THE SEA­SON

Field and Stream - - CONTENTS - By DAVID DRAPER

Tag­ging a tro­phy Alaskan black bear in spring is a stalk on the beach. By David Draper

Hunt­ing by boat, the au­thor makes a hairy land­ing and an un­ex­pect­edly tough stalk to tag a big Alaska black bear

“GET OUT.” That’s the only thing Bran­don Hart says as the nose of the rub­ber Zo­diac slams against the face of a boul­der the size of a pole barn. Be­fore I can protest, he cuts me off. “Get the #$%& out!” I sling the ri­fle over my shoul­der, wait for an in­com­ing wave to lift the bounc­ing boat higher, and jump. Some­how my fin­ger­nails find pur­chase on the sea-bat­tered stone and with some scram­bling, I man­age to save my­self from a swim in the Gulf of Alaska.

To be fair, Hart put the boat right where I’d asked him to, just around the point from a big black bear that is right now snuf­fling through the de­tri­tus of a high-tide line on the rock-strewn beach. But here, strad­dling the boul­der with the crash­ing surf on one side and a Brob­d­ing­na­gian blow­down on the other, I am stuck.

BEARS BY BOAT

I’d spot­ted the bear from the deck of the Sundy, an­chored less than 1,000 yards away off the south­west coast of the Ke­nai Penin­sula. The 50-foot Delta Marine is the base of op­er­a­tions for the week, serv­ing as both mo­bile hunt­ing cabin and glass­ing plat­form. My friends and I have spent hours scan­ning the shore, as well as the moun­tains that rise al­most ver­ti­cally from the wa­ter­line. The plan is sim­ple: Who­ever spots a bear gets to go stalk it—while an au­di­ence of his hunt­ing bud­dies watches from the boat.

Black bears of­fer one of Alaska’s most at­tain­able D.I.Y. hunts, but get­ting into the back­coun­try typ­i­cally means hir­ing a bush­plane pilot or a boat cap­tain. Per the state’s reg­u­la­tions, they are to serve solely as trans­porters, not out­fit­ters or guides, and their only job is get­ting you safely into and out of the bush. Capt. Al Hen­der­son and first mate Bran­don Hart (ninilchik.com) keep the Sundy afloat and shut­tle us to and from shore. But ev­ery­thing else, from spot­ting bears to pack­ing out the meat and hide, is up to us.

Hunt­ing shore-feeding bears from a boat may sound easy at first, but noth­ing is easy in Alaska. Most bru­ins don’t stay on the beach long, be­cause those that do are the first to get shot. Among the dozens of bears we’ve glassed, and the few we’ve stalked, this is the first one that wouldn’t re­quire a bru­tal, lung­burn­ing climb.

All of our pre­vi­ous at­tempts in­volved clam­ber­ing up sheer slopes and bush­whack­ing through old-growth for­est, sprawl­ing alder thick­ets, and devil’s club cov­ered in spines to be picked out of the skin weeks later as fes­ter­ing sou­venirs. Each stalk took hours, dur­ing which time the tar­get bear would van­ish in the moun­tain scrub. Some­times right in front of you, in easy gun range—a fact you’d learn back at the boat when your buds, who had a per­fect view, would say, “Why didn’t you shoot that bear? It was right in front of you!”

STALK ON THE BEACH

Fi­nally, here is a bear in the open. But I don’t know how I’ll get close enough for a shot. From the deck of the Sundy, the stalk ap­peared doable, but from here, atop the boul­der and star­ing into a wall of tan­gled branches, it doesn’t look good. If I could turn back, I might, but Hart is al­ready buzzing away in the Zo­diac. So, I drop off the back side of the boul­der and plunge into the maze.

Be­tween me and the bear stretches a swath of cen­turies-old tim­ber lev­eled by a mas­sive land­slide. Over­size root balls, tree trunks, and branches lie strewn like a gi­ant’s game of pick-up sticks. As I pen­e­trate the web, the world turns eerily quiet, the dense cover muf­fling even the sound of the nearby ocean. This place is the def­i­ni­tion of bear woods, and I ex­pect at any minute to come face to face with one.

At last I emerge into the sun­light, above the bear, which is still on the open beach, nos­ing the kelp and sea­weed. A steep bank of churned-up limbs and rocks that was the lead­ing edge of the land­slide pre­vents any shot, so I scram­ble down the mound on my butt in a barely con­trolled slide un­til I hit the beach, less than 200 yards from the bear.

The wind is per­fect, blow­ing along the coast­line into my face. I take a knee to set­tle my heavy breath­ing and set up for a good shot. There’s no way the bear can see or smell me, but what I don’t ac­count for is that sixth sense all bears seem to pos­sess. Be­fore I can catch my breath, the bruin lifts its head and, with­out a glance my way, lopes to­ward the dark woods.

I jam the ri­fle onto the only rest avail­able, a sapling barely stout enough to sup­port the bar­rel’s weight. The wind, and my heav­ing lungs, cause the crosshairs to wa­ver on the black fur of the bear’s shoul­der. I hold a lit­tle high and for­ward where a hit will an­chor the an­i­mal. I have no de­sire to spend the fail­ing light fight­ing through the tim­ber, wait­ing for the charge of a wounded bruin. The crosshairs set­tle, the ri­fle cracks, and the bear drops. I could swear I hear a cheer from the Sundy rise over the waves crash­ing onto the rocky beach.

Pho­to­graph by MARK RAYCROFT

Scar­face

A big male black bear strolls along the wa­ter’s edge.

Good Im­pres­sion

A print pressed into grav­elly beach soil re­veals the front pad of a heavy bruin.

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