Bear Down: A Field & Stream Adventure on Prince of Wales Island
by Steve Rinella Ronny and I were drifting in a Lund skiff 200 yards offshore along the coast of Southeast...
by Steve Rinella
Ronny and I were drifting in a Lund skiff 200 yards offshore along the coast of Southeast Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island, about 8 miles from my hunting and fishing shack. To my surprise, he’d just announced that it was no longer necessary for him to share in the duty of glassing for black bears.
“How do you figure that?” I asked.
He was kicked back on the bench seat, smoking a cigar. “Because I can tell without even looking that there are no bears within sight right now,” he said.
“How can you tell that?”
“Because if there was, you’d have said, ‘Uh-oh, there’s a bear!'”
There were limits to how far I could pursue this argument. Ronny’s a contractor, and I’m indebted to him for employing me all through college with higher-than-normal wages and lower-than--normal hours. So rather than pressing my case, I returned to my preferred position for observing bears: feet over the engine’s tiller, back against the gunwale, eyes on my binoculars. Ronny tried to return to his preferred position, but first he had to adjust his makeshift pillow of flotation jackets. As I scanned the shoreline, I noticed a black object emerging on a patch of sedges that grew along the seam where the coastal rain forest ended and the tidal zone began.
“Uh-oh,” I said. “There’s a bear!”
“See? I told you.”
The bear had a swayback, a potbelly, and a block-shaped head with ears that seemed short and rounded rather than tall and pointed. In other words, it looked like a good-size boar. But before we could form a plan, the bear fed its way back into the timber. I lifted the outboard out of the water and used an electric trolling motor to silently approach a point of land that would shield us from the bear’s last location. We beached the boat beneath a large cedar that had tipped into the water. A long stretch of shoreline reached away from us, and we watched it to see if the bear would reappear. If it did, the wind would be perfect for Ronny to climb out of the boat and make a stalk. (It’s illegal to shoot a bear from a boat on Prince of Wales Island.)
Maybe 15 minutes passed without anything happening. I assumed that the bear had either headed off into the forest or turned back the other way. I had a Knight & Hale predator call around my neck. I got to wondering if the plaintive bleats of a deer fawn might inspire the bear to come out and have a look. I cut loose on the call without mentioning my plan to Ronny, as I figured whatever happened would happen very far away. Instead I was answered by the sudden and close sound of claw on rock. Ronny and I both whirled our heads around to see a large male bear coming toward us like a pit bull crossing its yard to meet an uninvited intruder at the gate. If it had been a fish, we could have cast to it with a cane pole. I yelled at Ronny to jump out of the boat and shoot.
He glanced over the gunwale and gave a frantic announcement. “The water’s over my boots!”
“Your boots?” I yelled. “Who cares about your damn boots?”
By then the bear had realized that he was not approaching a wounded fawn after all. He spun around and vanished back into the timber. Without saying a word, Ronny and I started laughing so hard that it eventually became painful. It was his third close encounter with a boar in as many days.
A Bruin to Earn
While smart-asses do not generally make the best hunting partners, Ronny turns this generalization on its head. He’s an ambitious and dedicated grouse hunter, the kind who can turn a one-flush day into a one-bird day. He’s also a reliable friend who’s willing to make sacrifices for his buddies. One time, when I was down on my luck, he traded me a perfectly good Ford for a not-so-good chain saw. Though he didn’t realize it, I’d taken him on this bear hunt for reasons that went beyond my appreciation of his company. Years before, Ronny had been on a guided bear hunt in Canada that had left him with a bad, long-lasting impression. He’d gone up there as the guest of a business associate who’d arranged the trip. Their outfitter didn’t like to do anything in the morning. His clients would just sit around eating bacon and drinking coffee. In the afternoon he’d drive the hunters out to their stands, which were positioned near bait barrels along logging roads. The barrels had been filled with liquefied hard candy at a factory. Bears came in as though they were under a spell, like kids visiting their Halloween baskets the day after trick-or-treating. Later, Ronny remarked that the only thing he’d learned about bear biology or ecology was that bears behave in unusual ways when presented with a blend of refined sugar, corn syrup, artificial flavors and colors, emulsifiers, suspension agents, and preservatives. When Ronny killed a bear and inquired about the guide’s method of packaging meat, the guide behaved as though he’d never heard of something as outlandish as eating a bear.
Hearing this story put me into the position of being a bear hunting ambassador. I felt obligated to show Ronny another side of bear hunting–a side where bears go about their natural business in a region that forces you to develop an appreciation for the land you’re on and the species you’re after. As it happened, I had the perfect setup for such a task: a shack on the southern end of Alaska’s Prince of Wales Island.
That I own the place is thanks to the fact that my two brothers and I, back in 2004, simultaneously entered that brief period of life when you have money but no spouse to tell you how to spend it. Along with a buddy, we made the largely impulsive decision to buy the lopsided and shoebox-shaped structure that sits on tilted pilings over the tideline of a remote cove. The cove is surrounded largely by Tongass National Forest, and is accessible only by plane or boat. It is completely off the grid. We get our water from a gravity-fed hose dunked into the creek that comes off the mountain behind the house and flows beneath the front right corner of the deck. For the most part, phones do not get a signal. Electricity is from a Honda generator. Our hot tub is a Rubbermaid livestock watering tank that we shipped up on a boat from Seattle; the water is heated by a woodburning stove. Instead of a flush toilet there’s a hole in the ground and a bucket of lime. Mink drag their catch into the workshop and leave the bones and scales where they fall. Old-growth spruce and hemlock lean menacingly over everything we own–including the three chain saws, three outboard engines, one skiff, and dozens of rusted oil drums and hundreds of even rustier tools that the previous owner abandoned when he walked away from the place and never returned.
Whenever I’m justifying my purchase of the shack to my wife, I remind her that Prince of Wales Island has one of the–or perhaps the–densest black bear populations on earth. The animals inhabit a crazily shaped island with a third less landmass than the island of Hawaii but over three times as much coastline. Since it’s difficult for a bear to get more than a few miles away from the shore, you tend to see a lot of them hanging out along the water’s edge. This is especially true during the salmon runs of mid to late summer, when it’s common to encounter a gang of three or four mature bears milling around a stream mouth. As easy as it is to find bears during the salmon season, it’s not a good time to hunt them. Alaska tourism brochures love to show bears eating chrome-colored salmon dragged fresh from the water, but it’s just as common for them to eat dead and rotten salmon that they dig out of the mud at low tide. This leaves their flesh tasting like…well, dead and rotten salmon.
Some hunters will happily kill these salmon-gorged bears, but that makes as much sense to me as raising a tomato garden and then collecting the fruit after it falls to the ground and turns moldy. Rather, the best time to kill bears is within the first couple of weeks after their emergence from hibernation. Their salmon-flavored fat has burned off, and they’re eating little besides the grass found along the tidal flats and stream mouths. This gives their meat a beefy goodness.
On Prince of Wales Island, bears can emerge as early as early April or as late as late May, depending on myriad factors such as snow depth, air temperature, fat reserves, and even the gender and size of the bear. Typically, though, you’ll start seeing mature males consistently during the first week of May, and that’s when Ronny and I landed in Ketchikan. The weather was typical for that time of year: low 40s to mid 50s, plenty of rain. The next morning we hopped a small floatplane that landed us at the cove. It took us a day to get ready: We cleaned up after the mink that had scattered a hundred dollars’ worth of freeze-dried food all over the place. We hauled in some firewood and split kindling. We wiped away the new layer of mold that had grown over most of the shack’s interior surfaces since my last visit. And we waited for a high tide so we could launch the skiff. We started hunting early the next morning.
Blacktail to Black Bear
Prince of Wales Island is surrounded by an intercoastal maze, where small islands are scattered across the ocean as thick as black pepper sprinkled on a fried egg. To find bears in such an area, you want to look at either a lot of shoreline very quickly or a small amount of shoreline very carefully. I tend toward the small and careful end of the spectrum, though to make this work you need to make sure that the small area is the right area. Bears are looking for grass when they come out of hibernation. It grows best where there are accumulations of soil without the towering stands of timber that block out the sun. These conditions are generally provided where streams come roaring down from the mountains to meet the ocean. The annual flood cycle prevents the growth of trees, and the streams’ sediments collect as wedge-shaped deltas and low-lying floodplains just inland from the tideline. These are known as grass flats in bear hunting lingo, and you’re doing the right thing if you can cut your boat engine and drift on the current through a place where it’s possible to see two or three of these grass flats all at once. That’s what Ronny and I had been doing when our argument about glassing etiquette was interrupted by the bear that gave us the slip, thanks to Ronny’s momentary fear of wet socks.
We tried a different tactic the next day, mainly so I could avoid any nagging feeling that I’m a complacent hunter who’s stuck in his ways. Instead of glassing likely areas from the boat, I figured that we ought to split up and try some still-hunting. I dropped Ronny near a large grass flat in the late afternoon and then motored to a network of meadows formed where a shallow, braided river flowed into the head of a fjord. The tide was all the way out when I got there. I tied an anchor line to the bow of the skiff and carried the anchor across a couple of hundred yards of mud and busted clamshells. I figured I had a couple of hours until the water came up that high.
I moved slowly as I entered the first meadow, paying special attention to the shadowy edges where the grass ended and the timber began. Maybe just a half hour later I got a glimpse of a bear–or at least a bear’s rump. It was about 200 yards away, ambling away from me along the edge of a meadow. It vanished before I could tell if it was a male or female.
Figuring that I might see the bear again if I moved forward a bit, I continued carefully in an upstream direction. As I eased along, I caught another glimpse of the bear, a little farther away. Again it was just the rump, and again it disappeared. I crept forward until I reached a large uprooted stump where I could see the entire meadow. I looked around for several minutes, but there was no bear to be found.
I gave a few bleats on my predator call, half expecting a bear to come busting out of the trees. Instead, a blacktail doe crashed out of the timber and headed right toward me. I thought that the deer had nothing but an expanse of flat ground to cross, and I was curious to see how far she’d come before she realized what I was. But all of a sudden she mysteriously dropped from view. Apparently there was a dip in the topography that was big enough to conceal a deer, so I crawled in that direction until I came into view of an agitated female deer staring at a completely unconcerned male black bear. Both were hidden in a large, soggy depression. All I could see of the bear was the upper third of its body, but I could tell it was a mature male. I hunkered back down, checked the wind again, and crawled forward. The next time I popped up, the bear was only 40 yards away. I was shooting a Carolina Custom Rifle in 7mm Rem. Mag. and put a round through both of its lungs. The bear entered the woods along a heavily used trail covered in moss and bear droppings. I followed for about 30 yards and found a dark shape lying in the middle of the trail. I watched the shape for any twitches or movement. It was dead still.
By now I was worried about my boat. It was fixed to a light mushroom anchor and I had visions of it drifting away. I gutted the bear quickly, doing a careful job not to spill any fluids on the exposed meat inside the chest cavity. With the guts out, the animal was light enough for me to move it a little bit. I dragged it out to the meadow and sprawled it out, belly side down, with the pelvis split open. It would cool quickly in the evening air. I put my jacket over the carcass to add a touch of human odor that might deter other bears. Then I went back into the woods and dragged the gut pile off in another direction. Any bear that came along would go for the guts first–they can eat soft tissues in a hurry, wolfing them down before a larger bear has a chance to come along and steal them.
With that taken care of, I raced down to my boat. When I got within sight of the inlet I was relieved to see that the boat was still anchored in place, though it was now floating in deep water. I waded out up to my chest, feeling around for the anchor with my feet. Just when I was thinking that I’d have to swim for the boat, my ankle hung up on the anchor line. I pulled the boat in and then picked up Ronny in the early moments of darkness. He hadn’t seen a thing.
The Last Chance
Ronny’s bad luck continued. One day, for instance, we spotted a boar from the boat and hatched an initial plot to land on a small island just across the water from where the bear was feeding. After a short stalk, Ronny would be able to reach the bear by shooting across an expanse of water. But after we studied the layout of the island from a distance, we decided that the shot would be too far away. So, instead, we planned a convoluted stalk coming from down the beach and over a house-size outcropping of rock that jutted into the water–a stalk that somehow ended with me falling into a crevice in the rock and cutting my lip and biting my tongue and scratching my face. The bear was long gone by the time we got to where it had been. From there, though, we could see that the small island was actually only 200 yards away. It would have been easy pickings.
My concern about Ronny’s impression of bear hunting was quickly being replaced by a more worrisome concern that he’d come up empty-handed after a week of very hard and honest hunting. Those feelings were amplified even more when the last full day of our trip rolled around. We spent that morning still-hunting meadows along river mouths, and the rest of the day watching grass flats from the skiff. Toward dusk I announced that we were out of time, and we began the long trip back to the shack as the evening faded toward darkness. Ronny was at the tiller and I was up front, giving myself motion sickness by looking through binoculars as we cruised over the low swells. At one point I got a particularly long-ranging view down the length of the fjord, and I began a careful study of various blackish and roundish objects that littered the beaches far out ahead. Within seconds I blurted out the now familiar words.
“Uh-oh! There’s a bear!”
Killing a bear requires that a lot of things come together all at once, and this time the initial components all fell in place. The wind was right; the bear stayed on the shoreline and kept coming along; we found an out-of-sight place to land the boat where the stalk wouldn’t be interrupted by insurmountable outcroppings. Ronny climbed from the boat and made a careful upwind approach. He moved when the bear was occupied with feeding, and he held tight whenever the bear checked its surroundings. At 200 yards Ronny stopped behind a boulder to wait. From my vantage I could see that the bear was a solid boar. It moved another 30 yards toward Ronny and gave him a broadside shot. The bear went down hard and fast.
It was well past dark by the time we had the animal gutted and loaded into the skiff. Another hour would pass before we picked our way back to the shack through the dark and hazard-filled waters; another five hours would pass before we had both of our bears skinned and the boned-out meat packed for shipment. Toward dawn, as it started to drizzle, I watched Ronny kneel on the floor of the shop and run his hands through the thick and iridescent fur of his bear. He looked exhausted and relieved and rewarded, like a guy who’d just taken possession of something that he’d earned through hard work.
If you are interested in planning a bear hunt on Prince of Wales Island, visit the Alaska Department of Fish and Game website to download maps and information on permits and regulations for bear hunting in Southeast Alaska._