By Jason Hales
“Bear hunting is 75% luck. If you put in your time, eventually it all comes together.”
These words spoken by Ken Brough, owner of Prince of Wales Eagle Lodge, echoed through my mind during my week on the island. Eighteen months earlier, at the last minute and on a whim, I submitted my application for the non-resident black bear hunt on Prince of Wales Island. To my surprise and delight, I drew a tag.
Prince of Wales Eagle Lodge came highly recommended, and after speaking with Ken at the Western Hunting and Conservation Expo, I was sold. Eventually, the day of the hunt arrived. My sons, Will and Matt, joined me as did my brother-in-law Jared and his son Sammy. Lastly, my cousin, Ryan, arrived two days later.
In my mind, this hunt would be easy. We would leave the lodge around 10 a.m. and cruise the shorelines by skiff, spotting bears along the way. Once spotted, I would be dropped off a few hundred yards away, stalk to within 100 yards, get a steady rest and punch my tag. However, I have been to Alaska enough to know better. Nothing in Alaska ever goes as planned.
“I have to warn you,” Ken told me as we were going over the safety equipment in the boats, “these bears are acting like summer bears right now.”
Jared shot me an inquisitive glance, unsure of what that meant. I knew exactly what that meant.
“So they are hanging out in the shade during the day, back in the trees,” I said.
Ken nodded. “Now, they still come out and feed in the grassy shorelines, but they may only be out for 10 minutes before they head back.”
The idea of following a bear into the trees was daunting. I had no desire to chase a bear into brush choked with Devil’s Club, a prickly plant that lives up to its name. Wounded bears, which already leave very little sign and sometimes no blood trail, can easily be lost in the jungle. To up the ante, Alaska requires hunters to punch their tags if blood is drawn, even if the animal is never recovered.
After picking up Ryan in Thorne Bay Monday morning, I saw an enormous black bear standing in the shadows beside the road. Living near Yellowstone National Park, I have seen numerous bears, including many grizzlies. This bear, with its oversized melon of a head, massive shoulders, and wide-set ears dwarfed any black bear I have ever seen and would rival many of the grizzlies I have seen in Yellowstone. Although my gun lay behind me, my license and locking tag were at the lodge. I made a mental note to always have them with me.
On Tuesday morning, Will, Matt, Ryan and I headed towards the El Capitan dock to cruise the shorelines on that part of the island while Jared and Sammy went fishing, hiking and scouting for bears further north. The plan was to meet back up at 2 p.m. and compare notes. The sun shone bright on the water, giving all of us slight sunburn. This was definitely not the Alaska weather I expected. To make matters worse, the thermometer registered almost 70 degrees Fahrenheit and a strong wind stirred up whitecaps on the sea.
The small skiff, loaded with four of us, was game for the rough water. Otters played around us and at one point a pod of humpbacks surfaced just a stone’s throw away. Sitting in a skiff with such large marine mammals so close was both exhilarating and unnerving. We tacked slightly to the east giving them some room and enjoyed the encounter.
By 2 p.m., we had returned to the boat dock and met Jared.
“See anything?” Jared asked.
“No, you?” Ryan responded.
“Nothing, but we almost got stuck in some mud. We had to lay some rocks and branches down under the tires to get out.”
Somewhat downcast, we piled into the SUV and headed to the lodge, trying to work out a new strategy.
“Summer bears love the shade and become more nocturnal,” I told everyone as we drove back. “I think we should drive some roads this afternoon and evening.”
Everyone agreed, and the boys were especially excited about going to the lodge for a while to catch flounder. Later in the afternoon, Will, Matt and I drove up to an area where Ken said bears had been spotted. While we didn’t see bears that evening, we did find scat. Under a setting sun, we returned to the lodge feeling more optimistic. I parked the SUV and was greeted by the sound of a gunshot as I opened the door. Ken stepped out of the lodge and said one of the other hunters was getting his bear. Unfortunately, the hunter wounded the bear and lost it in the jungle, every hunter’s worst nightmare.
On Wednesday, we managed to see our first and only bear from a boat. The other hunter had told me about a bear he had seen to the south. Will, Matt, Ryan and I climbed in a boat and spotted the bear that evening. Ryan dropped me off in a concealed cove and I began my stalk.
The steep, rocky bank forced me into the trees. I ducked under moss-laden branches and entered the silent, ethereal world of the dark timber. Slowly, I crept towards the beach where the bear was enjoying the setting sun. I worked my way through the trees and onto the rocks just north of the bear. The swirling wind worried me, but there was nothing I could do, as entering the forest to circle the bear wasn’t an option.
As I scooted among the sharp, barnacle-encrusted rocks, I easily spotted the bear lounging in the grass. I ranged it at 170 yards, sitting calm and relaxed. However, as I stowed my rangefinder, the bear slowly rose and began walking towards the trees. I raised my rifle, trying to find it in the scope. Something was wrong with my focus, though, and I instantly remembered I had been adjusting it earlier in the day. I twisted the ring and finally trained the crosshairs on the bear just as its rump disappeared into the greenery. I was five seconds too slow, and that knowledge gnawed at me. Five seconds, I murmured over and over.
We decided to spend Thursday morning driving logging roads. Jared drove while I sat shotgun, rifle in hand, in the event a bear appeared. Around 10 a.m., we saw action.
“Bear!” Jared exclaimed as a small bear materialized in the grass.
“Back up slowly once I get out,” I whispered, dropping out of the SUV and chambering a round.
Taking a knee in the grass, I raised my rifle and saw the bear disappear into the trees. Not again, I thought. As I looked down to adjust my stance, a second bear leapt from trees about 50 yards in front of me. When I looked up, the bear was almost across the two-track and into the trees. I never had a chance.
Eventually, we returned to the lodge and began our preparation for the evening hunt. We returned to the cove where we had seen the bear the night before, but it did not appear. The mood in the bunkhouse was quiet, almost somber that night as we all told ourselves we were fine to leave Alaska without a bear. Sleep did not come easy.
By 8:30 a.m. the next morning, we were on the same road where we saw the two bears. A soft rain wet the windshield as the SUV slowly bounced down the road. By 9:45 we were at the far end of the road and turning around. No one spoke much as we knew this was our last opportunity to find a bear as we would need time to process and freeze the meat before leaving for home in the morning. After twenty minutes of driving slowly, we started to head up a hill.
“Bear!” yelled Matt.
A black bear slowly ambled out of the woods, oblivious to our presence. Without any words, I climbed out of the SUV and quietly shut the door while chambering a round. The bear had crossed the two-track, but I was not sure if it had run into the forest. I walked forward as quickly as I dared, ducking to stay hidden. A cool breeze on my face calmed my concern about my scent. I closed the distance in seconds. Miraculously, the bear was still on the side of the road with its rump facing me, grazing, and completely oblivious. I raised my rifle, but the angle wasn’t quite right as the road still blocked the bear’s vitals. I crept forward; eyes focused on the ball of black fur. I was now about 40 yards away and raised my rifle, standing statue still. The bear turned facing towards me, still unconcerned. As the bear continued its turn and exposed its vitals, I fired and saw the bear roll down the embankment landing by the edge of the trees. I knew the shot was fatal, but I moved forward and fired two more shots into its vitals to ensure it did not try and sneak into the forest. As quickly as it began, it was over. I had punched my Alaska bear tag at the eleventh hour.
Alaska reminded me that nothing comes easy. Everything is earned, and Ken’s 75% rule is one to remember. Success happens when luck and opportunity converge with preparation. We returned to our homes with heavy coolers and fond memories. I had thought our adventure would follow the proscribed script of cruising the shorelines and punching a tag in a soft rain while otters ate crab offshore and eagles circled above. Instead, we had to move higher in elevation and patrol the roads early and late until we found a cooperative bear. Having all of us present when the bear was harvested, though, was exactly what I hoped for making the hunt all the more memorable.