It’s doubtful there can be a more exhilarating method of hunting black bears than stalking them in the fall.
There’s no waiting over bait piles or endless hiking and glassing over rugged terrain. Instead, you slowly make your way up a river as thousands of salmon literally swim through your legs on their way to either spawn or get eaten by bears that seem to line the banks. As you slink to within rock-throwing distance of a black bear the size of a golf cart, the sound of salmon bones crunching between its teeth, you may waver between unlimbering your gun or hauling ass. We highly suggest the former.
Where to Go
Hunting the coast of Southeast Alaska is like stepping into a primeval land. The rugged mountains of the Tongass National Forest are covered with ancient spruce, some of which date back 1,000 years. And each day you’re surrounded by whales, eagles, big and small game, and scores of sea ducks. In fall, the region’s salmon streams serve as a bear magnet, attracting bruins that gorge themselves on protein-rich fish.
I have hunted black bears all across North America, and nowhere have I seen bear densities as high as the region encompassing the southeastern Alaska panhandle down through the coastal environs of British Columbia. The bears here are big, with jet-black hides often squaring 7 feet and body weights of more than 350 pounds.
What It’s Like
Fall black bear season opens September 1, and the best time to hunt is September through late October, depending on the status of an individual stream’s salmon run. Guided hunters access the area, and stay, on a large mother ship, complete with all the comforts of home, including a kitchen, microwave oven, heater, and comfortable bunks. When it’s time to go ashore, you do so in small skiffs powered by four-stroke outboards. Hunting begins by staking out stream mouths, where rivers dump into the ocean, glassing for bears among giant boulders and washed-up deadfall timber as they emerge from the thick forest to feed.
Usually, however, bears at these openings are sows with cubs, or smaller boars. The best chance at a true whopper is to slowly still-hunt up the stream, stopping and glassing large pools and small open areas among the lush old-growth forest. The truly big boars stake out small, isolated pools that offer prime fishing. In the best areas it isn’t uncommon to spot-and carefully work your way around-dozens of bears each day.
Guided hunters really need to do little to prepare besides practice with their firearm or bow. Physically, the hunt entails walking over flat ground and along stream banks. Most rifle, handgun, or muzzleloader shots are under 75 yards, with plenty of rocks or logs to rest over. The longest bowshot I’ve ever taken here was 35 yards, and most are half that. Usually the bears are unaware of your presence. But there’s something about bears that gets people excited above and beyond the sight of an oversize set of antlers. The secret is to stay calm and listen to your guide. He knows how to judge bears. When he tells you to shoot, do it.
Choosing an Outfitter
You can legally hunt black bears in Alaska without employing a guide, and some nonresidents do. But using a skilled guide who both knows bear hunting and has the skills to safely navigate what can be, at times, a dangerous ocean will make the hunt safer and more enjoyable, as well as more fruitful. State records show that guided hunters have a much higher success rate and harvest much larger bears than hunters on their own. Given that, and the fact that most sportsmen will only take one large black bear in their lives, it just makes sense to hire a professional guide and do it right the first time. On average, a six-day guided hunt in Southeast Alaska costs about $4,500.
Two superb guides that I’ve hunted black bears with are James Boyce of Baranof Expeditions, 907-7447-3934; www.baranofexpeditions.com and Scott Newman, 907-772-4878; firstname.lastname@example.org. A complete list of registered Alaska guides is available for $5 from the Alaska Department of Community and Economic Development, Division of Occupational Licensing, Dept. FS, P.O. Box 110806, Juneau, AK 99811; 907-465-2543.
Clothes: Don’t leave home without the very best rain gear (make sure the jacket has a hood) that you can afford. I’ve used lightweight, packable Gore-Tex suits from Browning or Whitewater Outdoors for more than a decade in Alaska with great results. You also need hip boots with a bob-type sole for traction on slippery rocks as you negotiate the streams.
Layered clothing will do, beginning with wicking synthetic long underwear of CoolMax, Thermax, or a similar fabric; topped with Windstopper fleece or wool pants and shirt, vest, and a medium-weight jacket. Warm Gore-Tex gloves, a ball cap, and a warm cap with earflaps round out your clothing needs. In early fall, the days can be as gorgeous as in Baja, but the experienced hunter bets on rain and a chilling wind.
Arms & Optics:
Rifles in the .270 to .30/06 class, .50- or .54-caliber muzzleloaders, or your standard whitetail bow-and-arrow setup are excellent choices. In the rainy conditions of southeast Alaska, a waterproof, fogproof scope in the 3X¿¿¿9X or 2.5X¿¿¿10X range is essential. Sight it in at 100 yards. Top-quality 8×42 binoculars are perfect.
Extras: Don’t forget a small daypack to carry personal items, as well as a camera or videocamera. Between bears, whales, eagles, and other wildlife, you’ll burn through plenty of film during your hunt.
FIELD GUIDE: BLACK BEAR
- During the fall, a chemical change called hyperphagia allows bears to eat three times as much food per day as they do in summer. As a result, a large male may put on 200 pounds in two months.
- 7 monthsLength of time black bears may hibernate in the northernmost part of their range.
- Most eastern, Canadian, and Alaskan black bears are black. But in the American West, they are commonly brown, cinnamon, or even blond. The glacial black bear of northern British Columbia and Alaska is bluish-gray, and the Kermode black bear of coastal B.C. is almost totally white.
- The black bear population currently stands at about 900,000–nearly double what it was only two decades ago.
- The typical weight of adult boars is highly variable, ranging between 150 and 400 pounds. The heaviest ever recorded in the wild was taken in Craven County, North Carolina, and weighed 880 POUNDS
- Wolves, grizzly bears, and even large male members of their own species have been known to kill and eat denning black bears.