Brittingham on Bear
Who Is the Coastal Grizzly
My favorite bear to hunt is the coastal grizzly. These bears can weigh up to 1,000 pounds in the spring, and as much as 1400 pounds in the fall. But I like to hunt these bears most in the spring because at that time I have twice as many hours that I can hunt as I can in the fall. In the fall, your day will be eight or nine hours long. In the spring, you can easily have 15 hours of daylight. I also like to hunt in the spring because that time of year doesn't conflict with my antlered-animal hunting schedule.
A coastal grizzly is as big a bear as there is. Now, I know that some hunters will argue that a polar bear is bigger, but I really don't think it is. These bears live from northern British Columbia throughout the coastal areas of Alaska. I like to hunt them in Alaska close to Lake Iliamna because tat area has a well-managed bear population. The bears in this region feed on salmon and really can put on a lot of weight quickly. In many sections of Alaska, the grizzly bear is known as a brown bear. But whether the bear is an interior or a coastal bear, it still is a grizzly bear. Because of these bears' spectacular size, foul temper and beautiful coats, they're my favorite bear to hunt.
Stalking the Honey-Blond Bear
The first couple of weeks that the coastal bears come out of hibernation in the spring they eat only vegetation. Then after those first two weeks, they begin to look for carrion -- animals that have died during the winter. They will kill and eat whatever game they can find. Coastal bears have furious appetites. In the spring, they spend most of their time hunting and eating. To hunt these bears, you need to go out into a place where you can see a lot of country that's close to a high ridge to look for bears. You'll need to plan to spend plenty of time glassing for bears and trying to locate them.
One of my favorite bear hunts occurred in 1990 near Painter Creek, Alaska, out on the Alaskan peninsula. I was dropped off on a gravel bar on the edge of Painter Creek. My guide and I set up a spike camp. Each morning we would climb to a ridge and glass the area for bears. This river had two large mountains on either side of it. The bears would den in the mountains, go across the river and move up the other mountain. From our vantage point, we could see a lot of this river's drainage and look for bears. By the fifth day of a ten-day hunt, we'd already seen several bears -- but none that we wanted to take. But that day we spotted a bear about 2 miles away that was coming down from one of the high ridges through the snow, which made it easy for us to see. Through the spotting scope, I could tell that he had a really beautiful blond coat. Most brown bears have a very
chocolate-colored coat. However, this bear's coat was more honey-blond-colored, and he had darker legs. Most often you would see this type of coloration on the females. But I could tell through the spotting scope that this was a male bear. Although the honey-blond bear was not a monster-sized bear, we felt he would go at least 9 feet.
The bear came off the mountain and went down the drainage before starting up the mountain on the other side. Although I was ready to go after the bear, my guide wasn't. However, after sitting on that hilltop for four days, I was getting fairly bored. I explained to the guide, "We see the bear, I like the bear, and whether or not we get the bear, I want to go after him. We have 10 hours to catch the bear, and even if we don't get him, chasing a bear is much more fun than not chasing a bear." Finally, I convinced the guide to try for the bear. We hadn't gone too far when I realized why the guide hadn't wanted to go after the bear. The guide wasn't in very good shape. About half-way up the mountain, the guide was so tired he had to drop his pack. The guide didn't think that dropping his pack would be a problem, because he didn't think that we would catch up to the bear, anyway.
We were moving as fast and as hard as we could to catch the bear before he went over the mountain. When the bear reached the top of the mountain, he stopped and started smelling around. The bear wasn't really feeding, but neither was he headed in a straight line. He just was hanging out on the mountain. The bear was about 150 yards up the mountain from us. I'd planned to take the bear with a bow, but the way the bear was moving, I decided I'd never be close enough to that bear to use my bow. So I dropped my bow and borrowed the guide's rifle. The bear starting coming across the rim above us. I laid in the snow, aimed, and took the shot.
Bringing the Bear Down
I was shooting a .338 rifle when I hit the honey-blond grizzly bear. I knew that the second shot was well-placed, because the bear was almost in a sitting position when I fired. The bullet entered the bear's chest, right through his heart. When the bullet hit the bear, the bear fell over backwards. But instead of climbing straight to the bear, even though we felt that he was dead, we walked around the side of the mountain, climbed above the bear and then, went down to the bear. If the bear moved at all, he would roll down the hill and probably wouldn't want to come up the mountain to us.
Because I had my camera with me, I went ahead and photographed my trophy. After the picture taking was over, I began to skin the bear, while the guide went down the hill to retrieve his pack. I knew I wanted to make a rug out of this bear. So I started skinning him from the chest. Once I had the paws and the hide skinned away from the meat, I skinned the head out, because we still had plenty of daylight left. I knew I wanted to take the skull with me. When the skinning process was over, I loaded the skull of the bear in my small pack, and the guide loaded the hide in his pack. After we had gone up the hill a short distance, I could tell there was no way that the guide with the heavy hide in his pack was going to be able to carry that hide back to the camp. He really wasn't in good shape. So I traded packs with him. I carried the pack with the bear hide in it, and he took the smaller pack with the bear's skull. The bear hide weighed about 90 pounds, but the trophy was worth the carrying.
The Real Trophy
When we arrived back to camp, I measured the hide. It was 8 feet, 11 inches squared. Many people have asked me why I decided to go ahead and take a bear half way through a 10-day hunt. My answer was that this bear was a really beautiful color and a fine trophy. I also knew that this was the best bear that we had seen in five days. I figured that if we didn't go after this bear, we might wait for another five days in good weather and not see a bear as good as this one. Or, the weather could change abruptly, and we would be without an opportunity to hunt and take another bear.
The chase was better than the trophy. For me, the real trophy was going after and catching up to a bear that the guide didn't think we had a chance to take. I'd hoped to take the bear with my bow. I soon realized that I wouldn't have an opportunity to shoot this bear if I insisted on using my bow. Because of the unusual coloration of the bear, I knew that this animal was one I wanted to take. I recognized that this bear was a fine trophy, and the circumstances of the hunt made him even a finer trophy. I was glad I had five days left in the hunt. I had plenty of time to clean, salt and dry the hide, before I sent it to the taxidermist. I had time to turn the ears, split the lips and put salt in every portion of the bear's hide. Salt not only pulled the moisture out of a bear's hide, but it also helped to preserve the bear's hide while it was in transit.
Once the hide was salted, I had time to skin all the meat off the skull. After we flew out of camp, I took the hide and the skull to an expediter. He packed the hide and skull, put the proper tags on it and shipped it back to the continental United States to be tanned and made into a rug. This hunt was great. Since I got home, I've enjoyed my bear rug. If you're looking for a fun hunt, I suggest you go on a grizzly bear hunt to Alaska.