Debias, of Windber, Pennsylvania, arrived in Unalakleet in mid-May to find that northeast winds had piled ice on the village shoreline, making boat travel impossible. Instead, the hunters and guides arranged by outfitter Hunt Alaska used snow machines to travel the thin band of unstable shore ice. They pitched a temporary camp and started hunting as they waited for the ice to recede, when boats would take them further down-shore to better hunting grounds.
Taking advantage of the nearly 24-hour daylight, Debias and his guide, Don Stiles, slept only a couple of hours a day and hunted the rest. Working their way back to camp one day, they spotted a big grizzly walking along the shore. The bear got within 80 yards before the wind shifted, carrying their scent with it. “He turned and ran like a racehorse,” Debias says. “I could see for two miles to where the tundra met the mountains, and he never stopped running.” When they examined the bear’s tracks, they could see that its right front paw was bleeding slightly.
The next day boats would arrive to carry the other hunters and guides to their original destination, but Debias and Stiles stayed put. They turned down the outfitter’s rations, deciding instead to live off Eskimo food: dried fish, caribou and moose, and seal oil. “If I had it for dinner tonight it might not seem very good, but out there I found every bite delicious,” Debias says. Eventually they were forced to return to Unalakleet briefly for provisions, avoiding a treacherous ice sheet and 6-foot waves that nearly swamped their rapidly deflating Kodiak.
Two days after their first bear sighting, they were watching a pair of sows feeding on the tundra 700 yards away when a big boar came over the horizon. Stiles estimated the sows at 7 to 7 ½ feet tall, but they seemed small next to the boar. “They were two Hondas and he was a Mack truck,” Debias says. “This thing dwarfed them.”
The next day, hunter and guide got an even better look at the bear they’d come to call “The Big Guy.” He was sleeping 100 yards away on the open tundra while one of the sows foraged nearby. “Don said, ‘I bet that is one of the five largest bears ever to walk the face of the earth,’ and he handed me his rifle. I said no, and when I handed it back he said, ‘We are here to kill a bear with a bow.’ He was 100 percent with me.”
Debias says he’s a member of the Boone & Crockett Club, Safari Club International and Pope & Young and believes firmly in their mission, but he has little interest in entering his own trophies in the record books, preferring instead to focus on the experience of the hunt. What he did next suggests how firm is that belief. Having just passed up a rifle shot at 100 yards on a sure trophy bear, he put a stalk on the sow. “The wind was better to get to her,” he explains. “But before I could get in range the wind shifted, and we decided to back out.”
The pair didn’t see another bear track for three days. “I was kicking myself, I admit,” Debias says. “There was a big monster bear and with the pull of a trigger I could have had it over. But before I go on any hunt I work as hard mentally as I do physically. The whole time I’m hiking and doing push-ups and sit-ups I’m concentrating on one thing: This is your dream and no matter what it’s going to be great because you’re out there, and that’s all that matters.”
By day 10 though, the good attitude was starting to flag. After five unsuccessful hunts and with a sixth now looking like a bust, the dream of taking a bear with a bow had begun to seem unattainable. For the first time in his many years of hunting, Debias felt discouraged. “When I said to Don, ‘I think we need to leave this area and find out where the other guys are,’ he agreed. And then I looked over his shoulder and there was the bear.”
The Big Guy was nearly 400 yards away and heading straight toward them, so the men had to make their move to better cover quickly. Debias readied his equipment, checking to make sure the bow wasn’t frozen and setting his adjustable sight to 30 yards. Meanwhile, Stiles counted down ranges as the grizzly closed to 125 yards, 100, 75. Debias had asked his guide to range a nearby stick so he’d have a reference point, and Stiles pegged it at 17 yards. “When the bear passed in front of that stick, it hit me just how close he was and how big he was,” Debias says. “If I’d had to draw the bow at that point I couldn’t have done it. I told myself, ‘You better get it together right now.’ That can’t be part of the equation when you’re hunting grizzly, because your life and the guide’s life are at stake.”
The bear paused and took several deep breaths, sensing that something wasn’t right. “He was so close I could hear the air going into his body, and when he exhaled I could smell his breath,” Debias says. “He took a couple more steps and son of a gun if he didn’t stand up and look right down on us.”
Crouched behind cover with his guide, staring up at a giant grizzly towering above him a mere dozen yards away, Debias felt no fear, just awe. “I couldn’t believe what I was witnessing. There’s nothing in my life as amazing to me as when he stood up and I was right there to see him.”
“He looked right at us but he didn’t see us,” Debias recalls. “He whipped his head around in the opposite direction and that’s when I knew: I’m gonna get him; it’s actually gonna happen.’ When he dropped to all fours he was at ease. He had no idea we were there.”
“He was quartering away from me and I watched until I couldn’t see his eye, and then I drew. When I did he stopped. That sixth sense again. I put the pin behind his shoulder, thinking he could bolt at any moment, but I didn’t like the angle. I tracked him as he walked a couple more yards and turned perfectly broadside, and that’s when Don whispered in my ear, very softly, ’29 yards.’ I hesitated for just a second and I remember thinking, ‘If you don’t shoot and he runs you’ll never forgive yourself.’ And then I released the arrow.”
Debias watched the shot as if it were in slow motion, following his arrow’s lighted nock as it hit the kill zone perfectly and passed through the bear. The grizzly rolled and came up running. “The final piece of good luck was that he rolled in the opposite direction, because a bear is always going to run in the direction he’s facing when he comes out of a roll. He ran 31 yards and crashed so hard his rump nearly came over his head. I was at 29 yards when I shot. The math wasn’t good if he ran the wrong way!”
As Debias quickly nocked another arrow, Stiles told him not to bother. The world record grizzly was dead. He’d finally gotten his bear with a bow.
Debias would eventually enter his bear in the Boone & Crockett book, but only after some persuading. Dennis Dunn, who holds the Pope & Young world record for grizzly, called to offer his congratulations, and Debias told him he was still on the fence about entering the book. “He told me, ‘You know what? This isn’t about you; this is about the bear. It didn’t grow to the size it did because of you. The bear deserves to be in the record book.'” Scored at 27 3/16 Boone & Crockett, the grizzly is recognized as the largest hunter-killed grizzly in the B&C book, second only to a 27 13/16 grizzly picked up in Lone Mountain, Alaska, in 1976. Debias received the “first award” for Grizzly Bear at Boone & Crockett’s 27th Annual Awards Banquet in Reno.
Ironically, Debias’ grizzly did not qualify for Pope & Young because of the Lumenok on his arrow. Pope & Young rules prohibit electronic devices, including illuminated nocks. The Pittsburgh chapter of Safari Club International recognized Debias with an award for the outstanding animal taken in the world for 2009, and Col. Craig Boddington was on hand to offer congratulations.
Debias’ grizzly scored 27 8/16 SCI, the largest ever with a bow. Jim Shockey presented Debias with an award recognizing that feat at the group’s Reno convention.
Believe it or not, bagging a world record grizzly was just the start of Debias’ remarkable 2009 season. In August he returned to Alaska to hunt Dall sheep with his bow.
After stalking a pair or rams for 11 hours in a snowstorm, Debias got his sheep–this time deciding to accept his guide’s offer to use a rifle when it appeared the rams were about to disappear over the summit of the highest mountain in the area. The Dall also qualified for the SCI book.
Later that fall Debias wrapped up his dream season by taking his best ever Pennsylvania deer, an 11-point buck he shot while hunting a few hundred yards from his back door. “About the only thing I didn’t do,” he jokes, “is remember to play the lottery.”
Rod Debias has dreamed of taking a grizzly with a bow since his father set him up with his first archery rig when he was 8-years-old. After five unsuccessful hunting trips, Debias finally got his bear in May 2009–a massive boar shot at 29 yards after 10 days of around-the-clock hunting on the northeast Alaskan tundra. Yet the bear now recognized by Boone & Crockett as the largest hunter-killed grizzly and by Safari Club International as the world record archery bear very nearly never entered the record books. Read on to find out why.