Hunting the Great Alaska Brown Bear
Hunting brown bear on the salmon runs is undoubtedly the most successful method of hunting in Alaska, and this is what we like to focus on when it is possible. The ideal situation is one where we find a vantage point with a decent view of a salmon choked feeder stream where we can glass the area without fear of being winded. Brown bear seldom fish on large rivers, unless shoals or obstacles confine the fish in a given area, but typically the big bears zero in on the small creeks and sloughs where the salmon actually spawn. Such streams are often less than 10 ft. across, and the stream banks are usually lined with alders, so it can be difficult to spot bears that are close at hand. At times it can be quite difficult to find an adequate vantage point to glass from, and when this happens we usually resort to still hunting along the streams if the wind is in our favor. When the planets don't line up correctly and the bear and fish do not cooperate we will look to the slopes in hopes of catching the bears on the berries. This can be a very dependable way of hunting bears, and it is often the only thing you can depend upon later in the season when the fish are gone, but it usually demands a more physical type of stalk, so keep this in mind when you decide when you want to hunt.
Of course spring bears are another subject altogether and these bears have to be hunted on different terms. It is either a case of early hunts with a lot of snow and snowshoes looking for bears coming out of the den, or later hunts where bears are out and on the move looking for anything they can find to dine on after months in the den. Spring hunting has always been physically demanding on our clients and we donot recommend it for guys who are looking for an easy hunt.
Of all the elements that often conspire against bear hunters the wind is the most unpredictable. Brown bear have a sense of smell that is beyond our comprehension. I have often read that polar bears can smell seal blood at distances of 10 miles or more, and brown bears are probably not far behind when it comes to their ability to detect odors.
The facts are, brown bear hunting requires patience, and the ability to sit with binoculars constantly scanning the horizon for hours on end is not only a virtue, but often a simple necessity. Showing up in brown bear camp with poor optics, or even worse no optics is basically a red flag that says "I really don't care about this hunt!" Be prepared, both mentally and physically, especially if the hunt is a mountain type hunt, and be prepared to listen to your guide and more likely than not your opportunity will come.
A prime spring brown bear from 2012
While many individuals discredit the eyesight of brown bears, I really don't buy into the theory that they have poor eyesight. It may be poor in comparison to sheep, but that doesn't mean they can't see. Master guide (#62) Ed Stevenson once told me that he thought bears could see just fine, but they often pretend to be unaware of the presence of a hunter. I have the tendency to take a similar view. It is doubtful that a bears eyesight is inferior to that of a human, and humans can see quite well. Regardless, bears do not react to what they see in the same fashion that whitetail deer do. For one thing, they are quite aware that few things pose a threat to them, and everything that moves is basically on the menu, including humans. This being said, brown bear typically retreat when they detect the scent of a human, at least in areas where they are not acclimated to such. In areas where bears and humans have frequent contact they pay often pay little attention to the dreaded human scent. Clothing for our brown bear hunts should be subdued, and camouflage is always helpful. Don't expect a brown bear not to spot you if you are wearing a bright red parka.
Our hunts are by definition, backpack hunts, that is we normally land as close as possible to the area we plan on hunting, but a backpack trip of a couple of miles from the landing area is not uncommon. Spike camps will also be used if necessary in the course of a hunt. We operate for the most part of out 2 to 4 man North Face expedition tents, which means, we do not use cots, and we don't have heated tents. My cooking with an MSR Whisperlite stove in the tent vestibule is about as close as we ever get to heated comfort. Of course we do like the occasional campfire in bear camp, and if at all possible we like to wrap salmon fillets in aluminum foil and lemon juice and bake such in the coals, but for the most part we live on freeze dried meals by Mountain House, and we pack light. Hunters should be in decent physical condition, since bears can cover a lot of ground if they are on the move, and the difference between a good stalk, and a bad stalk often boils down to how fast you can close the gap. We do expect all of our hunters to carry their share of the load when it comes time to put on the backpacks, but we don't carry 60 pound packs all day. We normally have under 20 pounds on our back while in the field, and this is primarily optical, and camera equipment, skinning tools, lunch, and emergency supplies. Packers can be hired for any given hunt with adequate advance notice, but they cannot be hired after you show up in camp. The additional cost for a packer on a 10 day hunt is $1,000.
Our brown bear hunts are open to bowhunters, rifle hunters, muzzleloaders, and pistoleros as well.
Master Guide #62 Ed Stevenson and Tony Dingess with a Talkeetna Mountains brown bear taken by Dave Scovill (editor of Rifle, Handloader, and Successful Hunter magazines). The bear was taken with the Model 95 lever action rifle, with a wildcat cartridge known as the .375 Scovill, essentially a 30-06 case necked up to accept a .375 diameter bullet.