feature By: Ron Gayer | July, 19
Jeff Ciallella is, I would say, new to hunting. He got excited about hunting after attending a hog-hunting seminar; and after a string of one-shot hog kills decided to expand his game list and chase a few big bears! His first bear hunt was for a California black bear. Now, you can call it luck, or maybe the “hunting gods” provided the perfect scenario for a black bear hunt. There was a large fire after a prolonged drought that provided a new crop of acorns and many displaced bears – the perfect storm for bear hunting. Jeff received a phone call and was told to “Be here tomorrow if you want a black bear!” On 12 hours’ notice, Jeff bailed out on work and the business he runs and drove two hours north to camp. The next morning while clad in acceptable California hunting apparel, shorts and a T-shirt, Jeff shot a large black bear. It had a 20¼-inch skull, a record-book bear!
Now that Jeff had a taste of big-game hunting, he wanted more. With no better place to hunt than Alaska, Jeff tried to book a brown bear hunt with Alaska Expedition Company. Alaska Master Guide Charles Allen runs a successful Silver salmon fishing camp that also takes a few hunters for moose and brown bear. For two years Jeff had tried to book a hunt; however, the hunter list was backlogged, and he would have to wait.
Then as luck would have it, Jeff got a call. A hunter who was booked for the opening week of the brown bear season was ill and had to cancel. With five days’ notice, Jeff again was able to leave his business, wife and kids for the adventure of an Alaskan brown bear hunt.
Alaska is home to more than 30,000 brown bears. That’s 98 percent of the U.S. population and 70 percent of the North American population, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The largest land predator in North America needs space to roam, and Alaska has it.
The Tsiu river area in Alaska has one of the largest populations of brown bears. According to Charles, bear hunters can hunt bears on the Tsiu in consecutive years, whereas in other areas of Alaska hunters can only hunt one bear in four years.
It’s easier to get lucky when hunting where game is thriving, and a guide who knows the area and game habits is chosen. After all, that accumulated knowledge is what you pay for in a guide.
Jeff started his Alaskan hunting adventure, as most hunters do, with a flight to Anchorage. He then had to catch a charter flight to Cordova, about an hour’s flight southeast of Anchorage. The final leg of the trip was a flight in a bush plane from Cordova to the camp on the Tsiu River. The flight to camp provided an up-close look at the Alaskan bush. Jeff saw ice in the Seal River and the Bering Glacier. Passengers on the flight pointed out bear and moose multiple times on the short one-hour flight.
After settling into his cabin, Jeff learned his hunt would begin in the morning and that each night they would return to camp for a hot shower and gourmet meal. He was told to expect to see eight to 10 bears each morning, and they would have to find a good bear by looking over a few. After sighting-in his rifle and visiting with the other fisherman guest – Jeff was the only hunter in camp – he had a short, restless night’s sleep. Big brown bears were in his dreams.
Before first light, he hopped on the back of a four-wheeler, and his hunt team was off to the river. Dawn was breaking as the hunter followed his guide up the side of a sand hill to glass for bears. Within 10 minutes they had their first bear in sight.
It was a small bear, and Charles began Jeff’s education on what constituted a good brown bear. They saw bear after bear from their vantage point. Most of them had large-looking ears, the sure sign of a young bear. At 400 yards all the bears looked large, but as they got close Charles showed Jeff how the size of the head and location of their ears can help a hunter tell a large bear from a small one.
The hunters moved several times and set up on dunes to watch as bears moved from their feeding spots on the river to the bedding areas in the brush and trees. Jeff was shown bear tracks as the team moved through the dunes. He began to see just how big a big brown bear track was. At the day’s end Jeff had seen more than 15 bears and had a new base of knowledge.
Fast-forward to day three: Charles had put Jeff in front of more than two dozen brown bears, and there were at least three that were shooters. But as this was the first hunt of the season, Charles wanted to look over as many bears as he could just to see if he had any over 9 feet.
Three hours into the morning hunt the team was relocating, taking the ATVs to a point closer to the coast. Charles watched as the fishermen from camp moved by on the way to the river. Just above them in the grass on the beach dunes, he saw two large bears. One was feeding on the grass as it moved to the west. The other bear was moving along higher on the dune. The hunters wanted to close the distance for a better look at the two bruins.
Moving ahead of the bears so the wind was in their favor, Charles again stopped to glass the bears. He could only find one bear, the lower of the two. It was a good one for sure, but the other bear looked to be just a little larger.
“I think that bear dropped down onto the beach,” Jeff said. Charles agreed, and off they went trying to get ahead of the bear.
The men stopped short of the drop-off to the beach and slowly peeked over the edge to see the large bear walking down the beach, heading to a bedding area. Walking in the sand, they tried to catch up and get ahead of the bear, but the boar’s pace was just too fast; the hunters were falling behind.
Jeff and Charles raced down the dunes to get ahead of the bear. Thinking they had out-distanced the big bear, they eased up to the edge of the dune. Charles grabbed his binocular to look up the beach to locate the bear, but it was nowhere to be found. Just then Jeff looked west and saw the bear moving below them, already past their position. Jeff dropped to the ground, reverting to his military training. He lined up the shot and squeezed off a round. His .416 Remington Magnum pushed a 400-grain bullet through both lungs and out the other side of the bear.
Mortally wounded, the bear ran down the beach; Charles had seen Jeff’s first shot and knew no back-up shot would be needed. Then he watched as Jeff took two more follow-up shots, both of which only found the water of the Gulf of Alaska. It’s hard to shoot at a moving target from the prone position.
Jeff could hardly control his excitement – he had just taken his first brown bear! Charles estimated the bear’s weight to be over 1,000 pounds, and it was only 10 yards from the surf. Worried the bear might get washed out to sea, Charles had his crew, including the camp chef and his helper, come to help load the bear.
Six adult men could not pick up and load the bear on the trailer. They had to dig a hole for the ATV’s wheels to drop into so the base of the trailer was on the sand. Only then could they manage to roll, push, pull and manhandle the bear onto the trailer. Two ATVs, pulling together, managed to get the bear back to camp.
The bear squared 9 feet, 6 inches, and the skull green-scored 26½ inches.
What luck for Jeff – two bears, and both have record-book potential. Luck does play a role in most hunts, I would guess. But good planning, including the choice of where you hunt and with who you hunt, must trump luck in my book.
Don’t Go Unprepared
The brown bear is the largest land-based predator in North America. Most guides in Alaska want hunters to use a .375 Holland & Holland – or larger – caliber when going after big bears. Penetration and the ability to break down shoulder bones to stop a brown bear are critical; bullet choice and caliber are important. Jeff’s choice of the .416 Remington loaded with 400-grain solids worked well.
When flying into Alaska or any other destination, plan for the unexpected. Arrive the day before your charter flight departs; if your luggage does not arrive, you will have time for it to catch up with you. No boots or no gear equals no hunt. The extra time will also allow a hunter to shop for last-minute gear and have a good meal before heading to camp.