Hunting the Largest Carnivore on Earth
The Giant Alaska Brown Bear
There is something about moving silently along a salmon stream choked with alder and willow, scouring the landscape before your eyes for the first glimpse of an animal that may just be hunting you. I can easily recall the first time I sat along a narrow Alaskan salmon stream until the very edge of darkness, and I can vividly recollect moving along the well worn trail, listening to my heartbeat, and of course the heartbeat of my client. Hair has the tendency to stand on end, and every leaf that flutters, or twig that snaps sends a rush of adrenaline coursing through one's veins. A salmon surges noisily up the stream, and your knees grow weak. A moose jumps from its' bed and you think your life has come to a sudden end! The truth is, few hunts can compare to an Alaska brown bear hunt, at least in north america, since the Alaskan brown bear is one of the few animals hunted on this continent that can, and occasionally does eat humans! While brown bear hunting is probably much safer than the average drive to work, there is this element of risk that is involved, and one simply has to be in close proximity to the big bears to even remotely appreciate such.
Dolph's 2012 Peninsula Brown Bear
The Alaska brown bear, also commonly referred to as the Kodiak bear, is simply a subspecies of brown bear, which taxonomist refer to as Ursus arctos middendorfii. Scientist still debate various classifications, but most agree that the coastal brown bears of Alaska and western British Columbia belong to a separate subspecies, distinct from the grizzly bears known as Ursus arctos horribilis. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to see the obvious differences in these distinct subspecies in the extreme edges of their environments, that is to say, the brown bears of Kodiak Island are quite different from the barren ground grizzlies of the North Slope of the Brooks Range, and this is obvious to even the casual observer. Adult boars from Kodiak, and most of the southern coastline of Alaska commonly achieve weights in excess of 1,000 pounds, and most seasoned bear biologist will agree that 1,500 pounds is not beyond the reach of some brown bear after a summer of feasting on protein rich salmon. North Slope grizzlies on the other hand seldom exceed 500 pounds, with averages of around 300 to 400 pounds for most adult boars. As easy as it may be to see the differences in bears from such different ecosystems, the lines eventually get blurred as the ecosystems overlap and the habitat lines get blurred. In Alaska the salmon runs are abundant from the southernmost communities near Ketchikan, all the way around the entire length of the Alaska Peninsula, and north toward Nome, but they eventually cease as one goes farther north. The salmon runs also penetrate farther into the interior of the state than what most individuals realize, and this penetration of good salmon runs into the interior greatly influences the size of brown bear within this region. The Boone and Crockett Club draws a line across Alaska and proclaims that everything to the south is brown bear, and to the north it is grizzly, but things are certainly not that simple. The fact is there exist no definite boundary between the brown bear and the grizzly, and many bears that will square 9 ft. can be found well over 150 miles into the interior of Alaska. The criteria for large bears all boils down to habitat, and the availability of quality food sources. Berries will never produce bears of the same stature as protein laden salmon. Brown bears have large, plantigrade feet (heel and sole touching the ground) and five toes per foot, the front feet have claws that can reach over 5 inches in length. Brown bear use these claws when they dig for everything from razor clams, to ground squirrels. Colors can range from almost black to very light blond; a few brown bears are pure white. Grizzlies typically carry a deep chocolate brown fur with silver tips. Brown bears, including the bears of Kodiak Island are typically more uniform in their color than the grizzly. Males and females are together only during the brief breeding season (May to June), but cubs may remain with a sow for two to three years. Brown bears hibernate for up to seven months, and typically the den will be found on a south facing slope. The temperature of a brown bear declines only slightly during hibernation, but their respiration and heart rate drop dramatically. When active, they eat enormous amounts of fish, berries, and succulent plants, sometimes consuming 90 pounds of food per day. Females have their first young at five to seven years of age. They normally give birth to two cubs, skipping three to four years between litters. They can reproduce until almost 30 years of age, but few survive beyond the age of 20 in the wild. Brown bears belong to the family Ursidae in the order Carnivora, yet the great bears are truly omnivorous, that is they eat everything in sight. From blueberries to salmon berries, raspberries, roots, grasses and carrion, brown bears are not inclined to pass up a meal, but truly the salmon is what defines the brown bear more than any other food source, for it is from this source that the bear has derived its' enormous size.
The Land We Hunt
Alaska has 26 Game Management Units, with many of these units being larger than my home state of West Virginia. At this time we are focused on guide use areas in the Alaska Range portions of GMU 19, and the Cook Inlet region of GMU 16 B.
The landscape itself varies tremendously within the unit, but the majority of our hunting will be conducted along the river valleys and foothills of the Alaska Range, as well as the beaches of Cook Inlet. While the physical lay of the land is nothing in comparison to sheep country, we do occasionally like to get up on the slopes to take advantage of what I like to call "optical opportunities," that is to say, some places are simply more conducive to using the binoculars than others. GMU 16 B's weather is quite mild in comparison to interior climates, but the close proximity to the Alaska Range means the weather can change in minutes. This unit's southern edge begins where the Aleutian Range and the Alaska Range collide near Mount Redoubt, an active volcano that last erupted 1989-90. The unit encompasses the huge flats of the western Susitna Valley, from the delta along Cook Inlet, to the northern edge of the unit near Talkeetna. The flats eventually terminate in the west as the Alaska Range rises to over 11,000 ft. elevation in the Tordrillo Mountains. The vegetation in the unit has been largely effected by the last eruption of Mount Redoubt, and alder densities in the southern sections of the unit are unparalleled in the state. Areas along the beach at the base of Mount Redoubt are virtually impenetrable due to the dense growth of devils club, willow, and alder. Brown bear densities are nonetheless highest near this coastal region.
Unit 16 has hunting seasons for brown bear, Dall sheep, caribou, and black bear, as well as wolf and wolverine. Moose hunting within the unit is currently not open to non-residents, with the exception of sub-unit 16 A. One can expect to see a good number of brown bear along the salmon streams all through August and well into September as the bears will seldom range far from this food source during these months. The season on black bear is open year round, with a limit of 3 bears.
GMU 19 is even more varied than Unit 16, but they do join right in the divide of the southern Alaska Range, but the other side of the range is certainly more difficult to get to, and it does provide some opportunities that GMU 16 does not. GMU 19 is substantially larger than GMU 16 and the terrain in Unit 19 would probably be considered more enticing to hunt, in particular in the fall due to the decreased alder densities in comparison to eastern side of the range. Bears will range from 7 ft. to 9 ft.+ in both areas.
Tony Dingess with a Peninsula Brown Bear in the alders