The author shot this bruin on the first evening sit with a recurve bow. (Tyler Freel/)
I kept pressure on the throttle as my 16-foot riveted jet boat pounded through swells that were building up against the wind on a 2-mile straightaway. If I let off, each successive wave impact was significant enough to rattle it loose, and I’d lose power. I quartered the flat-bottom into the waves that had been like glass only an hour earlier to keep them from breaking over the bow. The waves built along with my anticipation as I hurried toward the small slough where I was heading to sit on a bear bait. I’d been waiting two years to return and hunt this spot, and had no idea what to expect.
If there is a single, universal challenge of hunting in Alaska, it is logistics. So much of Alaska is vast, remote wilderness that just getting there is an ordeal. What we consider “easy access” or “close to home” is usually hours away. Alaska has some of the most amazing hunting opportunities in the world, but they rarely come easily, and this particular spring bear expedition was no exception. We had only been able to pull this trip off on one out of three attempts over the years due to weather, water levels, and mechanical issues. Although there was still much to learn about the area, we had gotten a taste of its incredible potential two years earlier. There was an insane amount of bear activity, and we would do anything to experience it.
Are They on the Bait?
The author couldn’t wait to run back downriver to get to his treestand for the first sit of the trip. (Tyler Freel/)
Our plan wasn’t complicated, but it was reliant on several things falling into place. We wanted to set bear baits in a very remote, swampy area, known to have out-of-control bear populations and a liberal bag limit. As soon as the spring river ice flushed out, we would take our boats, haul in bait, and set up the bait stations. A week or so later, we returned to hunt for a few days, then clean up the baits. Timing is everything, and after the ice broke and water levels dropped a little, we set off with as much as our boats could carry, hoping there was enough bait and fuel to make this work. We spent three days getting everything set and could only hope that our return trip went smoothly. There was plenty of bear activity, but timing was a gamble. It can sometimes take weeks for bears to find bait, and some baits will never attract a bear. We had to try and give the new baits enough time to become active, but not so much time that the bears would eat all the food and leave. With such a high density of bears in the area, hopefully they would get on baits quickly.
About a week later, our rag-tag flotilla hit the water again, this time with hunting gear and a few hundred gallons of fuel. There were five of us in three boats, and we were on the river at 8 a.m. By mid-afternoon, our group reached the campsite, a high gravel bar, littered with piles of driftwood. My dad and friend Terry had peeled off to check three of our six bait sites on the way to camp and were both excited but had a sense of uncertainty as they told us that one had not been touched, and two were empty. There were also holes dug into the ground where the bait had been. It had only been a week, so surely the bears hadn’t been gone for long. But would they come back? Had we waited too long, and would our months of planning be for nothing?