Cover photo by Burke Williams: Jesse Peterson 66”, Ryan Wheeler 70 1/2”, Jaimie Kassman 65 1/2”
By Mike Deming
I have talked to many people who have made the trek to Alaska for brown bear and heard their wonderful stories about those successful hunts on Kodiak Island or the peninsula with monster bears everywhere which turns out to be more like bear shopping than hunting. These stories used to be what made me want to follow in these guy’s shoes and put one of those huge bruins on the ground for myself.
I am already a huge fan of bear hunting and have successfully harvested 29 of them including 13 with a bow. The majority have been spot and stalk. Unfortunately, none of them have been the mighty grizzly/brown bear. This critter seems to be my kryptonite in the hunting world. I have made three different trips to Alaska in search of this elusive trophy and have spent a total of 48 days hunting him, only to have three metal tags hanging in my garage to remind me of my poor luck. I made treks to the most well known haunts on Kodiak Island and the peninsula to do the job, but I just never could get it done.
I was about ready to throw in the towel on this species until I met Wade Renfro on a fishing adventure with Tikchik Adventures. We were evaluating his operation for our Platinum Approved Outfitter program and slaying the lakers, char, rainbows and salmon when we started discussing my horrible luck with brown bears. He said that he had a hunting operation that he operated under a different name of “Renfro’s Alaskan Adventures”. He specializes in brown bears and big moose. After seeing what a great job he did with his fishing operation and his continuing reassurance that he could get me a bear, I almost forgot about my horrible luck and scheduled a bear hunt for the following fall.
Wade had agreed to guide me personally, which meant we would have to be at the end of his season because his hunts book up so far in advance and he only had the one slot left for the fall of 2011. I knew that the weather would be horrible, but I could endure anything if I could just get this 800 pound gorilla off of my back.
I arrived in Bethel, Alaska (West Alaska) on the 3rd of October. We had planned on getting our gear loaded up and headed to the field the morning of the 4th, but the typical fall weather this time of year had already made a change to our plans. Wade had several camps with successful bear hunters still stuck in the field due to flight conditions. Since I am a veteran Alaska hunter and traveler, I’m used to changing plans and rolling with the punches until the weather cooperates. Fortunately, I was able to get caught up on a lot of work and some needed rest at the Cranberry Bed and Breakfast while I waited out the weather. By the fourth day of our delay, I had caught up on all the work and sleep that I could possibly need and it was looking like my luck was holding steady with this brown bear hunting once again. Just when I was starting to feel really sorry for myself, Wade called and said someone was headed to pick me up and to be ready in thirty minutes. We would be on our way to camp today and hunting tomorrow.
Flying out in a Super Cub is one of my favorite things to do. The excitement of finally being in the air and starting the hunt is always part of it, but traveling at 100 miles per hour and 500 feet of elevation allows you to see everything the area has to offer. We couldn’t get loaded fast enough. When I walked back into the hanger to grab my rifle, I was taken aback by the huge moose rack sitting on a pallet. There was a 70 plus inch monster moose waiting to be shipped to the taxidermist of one lucky hunter from the 2011 season. What a sight to behold prior to taking off on my own adventure.
Wade had chosen to hunt the mountains in an area where his wife, Jackie had killed a huge bear a couple of years before. He said that this late in the season, the bears would be feeding on berries most of the time and would wipe out the last few salmon left in the streams. As we circled to land, a pass over the stream revealed a hand full of salmon still in the water and bear tracks on the sandbars proved that Wade was on the money with his prediction. He dropped me off and shuttled several more loads of gear with the cub.
Our camp was a much different backcountry Alaska camp than I had expected and was why Wade had to make several trips with gear. It wasn’t just Wade and I with freeze dried food to eat. We had a Bomb Shelter two-man sleeping tent and a larger cook tent with propane heater, lantern, stove, table and chairs. It was well stocked with good food for the next ten days as well. We even had Nate who was our packer and motivated young spirit training to be a future guide. Wade prides himself on having a camp that you can get a good nights’ sleep in, dry yourself off, and refuel your system with home cooked meals every night. This hunt was getting better by the minute.
On our first morning out we spotted bears immediately, but unfortunately the biggest was only about a seven and a half foot sow (female). She had an absolutely beautiful coat and it was all that I could do to not go after her. This was now my 50th day in the field hunting bears and here was a legal bear with a great hide and I was going to pass. I had to be crazy. I actually had to be talked off of the ledge by Wade. He assured me that we would find a good boar (male) with an equally good coat for me to put my tag on. By the end of the day, we had seen seven different bears, but they were all females. The berry crop was non-existent and no bears came to the stream to chase salmon all day. I was at least excited because we were seeing lots of bears and I figured that it would be just a matter of time before we got our chance.
Four days later, I was still sitting on an unfilled tag and we had sighted 26 different bears. Only one was a small boar, but it was too late to film and I turned down the opportunity to fill my tag due to the inability to get a show for Sportsman’s News Television. My days were running out and getting limited and a big storm was scheduled to hit in just a few days that could possibly shut us down for good. Wade said we needed to break camp and move to where there was a good food supply, which meant fish. The boars had to still be down low.
We spent the better part of the morning breaking camp and getting it up to the rudimentary flight line on the tundra. With the cub packed up, Wade and I ventured to check out another area near the drainages main river. Sure enough, there were still a lot of fish in the river and sloughs and loads of big bear tracks as well. Wade settled us down on the tundra a half mile from the largest concentration of fish. Nate and I assembled camp as Wade shuttled the remainder of the gear. Once again we lost our afternoon hunt due to flying. When Wade landed with the last load, he informed me that he had seen a big boar on the slough looking for fish when he took off the last time. It appeared that our move just might have been a great decision.
We got up early the next morning and my excitement was at a new high. As we walked over the hill towards the slough, I just felt like this was finally my day. We topped the hill and Wade immediately dropped to the ground. The big boar was on the opposite side of the slough and walking away, but kept checking his back trail. We watched him walk out into the alders from our elevated position and once he bedded at 650 yards, we started to close the gap. We got a couple of hundred yards from the edge of the water, but still 500 from the big boar and the thick alders wouldn’t allow for a quiet stalk. We decided that we would wait for him to come back to fish, even if it took all day.
As we sat on the hill waiting for the sun to come up and warm our bodies, Wade spotted two more bears and one was a giant, but over a mile away. He only stood on the sandbar for a minute and then vanished like a ghost. We had seen three bears and all were boars in just an hour. Our bedded bear moved into thicker cover and farther away, but we were confident that he would come back to fish in the evening and if he didn’t, many bears were moving.
Several hours had passed when Wade hissed at me and pointed towards the river. Less than a half mile away and walking up the slough we were sitting on was a dark chocolate brown bear. He observed the fish in the slough and slowly walked our direction. It took nearly 20 minutes for him to get within 500 yards and I was sure that he was going to turn and walk the other way at any time. I had been so conditioned to my brown bear hunts not working out that I was sure something would go wrong. At 350 yards, I started feeling like it might actually come together.
Wade informed me that this bear wasn’t as big as the one we were waiting on to come back to the slough, but he was still well over eight feet and a mature bear. I assured Wade that I knew that was the case and if this was the bear the good Lord was going to send me after 54 days of hunting, I wasn’t going to turn my nose up at him. I had gotten myself into the prone position and my Ruger M77 in .375 Ruger with Vortex Viper HS was settled across my pack waiting for the shot when he broke the 250 yard mark. I just needed him to find an opening. It seemed like forever before he reappeared again and now he was on our side of the creek and still walking.
After five minutes hyper-ventilating and shaking like a leaf, I somehow managed to gain my composure and settled my crosshairs on his near shoulder. I squeezed the trigger and the big bruin bucked up onto his hind legs and took off for the river. Before I could get another shell in the chamber and get back on target, he was down.
I had finally done it. The bad luck was gone and the goal was accomplished. So much anticipation and letdowns over the previous three trips overwhelmed me as I broke down into tears and uncontrollable shakes. It was this emotion and feeling that came over me as a 12 year old boy standing over my first big buck that brings me back to the sport and although a little embarrassed, I’m happy that I can still get that excitement on a hunt every now and then.
We walked up to the big bruin and he was everything I had imagined. We took great photos and caped my trophy. I had hardly started to absorb the moment when Wade said “Now that we got rid of your bad luck, now we can get you back up here and get you a giant”. I can hardly wait to get back to Renfro’s Alaskan Adventures for another big bear and possibly a huge moose.
This great adventure was captured on film for an episode of SNTV. It is available at the cash register of every Sportsman’s Warehouse during the month of December. See this great hunt as well as Kevin Orton (Sportsman’s News Pro-Staffer) harvests a 206” giant mule deer with his muzzleloader and many other great shows. At $2.99 each, they make great stocking stuffers.
Wade Renfo is one of our prestigious Platinum Approved Outfitters and we endorse both of his operations. Renfro’s Alaskan Adventures, which is his hunting business can be viewed at www.renfrosalaskanadventures.com and Tikchik Adventures, which is his fishing business can be viewed at www.tikchikadventures.com or give Wade a call at 907-543-1954.