Hunting Brown Polar Bears

 

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It’s not unusual to find myself in a hotel room, it seems like I spend half my life in one. Right now I am in Juneau drying out from a soggy but successful hunt.

I have a lot of “stuff,” including two guns, scattered all over this hotel room to dry out. It honestly looks like a camo bomb went off and deposited wet crap on every flat surface. When I opened the door for the Mexican guy from housekeeping the look of horror on his face was priceless! I just know he was thinking “I ain’t cleaning that up!”

If I am counting right, this is my eight hunting trip to Alaska and my fourth run at brown bears. The first two bear hunts were unmitigated disasters. The first, my first time in Alaska, was due to an incompetent and crooked outfitter. The next brown bear hunt was mostly an exercise in watching the most extreme weather that the Alaska Peninsula can throw at any human who lives to tell about it. The third trip resulted in the wrong bear. The guide completely missed the call. Not assigning blame; I pulled the trigger, but I had no experience at judging bears. The ground shrinkage was astounding.

But this time I got it right. It’s a great thing to be basking in the afterglow of a good hunt and the bear I shot three days ago was one of the very few animals I have ever taken that got bigger after it was down. I knew it was a good bear when I shot, it wasn’t until we got to him and stretched him out in the fading light that I realized I had a great bear.

Chris Erickson insists that his boat, The Icy Lady is not named after his first wife, but accounts vary.

Chris Erickson insists that his boat, The Icy Lady is not named after his first wife, but accounts vary.

This boat-based hunt was fantastic in every way. Not the least of which is that I was into brown bears almost every day. I had several close encounters, including one big male that I nearly had to shoot in self-defense.

He was a good boar, but not quite what I wanted that early in the hunt and I had already decided to pass when he started walking our way. When he was 30 yards out Chris Erickson (owner of Tok River Outfitters) and I stood up from behind the big rock we were hiding behind. Chris slapped the rock to get the bear’s attention and then started backing away. The bear saw us and immediately started running right for us.

“Whack him!” Chris shouted when the bear was about 20 yards, but I was way ahead of him and already had the crosshairs on his chest. I was about a quarter second from shooting when the bear reacted to his voice. My guess is he thought we were the sow he had been chasing and he was coming to “get him some.” When Chris shouted he realized we were not his spurning lover. The boar let out a loud huff, that sounded like, “man I screwed that one up” in bearspeak and ran into the woods just a few feet to his right.

Even after a week of bear hunting Chris Erickson does not look like a sow bear.

Even after a week of bear hunting Chris Erickson does not look like a sow bear.

Those are exactly the moments that make any dangerous game hunting so exciting.

I was hunting in southeast Alaska on The ABC Islands of Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof in the northern part of the Alexander Archipelago, which is all part of the Tongass National Forest. Chichagof, the island I was hunting, is the 5th largest island in the United States.

Researchers discovered that the bears on these islands are more closely related to polar bears than they are to other brown bears and in fact may prove that polar bears descended from these brown bears.

Gerald Shields and Sandra Talbot of the University of Alaska Fairbanks Institute of Arctic Biology began analyzing the DNA of brown bears from around the world. They discovered that the DNA from the ABC islands brown bears was unique when compared to brown bears anywhere else on the planet. Their closest relative is the polar bear.

With this DNA evidence, Shields and his colleagues have launched a new hypothesis; that polar bears may have descended from brown bears.

Studies continue to see if the polar bear is the offspring of the brown bear or if the two species mingled in their distant past, which would also explain the ABC islands bears’ unique genetic fingerprint.

Either way, these bears have been isolated from the mainland since the last ice age about 15,000 years ago and are a unique subspecies of the brown bear.

I would have to add that hunting them is also a very unique hunting adventure and one I would do again in a heartbeat.

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What to Shoot Them With

 

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On any dangerous game hunt I believe two things to be true.

1: You must bring the best equipment you can find.

2: You should always bring a gun chambered for a large cartridge shooting a heavy bullet.

I absolutely guarantee that no small cartridge, “it’s all about shot placement” advocate ever had a 9-foot brown bear charging at him from 20 yards.

I was shooting a Dakota Model 76 rifle in .375 H&H, which is one of the best brown bear cartridges made. The rifle has one of the smoothest actions I have tried. I know how tough bears can be and I don’t believe in admiring the shot with dangerous game. Instead, I like to “shoot the wiggle out of them.” There is little doubt the first shot would have killed the bear, but I like to remove the doubt. I always shoot at least twice on dangerous game and if they are still moving I am still shooting. I hit my bear four times in about 15 seconds from 175 yards. Part of shooting that fast is a smooth running, accurate rifle.

My ammo was Barnes Vortex with 300-grain Triple Shock X-Bullets. Perhaps the best bullet on the market and my favorite for hunting any big game.

Lucas Clark is a bear guide and a hard core gun guy.  His .416 Taylor custom rifle has a Swarovski scope.

Lucas Clark is a bear guide and a hard core gun guy. His .416 Taylor custom rifle has a Swarovski scope.

Optics are critical and I used Swarovski binos and scope. You spend hours and hours glassing on any brown bear hunt, so only the best binos will do. This is a tough hunt that’s hard on gear. No place for a cheap scope. Lucas Clark, the main guide and a hard core gun guy, carries his rifle almost every day in Alaska. His .416 Taylor custom rifle has a Swarovski scope. Don’t assume he is rich; no guide is even close, but he recognizes that rifle may save his life or a client’s life and he will settle for nothing less than the best.

I had a Swarovski Z-6, 1.7-10 scope for the same reasons. While I am not typically a fan of illuminated reticles for hunting, here it was all but a necessity. It’s daylight about 20 hours a day in the spring. Hunting is in the afternoon and twilight lingers for hours. With an illuminated dot, I had an aiming point in any light. When that bear came for us, that bright orange dot found his chest much faster than a non-illuminated scope could have.

Watch here for more blogs in the days ahead about hunting brown bear in Alaska.

 

 

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