Bowhunting Brown Bears in Southeast Alaska

Creeping up salmon streams in the fall, bowhunting brown bears in southeast Alaska is not for the faint of heart!

Bowhunting Brown Bears in Southeast Alaska

Assistant guide Craig Bisson and hunter Doug Bing hiking up a small salmon stream that was literally choked with brown bears.

Ursus arctos horribilis — the scientific name for brown bears translates literally as “horrible bear.” With the exception of the polar bear, brown bears are the largest carnivore in North America. As fast as a racehorse, as strong as Superman, as smart as the class valedictorian and as unpredictable as life itself, these incredible animals are arguably the most magnificent big game animals in North America.

In mid-September a couple years ago, as our team was embarking on a bowhunting adventure for brown bears in southeast Alaska, we were reminded of just how serious this can be when we heard of the tragedy in Wyoming where 37-year old hunting guide Mark Uptain was charged and killed by a 250-pound sow grizzly bear in the Teton Wilderness. By all accounts, Uptain and his client did nothing wrong, they were simply butchering the client’s elk, when the healthy 10-year old bear came at a full run from close range and steamrolled Uptain. It was over in a flash.

The initial news reports were a stark reminder for all of us that hunting grizzly and brown bears is something to take very seriously. The two Alaska Master Guides on this hunt both have had serious encounters with brown bears in the past. Scott Newman, who owns and operates Alaska Bear Guides (www.akbearguides.com;  907-723-1053; email: info@akbearguides.com), was once mauled badly by a wounded bear, and has had other close encounters. Master Guide Jim Boyce, a former Navy SEAL with two Vietnam combat tours under his belt, has had to fend off charging bears more than once.

During our pre-hunt chat with the two hunters aboard Newman’s mother ship, Chester B, Scott was brief and to the point. “There are a lot of bears in this area. Pay attention.”

Scott Newman of Alaska Bear Guides bases his brown bear hunts off the Chester B, a comfortable ship that can haul a 16-foot skiff and small inflatable boat on the bow as well as tow the landing craft for actual hunting.
Scott Newman of Alaska Bear Guides bases his brown bear hunts off the Chester B, a comfortable ship that can haul a 16-foot skiff and small inflatable boat on the bow as well as tow the landing craft for actual hunting.

Land of Extremes

Alaska is definitely a land of extremes, and it seems like when the scale tips far in your favor in one aspect, it balances itself out by tipping far against you in another. Such was the case as we departed Petersburg on September 14 and all throughout our hunt, when Zephyrus — the Greek god of weather — brought us conditions more like that encountered on the sun-filled Baja Peninsula than usually rainy southeast Alaska. Petersburg averages 109 inches of rain each year, with an average September rainfall of 13.66 inches. Average high temperature is 57 degrees, average low 44 degrees.

The 10 days I was there beginning on the tenth? Bluebird skies, temps reaching the low 70s, and nary a drizzle. The ocean was flat and the winds light. In short, it was perfect weather for creeping up streams filled with the last of the season’s salmon run, searching for a big brown bear.

Except for one thing. The 2018 salmon run in most of Alaska, including southeast, was the worst in at least a decade. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) the run only produced 35 percent of the predicted sockeye run, 37 percent of the predicted coho run, 33 percent of the predicted pink salmon run and 89 percent of the predicted chum salmon run.

Bottom line? Rivers and streams that should have been choked with fish held handfuls. And when there are little or no salmon that means there will be few — or no — brown bears on the streams. When the fish are gone, the bears — especially the old, mature boars — spend their time digging tidal flat roots and retreat into the thick old growth forest searching for other food sources as they try to pack on the pounds in anticipation of their winter hibernation.

How can you beat this September weather? In 2018, it was more like the Baja Peninsula than southeast Alaska during the opening week of brown bear season, which began September 15.
How can you beat this September weather? In 2018, it was more like the Baja Peninsula than southeast Alaska during the opening week of brown bear season, which began September 15.

For bowhunters Lee Franklin of Alabama and hunting buddy Doug Bing of Montana, this was not good news at all. Fortunately, the pair booked their hunt with Newman, a lifelong Petersburg resident who has been guiding full-time in the area since 1988. Newman hunts Admiralty Island, which is located in the heart of the Tongass National Forest, the largest temperate rainforest in North America. Admiralty is the seventh largest island in the United States and home to approximately 10 percent of Alaska’s entire population of brown bears. In fact, it has a bear density of almost one bear per square mile. With less than 700 year-round residents, the brown bears outnumber humans here by a near 3:1 ratio.

 

Simple Strategy

In addition to Boyce, who has been shepherding brown bear hunters in southeast Alaska for decades, assistant guide Craig Bisson, who also lives in southeast Alaska, was along. I’ve known both Newman and Boyce for decades, and they invited me along to enjoy the show.

“With the salmon numbers so poor, what we have to do is find those streams that do have some fish,” Newman told us as we headed north from Petersburg to Admiralty. “But when we do find pockets of salmon, the bears should be concentrated on them. So we’ll make sure we have the wind in our faces, slip slowly upstream, and see what happens.”

Scott and Craig were going to guide Lee, while Jim was guiding Doug with me tagging along and trying to stay out of the way. The opening day alarm rang at 0400, and after coffeeing up we all jumped in our skiffs and headed out for separate streams just as it was light enough to see.

 

Man, They’re Close!

Lee Franklin did not have to wait long. Working up a beautiful stream, the trio encountered no less than a 16 brown bears total before 10:00 a.m. But when a big, beautiful, nearly coal-black boar started coming down the stream right at them they set up, and when the bear was just 12 yards away Lee made a killing shot. In less than a half-day he had achieved his dream with a bear whose hide squared 8 feet, 6 inches.

Hunting with Master Guide Scott Newman and assistant guide Craig Bisson, Lee Franklin arrowed this gorgeous Southeast Alaska brown bear that squared 8 feet, 6 inches — at only 12 yards!
Hunting with Master Guide Scott Newman and assistant guide Craig Bisson, Lee Franklin arrowed this gorgeous Southeast Alaska brown bear that squared 8 feet, 6 inches — at only 12 yards!

For Jim, Doug and I, things took a bit longer — but not because we didn’t have early opportunities.

We weren’t on our stream for more than 30 minutes when Jim glassed up a big boar splashing about a deep pool. We got crosswind, slithered our way upstream, then watched the show for more than an hour. Despite Jim’s advice — “That is a really, really big boar, Doug!” — Bing chose not to take a shot. Later, looking at the pics, there’s no doubt this was by far the biggest bear we found during the hunt. But as Doug later admitted, “I had the first morning jitters and didn’t want to make a mistake.” The mistake was not taking Jim’s advice.

OK, no problem, let’s keep hunting. By midmorning we backed out and tried another nearby stream, which had zero fish and zero bear sign. So that evening we went back to our pool to see what might shake out. We were treated to quite a show, with four brown bears working the pool — but no real shooters.

The next morning we were back and saw several more bears in our pool before deciding to slip around them and work upstream. After a mile of no more salmon, it was obvious that all the action would be at the first morning pool, so we were back in position three hours before dark. And what a show! We had no less than nine bears between 75 and 25 yards from us on three sides, including three studs — but none gave Doug a shot. Just before dark, a big bear walked no less than 10 steps from where we were hidden in the brush, heading right for us. Boyce woofed at it, and thankfully it bounded off the other direction.

The morning of day three, we decided to change it up a bit and hike up the same creek where Lee had taken his bear, figuring if we didn’t find what we wanted we could go back to our other spot for the evening hunt. It wasn’t necessary.

Craig Bisson came with us and led the way, as he had been up this stream before. Within two miles we had seen 11 brown bears, including a sow with two big cubs that puffed herself up and created a 20 minute stand-off at 50 yards that had everyone’s hackles on red alert. After they thankfully moved off, we eased around the next corner — and there he was.

It only took a brief look for Boyce to hiss, “Shooter!” The bear was fishing in a pool 100 yards upstream, so we eased up to a downed tree across the river and waited to see what the bear might do. He caught and ate a salmon, and then, finding no more fish, walked downstream right at us. When he was broadside at 28 yards Boyce woofed and stopped him, and Doug let an arrow fly. It hit the bear a bit high and back, but instead of running off the boar swapped ends and stood there, giving Doug another shot. That arrow hammered him, and the bear went only 20 steps before piling up on the edge of the stream bank. Just like that, Bing has a dandy black boar with a hide that squared 8 feet, 9 inches.

Hunter Doug Bing is flanked by assistant guide Craig Bisson and Master Guide Jim Boyce with Doug’s 8-foot, 9-inch brown bear. He took his bear at 28 yards after stalking up a salmon stream and wading through 11 other bears in 3 hours.
Hunter Doug Bing is flanked by assistant guide Craig Bisson and Master Guide Jim Boyce with Doug’s 8-foot, 9-inch brown bear. He took his bear at 28 yards after stalking up a salmon stream and wading through 11 other bears in 3 hours.

A Special Hunt

When I was an Alaskan resident I hunted brown bears a lot, sometimes on my own and often as an assistant guide working with Jim Boyce. To me they are the most special big game animal in the 49th state. A trophy bear will be 10 years of age or more, with some reaching their mid-20s. Creeping up a southeast Alaska salmon stream filled with big bears with bow and arrow is one of the most exhilarating hunting experiences on the continent.

I can’t wait to do it again.

Sidebar: Gearing Up

Fall brown bear hunting in southeast Alaska means wading up salmon streams filled with slick, moss-covered rocks. In the old days we wore ankle-fit hip boots like those from LaCrosse (www.lacrossefootwear.com), which still work well but today the guides often wear Simms Gore-Tex chest waders or pants (www.simmsfishing.com) with either standard wading shoes or XtraTuf (www.xtratuf.com) fishing boots on their feet. Over the waders they wear a cheap lightweight fleece pant to help protect against punctures. This system is The Bomb! A collapsible hiking stick is also handy when wading streams, where great care must be taken to avoid slipping and falling on the slick-as-snot river rocks.

Archers need to be able to precisely place their arrow out to 40 to 50 yards, though shots can be much closer. On this trip, the two clients geared up a bit differently, but both setups were good choices.

Lee Franklin chose a Mathews Triax (www.mathewsinc.com) set at 66 lbs., heavy GrizzlyStik Momentum TDT arrows and a 200-grain Maasai two-blade broadhead (www.3Riversarchery.com), HHA Optimizer Lite single-pin bow sight (www.hhasports.com), and Tru-Fire Edge release (www.feradyne.com).

Doug Bing used a Hoyt REDWRX Carbon RX-1 (www.hoyt.com) bow set at 65 lbs., Easton 5mm FMJ shafts (www.eastonarchery.com), 125-grain Montec three-blade broadhead (www.g5outdoors.com), Scott Mongoose release (www.scottarchery.com) and 5-pin Black Gold bowsight (www.blackgoldsights.com). Don’t forget a laser rangefinder and high-quality 8X-10X binocular.

Though we didn’t have any, you can pretty much count on rain, so a good packable rain jacket is a must. Dress in layers with no cotton garments, only those made from wicking fabrics. A day pack large enough to carry your lunch, day hunt gear and extra clothing is needed as well.

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