Alaska's Ultimate Predator: Brown Bears

If you're ready to test your hunting skills, head to Alaska to pursue the brown bear and you may get an experience of a lifetime.

Alaska's Ultimate Predator: Brown Bears

Hunting brown bears in Alaska challenges stalking and shooting skills, providing a memorable experience against an apex predator. (Photo: Scott Haugen)

“You guys unpack, I’ll head up to the crow’s nest and start glassing,” instructed renowned Alaskan brown bear guide, Bruce Hallingstad. His ace guide, George Joy, and I, were barely nose deep into our first bag when Bruce erupted.

“Bear! Bear! Big bear!” Bruce shouted from the platform, the best vantage point for miles in the two story, dilapidated cabin serving as our base camp for the next 10 days. We’d been in bear camp for seven minutes, having just arrived from a boat ride across Egegik Lagoon.

Rushing up the narrow stairway, peeking out the window that led to the crow’s nest that Bruce built specifically for spotting bears more than 15 years ago, I could see the brown form with my naked eye more than a mile away. Looking at the bear through binoculars, even at that distance, it was obvious he was a giant. “He’s over 10 feet!” Bruce exclaimed, looking through his spotting scope. “Get your gear on, I’ll keep watching the bear.”

George pumped up a two-man raft and I got ready. Soon I switched places with Bruce while he suited up.

Looking at that bear through the spotting scope for the first time was an image I’ll never forget. The first feature to catch my eye was his blocky head. The bear’s hind quarters were massive and gyrated independently from the front half of his body with every step. His front legs were thick, all the way to the feet. He was a beast, roaming the tundra as he’d done for decades.

Quickly, Bruce was ready and we were both sitting in the crow’s nest continuing to glass. “It’s getting dark about midnight, so we have plenty of time,” Bruce offered. It was only 10 a.m. on this sunny day in May.

For more than 30 minutes we watched the bear, anticipating where it might go. It was in no hurry, grazing on grass, slowly moving our way. “I’ve seen a lot bears travel this line over the years and I can just about promise you he’s going to that bench behind those willows,” Bruce pointed. “Let’s go get him!”

Two hours later, Bruce and I were in position. But just as we prepared to slip the raft into a 60-foot wide creek and paddle across, the wind changed. “Let’s get out of here, fast!” Bruce ordered. Though the bear was still more than a mile away, Bruce made the right call.

“I’ve seen this bear several times over the past few seasons and I guarantee that if he smells us, we’ll never see him again,” Bruce whispered. I agreed, and we headed back to the crow’s nest where George awaited.

Brown Bears Of Egegik

I used to live in Alaska and, as a resident, took grizzly bear and even a polar bear that killed and devoured a man in a tiny Arctic Inupiat Eskimo village where I resided. I’d taken black bear, even a nice brown bear, four years prior. But an elusive, 10-foot brown bear that I’d always dreamed of eluded me on multiple hunts.

A 10-foot brown bear is the Holy Grail of the brown bear world. What some hunters don’t realize is, you could hunt an entire lifetime and never see a 10-foot bear in the wild, let alone kill one.

Since I was not a resident at the time of this brown bear hunt with Bruce, I hired him as my guide. Bruce is the owner of Becharof Lodge, situated on Alaska’s Egegik River south of the village of King Salmon. Nonresidents are required to hire a guide when hunting brown bears and inland grizzlies in Alaska. I’d actually taken another brown bear with Bruce four years prior. On that hunt, we saw a bear we couldn’t get to, one a hunter of Bruce’s later killed. That bear squared 10-feet 4-inches.

Hallingstad is known for taking big brown bears. At one time, he had the number five and 11 brown bears in the Boone & Crocket Records Book, and had a number of 10-foot bears to his credit. They have great genetics, exceptional food and grow big in that part of Alaska, which is why Bruce chose to run his operation from there.

I’ve been fortunate to hunt many exciting predators around the world including lion and leopard in Africa, cougar and wolves in North America, and more. But it was a 10-foot brown bear that topped my bucket list. Having lived in Alaska, and traveled there for nearly 30 years, these massive beasts simply captivate me. Everything about them is enthralling and the bigger and older they get, the wiser they become, and the harder they are to outsmart.

A Second Chance

Back atop the crow’s nest for the next several hours, we never took our eyes off where we’d last seen the giant brown bear, alternating between spotting scopes and binoculars. “He’s bedded down, and when he gets up, he’ll either start working that ridge or pop out where we had to abort the stalk,” Bruce shared. 

We snacked and took breaks to rest our eyes, but someone was always in the spotting scope, studying the area where the bear was last seen. It was nearly 9:00 p.m. and for a moment I was seated in the crow’s nest alone. Glassing the same ground we’d been watching all day, I was struck when the big bear suddenly materialized in the spotting scope. His slow gait and massive size left no doubt it was our bear, and he popped out on the end of the ridge, just as Bruce predicted.

Grabbing our gear, we wasted no time. Traveling along the graveled beach allowed us to cover ground quickly. A small, elevated sea wall separated the beach from the tundra where the bear was walking. We were perfectly hidden.

Moving across a grassy flat, Bruce and I reached the edge of a stream. I ranged the bear at just over 700 yards. Crossing a creek in the tiny raft we’d been pulling behind us, we closed to within 600 yards. The tide was out, and two hours of daylight remained.

An inch of dense, pasty, black mud covered the rocky creek bank, which made for slippery, challenging walking. Fortunately, we were out of sight from the bear, and the wind held perfect. Crawling up to the edge of the bank, I parted the tall, yellow grass. The bruin was just over 400 yards away, and for the first time it felt like we had a chance at closing the deal.

Then the bear suddenly turned 90 degrees and kept walking. “If he goes out there we’ll never catch him,” Bruce urged, grabbing his pack. The chase was on, and just that fast, I felt my dream slipping away. Unless a bear stops when walking on the marshy tundra, the odds of catching up are slim. Even walking as quickly as we could, the bear was now more than 800 yards away. My heart sank as I felt the reality of getting a shot slipping away.

Stopping to catch our breath, Bruce whispered, “He just laid down!” We’d been pulling the little raft by a rope, but decided to leave it behind as it was slowing us down.

With less than an hour of daylight remaining, we stuck to the edge of a creek bed. Soon we were 600 yards from the bear, then 500, then 400.

I was shooting a .338-378 Weatherby Magnum topped with a Trijicon 3x9 AccuPoint scope. The bullet of choice was a 225-grain Triple Shock. With that setup, combined with my favorite, three-legged Bog Pod shooting sticks, I felt comfortable shooting out to 400 yards, but on a bear of this stature, really hoped to get within 300 yards.

Finally, we caught a break. A sharp bend in the creek funneled us to where we needed to be. Belly crawling into position, I struggled to get a range on the bear, still bedded amid tall grass. When his giant head slowly lifted, it took my breath away, but I was able to get a range. Twice, the reading came back as 290 yards.

The bear was laying broadside, head facing to the right, toward the ocean. All he had to do was stand to clear the tall grass, and I could take the shot.

For 15 minutes we sat, motionless, waiting. I was solid in the sticks, but my heart continued to beat faster and louder. Finally, the bear rolled on his side, pivoted on his hind quarters, lethargically gained his footing and started walking directly away. My heart sank, and the emotional roller coaster continued as I had no shot.

The bear moved slowly, but his big strides rapidly covered ground. Touching the rangefinder button, the bear was once again beyond 400 yards. It happened quickly. “We’re running out of time,” Bruce groaned. “We have to walk right at that bear as fast as we can and hope we can catch up.”

When the bear sauntered into a creek bed dipping out of sight, we ran as fast as we could. Then we hit a meandering creek. It was too wide and deep to cross, and we didn’t have our raft. If the bear came out where we last saw him, I might get a shot, but much farther, I wouldn’t have a chance.

Quickly I set up in the shooting sticks and said a quick prayer. Right then, the massive bear sauntered out of the creek bottom, quartering away. It was the perfect shot angle, but the grass was too thick to thread a bullet through. He was now 295 yards away, the closest we’d ever been.

“As soon as he turns, I’ll take him,” I whispered to Bruce. But the bear didn’t turn. It kept slowly walking, straight away; not a shot I wanted to take on this massive creature. My dreams of tagging the true bear of a lifetime were fading, and I felt helpless.

Following each lumbering step of the giant bear through the rifle scope, his stride slowed. Then, at 325 yards, the mammoth bear sat on its hind end.

At that angle, the bullet would hit the bear’s spine and, if it held together, would continue into the left lung. When the rifle roared, that’s exactly what happened. The bruin dropped on the spot, and though it wasn’t necessary, I let go with two more insurance shots. These bears are massive and strong, and I didn’t want to leave anything to chance.

More than 12 hours after spotting the bear, our hunt was over. Approaching him was one of the most moving moments of my more than 40 years of big game hunting — something I can’t even begin to describe with mere words.

When Bruce reached down and lifted the bear’s upper lip to inspect the teeth, we were speechless. The incisors were worn flush to the gum line, and every canine was busted. Each molar was cracked and abscessed. His claws were worn, some barely two-inches long. His skin hung loose, covering what was less than 1,000 pounds of flesh. In his healthy years, this boar would have tipped the scales to 1,500 pounds.

Bruce is also a taxidermist, and while I helped him cape the bear for a life-size mount, he shared stories of this bear, stories that made the hunt even more special. Bruce had spotted this bear several times over the past five years and attempted multiple stalks on him in both spring and fall seasons.

One hunter was close, within 150 yards, but didn’t want to shoot for fear of having to cross a deep, muddy flat. Another hunter, a bowhunter, had this bear walk within 30 yards of him, but was shaking so badly he couldn’t draw his bow. Other hunters had their chances, and should have connected, but never did.

The following day while fleshing and preparing the hide, we took some measurements. The hide of the old bear squared a mind-boggling 10-feet 9-inches. When dried, the skull measured a whopping 29 4/16-inches, making him the third largest bear Bruce had taken in his camp. The bear was aged at 23 years, one of the oldest that’s ever been recorded on Alaska’s Upper Peninsula.

I’ve been fortunate to experience some incredible hunts in my life, but this brown bear hunt with Bruce Hallingstad was extra special. If, for some reason, my hunting career ended, I’d be content, as this truly was an animal, and a hunt, of a lifetime. 

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