By Chad LaChance
As a professional outdoorsman and host of Fishful Thinker TV for the last decade, I’ve learned the importance of preparation for success, be it for a day trip on the lake I guide on or a cross-country trip in the Tundra to some river or bay I’ve never seen. Same holds true for hunts or even camping trips; preparing to win, as cliche as it sounds, is paramount to success. This includes everything from cloths to gear to rods, reels or rifles. The less that is left to chance, the lower the odds that some scenario will be encountered that messes you up. The longer the trip or more remote the destination, the more important the planning process is. After all, many Americans may not realize it, but there are places where running to the store to grab something you need but failed to bring, simply ain’t happenin’ and that World Wide Web may not be as world-wide as it sounds when it comes to delivering needed goods in out-of-the-way places.
Furthermore, I’ve learned to lean on those that have actually been there when visiting some place – especially a remote place that a relative few have been to – when choosing what exactly to bring. Oh and I’ve also learned that quality counts; if my success or possibly even safety revolves around a piece of gear, I’m going to source a quality product.
Enter Kodiak Island Alaska, in late fall, hunting giant brown bears. My inner-outdoorsman tells me that qualifies as a relatively remote place not a ton of people have been to and that my safety and success may hinge on my gear and clothing even more than normal. Yep, this is going to require some preparation.
Last month, here in Sportsman’s News, I detailed some of the hunt’s background information, including the fact that I won the trip – a $30,000 ten day guided hunt – by having the foresight to enter the Pro Membership Sweepstakes (promembershipsweepstakes.com in case you want to win a hunting or fishing trip or some awesome guns and gear). I’ll be on the trip while you’re reading this very column and yes, I’m pumped and a bit nervous. The trip will involve four plane rides each way, including a classic old float plane and most of my hunting, I’m told, will be from a small, open aluminum boat (think jon boat). Once a suitable bear is located, we’ll beach and stalk. I’m also told the bears are big and not overly friendly, kind of like the island’s weather.
I’ve never been to Kodiak Island or hunted brown bears, so I started asking questions of those that have and whose opinions I respect. In last month’s column I detailed the clothing. Several Kodiak experts were consulted and the commonality was Sitka Gear. A visit to Sportsman’s Warehouse handled that and I’m now confident I can stay warm and dry regardless of what Mother Nature throws at us. Now let’s look at some of the other gear a trip like this requires.
I’m a lifelong big game hunter, with most of my exploits taking place in the western United States. That means I already have many of the items I’ll need for this hunt, but that does not diminish the need for preparation. In the case of gear I already have, preparation includes making SURE whatever the item may be that it is in good working order and appropriate for the somewhat different type of hunting this will be. What works for, say, arid plains deer may be out of place in bog somewhere in a Kodiak Island valley, even if the intended task is the same. If nothing else, the environment will be a lot wetter.
Let’s talk rifles. Brown bears are big, like 10-feet tall and 1200-pounds, give or take. They’re also not very friendly and have been known to charge when shot at, possibly even when hit. So, rifle and ammo selection is critical, given that I want to live through the hunt. I considered archery for a minute; then the buzz wore off and I went back to the gun decision. The rifle make and model was easy for me, the caliber, not so much.
I shoot Browning rifles. Have for my entire life and my safe is full of them, ranging from original A-Bolts all the way to the vaunted X-Bolt Hells Canyon series. The last thing I want for a dangerous game hunt is an unfamiliar rifle, so back to Browning I looked because when I raise my rifle to shoot at an animal that will fight back, I want all of it to be automatic muscle memory. The stock feels the same in hand, the safety is in the same place and the bolt works exactly the same should a follow-up shot be required. Besides familiarity, I have a huge amount of confidence in the rifles; they all shoot and cycle extremely reliably. They feature a short throw, 60-degree bolt for speedy cycling and low scope mounting which aids in primary balance and minimizes mechanical off-set between the scope line of sight and the bore. Browning X-Bolts have detachable magazines that are inexpensive, so I can carry an extra loaded mag in case the poo really hits the fan, as opposed to trying to stuff loose shells in a rifle under serious duress. The trigger pull is adjustable too, so I can set it to match all my other rifles; from my varmint rifle to my deer rifle and now the bear rifle, they all feel the same in hand with the exception of minor differences in overall weight. From all that I derive confidence and confidence leads to success.
So, I chose an X-Bolt Hunter and procured the extra magazine. Caliber? That was tougher, but after considering a few options I settled on a .375 H&H Mag. Why such a big bore? Because where I’m going, when I’m going, could yield an extremely large bear, even by brown bear standards. Additionally, I have no interest in shooting one from any farther away than absolutely necessary. If I’m going to hunt the largest land-based predator on Earth, weighing three times what a male African lion weighs, I want the full experience. I want to feel its presence and be up close and personal in a way that sniping one from 300 yards would never provide. That’s fine for deer and elk back home, but brown bears are different.
The .375 H&H has proven stopping power, lots of it, without being ridiculously hard on shooters. At ranges I’m expecting to shoot, it’s very accurate and is considered by many experienced dangerous game hunters as a forgiving round with reliable performance. I’m not arguing with that. Since I shoot DoubleTap ammunition with great success in my other X-Bolts, I looked to them for this one too, ultimately settling on their DT Safari line of ammo, specifically sending a 300 grain Nosler Accubond bullet down range. It leaves the muzzle at 2,640 feet per second, generating more than 4,550 pounds of energy. That, friends, will stop even a big ol’ bear, if I put it where it needs to go.
Speaking of putting it where it needs to go, the X-Bolt is topped with a 2X-10X Leupold VX-5HD, featuring lots of eye relief. While I’m hoping to shoot point blank on 2X, if I need to zoom it up for a longer shot, I can. Because the .375 ain’t exactly a flat shooter, we had the factory cut an elevation dial to this rifle’s actual measured ballistics. That way, in the event of a wounded bear that flees requiring a long follow-up shot, I can dial up the requisite yardage and hold dead on. I really don’t want to have to estimate hold-over on a critical shot while the adrenaline is flowing and besides, the time it takes to range and dial is, in my experience, a perfect way to gather my composure. Lastly, I added a Pachmayr Magnum Recoil Decelerator slip-on pad over the factory recoil pad. I’ll only use it while practicing, subsequently removing it for the actual hunt. The last thing I want to do is develop a flinch while practicing; the only thing worse than that would be not practicing. The extra pad makes it tolerable.
Speaking of practice, once the rifle was zero’d at 100 yards and the dial verified, I stepped away from the bench. I never practice with any hunting rifle off a bench because that is bench rest practice and only good for testing a rifle’s accuracy – not developing real world shooting skills. So, I practice for reality, starting with lots of dry firing off shooting sticks at various target sizes. You’d be surprised how helpful this is at developing muscle memory and trigger skills. Then I shot a bunch actual rounds off the sticks while sitting, kneeling and standing as well as a few off make-shift rests like my backpack. I also shot a bunch of off-hand, starting at 25-yards and in each position, I start with the rifle NOT at ready, always focusing on a smooth speed in establishing a rest, rifle mount and sight picture. If I have loads of time, great. but rarely in hunting is that the case, so I practice being efficient and smooth.
In all cases, I shoot at 6” diameter paper plates, not sight-in targets. I feel sight-in targets have a way of making big game shooters micro manage the shot and what hunters really need to do is develop confidence; hitting a vital sized target over and over will do just that. After all my practice with the .375, I determined that I can off-hand out to 75 yards confidently if required, can easily shoot out to 300 yards standing with the shooting sticks and can dial and hit farther than I’m willing to shoot at a bear if I have time and space to sit. For the record, I practiced in the wind as well.
Given the importance of shooting sticks in all my big game hunting, two versions will go to Kodiak Island with me. I most commonly use the tall Primos Trigger Stick bi-pod; it spends more time doubling as binocular rests while glassing than it does a rifle rest but can be used to shoot from standing all the way down to sitting. The overall leg length can make them a bit awkward when sitting flat on the ground to shoot, so if I have time or will be sitting for a while, I prefer a Primos Polecat sitting length bi-pod; the legs are three-piece, shock-corded together and they stow easily.
The last rifle related items I’ll pack are a fully adjustable nylon sling with padded “grippy” shoulder strap and a rifle cover. Why nylon and grippy? Because I’ll be wearing copious amounts of Sitka clothing and it may very well be rainy or snowy – I don’t want to fight the sling sliding off my shoulder or leather getting wet. I also procured a Sentry Armadillo rifle cover. It’s a water-resistant cloth cover that slides over the top of the rifle, covering the entire thing including the scope and muzzle to keep water drops or dirt out, yet allowing the rifle to be slung over my shoulder. It’s very quick to remove and can be cinched tight as well. I expect the rifle will stay inside it for most of the hunt.
This style of bear hunting is spot and stalk which also happens to be my normal big game M.O. so I’ll carry my usual 10X42 binoculars. For this hunt, they’ll be housed in Sitka’s Bino Bivy harness to keep the lenses dry, yet immediately handy. I typically spend a lot of time glassing, so resting them on top of the shooting sticks is a great way to stabilize the view and reduce arm fatigue because the arms don’t have to hold against the resistance of the stretched bino harness. Try it – good trick, even sitting down.
Because the .375 H&H lobs bullets compared to, say, the .26 Nosler I typically shoot and because brown bears are larger than anything I’ve ever judged yardage on, laser range finders could end up being critical if a longer shot is required. I carry a Nikon Prostaff 7i; it’s a small, simple ranger for reasonable distance (I’ve used it on deer out to 700 yards) and I’m very familiar with using it in a hurry. In an effort to avoid needing range finders at all, I’ll carry a small breeze “sniffer” bottle to help with stalking close.
Boat based hunting means that long hikes won’t be on the agenda, so a reasonable sized backpack should suffice. I will utilize my Tenzing TZ 2220 which has a fold-out rain cover as well as a rifle boot, plus it’s compatible with most 2L water bladders. I usually use this pack on day hunts and here again, I’m already familiar with it.
Hunters need knives and to that end, I’ll carry three of them; a skinner, a meat knife and a general purpose knife, all fixed blades. Fixed blades are lighter in weight and more reliable, plus easier to sharpen. I carry a small stone to sharpen as needed.
Some little things I’ve packed or learned over the years can also help big time. I already devoted a whole column to my clothing as noted above, but even with cozy Sitka Gear, I still like to have portable heat packs. I’ll carry one in each hand pocket, so when I’m not wearing gloves, I can warm up my fingers. Given that I have never liked gloves from the dexterity standpoint, these heat packs can be life savers. In a pinch, they can double to keep batteries warm too and they’re very cheap. A lens cloth is also a handy item. Scope, binoculars, camera lenses and even my Costa sunglasses will likely all need cleaning repeatedly and a lens cloth will do so without damage. A small first aid kit also goes along. I don’t care if the guide has one or not. If I need first aid, I’m prepared. Same concept with a small rifle cleaning kit; I carry a kit to clear the bore in the event something silly happens like I fall in the mud, plus to simply wipe off the day’s grime to ensure it functions properly when I need it to. I also carry a small hand towel on all my hunts, this one included. Somehow that thing always seems to get used.
The last, yet one of the most important things I’ll mention, is a dry bag which for me, means an Otterbox Yampa Dry Duffle. Kodiak Island is a very wet place and any gear getting wet is not an option from the safety or comfort standpoint. The Yampa Dry Duffle is available large enough to include all my requisite gear and it’ll obviously keep stuff dry. What may not be so obvious is that the bag is completely padded with low density foam to protect contents against impact. The interior is brightly colored to make it easy to find small items within and it has a backpack harness with neoprene shoulder straps, so it can be worn like a backpack in transit and even has an airflow promoting back pad. It’s got a reinforced bottom, impervious to whatever I may set it on in the boat or ground and has clips and straps that can be configured to allow use as checked or carry-on luggage, which is how I’ll transport it. A dry bag is very handy for any outdoorsman and this is the best on the market in terms of features and functionality.
Given that this hunt is fully outfitted by Larsen Bay Lodge, many of the fundamental items I would normally need to pack like a spotting scope, bedding, etc will be on hand. So, the list above, along with my previous clothing column, amounts to about 95% of what I’ll fly to Kodiak Island with. I’d like to point out that this is my first hunting trip in Alaska and the anticipation has been great. Planning for any trip is a major part of the fun and this is a trip of Kodiak bear proportions. If I had not become a member of the Pro Membership Sweepstakes, I’d likely would have never gone on a hunt like this. I feel like I won, even if we don’t harvest a bear!