Brown Bears at Breakfast
By Ian McMurchy
“We are into “Plan-B”, Ian. We had no idea there would be so much snow this late in the season. Lots of bear tracks so we will be O.K.!”
[floatright][/floatright]Those words greeted me when outfitter Wayne Woods beached his skiff onto a desolate Copper River sandbar in south central Alaska. Wayne grew up in the outfitting business and he knows how to find big brown bears so I was not concerned about the late snow report. If anything this was in our favor since we were hunting the last weeks of the 2004 Alaskan spring brown bear season.
Wayne has been outfitting for brown bears out of Cordova for eighteen years. He conducts most of his hunts from a comfortable camp in Port Gravina about twenty air miles west of town. He also works with fellow guide/outfitter Dennis Zadra in his Chugach National Forest permit area near the Copper River and Wrangell-St. Elias National Park. This was the hunt I had booked for a twelve-day adventure.
Fellow hunter Ray Aderholt from Russellville, Alabama and I enjoyed a spectacular flight with Terry Kennedy from Cordova Air Service as we flew over several huge glaciers in the Chugach mountain range. We followed the Copper River to a tiny fisheries cabin perched a few yards from the shoreline. Terry landed the heavily loaded floatplane against the raging current as smoothly as if we were landing on pavement. e expertly taxied into a quiet spot and in minutes had his plane secured to shore. We unloaded our gear and watched Terry take-off back to civilization. Our adventure was about to begin.
A few minutes after Terry departed Wayne came around a bend in a small skiff and tied up near our pile of gear. He loaded Ray and his equipment into the boat and departed for the twenty-minute trip to camp.
ANTICIPATION AND ANXIETY
Alone on that tiny beach the silence of the wilderness was almost overwhelming. Nothing moved except the silent, ugly-brown Copper River a few feet from where I stood. For a few moments I suffered a mild anxiety attack. I got “butterflies” as an incredible reality hit home. The hunt I had dreamed of for most of my life was about to take place! No more dreaming, the game was on!
Thoughts raced through my head that maybe I had bitten-off more than I could chew. I shook them away, saying to myself. “This is it. This is what you always wanted. Make the most of it! Enjoy every second!”
I closed my eyes, took a deep breath and gave thanks for a few seconds. When I opened my eyes the trepidation had vanished. The brilliant sunshine lit up the snowcapped mountains like never before. This was going to be a wonderful adventure - simple as that, bear or no bear. As I enjoyed the beauty of the Alaskan wilderness the far-off sound of the returning skiff brought me back to the hunt.
Wayne beached the skiff and we loaded my gear. The Copper River was a dirty brown torrent of eddies, whirl-pools and continuous bumps and hollows that made this prairie-dweller fairly uncomfortable. Wayne’s competent handling of the 17 foot jet-outboard powered skiff immediately calmed my concerns about traveling on the ugly water. Huge chunks of ice, branches and trees continually slipped past us as we headed upstream.
CAMPING ON A SANDBAR IN BEAR COUNTRY
Camp consisted of two large Cabela’s tents on a flat sandbar near a huge rock outcropping. After Ray and I settled into camp Wayne and guide Blake Trangmoe pointed out a number of fresh bear trails visible in the deep snow on the surrounding mountains. Bears were just emerging from hibernation and all of the trails headed our way!
Waynes’ plan was to sit-tight and let the bears come to us since we were situated 130 yards from an ancient “bear highway”. The “highway” links two nearby salmon rivers that the bears fished and moved along. Wayne had also located a second ambush spot downriver so that Ray and I had separate hunting opportunities.
To the best of Wayne’s knowledge, this area had not been hunted for fifteen years or more. He was very confident that we would locate big brownies. The previous spring he had taken Ray in for an exploratory hunt and they saw 9 good bears in only three days. Although Ray had taken a fine boar he had such an enjoyable hunt that he wanted to come back for an even bigger bruin. I was fortunate to land the other spot for the 2004 spring hunt.
We soon settled into a nice camp routine. Wayne and Blake lived in a four-man Cabela’s Alaskan Outfitter tent and Ray and I settled into my big six-man Extreme Weather Tent. We all had large cots and plenty of space to organize our gear. This was an extremely comfortable camp.
Even in camp I found myself marveling at the incredible scenery that surrounded us. I particularly enjoyed watching and listening to the wonderful waterfalls that dropped hundreds of feet down the huge rock cliff over by the bear highway. When the warm sun melted the snow the waterfalls quadrupled in volume. The unique wilderness sounds diminished as the day wore on and the temperatures dropped below freezing.
T/C ENCORE BIG BORE BEAR RIFLES
[floatright][/floatright]Ray and I carried almost identical rifles courtesy of Thompson Center Arms. Both Encore rifles featured blued steel barreled-actions and composite stocks dipped in the latest Realtree Hardwood HD camo design. Although our rifles looked similar Ray’s was chambered for the venerable .375 H&H and mine was a custom shop prototype in .416 Rigby. Ray’s bore was big. Mine was bigger!
T/C had introduced the .375 H&H as their heavy caliber in 2003. I was surprised at how controllable the Encore was when I shot early samples of the .375 H&H. There is no doubt when the rifle goes off. The rifle does not climb badly and accuracy is amazing with most factory ammo we tested.
Now the .416 Rigby Encore is a slightly different matter. Despite ten fairly large ports at the muzzle and the excellent Limbsaver recoil pad the .416 Rigby rocks me pretty hard. How much does it kick? Enough to destroy a brand new 3x-9x scope after only seven shots… We must remember that we are igniting over one hundred grains of powder to send a 350 or 400 grain bullet at velocities that approach the 180 grain bullet in the .30-06! The little rifle is manageable but you have to hold on tight and not get too close to the scope.
[/floatright]In preparation for the Alaskan hunt, Ray shot factory Federal 270 grain Trophy Bonded loads in his .375 H&H. His Encore easily punched three shots into less than an inch and one half at one hundred yards. My hunting loads were assembled by Superior Ammunition located in Sturgis, South Dakota. Larry Barnett sent a couple of his favorite .416 Rigby loads to try in the Encore. The little rifle showed a marked preference for 350 grain Swift A-Frames. Three-shot groups stayed between three-quarters and one inch when I held the rifle properly. This accuracy gave me complete confidence in the rifle and ammo.
The 350-grain A-Frames hit two inches high at one hundred and two inches low at two hundred. This was ideal since I did not intend to shoot past two hundred yards. I also worked up a very accurate handload shooting cheaper Speer 350 grain Mag Tip bullets for practice sessions.
MOUNTS AND OPTICS FOR BROWN BEAR HUNTING
Ray and I both experienced problems holding scopes in place with standard scope rings. To remedy this we epoxied steel Warne bases to the top of the Encores and installed Badger Ordnance tactical scope rings. End of problem. The Badgers held the scopes perfectly despite the tremendous recoil of the lightweight big-bore Encores.
Ray mounted a Nikon Monarch Gold 1.5x-6x power scope on his .375 H&H Encore. Ray’s scope featured a reticle called the German #4 that is intended for dangerous game hunting. The 1.5x-6x Monarch Gold is a beautiful hunting scope that is ideal for the up-close situations we were about to encounter.
My .416 Rigby had a 2.5x-10x Nikon Tactical scope on it. The big scope had Nikon’s version of the Mil-dot reticle. I hunt almost exclusively with tactical scopes since I want the ruggedness and dependability that they offer. The 2.5x-10x Nikon Tactical is a great hunting scope although it is a bit bulkier and heavier than standard models.
Both of our scopes had 30mm tubes and third turrets for parallax adjustment. The Nikons stood up to a lot of punishment during our hunt. This included the incessant Alaskan rains, blowing sand and lots of bumps and knocks as we traveled back and forth in the skiff. They also withstood incredible recoil forces from both of our lightweight rifles.
I fired over 150 rounds at various distances preparing for this hunt. At the range I constantly thought about the upcoming quest. Before I knew it I was in Alaska, on a sandbar in the Copper River in the most incredible bear country – and we were seeing bears.
ONE LOOK AND CHARGE!
One day Wayne and Ray headed down-river to the ambush spot. After seeing several bears on the other side of the river, they moved to the mouth of a glacial-fed creek and slowly walked upstream. Ray spotted a bear slipping up a small heavily-treed ridge about one hundred yards from their position. He whispered to Wayne as the bear stopped in some alders. As Wayne glassed the first bear an even bigger bear climbed the bench. When he got to the crest the huge boar stopped, turned his head towards the two hunters, let out a growl and hurtled straight at them. He splashed through water and snow in an all-out charge! “Get ready!” was all that Wayne had time to say as the bear bounded toward them.
About thirty paces in front of the two hunters a thin line of willows was the last vegetation between them and the bear. The enraged boar charged to the willows and suddenly changed direction slightly near a small opening in the saplings. At that moment, Ray let fly with a 270-grain Trophy Bonded bullet that hit square in the chest. Although the bear stopped he somehow stayed on his feet. Ray and Wayne hit him with two more .375 bullets and he dropped.
His roaring indicated that he was not dead by any means. Two more Trophy Bonded bullets in the chest ensured that he was finished. Needless to say both men were almost in shock as they examined the huge bruin. In silence they took in his majestic hulk – big brown bears have to be seen up close to be appreciated.
Then reality checked-in as the hunters heard teeth popping and a low growl. The girl friend was not impressed. She also was not leaving the area. Since there would not be enough light left for photos and skinning, Wayne gutted the huge boar while Ray stood guard. Then the fellows headed back to the skiff. The sow followed them all the way to the Copper River, frequently letting them know that she was not happy by growling and popping her teeth.
When the successful hunters returned to camp the stories flew fast and furious. Ray’s success made the trip fifty percent successful and we still had several days to hunt. The next couple of days passed quickly. We did not see any shootable bears but fresh tracks were continually appearing in the mountains above us and on the mud flats and sandbars. The longer we hunted the more convinced I became that my opportunity would happen. Our camp was located in prime habitat and a bear could show at any time in any direction.
BEARS AT BREAKFAST
The morning of June tenth greeted us with clear skies and a gale-like wind coming from the sandbar behind our tents. Wayne and I huddled in the lee of their tent to get out of the cold gale. When Blake joined us we sat quietly on camp chairs preparing hot cereal, porridge, chocolate or coffee. After several minutes we heard a small murmur coming in on the wind. Blake said, “That sounds like a bear!” as he stood up and looked around the left side of the tent. “Holy #&^% - BEARS!” were the next words out of his mouth. He frantically tried to unzip the vestibule so that he could get into the tent to grab his rifle.
Both Wayne and I watched Blake as he stood up and moved a few feet so that he could check behind the tent. When he shouted “BEARS!” Wayne jumped up and looked around the right side of the tent. He then went for his .375 H&H. The Winchester Model 70 was leaning on some gear several feet from the tent.
When Blake shouted I did not take the time to look around the tent to look for the bears. I just ran as fast as I could to my tent and grabbed my Encore. Wayne had instructed Ray and I to always keep a rifle outside the tent. The big Cabela’s tent held a rifle upright perfectly at the junction of the tent and vestibule. Our rifles had elastic ammo-holders on their stocks that held two cartridges. For safety reasons we did not place a round in the chamber.
I grabbed the Encore and tore off the Scopecoat as I returned to the other tent. I chambered a cartridge as I ran the short distance over to Wayne. By then he was yelling for me “SHOOT, hurry Ian, SHOOT!”. Wayne was loading his rifle as I took the last steps to his side of the tent. The tent had blocked my view so I did not know how far out the animal was or how fast it was approaching. Wayne was very excited so I knew that something significant was taking place.
When I got to the tent I saw two huge brown bears running hard across the sandbar. They were side-by-side and running straight at our camp. No hesitation – they were coming and coming fast! I dropped to my knees, rested the Encore on the camp chair Wayne had just vacated and got them in the scope. I yelled to Wayne, “The right one is the boar, right!” He said yes and to SHOOT! As I locked on the approaching bears my first thought was, “Damn, the scope’s on two and one half power. He looks small in the field of view!”. The crosshairs settle on his shoulder and stayed in place. The camp chair was an excellent rest.
As he charged forward I realized that with each step he was swinging slightly in my direction. This reduced the lead so I let him keep coming. All the while the crosshairs stayed high on his right shoulder. My mind locked on where I wanted the bullet to hit. I became so focused I cannot remember the sow in the sight picture even though she had to be there. All I can recall is the crosshairs sitting on a small target area to the right of his face. The optimum shot placement opportunity was about to happen as he lumbered into an almost head-on course.
Wayne shouted, “Shoot! They’re only 160 yards! Shoot!”. Just a couple more steps and the shot I wanted would be there. The little voice in my mind said,“Trigger – break it clean! Don’t jerk!” Suddenly the sight-picture vanished as the rifle leaped to my right. While the rifle was still moving upward I heard a tremendous “WHUMP!”. As I recovered from the recoil Wayne shouted, “Shoot him again, hit him again!”
I threw the fired case clear and inserted the second cartridge. As I closed the Encore I saw the sow running hard at right angles to her previous course. She was almost at the heavy alder cover. When she got to the edge she stopped, stood up and looked back for an instant. Then she dived into the trees.
The boar had fallen hard on his side and his entire back was exposed to my crosshairs. He lay motionless as I placed the reticle in the center of the hump. Again I went int an intense focus and willed the crosshairs to stay in place. Two breaths and break it clean went through my mind and the rifle roared. I hung onto the little rifle as it climbed upward and again the huge “WHUMP” rolled across the sandbar. I located another round and reloaded. The bear was still. It was over.
We silently walked one hundred and fifty yards across the sand to the fallen monster. Rifles loaded, adrenalin rushing through our bodies. He got bigger with each step. At ten paces Wayne told me to hit him one more time. I knelt down and the .416 rocked me a final time. The bear never moved. He had been dead for a few minutes but Wayne was not taking any chances. I fully agreed with taking the final shot.
Then things got crazy. Wayne and Blake let it go. They shouted congratulations, shook hands, knelt down and looked at the huge head and massive body and high-fived for the sake of high-fiving! The guides were happy, very happy.
Me, I was in awe of the situation - thankful and relieved more than anything. My reaction was a little lower key than the guides. My dream hunt had just exceeded my dreams. I sat with him for a few minutes and let my emotions go where they had to go. It was my finest hunting moment and I relished it for what it was. I believe we all thanked our Creator for our safety and for the gift of this incredible animal. I did.
The huge old boar squared ten foot one inch and he probably approached one thousand pounds. He was more than I ever hoped for. He gave me memories that will last forever. I replay the moments when he came at us several times a day - they are my ultimate hunting trophy.
What if they had not made any noise? What if Blake had not heard their murmuring breathing? What if they had got to our camp as we sat eating? What if we had been inside the tents? What if we had been away hunting when they came to camp? What if my first shot had not dropped the boar?
Join the author for a discussion HERE