Change of Mindset
Discovering a love of brown bear hunting.
When I moved to Alaska in 2017, I had one thing on my mind: Dall sheep! If I had to make an Alaska critter hit list, full curls would be at the top. Then, honestly, brown bears were toward the bottom. I’m not really sure why. I think I just judged the book by its cover. Brown bear hunts I would see on TV involved guys shooting bears off the beach; at the time I just wasn’t interested. I judged the hunt with no personal experience myself. Then, in 2018, I got invited to be a cameraman on a spring Kodiak brown bear hunt. This was a grind of a hunt that lasted 16 days! Through encounter after encounter, we spotted bears, pursued them, and came up short. It was on this hunt that I realized you will rarely catch up to a big boar cruising in the opposite direction. The adventure opened my eyes, and I decided that I wanted to hunt these coastal giants myself.
Immediately I attempted to cook up some kind of plan for my own bear hunt. With Basemap, I researched areas and seasons that would be open for an over-the-counter tag. Kodiak bear hunts are mostly drawn tags and it’s rare to draw. Another good option was the Alaska Peninsula. That season is open every other year, and from what I could tell, there were giant bears taken there as well. I set my sights on spring of 2020 for my own Peninsula bear hunt.
Better lucky than good!
The Fall of 2018 came and passed; it was time to apply for Alaska permits. Like everyone else, I threw my money in the hat and expected a “NOT SELECTED” outcome.... However, come February of 2019, I opened the draw results to see the word “SELECTED!” I literally covered my mouth with my hands in shock! I was speechless. This was a <1%-draw-odds opportunity and I drew my kodiak brown bear tag for the spring of 2020. Unbelievable!
Fast-forward a year to February of 2020 and my bear hunt was getting close. I was getting pretty excited and anxious for the hunt. The plan was to take my dad, Bob kenner, and my buddy Brian Rhead. This was an “all hands on deck” once in a lifetime kind of hunt and we were all ready to go.
For spring bear hunters, Covid 19 changed everyone’s plans. In March of 2020, Alaska shut down all unessential travel in the state and non-resident entry. As time passed and the state tried to get organized, the “mandates” ended up letting me use a private charter to my hunting grounds, allowing me to hunt.
However, there was a 14 day quarantine rule in place for non-residents that prevented my father and my buddy Brian to come along on the hunt. Instead, at the last minute, I asked my long time hunting partner Darrick if he could go, and he said yes! Darrick was able to go because he is also an Alaska resident and didn’t have the 14 day quarantine rule to abide by.
It was already bear season when the bush plane landed us in the area and Darrick and I set up camp. We brought a very light camp; almost the same gear as a sheep hunt. Some added items where extra tarps, some extra clothes, and a bear fence. The bear fence isn’t really there for when you’re in camp or even sleeping. The fence is there for your camp’s protection for when you are out hunting. The situation can be very bad if you come back to a camp in shambles because a bear made lunch out of it. We glassed for bears from camp that evening and looked forward to the morning.
It was a cold crisp morning. Frost covered the inside of the tents from our condensation. I got up and walked less than 50 yards to the beach... bear tracks! Sometime during the night, a sow and her cub walked by, as well as a nice boar. Three bears walked right by us and we never even knew it. The sky was fairly clear and the sun was coming up. It felt like it was going to be a good day. We packed up our stuff and started hiking up the mountain.
Immediately, Darrick spotted a bear. He was only 300 yards from us, but he was laying down, facing us. I couldn’t judge his size very well from that angle. I could see his hide was rubbed and a lot of his hair was short and ugly. I decided he wasn’t the one. We pressed on. We hiked about eight miles throughout the day and probably saw 10+ bears. They were mostly sows and young boars. We had decided we’d better loop back to camp before dark.
About halfway back to the tents, Darrick spotted another bear. As I focused the spotting scope, the dark blur transformed into a nice, chocolate-colored bear. As he walked down the trail, I could tell he had the big-bear-waddle. The bear was still over a mile away. I lifted my head off the spotter and in my loud excited-whisper voice, I said, ”We need to get a closer look!”
It was a mad dash to get to him before dark. As we neared the area where we last saw the bear, our heads were on swivels and our eyes kept scanning the brush. I caught movement in the alders. “Here he comes!” I told Darrick. Without a care in the world, the big boar moseyed out into the open tundra and stopped broadside... Boom! The first shot dropped him in his tracks. However, he quickly got back up and spun around looking to maul whatever just bit him! I quickly gave him a follow-up shot, and down he went for good! My first brown bear. I never thought I would even hunt them, but here I was. He was beautiful; his head and shoulders were more of a blond color that faded to a dark chocolate brown throughout the rest of his body. A mature, nine-foot boar. I couldn’t believe it.
The next year was an anomaly. Alaska Fish and Game decided to open the Alaska Peninsula for brown bear hunting because covid semi-shut down the 2020 season. My dad asked me if it was his turn. I had already researched the Alaska Peninsula for myself before I drew Kodiak, so of course, I agreed. I was becoming addicted to brown bear hunting, and I wanted to do it again.
In May 2021, it was dad’s turn. Dad had never been dropped off by a seaplane. The plane put us down on a little lake in the bush. Right away we saw a bear behind camp. My dad couldn’t believe it. “Hopefully that’s a good sign of more bears to come!” he said. The next two days were rainy and foggy with sustained 30 mph winds and 50-70 mph gusts. We did not leave the tents! On the third day, the storm had finally passed. We hiked out to a low knob where we had good visibility of the mountains surrounding us.
Spring was late this year. There was snow a good third of the way down the mountains. There was very little to no green grass anywhere. Just brown, bare-naked alder limbs with dead-grass meadows sprinkled throughout them. We weren’t seeing any bears. I was puzzled because we could see A LOT of country. With our Zeiss binoculars on tripods, we kept gridding the countryside until I finally picked up a pair of bears. They were over three miles away and way up in the snow fields. I could tell one bear looked like a shooter boar. We took off hiking, trying to close the distance. The marshy, tundra-like surfaces and entangling alders made a three-mile hike take most of the day.
My dad and I found ourselves at bear-level in the snow. We had lost sight of the pair, but out of nowhere spotted another bear. He appeared to be following the scent of the sow from the pair I spotted earlier. Dad and I did everything we could to get close enough for a shot. However, that bear just kept moving and there was no way we could catch up to him. At day’s end, of a total of six bears spotted, four of them were shooters. That’s a pretty good day!
We awoke to another beautiful day. The morning sun felt good as we sat there and glassed. We instantly glassed up a great-looking bear about four miles or so across a large flat. The wind was good, so we decided to give it a shot. About two miles into the stalk, we rounded a corner in the trail and there was a bear! Even though this was not the bear we were originally after, dad quickly decided that he was the one. We maneuvered to a little higher ground where dad made a great one-shot kill at 200 yards.
This bear was everything we could have asked for. The worn-down, broken-up teeth told his story. He was an old warrior, a monarch, pushed off the mountaintops into solitude to live out his days. We may have seen bigger bears this trip, but this bear was certainly the oldest. His gorgeous, dark chocolate hide didn’t have a single rub mark. We felt very fortunate to be in that moment. Brown bear hunting is something else. I’ve really come to enjoy the adventure. It’s hard to put into words why I’m drawn to it. It is definitely a humbling hunt and makes me feel small in this world. I highly recommend if it’s on your bucket list that you MAKE IT HAPPEN! You won’t regret it.
Zach Kenner, AK 2020 & 2021