make our own luck. All we had to do was capitalize, do our jobs right, and maybe, just maybe, Jim would have that rug he wanted so badly after all. I knew from my first glance that this was the arctic bear of a lifetime. He was big, his hide was a gorgeous golden chocolate and his head was huge. I knew the bear was a keeper and quickly told Jim I thought we should move on him right now! The wind was perfect for once and though the bear was heading down into the tangle of willows that was the river bottom, it would allow me to get Jim into shooting position without being seen or smelled. The last glimpse of the chocolate boar as I half slid down the spotting knob was of him stopping amongst the willows to dig up lupine roots. Perfect!
At the bottom of the spotting knob I stopped and assessed the situation. There were two immediate options that I came up with, both had potential for success, and both left little room for error. The river bottom the bear was now feeding in, twisted through our valley with high cutbanks on each side. There was dense willow cover in the bottom itself, and very thick cover for the bear on the far side of the bottom. Our side was relatively sparse and open…we could not miss him if he came out of the bottom on our side. The other side was a different story. I could see right off that there were plenty of places the bear could sneak out without me spotting him over there. As it was, I was on a high bank looking over the area I last saw the bear, and was barely catching glimpses of his dark coat every couple minutes. We could follow the wind down the bottom and set up in ambush, counting on the bear continuing its progress directly towards us and hoping that the wind held. The other option was to take a line on the last place I saw the bear, and stalk him in the willow brush…with the knowledge that when we did spot him, Jim would have to shoot quick, and the bear would be very close.
I’ve never had much luck trusting the wind in Alaska for any amount of time. And I’m much more the assertive hunter than the ultra patient, ambush seeking hunter. Given the option, I’ll spot and stalk every time.
“What’s the plan Zack” Jim asked excitedly.
“Well, he’s in there still, I just got a glimpse of him through the willows. I say we go in there and kill him”
“Go in where?”
“Over in the river bottom with him.”
Jim kinda swallowed and tugged on his gun sling nervously. Then he looked me in the eye and said, “ok”.
I grinned. He was game, he obviously wasn’t thrilled with the idea of getting into the thick with big boy over there, but he was ready to follow my lead. I love my job. We’d hunted hard, and had just been given a great opportunity to capitalize on a super bear. Now it was up to us, in complete fair chase, to go into this bruin’s literal living room and see where the cards fell. The worst we could do was fail. Hunting at it’s finest.
The big boar was only one hundred and fifty yards from us when we entered the brush. There was no shot opportunity and I realized then, for certain, that there would be none until we were fairly close. I told Jim to chamber a round as I checked my guide gun. “The ugly stick” is my pet gun, it’s not a pretty gun, but it’s reliability is certain, and for a big gun it is very accurate. I pulled the bolt and checked the magazine…three down, empty chamber. I quietly dropped a big 300 grain, 375 magnum cartridge in, and closed the bolt. After checking Jim’s gun and giving him the “keep shootin till he stops kickin” spiel, I slipped into the willows with Jim to my immediate right, and two steps behind me.
As we crept through the willows the drumming in my ears subsided a tad, and I noticed my knuckles were white from gripping my ugly gun so tightly. I calmed down a bit and led Jim farther into the bush. The wind held, but as we drew near the last place I saw him, I stopped and listened hard. I could hear him from just in front of the area he’d been last, but for the life of me I couldn’t catch a glimpse of his dark hide. I turned and directed Jim to slowly move to our immediate right. Then everything happened at once. There was a small clearing between two clumps of willows right in the middle of the bottom, and our boy filled that clearing like a big black bus. He was between fifty and sixty yards away and Jim couldn’t see him. I was confused. “He’s right there Jim“, “shoot him, shoot him now or pretty soon he’ll wind us and run, or wind us and come”. In which case one of us will have to shoot him. That or try to explain to him what exactly we’re doing in his dining room, messing around in his personal space. They’re not much on conversation, as it turns out, so I was hoping Jim would shoot, and soon.
“Come over here to me Jim, he’s right there!”
“Hey, there he is!”
“No kidding, shoot him now, right through both shoulders.”
The bear immediately fell to Jims’ shot. I swung the post of my front sight and covered the bruin as he tried to get up. “Great shot! Hit em again!”
“I got him, I got him!”
“Shoot him again Jim he’s almost back up.”
“I got him, I got him, I got him!”
“Not yet, hit him again Jim!
As the boar made another heave to gain his feet and still nothing from Jim’s gun, I made the call, and the little ugly gun kicked in my arms. The bear twitched and my gun spoke again. The bear didn’t move.
WhooooooHoooooo! The air came out of me like a dam broke. My customary war whoop came and went and we had our bear.
After skinning we found that Jim’s shot had been good, the big guy just needed a little more convincing. Jim’s rug squared eight foot one inch and his skull went just a tad over 24 inches. A remarkable trophy with flawless hair quality for that early in the season. This was a trophy of a lifetime, and one well earned by all involved. Jim did well, and hard work and good ol fashioned stubborn hunting had paid off once again. A last day last hour monster…something I see more and more the longer I play at this king of sport.