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Big Game

Bears in the Grass

Spring; Glorious SPRING!  It’s a time many Alaskans (or anyone from a northern climate) patiently waits for.  Spring in Alaska means many things to me, as well as other men and women here who, like me, live by hook and bullet. It’s a time to fill the freezer with some of the best Alaska has to offer: Shrimp, halibut, king salmon and black bear meat.

Mid-February is when we are first teased as one notices the daylight lingering just a bit more every day (approximately 3-minutes per day in February). March almost always has a week of winter weather that makes one feel like spring may never make an appearance and then, one magical day (usually the first week or so of April), it gets “warm”.

The warmth spurs a slight panic to those of us who may have not taken advantage of those cold, dark days of winter to have all our gear prepped for the spring adventures that lay ahead. It also speeds up the melting snow on south facing mountains, lake and ocean shorelines. The spring sun warms the earth and, in an impressively short period of time, lush green grass sprouts on and along the aforementioned locations.

I have this crazy notion that bears, while tossing and turning in their winter dens, dream of those fresh spring goodies much like our dogs dream of bones or the steak on the kitchen counter.  I know from experience that bears (both black and brown) often head directly to their favorite dining room shortly after popping their heads out of the den, and never pass up the opportunity to glass these patches during a hunt.

I moved from southern Minnesota to Alaska almost 19 years ago. There was no spring bear season back home, and I was excited about experiencing spring spot and stalk bear hunting. Having read several articles about it when I was a teen, I dreamt of close encounters with bear grazing head down in fresh grass, especially due to the fact that some of those encounters would be with the big brown bears of Alaskan lore.

I have had many grand spring black and brown bear hunting experiences in Alaska.  One of the most memorable was a hunt on the west side of Cook Inlet beneath the shadow of Mt. Redoubt, an active stratovolcano, not far from my home in Kenai.  It was a hunt that showed me the importance of looking for fresh grass patches to find early season bears.

It was early May 2006 and the weather was beyond warm.  Temperatures averaged 80 degrees those few days of the hunt. Fresh green grass carpeted the coastline and trees were full of buds that hung heavy on the branches and looked like they would open any minute. My hunting partner and I were committed to harvesting a brown bear, but our plans almost changed after a mischievous black bear raided our camp.  We had spent the day down at the beach watching a patch of freshly sprouted grass that was filled with brown bear sign. Upon return to camp that evening, I saw the tent was lopsided. Tracks indicated a small black bear had knocked things around, tore through the screen door and ran off with my brand new pair of Keen shoes. I had to spend the heat of the day barefoot around camp as it was too miserably warm for my insulated LaCrosse hip boots, the only footwear I had left.

We saw a lot of black bear, some dandy ones and several runts. They were all spared as we were concerned about meat spoilage due to the abnormally hot temperatures we were experiencing.  Knowing a harvested brown bear would end our hunt, it only made sense to maintain focus of the original objective, so we returned to the grass patch.

Smacking mosquitoes while sitting in a makeshift blind constructed of driftwood, I caught movement along the bank just above the grass. I began dissecting the brush with my binoculars and saw the top of a brown bear’s back. Moments later the brownie plopped off the bank and immediately began chomping away. I determined it was a 7-8 foot boar. A shooter.

I had pre-planned a stalk should one appear. The wind was in my favor while I skirted the sticky glacial mud at the base of the bank. I guessed I could get within 50 yards of where the bear was due to a protruding wall of mud slumped away from the bank. When I reached my mark, I saw the bear was facing away. There was a log out on the beach about 10 yards from my current position. Figuring it would make a great rest to shoot from; I slithered out to it on my belly.

Just as I got to the log, I peeked over the top and saw the brownie standing and looking directly at me. He must have heard me or sensed my presence. I was pinned down and baffled that he had not departed. I realized the wind was still steady in my face.

Seconds later, he began walking directly at me. He came through the shin high grass slowly, taking deliberate steps and swaying his head side to side. I looked down at my rifle, cranked the Leupold 1.5×4 to its lowest setting and slipped off the safety. When I looked back up, that 7-8 foot brown bear looked like King Kong.

I rolled up onto my knees, centered the heavy duplex on his head and squeezed the trigger. Mr. Brown dropped in his tracks. I began shaking so bad that I found it difficult to stand up. My hunting partner came running from the blind. He was wide-eyed and told me how he almost shot the bear from the blind, as he had surmised something was wrong with my rifle since I had not taken the shot until the bear was practically on top of me.

We walked over to my first Alaskan brown bear. Well, “walked” may be a stretch. We took a couple of steps to where the bear had fallen straight on his nose. Moments later, I heard the familiar sound of a good friends Piper PA-11. He was flying down the beach and buzzed us, made a wide turn, set an approach and landed on the beach not far from the kill site. After a congratulatory handshake and back-slap, he was off.

That night around the campfire, taking in “Alaska”, my hunting partner and I relived the excitement of the bear in the grass. It is a hunt I will never forget.

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