My Bittersweet Brown Bear Hunt on Kodiak Island
I’ve been back from Alaska, more specifically Kodiak Island for almost two months now, and it’s taken this long for me to process this story and how to tell it. It’s not that it was a bad hunt…it was a great hunt. An amazing experience that I had dreamt about since I was a kid. Brown bear hunting on Kodiak Island…are you kidding me?! This crazy life of mine is great indeed, and here’s the story from my latest adventure.
Brown Bear Hunting on Kodiak Island
I’ve always wanted to hunt Kodiak Island, but I didn’t really think that it would ever happen for me. Maybe for Sitka blacktails, but not for brown bears. I had already been on a brown bear hunt on the Peninsula that didn’t turn out with a big bear rug for me…but that’s another story. I just really couldn’t justify another one when there’s so much to explore in this world. Time is short and my list is long!
About a year ago, we wrote an article on our blog about the statistics of brown bear hunting in Alaska and where the largest brown bears come from on average. Surprisingly, the numbers say that the biggest bears come from the Peninsula. Despite that, Kodiak Island continues to intrigue us and our hunters, and we didn’t have a vetted option for an outfitter there.
Last winter Casey met Tyler Kuhn, a guide for Jim Bailey, Master Guide. Tyler was looking into taking over Jim’s outfit on Kodiak Island and reached out to us to get the business rebooted. Tyler and Casey began the long vetting process we use to bring on new outfitters and decided that we should get a hunter there to check out their hunt.
Applying for a Brown Bear Hunt on Kodiak Island
You have to draw a tag to hunt Kodiak, but there is an outfitter pool, so we can practically guarantee that you draw a tag, which is cool. Now, just to figure out who to send. On these “scout hunts”, where we go on a trip to vet an outfitter, we either go on the hunts ourselves, or send trusted friends or OI Members. Often, these hunts are steeply discounted, but not always. Are you a member yet? For this brown bear hunt, I couldn’t justify going myself, and Casey was already committed to a hunt on the Peninsula, so we had some members who were lined up to go. We were worried that the neighboring outfitter was going to put in some of his hunters also, which would lower the odds, so we developed a plan.
We wanted to guarantee that our hunters drew a tag so that we could get this hunt vetted ASAP, and here’s where it gets complicated. Alaska lets outfitters transfer tags to another hunter prior to a certain cutoff date, so I had our scout hunters put in, and I also applied with the intent to up our odds, and transfer my tag to one of our hunters if I drew. Great plan right?
Enter Murphy’s Law
Well…it didn’t go as planned. Two of our hunters drew. Great!!! But then, they both had things come up and the had to cancel their hunt, so they declined the tag. When a hunter declines a tag, Alaska awards the tag to the next person in line. We don’t know who drew one of them (had to be one of the other outfitters hunters), and I drew the other one. We scrambled to find another hunter, but we ran out of time to get the tag transferred. We explored all of the options, but Jim and Tyler really wanted to get someone up there, so I was on my way to Kodiak Island to hunt brown bears!
Getting to Kodiak Island isn’t that difficult.
I had about a month to get ready, and I wanted to hunt with my bow, so I started feverishly shooting and shooting and shooting to get ready. When it came time to go in mid April, Jim called me to give me the details, and told me he had reserved a room for me in Kodiak. I flew Alaska Airlines from Boise to Anchorage. After a short layover in Anchorage, I boarded for Kodiak Island. That flight was about an hour and a half if I remember right. All of my gear arrived with me, which is always a relief, and I called the Hotel and they sent a shuttle for me. The town of Kodiak is only a few minutes from the airport.
I arrived fairly early in the afternoon, so I walked around town. Kodiak is pretty cool. In 1964 there was a big storm that trashed the town and I was blown away (pun intended) by the cannery story. This huge ship was actually blown up onto shore. Instead of repairing the ship and getting it back in the water, they turned it into a cannery.
The next morning, a kid from Andrew Airways picked me up at the Hotel lobby. He took me to the grocery store to get some stuff for Jim, and I was coming down with the flu, so I got some meds for myself. He then took me to check in at the Fish and Game office and get all of my paperwork, then they loaded my gear up in a float plane and I was on my way to camp. The flight took about 20 minutes.
Did I mention I was coming down with the flu? The flight to camp was miserable. I barely held down breakfast, and I was worried about the next few days. My whole family had come down with it back home, and it had knocked all of them down. Other than that though, the flight was pretty cool. We flew over some pretty country. Kodiak is more mountainous than I had envisioned. The pilot was playing tour guide, pointing out points of interest and I was doing my best to act interested, thankful, and not puke in his plane. We landed in a big bay right in front of camp. Jim and Tyler were standing on the shore waiting for me. The tide was out, so it was about a 200 yard walk to the cabins.
After introductions, the guys gave me the tour of camp and settled me and my gear in to my cabin. The camp consists of three acres privately owned by Jim. There are three 16X20′ cabins with oil heat and showers. This is a nice place to be on a non-hunting day, usually due to bad weather. It isn’t unusual to spot bears walking along the beach right out the cabin windows, and Jim told me that you can catch halibut right from camp, which would have been cool because I’ve been wanting to go halibut fishing on Kodiak Island for a long time….Patrick always tells me that I have a “serious fear of missing out”. It’s true.
I tried my best to be friendly but as soon as I got a chance I retreated to my bunk to try to sleep off my flu. It was around noon and I slept through to the next morning. When I woke up I didn’t feel any better. It was going to be a rough week…
Jim Bailey, Master Guide
Jim is an interesting guy, and I really enjoyed meeting him. He’s one of those good people who see the good in things. Sadly, that’s a rare trait, and I wish there were more people in this world like that. He has a trove of stories from his adventurous life, and he recounts them in an endearing, quirky, fragmented way that is highly entertaining. When most people tell stories, I have to act interested, and on the inside I’m rolling my eyes because I can tell they are stretching the truth of how it was, but with Jim, you can just tell that he has been there done that. No matter how crazy the story…it happened just how he said.
He had stories of giant bears, scorpions, rodents, plane crashes, the remote Alaska cabin he’s building for his wife Bonnie…the list goes on and on. A life well lived and full of adventures. He has lived like he means it, and he continues to do so.
He has been in Alaska since late 1960’s. He is from Arizona. He owned a fly-in hunting/fishing lodge in Interior Alaska for over 40 years. He has been a hunting guide for over 45 years.
A little about Jim himself, He has a commercial pilot’s license, holds an Alaska Master Guide License #88, and holds a 100-ton Master Marine Coast Guard License. He is an ex paratrooper with the 101st Airborne, Ex Master Sergeant with Alaska Air National Guard, and was featured in a SCI film on taking a bear with a handgun shown on ESPN. Also, he was featured on an ESPN film on hunting a Kodiak Brown Bear entitled “Cub Killer.” There are several articles, videos and books featuring Jim.
It’s time to hunt brown bears!
It’s either a short boat ride or a half hour hike up the beach to get off of the reservation and onto public ground where we could start hunting. You do have the option of purchasing a Native Lands permit, but I chose to save my money and just hunt public. Tyler and I donned our backpacks and headed up the beach. You have to time it right so that you go and come back at low tide, which makes the start time in the morning somewhat variable.
Luckily for me, the hike is for the most part flat, because I was SICK. Like really sick….but I could put my head down and plod along behind Tyler. He probably thought I was a weak ass, but I didn’t complain…I don’t think. It was pretty cool walking along the beach though, there were tons of sea otters, harbor seals and the occasional pod of Killer whales. We also saw a few “cross-phase” red foxes and some blacktail deer.
I was torn about seeing a brown bear down on the beach. It would have really sucked to see a big boar down there browsing the beach and not be able to stalk it…but on the other hand, any day you see a big brown bear is a good day. Do you see my dilemma?! Well…we never did see a bear on the beach, and now, looking back why was I torn? It would have been awesome.
Once you’re off the beach, you hike up the river bottom which is a wide, fairly flat gravel bed. Easy walking, but you have to wear waders because you have to wade the river about six or seven times on the way to the little glassing hills. There are five of them, aptly named “Hill One, Two, Three, Four and Five”. Over the course of the week we hunted Hill One, Hill Two and Hill Three.
Brown bear hunting is a game of glassing. What you do is sit down, get comfortable, and glass…and glass…and glass some more. We set our bar at a 9 foot or bigger boar, and every day we saw a few bears that didn’t quite meet that criteria. I was surprised though at how big an eight footer is. An eight foot brown bear is impressive. And tempting.
Time for a reality check.
On day three, I had to get real with myself. I was still feeling awful and my energy level was extremely low. If I would have been home I would have been laying in bed. I have to be pretty sick to lay in bed. On top of that, every bear that we had seen was moving fast. They weren’t sticking around at all, nor was the terrain conducive to bowhunting, so stalking a brown bear with my bow was going to be tough. Call it an excuse, but after the fourth day of hunting, I chose to put down the bow and pick up one of Jim’s rifles. I know Russ is probably disappointed in me (he has hunted brown bows with his trad bow), but don’t feel guilty about it and stand by the decision.
Day six was the day. We hiked in to Hill Four…well, Tyler hiked. I lumbered. It was a sunny day, which was nice because the previous two days were cold and snowy. I settled in on the hill, cuddled up against my EXO pack and started the tedious process of picking the mountains apart with my glass. At around 9AM Tyler spotted what I thought was a shooter, but he thought it was only about 8 1/2 feet. Crap! Not quite. I must admit that I was a bit disappointed, and my standards were going down daily. I felt terrible, and keeping a positive mental attitude was difficult.
We watched the bear quickly feed his way up the mountain, and I noticed that he was acting nervous and kept looking back the way it had come. I told Tyler, “I bet there’s another, bigger bear coming behind him. Check out how he’s acting.” Tyler agreed and we glassed the area he had first appeared. Ten minutes later, Tyler spotted him. “There’s a bear. It’s a pretty good one…I’d say over nine feet.” To which I responded, “let’s go kill him!”.
The stalk was pretty easy and we were at 250 yards in just a few minutes. The boar was slowly feeding across a small canyon from us, and I had a solid rest on an alder tree. Tyler was prone, resting his rifle on his backpack. He looked over and gave me the thumbs up, and I HAMMERED that bear. I watched his hide ripple as the .375 bullet slammed into his vitals. He spun and I shot again. I can’t remember this shot clearly, but Tyler said I hit him good. Then Tyler hit him good and rocked him. At this point he was running slowly quartering slightly towards us, going for the canyon in between us and him. I got one more shot at him on the run and knocked him off of his feet just as he went over the edge and out of sight. YES!
Now to find a wounded brown bear…
I was excited, and at the same time felt awful. It was a weird feeling. We waited about 45 minutes to see if he came up out of the canyon. He didn’t. It was a small cut in the side of the mountain and we would have seen him if he came out. We climbed up above it where we could get a better field of view and picked it apart with the glass. Nothing. It was almost dark, so we were going to have to come back in the morning.
That night was a long one. We stayed in a tent so that we could be back to find the bear as early as possible. I had chills, I was nauseous, I was worried about finding the bear, etc. The next morning was super cold…maybe it just felt super cold because I was chilled from the flu, but my waders were frozen and I couldn’t get them on, so I had to barefoot it down to the river and soak them to thaw them out.
We hiked back up to the little canyon and to where he had bailed off into the edge and I expected to see him piled up right there. Nothing. No blood. No tracks. Too many rocks. We walked around the entire canyon to see if we could find any tracks or blood in the snow coming out of there. Nothing. He was still in there, and we had to go in blind.
We dropped down to the bottom of the canyon and started sneaking up the stream with our eyes peeled. The canyon was about 100 feet deep and narrow, strewn with huge boulders and choked with alders. The stream at the bottom was about four feet wide and strewn with big boulders. Not the ideal situation.
I knew for a fact that at any moment I would either spot a huge lump of brown bear all piled up in the stream, or possibly a speeding mass of teeth and claws would explode out of the alders. I preferred the former. By a fairly large margin. I think Tyler agreed.
We slowly, tediously worked our way all the way up the canyon to where it basically cliffed out. Nothing. No tracks. No blood. Nothing. I was beginning to feel nervous that we wouldn’t find him. But how could that be? I hit him good three times with a .375 and Tyler hit him once with his. Can a bear live through that?!
The story goes downhill from here. We never found that bear. I’m fairly sure that he crawled up under some rock and died. I don’t have an alternative idea that makes any sense. It was, and still is a terrible feeling. I really can’t believe that we lost him. That’s why it’s taken me two months to process it and write this post.
A bittersweet ending to an amazing experience.
I don’t really know how to wrap this up. When we got back to camp, I was feeling pretty down and beat up. Still sick and heartbroken. It sucked. Supper was kind of melancholy, and Jim told a story of his personal brown bear that he shot years ago. He had the exact same thing happen. He knows he hit a big boar really well, and lost it. He never hunted them again for himself. He considered that “his bear”. I respect that, and it didn’t necessarily make me happy to hear his story, but it was comforting that it had happened to someone else and I wasn’t getting judged.
The next morning we called in a plane and I headed home. That’s it. End of story. Wish it was better.
PS – During the last two months I have been asked multiple times if I would hunt again with Jim. They assume that since I didn’t bring home a bear that it was a bad hunt. Not the case. Jim and Tyler run an amazing hunt in an incredible area. I recommend this hunt 100%.
by Cory Glauner