After spending the previous seven months serving our country abroad, I was more than ready to leave the hustle and bustle of Europe for much quieter days in Alaska.  The timing of my return was perfect, because I would land in Fairbanks, and we could immediately begin the process my wife and I have come to love each spring since we’ve been married.  Baiting grizzly and black bears is a labor of love, but the sounds and smells of spring coupled with anticipation of close encounters with the top of North American’s food chain keeps us focused on the goal.

            Shortly before returning to Alaska, I had talked with Roger Fulton and Toby Essick at Black Widow Bows about ordering a recurve.  I ended up settling on a 58” PSA II in Graybark.  I took the bow and my Gold Tip Traditional arrow shafts over to my friend Tyler Freel’s house and we began the process of tuning the bow and getting my arrows and broadheads shooting well.  Since the sun barely sets in the Interior this time of year, I was able to practice day and night, which I did.  I found out quickly that it took great concentration every single shot in order to shoot accurately. 

            Same as the past several springs, Tyler and I spent a few days helping each other get our bait sites set up to our liking.  This usually involves many hours in a truck or on a riverboat along with lengthy days wearing pack frames to haul the essentials into our favorite spring haunts.  Rarely do you ever hear a complaint from either of us.

            Typically, by the middle of May we are making plans for the first sit of the spring.  This is an incredible time to take advantage of bruins that only show themselves early on and then seemingly disappear for the remainder of the spring in search of either moose calves or love.  Over the years I’ve had many early photos of plump black bears, coats prime as can be due to just emerging from the den a short time before.  On a few occasions we’ve timed it correctly to capitalize on these bears, and we hoped that this year would be one of them.


The Hunt          

            As we neared my bait site, it was obvious something had been there.  The barrel I use to keep my bait dry was ripped around the tree, the beaver carcass I had hung as a sweet treat for the first bear to arrive was gone and the camera was able to confirm our suspicions.  We were in the tree and I was scrolling through photos. I came to one that I figured would make Tyler smile and showed him the screen; we knew we had a quality grizzly to hunt.

            He and I sat for hours in dead silence; the bear had been coming in well after midnight so we knew it would be a long haul.  The wind made it hard to discern the difference between animals versus trees creaking, etc.  But after a while in the stand we both had our bear ears adjusted.  Almost on cue to what the camera showed for the prior evenings, I heard the subtle sound of a stick break a short ways away from the bait.  Before I could do much of anything, the boar entered our view from directly downwind and was standing broadside at 13 yards. Tyler quickly readied his video camera, and I went on autopilot.  I drew and shot so quickly that I know for a fact I didn’t focus one ounce of concentration on where I planned to hit.  The arrow was off before I reached my anchor and hit well above the vitals, right in the meaty backstrap of an eight-foot-plus grizzly bear. The arrow had virtually no penetration and we knew the eventual outcome of this poor situation. The bear was unharmed.

            After spending the better part of the next day looking for blood in a spring snowstorm, it became apparent that this bear was not mortally wounded.  No matter how bad I wanted that arrow back, there was nothing I could do about it.  One tiny drop of blood and some broken branches were all we could find.  We headed back to the bait site with our heads hung low.

            As we approached the tree I planned to nail a beaver to on our way out, I looked over at Tyler and he was hurriedly grabbing his rifle and pointing with his hand just 20 yards away from me.  The same bear was on his way back in, and we all caught each other a little off guard.  He ended up seeing us and then running away, but it was good to see him alive and well 20 hours later.


The Next Weekend

            The following weekend my wife and I headed out for four days of hunting.  We arrived at our campsite only to find out that I had forgotten a vital piece for our tent, which would not allow us to set it up.  Rain was looming over the river, and I knew it wouldn’t be long.  I ended up fashioning something similar out of some extra tent stakes and some duct tape, which worked perfectly and saved us a miserable weekend of camping inside a small pickup truck.

            Due to the impending rain that was sure to fall soon, Stefanie decided not to hunt that evening.  I headed out by myself and planned to sit as long as I could stay awake.  Once at the site, it was again obvious something had been there over the past week.  I grabbed the SD card and climbed up to review the photos after settling in.  To my dismay, not a single photo was taken in the past week. 

            I had been in the tree for maybe an hour when I heard a giant stick crack to my left.  In my limited experience hunting grizzly and brown bears under these conditions, I can say with a high level of confidence that when they are coming in, they often make noise.  Black bears usually do not.  I readied myself because I knew there was a great possibility of getting another chance, and it was going to happen soon. 

            I caught glimpses of the blonde bear in amongst the spruce trees and before I knew it the bear was just 12 yards away.  I waited patiently for the exact shot I wanted.  My feet and body were exactly how I wanted them to execute the shot; after several minutes a beautiful broadside shot was presented.  This time, I focused hard on the blurry arrow in my vision and in a conscious effort I positioned it exactly where it needed to be, and then I executed my release.  The arrow hit perfectly and it passed through the bear effortlessly.  She took off and crashed just 50 yards away.  After four years of hunting interior grizzly bears with my bow and arrow, multiple close calls and some really bonehead moves on my part, the stars finally aligned in my favor. 

            I headed back to camp and shared the news with my wife.  In a way I felt terrible, for had I made a good shot the weekend prior, and this would have been her opportunity to fulfill a dream of taking a grizzly bear.  I prayed she would get an opportunity, but I also knew that with as little bear action others were reporting, it would take some extra luck on our side.


Stepfanie’s Hunt

            When we returned to the site the next afternoon, I told her that we needed to sit for as long as she was capable of.  She was on board and it took very little convincing, even though it was going to get chilly around midnight.  I made sure to turn on the camera the evening before so that we could see what we had to look forward to, if anything.  The first photo on the camera was from only 15 minutes after I left the night before, and it was a very nice grizzly bear, dark haired, prime as can be and certainly mature.  I couldn’t believe it; this may work out after all.

            Around midnight, the sun dips below the trees and it tends to cool off quite a bit.  Even though just hours before you may have been sweating, things turn cold in a hurry.  I looked at Stefanie and asked her if she could make it until 2 a.m., she said she’d do her best.  Not five minutes later, the telltale sign of a grizzly bear on the move was heard; a large stick snapped directly downwind.  I whispered to Stefanie to prepare herself, because it was going to happen, and soon.  As the bear’s legs appeared, she said to me “It’s a black bear,” and I whispered back, “No, it’s not, it’s a giant grizzly and you better get ready.”

            Just a few weeks prior we had to increase the poundage on her bow.  She had been shooting 40 lbs. for several years and was able to take game without issue.  However, in order to hunt grizzly bears in Alaska, you must be shooting a bow at 50 lbs.  She was able to shoot accurately but she also knew that it wouldn’t be as easy to draw as in previous years.  Her level headedness in the heat of the moment impressed me greatly as she quietly said, “I’m going to draw now, that way I am ready when he comes in.”  The bear was still several yards out, but who am I to argue with something as reasonable as that. 

            The bear walked into view and Stefanie released a perfectly placed arrow right into the vitals.  Cool, calm and collected, she held it together like she’d been doing this for many years.  After the shot, I reassured her over and over that it was a great shot and we will find him just a short ways away. Since it was nearly dark, we elected to come back in the morning and retrieve him. 

            The 8’6” bear had only made it 65 yards.  Stefanie and I could hardly move him; this bear was an incredible specimen. I am so happy that she was able to experience such a hunt as well as hold it together to execute her part perfectly.  We enjoyed that morning, sun shining and out in the woods doing what we love.  After the bear was properly cared for, we began the long walk out and made our way home.  I’ll never forget that weekend and the absolute luck that it took to pull off two grizzly bears in about 24 hours. It’ll likely never happen again, and I can appreciate how special experiences like those are. 

            My bear scored just over the Pope and Young minimum, and hers was quite a bit bigger and it was invited to be panel scored at the 31st Biennial Convention in Omaha, Nebraska.  Its final score was 23 and 11/16 and she can’t stop telling everyone that the key to a happy marriage is to make sure your wife shoots bigger bears than you!