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Gray Skies and Black Bears

Jul 19, 2016

Alaska black bear hunt storm
Clouds hung low on the mountainside as the storm began to move in.

The gray sky hung low and brought with it the wind that whipped the ocean spray from our skiff against my face and stirred the water into tumultuous swells. Gone were the near perfect sunny days and calm seas that marked our arrival in Southeast Alaska and stayed with us for the first days of hunting.

My friend and I were after bear on a trip that had been dreamt about for years and in the actual planning stages for two. Giant coastal brown bears were common in the area and something we hoped to return for one day, but for now, the black bears that spent the fall gorging themselves on spawning salmon and growing to equally giant proportions for the species provided the adventure and a little less danger than what might be had with the huge “brownies.”

With heads bowed low against the ever increasing force of wind, rain and spray, those first bright days of hunting seemed like a distant memory as the skiff fought against the waves to carry us to the secluded cove where we would spend the afternoon on another of the many salmon choked rivers. My hunting partner, Cody, grimaced each time a wave pounded against the hull of the little aluminum boat. Normally, his natural unease on the water might have made me smile, but not this time. The waves were truly starting to seem like more than the skiff could handle. There was nothing more for us to do than mutter a brief, silent prayer and trust in the experience and judgment of our guide, Bud.

Icebergs floated past the “Alaskan Hunter” as the storm began to move in.
Icebergs floated past the “Alaskan Hunter” as the storm began to move in.

Having grown up in an outfitting family well known within hunting circles for success and quality, Bud Rosenbruch’s experience is extensive. Some years ago he began operating his own guiding business that provides the “average” hunter the opportunity to experience all that southeast Alaska has to offer. He had proven himself to Cody and me to this point in the trip, and I had little doubt he would guide us safely through this storm.

I wish I had trusted in Bud’s experience a little more the first day of our trip as we settled in among some wet logs and grasses to watch a section of river. Salmon splashed in the water below us as they rested for just a moment before fighting again to reach where they would spawn and eventually die. I was trying my best to absorb the sights, the sounds and the unparalleled beauty that surrounded me when Bud’s whisper startled me back to reality.

“Bears,” he hissed quietly.

I couldn’t believe what I was seeing as I hadn’t yet had time to get fully settled. Already two bears were walking out of the brush fifty yards in front of us.

“Are they any good?” I asked anxiously.

“The second one is a sow,” Bud responded. “But, the other one looks like a boar. I’d say he’s about seven and a half feet.”

Just minutes after reaching the stream on the first evening of the hunt, a large boar appeared at the water’s edge providing a perfect opportunity for the hunters.
Just minutes after reaching the stream on the first evening of the hunt, a large boar appeared at the water’s edge providing a perfect opportunity for the hunters.

Anywhere else, a seven and a half foot black bear would probably grab someone’s attention pretty quickly and it should have caught mine. For some reason, though, it didn’t. I blame it on the story Bud told us on his boat earlier that day of a black bear he had seen in the spring that would be at least eight feet and possibly larger. Why, I asked myself, would I want to shoot a seven and a half foot bear on the first day of the hunt when I could have the chance at something as immense as an eight footer? So, I deferred to Cody who quickly settled in behind his scope for the shot.

The seconds seemed to drag by without any shot from my friend. We had agreed that I would back him up if needed, so I was watching the boar through my scope, as well, and I remember clearly my sight being aligned perfectly on his vitals. He was headed toward the brush once more and I thought for just a moment that I should squeeze the trigger before he was gone. I didn’t and, inexplicably, neither did Cody. Then the bear disappeared into the cover.

I think Bud was baffled by us and couldn’t quite understand why we hadn’t taken the bear. Neither of us had a very good explanation then, nor do we now. We waited at the spot a while longer in hopes the boar would return, but he didn’t and we never saw him again.

Two days later, we moved the boat south to the stream where the eight-foot bear had been seen. After that first evening, we saw other bears, but they were either sows or smaller than what we hoped to take. Excited to be moving, I felt one of us was going to have luck on our side and find that giant bear.

Sea lions lay lazily upon the rocks not far from where Cody and Brian hunted.
Sea lions lay lazily upon the rocks not far from where Cody and Brian hunted.

Watching humpback whales and sea lions along our way had delayed us a bit but we still reached the river in time for the evening hunt. Coho salmon filled the stream and would bump our legs or slide underfoot each time we would cross from one bank to the other.

It was nearly dark and I began to wonder when we would turn back for the boat when Bud held up his hand for us to stop. Listening intently for a moment, he pointed to a bend just ahead and mouthed the words “bear fishing.” Cody and I had decided that he would have first shot when the opportunity came, so he chambered a round in his .375 H&H and eased up next to Bud. Half a minute later, the source of the sound came into view and Cody’s single shot earned him his first black bear. It wasn’t the eight-footer, but that didn’t really matter. The three of us were thrilled and celebrated with cheesecake when we reached the boat sometime after midnight.

When not hunting, our time was spent setting crab pots and fishing for halibut, sea bass or some of the Coho that were still in good enough condition to be caught. Never have I been accused of being a great fisherman, but it’s difficult not to be successful in places like the ones Bud took us to. The one-hundred-pound-plus halibut I lost at the edge of the boat was small compared to others Bud’s clients have reeled in and the salmon fishing needs to be experienced to be believed.

Fighting the Coho near where Cody took his bear provided a break from the hunting.
Fighting the Coho near where Cody took his bear provided a break from the hunting.

The days passed too quickly and with each one gone, the salmon run seemed to lessen. Though there was still plenty of evidence of bears fishing, the sign showed they were losing interest and might be thinking of moving to the berry patches at higher elevations. With just a couple days left in our trip, Bud and I were beginning to worry that I might go home without a bear. This possibility seemed difficult to imagine, given the bears we had seen. But for one reason or another, things just weren’t working out for me.

We were just reeling in our lines from doing some fishing at the mouth of an inlet when the weather began to change. It quickly grew cold and dark and the wind howled. Not far away was a cove that appeared to be fairly sheltered, so it was there that we set anchor for the night.

It was close to two o’clock in the morning when I was awakened by Bud, leaping from his bed and dashing out the cabin door. Cody and I climbed from our bunks and quickly realized something wasn’t right as our boat was tossed violently from side to side and the lighthouse that had been so near when we set anchor was now far in the distance. Moments later, the boat was struck by a particularly large wave and, as it listed to the port side, water rose to the cabin windows.

The look we exchanged said it all and Cody struggled to keep his balance as he made his way to the cabinet that held the survival suits. We were probably overreacting by thinking we would need them, but seeing water at the level of the window was more than a little unsettling and brought back memories of a trip years earlier when rough seas nearly sank the fishing boat my family was on.

Before we could actually retrieve the survival suits, Bud burst back through the door, exclaiming: “We’ve come off anchor and have been blown into the channel!” Exposed as we were in the main channel and without the motors on to help provide us with any direction, the storm was free to pound the boat any which way.

Just minutes after reaching the stream on the first evening of the hunt, a large boar appeared at the water’s edge providing a perfect opportunity for the hunters.
Just minutes after reaching the stream on the first evening of the hunt, a large boar appeared at the water’s edge providing a perfect opportunity for the hunters.

Those were long moments, listening to the engines crank before they roared to life. Soon, though, Bud had the anchor we had been dragging pulled in and the boat moved to a much safer location. When all seemed secure once more, Bud crawled back into his sleeping bag and was soon asleep. Cody and I tried to follow his lead but were far too wired on adrenaline for sleep to come.

The storm had lessened somewhat by morning, but the gray sky hung low and wind stirred the waves against our skiff as we motored around the point to the secluded cove. It was there we had begun the hunt and missed the chance at the large boar our first evening. Time was running out, but perhaps the salmon run was still strong enough on this river to hold a bear or two.

The author took this bear with just one day left in the hunt.
The author took this bear with just one day left in the hunt.

“That’s fresh,” Bud whispered as I stood beside him, looking down at partially eaten fish. Other salmon, obviously just taken, littered the path as we eased along the river’s edge. A little tributary lay just ahead and to our left where on the first evening we had startled a bear that was fishing just ten yards away. This seemed to be where any bear in the area preferred to be, so we moved ever so cautiously up its course. The moss-covered rocks dampened the sound of our steps as we neared a large pine that would provide us with cover.

Settled in behind the tree, we had a clear line of sight several dozen yards in either direction. A berry patch was directly in front. Nearly an hour passed with the only activity being the splashing of fish. Then I caught a slight movement to our right. I thought I had seen some of the berry bushes sway slightly but wasn’t certain.

“Yes! There it is again,” I thought to myself as I once more caught the movement of a bush. A black form was visible for just a fraction of a second.

The author’s friend, Cody, with his first bear, taken at last light.
The author’s friend, Cody, with his first bear, taken at last light.

Bud was sitting to my right. I tapped him on the shoulder and pointed at what I had seen. He nodded that he had seen it also and held up his hand to remind me to be patient and remain quiet. Moments later, the bear ambled through the bushes and into a small, sandy opening. My sights were already settled on its vitals and, as soon as I heard Bud’s whispered, “okay,” letting me know the bear was good enough, I eased back on the trigger. I didn’t feel the recoil of the .375 H&H but the bear was instantly down just thirty yards away. The three of us hugged and slapped each other on the back as we crossed the little creek to where the bear lay. It wasn’t the seven-and-a-half-foot boar but was still a beautiful bear with a silky coat. I was grateful to have hunted it in such a magnificent place.

After being successful taking Cody’s first bear, the three decided to return to the area the next day to try their luck with the Coho salmon that filled the stream.
After being successful taking Cody’s first bear, the three decided to return to the area the next day to try their luck with the Coho salmon that filled the stream.

The next morning, our last in southeast Alaska, dawned sunny and clear. We spent the final few hours fishing and my mind wandered to what might lay beyond the glacier up ahead. It’s near there where Bud hunts mountain goats and, as I dropped my line once more, I decided my wife would want me to hunt them just so I can find out what’s there.–Brian Payne

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