By Larry Weishuhn
“Drop the slab to the bottom. Reel up two cranks and jig it a bit. You’ll likely catch a black rock bass soon as you do.” Explained Keegan McCarthy as I dropped the lure into the 75 to 100 feet of Alaskan sea water.
The lure hit bottom I started to reel up two cranks. Immediately I had a fish on. Following a fun fight I swung a two-pound black rock bass on board the Sikumi. Behind me I heard Keegan, “Keep that one and one more that’s as big or bigger, release the rest.”
During the next thirty minutes I caught twenty-one more fish. I kept a second which was a half-pound bigger than my first keeper. I hated quitting, but heard Keegan say lunch was about to be served. And, I knew shortly thereafter we would be loading into skiffs and officially starting our spring black bear hunt.
Gathered around a well appointed table, shrimp, crab, fish seafood buffet. As we ate Keegan explained our group would be splitting up and going in different directions taking our respective skiff into areas where in the past the guides had seen big bears. “We’ll look for areas on shore with fresh green growth. Usually the oldest and biggest bears claim prime feeding areas. We’ll also look for skunk cabbage, one of the bears’ favorite early spring forages. Once we spot a bear we’ll maneuver downwind to shore and approach from there. We may also walk into areas where we can’t take the skiffs. We have extremely high and low tides here. We don’t want to be left stranded high and mostly dry or with a skiff far out in the water with no way to get back to camp!”
“We’ll try to get as close as possible. We want to get a really good look at the bear before deciding whether or not to take a shot. We, the guides, will look at the overall body confirmation, but want to get a look at the bear’s head and forelegs. There are some extremely big black bears in this areas. Some will square well over seven and close to eight feet. We also have a lot of wolves. Each of you have wolf tags. If you see a wolf, if possible, shoot.”
“Do your best to put the bear down where he stands. Shoot, reload and hit the bear again until he’s down for good. These bear are big bodied and can take a lot. If your bear goes down with the first shot, reload and stay on him until your guide tells you he’s down for sure. If he stirs shoot him again! We don’t want to follow a wounded bear into the thick stuff.”
“Always wear or take your raingear! If it’s not raining when we leave the Sikumi, it will be before we get back. You’ll probably want to wear raingear to keep from getting wet while on the skiff.”
“We’ll mostly be hunting in the afternoon. In the morning you’re welcome to fish, or just relax. Larry you also have licenses for shrimp and crab pots. Once we settle, we’ll put pots. However, we will likely be moving the Sikumi from one bay to another. Sometimes the trip may be only an hour, other times me may be moving several hours. We have a huge area to hunt. We’re going to do our best to put you on old, mature boars, the biggest black bears of your life!”
“Any questions or requests, let us know and we’ll do our best to answer and accommodate.” Keegan hesitated, “We’ll plan on leaving the boat in about an hour and a half and will be out until late. Eat hearty!”
I did! Satisfied I waddled to my room, went through my gear one more time, put on my Drake Non-Typical clothes, then made certain I had a sufficient number of Hornady 300-garin DGX rounds for my .375 Ruger, Ruger FTW/SAAM Hunter rifle. Then donned my Drake Waterfowl rain gear. On a previous hunt with Keegan and his Coastal Alaska Adventures (www.coatalalaskaadventures.com) for Sitka blacktail deer I did not wear Drake, and paid a wet and cold price.
Minutes later I crawled into one of the skiffs Keegan kept on the Sikumi. It was cold and windy, windy as in 30 miles per hour winds. Austin Manelik, my cameraman for our “DSC’s Trailing the Hunter’s Moon” which appears year around on Pursuit Channel, handed me a camera and then boarded the skiff. A few moments later Keegan expertly guided our small boat through the waves tall enough to ride a surf board on. “We’ll be out of the wind in a little while. I want to look at an area where last year I saw a bear that would likely square eight feet.”
We spent the next nearly five hours on the water. We spotted two small bears before we headed back to our “mother ship”, the Sikumi. The other guides and their hunters, too had only seen a few bears. Nothing of size, and, a lot more green growth than they expected. After a late arrival snack, Keegan announced, “We’re moving first things in the morning to another area. No need to be up early. We should be where I want us to go next by about ten or so. You’ll have a chance to fish at the new destination if you wish before we go after bear.”
I slept soundly that night. The slight rocking of the boat was truly relaxing! Even so I was up early, had a cup of coffee and then joined Keegan on the bridge as we made our way to a new area. As mentioned I had previously hunted with Keegan and his Coastal Alaska Adventures for sitka blacktail deer and sea duck hunt. While that hunt had truly been an adventure, I loved everything about the hunt. When the opportunity, through a charity auctioned hunt bought by Jay Townsend allowed me to again hunt with Keegan I jumped at the chance!
After a 20 miles move Keegan settled the Sikumi into a wind-protected cove. Soon as he did I started fishing. First “drop” I caught about a 2-pound black sea bass. I released all but two, which we filleted. After an early tremendously delicious lunch, I donned necessary raingear and again started fishing. It took about ten minutes of trying before I again hooked into something. This time I brought up about a ten-pound halibut, which I cleaned and presented to our on-board chef, a fellow Texan from one of the finer restaurants in San Antonio, Texas.
That afternoon in the rain and wind we “toured” and looked at numerous hidden coves in hopes of finding a big bear. We did see bear including one of which was being chased by wolves. We tried to beach the skiff for a shot at the wolf, but he was gone before I got an opportunity.
Next morning, I was fishing when Keegan approached, “We’re going to move in about thirty minutes. Bad storm headed our way.” No sooner did he turn toward the bridge than I hooked into what felt like something big! Minutes later I brought aboard a prehistoric looking sculpin that probably weighed about eight pounds, truly a unique looking fish!
Minutes later I walked into the “great room” grabbed a cup of hot, delicious coffee, then headed to the bridge to visit with Keegan as we motored north.
In route to our next destination, we spotted an iceberg. “We’ll pull alongside, and try to break off a chunk to take with us. Glacier ice is extremely dense and hard from pressure. The glacier ice has been frozen for possibly a thousand years or more. It takes a long time to melt.” Explained Keegan.
Once we had chipped off a couple of sizable chunks of ice we moved on. An hour later we pulled into a secluded bay where two rivers entered from the extreme left and right. “We’ll hunt the river to the left this afternoon. I’ve got a spot where I usually see numerous bears, and almost always one or two monsters.”
Less than an hour later we were aboard our skiff, motoring up a swift flowing river toward a large shallow lake. It rained all the way.
We had barely tied to a small island of rocks when we spotted a bear in a secluded cove. “We need to get a closer look.” Said Keegan as he untied from the rock. We floated toward the bear.
There was no doubt he was mature boar, over seven feet with a luxurious coat so black it had a bluish sheen.
The bear was indeed big and handsome. “He’s good, no rubs, in a position where we can take him, the decision is yours! We may or may not find a bigger bear.”
I took another look at the bear, then grabbed for my camera. “I’m going to pass on him. If we don’t see a bigger bear, I will not regret not shooting this one. There’s no doubt we could take him. But he is not one of those bears that takes your breath away!” By the smile on Keegan’s face I could tell he was more than OK with my passing the big boar.
That night back on board our floating camp we learned Jay’s son had taken a true monster, which would square well over seven feet. His story was told again and again well into the night!
We hunted in another direction the next day and saw some of the most beautiful coastal Alaskan terrain imaginable, but no bears. The following day I caught numerous fish, as well as nearly loaded our skiffs with big Dungeness crabs and shrimp. Over seafood feast once we all returned from a cold, wet evening hunt, I learned everyone on board had seen bears, including one which was being chased by a pack of eight wolves. Too, one of Jay’s guests had taken his first black bear that afternoon, a beautifully haired boar.
Next morning, I fished in the rain, caught many fish, then prepared for the afternoon hunt. Keegan suggested we go up the other river, opposite of one we had hunted previously. “I’ve been after a bear up that stream for the past three years. He’s big, one of the biggest black black bear I have ever seen. We’ll go as far as we can with the skiff, then hike from there. Won’t be easy walking. We’ll have about two hours to hunt before the tide starts going out. Once it starts it will go out in a hurry. We tarry too, long and we’ll have to walk many miles to deeper water where I can call to have someone pick us up in another skiff. You game?” Asked Keegan. I nodded an affirmative.
Later, we tied our skiff on a log next to shore. The area between water and tall trees was covered with big bear tracks and skunk cabbage. Keegan crawled high into a tree. Reaching his perch, he started glassing. “Bear! Big bear about a mile farther up the river. Let’s get a closer look.” We sloshed upstream.
Unfortunately, we did not see the bear again, but we did see two small bull moose which probably spooked from the bear Keegan had seen.
I looked at the receding water, the tide was going out fast. Keegan questioned, “Should we stay and hope the bear shows? I don’t think that bear was the monster I’ve seen here before. Or should we run back to the skiff and hope we can get out of this bay before the tide goes out?”
“Let’s try to get back to the skiff, if we make it in time, we can hunt our way back to the Sikumi…” I suggested. With that we took off at a walk as fast as each step bogging down to above our ankles allowed us.
We made it back to our skiff with barely enough water to float and we had to push and pole our way to deeper water. To complicate matters, it was quickly getting dark. We had about 30 minutes of camera light left. Did I mention it was raining, again or still?
We had just gotten in water deep enough to use the motor when Keegan spoke, “Bear, on left, back behind the long log. He may be big!” I spotted the bear about a second after Keegan. He looked huge.
Keegan guided the skiff to a “safe” area where we could get out and initiate our stalk. The wind, thankfully, was blowing from the bear to us. “Let’s go!”
I made certain I had three Hornady rounds in the magazine of my .375 Ruger, and several extras, then sloshed behind Keegan toward shore.
Taking advantage of the shore line we cut the distance to a hundred yards. “We’ll have to get closer to get a better look. I think he’s a shooter, over seven feet, but want to make certain. We’ll cross that small stream. Stay behind the log. When we get to it, from there I should be able to tell for certain.” Said Keegan as we started moving toward the bear.
When I stepped into the small stream, it was considerably deeper than expected. I dove forward and caught the opposite bank, pulled myself out of the water and sloshed to the fallen log.
At Keegan’s side I settled the Ruger on the bear and waited. Keegan kept looking, wanting to get a better look at the bear’s head.
“Dead bear!” Keegan’s words I had longed to hear! I waited for a broadside shot, then gently pulled the trigger. At the shot the bear started to go down, recovered and turned to run.
Immediately after the shot, I bolted in a fresh round and as the bear started to run away I shot again and dropped him in his tracks. I added a fresh round into the rifle’s magazine while Keegan kept his .375 Ruger on the bear. The bear did not again move.
Together we walked cautiously toward the downed bear. The closer we got, the bigger my bear seemed to grow.
Kneeling at the bear’s side, I could not believe his size. My biggest black bear to date had been one that squared 7 feet 8 inches, one taken several years ago on Arizona’s White Mountain Apache Reservation. This bear was longer and wider.
After hearty congratulations, some quick photos and finishing all we needed for a successful television episode, we gutted the bear, then covered him with our rain gear. We would have to come back in the morning to skin him and properly take care of his meat. Frankly I did not relish the thought of leaving the bear overnight, but we really didn’t have a choice. If we tarried any longer than what we already had, we would not be able to get back the “mother ship” that night.
Next morning, we returned at first light. In full daylight my bear looked even bigger. After more photos we skinned him for a full-body mount, then quartered him to make carrying the meat to the skiff a bit easier.
On board the Sikumi that afternoon we fleshed the hide then pulled out a tape. We laid the skin flat then measured him for tip of nose to tip of tail and the span of his front legs, across his back from claw to claw, added the two measurements and divided by two to come up with the hide’s “square”. We did not stretch the hide. My bear squared 7 feet 11 inches. Had we stretched the skin as some do, my bear would have squared an even 8 feet! I was thrilled beyond words. I had taken my biggest black bear in nearly forty years of hunting bear.