By Chad LaChance
Reverence. That is the only word to describe my feelings immediately upon approaching the half-ton brown bear I’d just harvested. The ancient old bear’s final resting place was oddly serene; she laid face down, half-floating in the lake that had been her major source of salmon - and thus body fat - that sustained her for two decades and probably 15 cubs. The evening air was dead calm, the water clear as glass, and the bear was still and peaceful. My brain; well, my brain was a mess. I couldn’t decide whether to cry, rejoice, or simply breathe deep and take it all in. This was the climax of the trip of a lifetime, and I was living it.
Backing up a year, I was sitting in a business meeting when the publisher of Sportsman’s News rung my phone. I knew the number; after all, I’ve been a freelance writer for his magazine for nearly a decade. I figured I’d missed a deadline or perhaps was getting a new writing assignment but I could tell immediately Michael Deming’s tone was different. In short, he informed me that my name had been randomly drawn from the drum containing hundreds of other familiar yellow cards, all members of the Pro Membership Sweepstakes, and furthermore, that the prize I’d won was a Kodiak Island brown bear hunt. It was one of those very rare moments where I, a guy known for talking waayyy too much and too fast, was at a loss for words.
I signed up for the Pro Membership Sweepstakes shortly after its creation, mostly just to support the aforementioned Mr. Deming’s new project. The idea of winning anything substantial seemed, as with most sweepstakes, far fetched. But, I figured why not, somebody is going win one of three grand prizes monthly, not to mention the bonus drawings, and besides, you definitely can’t win if you don’t play. To be honest, I was hoping to win one of the guns.
Though I’m a life-long big game hunter, the idea of hunting a brown bear had never really crossed my mind. It’s kind of like the fact that I’m a life-long connoisseur of cars but have never seriously considered owning a Lamborghini; it’s just too far fetched to even dream about for a guy that fishes for a living. And I should add that I’d never even seen a Yellowstone grizzly, much less a coastal brown bear that dwarfs them, in the wild.
Furthermore, I’d read and heard of Kodiak Island and all its wildness, but never really thought I’d get a chance to visit, unless perhaps it was to fish. Kodiak is home to St. Paul Harbor, a place that has provided safe mooring to fishermen since 1792. King crab, Opilio crab, scallops, halibut, cod and rockfish have all been fished there, and though the island was originally inhabited by native Sun’aq tribes, eastern Europeans came in search of otter and sea lions. Eventually becoming the second largest island in the US, Kodiak Island is the kind of place that outdoorsmen worldwide dream about, and I was no exception.
The key phrase in that last sentence was “dream about”, because Kodiak Island is not an easy place to get to, which means it ain’t cheap. It took five plane rides and two days to get there, with two of those planes landing on water. Bear hunting aside, just getting to a remote area of Kodiak Island is an adventure. Upon arrival at our hunting headquarters, I felt like I’d already had a great experience and we hadn’t even started hunting yet. It didn’t hurt that, literally 20 minutes after unloading my gear from the float plane, I spotted a truly monstrous bear high on a mountain ridge overlooking our camp.
I’d never even previously been on a guided big game hunt. DIY, public land hunting had always fit my budget and I was fine with that. So, winning this trip was about as crazy as a guy could ever dream; I literally advanced to the very pinnacle of big game hunting in one lucky draw, or so I was told by those in the know. Now, as I sat looking at my second giant bear within an hour of arrival at a lakeside camp surrounded by wild Kodiak Island beauty, I was starting to understand what they meant. This was not your average hunting trip, even for a brown bear. This was the best of the best, and I had won it.
Mike Carlson is the owner of Larsen Bay Lodge. He is a member of the native tribe and thus can outfit in places others cannot. He’s a lifelong hunter, 30 years professionally, and as I came to find out, has a deep respect for nature. He also takes sharing his passion for Kodiak Island and its giant bears - literally the largest bears in the world - with others very seriously. Listening to him talk about the bears, their habits, and the region made it clear he loves his life’s work. His son was also one of our guides on this trip and the rest of our crew was made up of another guide, a camp host and an over-achieving cook. The hunt was based in an out-post camp with a little cabin. No electricity but we had a diesel heater and propane lanterns made for a homey feel. The food was exceptional by any standard, much less for a remote fly-in hunt. There was no cell reception and that may be the best part. Blissfully unplugged.
Mr. Deming was along to film and another hunter joined us as well. He was a 70-year old gentleman named Kent Fuller, but we came to call him "Boss Man". He had traveled the entire world in pursuit of the rarest big game. Boss Man made a perfect shot to harvest a beautiful bear on this trip and he agreed; this trip was near the very top of the list. Given his level of experience, including the African “big five”, that’s saying something.
Our first day of hunting had my guide TJ and me still hunting our way along a river bank and within a half mile, we had a sow and three cubs in sight. They fed their way to within a 100 yards of us before TJ let her know we were there, at which point they split. That was my first of what turned out to be a bunch of close encounters. Over the next several days, we hunted both on foot and by boat and saw tons of bears, some way off in the distance and some at point blank range. One of those close encounters was somewhat comical as I was caught, literally, with my waders down taking a leak. A young bear ambled out of the shoulder-deep grass 25 yards away; while my rifle was 10 yards the other way. I’m not sure who was more surprised.
Another close encounter had a far more serious tone as a big sow with three cubs wanted to argue. TJ warned her of our presence while she was about 100 yards away but instead of vacating, she sent her cubs into the surrounding brush and closed the distance. We were sitting next to a small creek, and thankfully she stopped on the far bank, a mere 18 yards away. Both TJ and I had our rifles trained on her when she thought better of it and retreated. It was the first time in my entire life I’ve ever had to raise a gun in self defense.
I also had a couple of missed opportunities. One of those was a large boar that we spotted from the boat. We beached and set up a stalk, ultimately landing us within 20 yards, almost directly above him. Alas, all I could see through the heavy brush was his massive noggin staring back at me through the 2X scope. I was not willing to head shoot and he never showed me his neck or body before bailing out of the situation. Another stalk had us set up ahead of a bear approaching down the bank. It went perfect - for the guide and camera guy, both of whom had a perfect view of him at close range. In my attempt to stay hidden, I sat in the one spot where he was blocked from my view by the tall grass.
When I say we saw “The One”, experienced big game hunters will know what I mean. We glassed a truly huge, fat and obviously old bear fishing a half mile or so away. The bear worked our way and over the course of about an hour, ended up almost within my effective range - almost. I knew that was The One, the bear that really tripped my trigger and my heart rate was rising quickly. Then we made a mistake; I’m not sure if the bear saw us or heard us, but it didn’t matter. We were busted and I was bummed. The One got away and I was assured we’d not likely see that old bear again.
Flashing forward two days and a whole bunch of bear encounters in between, we were glassing late in the day. Way off in the distance, I spotted a bear “snorkeling” (a fitting term to describe their head-in-water fishing) off a point. Almost immediately I recognized it as The One by a distinct light colored spot in the middle of the forehead, along with the overall girth. We set up and I sat there silently hoping the bear would make it to us before filling up on sockeye and heading out to take a nap. Sure enough, about 45 minutes later the bear rounded another point in the bank about 600 yards out. Now my heart was pounding for real. I was solidly positioned with my .375 H&H resting on my dry bag and I told TJ to keep me informed on the range as it approached. At 360 yards, it stopped to snatch a salmon and then turned broadside on the bank to eat it. I fired three shots and the bear rolled down into the lake. Nineteen seconds from my first shot, the old bear left this world.
Turns out it was a massive old sow, rotted teeth and all scarred up, with pure white claws, a sure sign of age. The Alaska Department of Fish & Game biologist that examined her determined she was beyond breeding age and a perfect bear to take from the conservation standpoint. He also explained the increasing population of bears on the island and the need for harvest to keep the unique ecosystem in balance. Given that we observed dozens upon dozens of mature bears and even more cubs on this trip, I’d be inclined to agree with him.
Was a Kodiak bear hunt on my bucket list? No, it was beyond even being dream-able. To be totally honest, I considered selling or trading the trip simply because, as primarily a deer hunter, I couldn’t fathom hunting giant bears. But when the universe aligned to hand me a once in a lifetime opportunity in the form of a sweepstakes win, it seemed like it was meant to be. Given that I had blown opportunities and even a second chance at the bear I really wanted, which turned out to be a huge and ancient old sow, I feel even stronger about it. Looking back, I can honestly say the trip was life-changing and I’ll be forever grateful to the bears, the island, and the people that made it happen.
And to think, when I signed up for the Pro Membership Sweepstakes, all I was hoping to win was a gun.
The Fishful' Thinker