In early May, two days before my highly anticipated brown bear hunt in Alaska, I got a phone call. It was the outfitter asking if I would reschedule the hunt. His reasoning was simple. He’d been with two hunters for 10 days and hadn’t seen a single bear. Plus, temperatures were in the 80s, which was unheard of this time of year.
We were planning on filming the action for a TV show I hosted at the time, “The Hunt,” which was to air on three major networks, including Netflix. My schedule was full for the next two years. The fact that these outfitters had yet to see a bear actually left me optimistic. I was feeling that bears could arrive on the coast at any time. I voiced my thoughts to Bruce Hallingstad, owner and head guide at Becharof Outfitters. I had hunted with Hallingstad before, and he was game to give it a try.
As with hunting any big game in Alaska, the allure of brown bears is addicting. That’s why I was headed back on a spring bear hunt with Hallingstad. Four years prior, in the fall, I’d taken a nice brown bear with him. On that hunt, we saw a 10-foot class boar but couldn’t get to it in the muddy tidal flats. The bear I ended up getting on that hunt squared just under nine feet. I’d always yearned for a 10-foot brown bear, one of the most difficult big-game feats in North America.
Upon arriving in the tiny village of Egegik, Alaska, on a sunny May day, temperatures hovered in the upper 70s. All the ice was gone from the bay and it had been for over a month, which is far ahead of the norm.
“This spring hunt is usually 100%, and always 100% opportunity,” Hallingstad shook his head as we unloaded the bush plane. We’ve gone one for four so far this season, and that was the only bear we’ve seen,” he said.
The following morning, Hallingstad, George Joy (one of his top guides), my camera crew and I loaded into the boat and headed across Egegik Bay to the south spit. By the time we reached the cabin it was 10 a.m., and heat waves could be seen rolling across the yellow, grassy flats.
“You guys unpack, I’ll head upstairs to the crow’s nest and start glassing,” Hallingstad suggested. We were barely into our first bag when Hallingstad sent everyone scurrying. “Bear, Bear…Big bear!” he shouted from the second-story cabin platform, the best vantage point for miles. We’d been in camp for seven minutes.
Rushing up the narrow stairway, peeking out the window that led to the crow’s nest Hallingstad built specifically for spotting bears, I could see the beast with my naked eye. He was nearly two miles away. Looking at the bear through my 10×42 Swarovski binoculars, it was obvious we were seeing a big one. “He’s over 10 feet,” Hallingstad exclaimed. «You go get your waders and all your gear on, I’ll keep watching the bear.”
George pumped up a raft and I got ready. I then switched places with Bruce while he suited up. Looking at that bear through the spotting scope for the first time was an image I’ll never forget. The first feature to catch my eye was its blocky head. The bear’s hind quarters were massive and with each step, they gyrated independently from the front half of its body. The front legs were thick all the way to its wrists. The bear was too far away to see the ears through the silver shimmer of incessant heat waves flowing over the tundra. However, the dragging belly and the slow, deliberate walk left no doubt that this was a very old, very big bear.
Soon Hallingstad was ready, and we were both sitting in the crow’s nest watching the bear. “It’s getting dark about midnight,” he smiled, “so we have plenty of time.”
For more than 30 minutes we watched the bear, anticipating where it might be headed. The bear was in no hurry, grazing on grass as it slowly moved in our direction. “It’s behind a small ridge that starts at those willows and runs for two miles right to the beach,” Hallingstad noted. “I’ve seen so many bears travel this line over the years that I can just about promise you that’s where it’s going. Let’s go after it!”
Two hours later, Hallingstad and I were in position. Covering over a half-mile on foot, the going was easy. But just as we prepared to slip the raft into a 60-foot- wide creek and paddle across, the wind changed. “We have to get out of here,” Hallingstad ordered. Though the bear was still over a mile away, Hallingstad was right. Bears can smell food over five miles away, meaning they’d have no trouble picking up the foul odors of sweating humans.
“I’ve seen this bear several times over the past few years, and I guarantee if it smells us we’ll not see it again,” Hallingstad stated. I agreed, and we headed back to the crow’s nest, where George waited. George hadn’t seen the bear since we left, which meant it was likely bedded down. For the next several hours we never took our eyes off where we’d last seen the bear. “When it gets up that bear will either start working the ridge or pop out where we had to abort the stalk,” Hallingstad pointed out.
George made us all a tasty lunch and eight hours later, an impressive dinner. It was nearly 9 p.m. and for a moment I was seated in the crow’s nest alone. Glassing the same ground we’d been watching all day, I was struck when the big bear suddenly materialized in the spotting scope. Its slow gait and massive size left no doubt that it was our bear. It popped out on the end of the ridge, just as Hallingstad predicted. Had we stayed where we aborted the first stalk, that bear would have busted us.
Grabbing our gear, we wasted no time heading toward the bear. Traveling along the graveled beach of Bristol Bay allowed us to quickly cover ground. A small sea wall separated the beach from the tundra, hiding us from the bear. Moving across a firm, grassy flat, we reached the edge lined with taller grass, where I ranged the bear at just over 700 yards. Crossing a creek in the raft and following its meandering banks on foot, we closed to within 600 yards. The tide was out and two hours of daylight remained. Crawling up to the edge of a bank, I parted the grass and took another reading on the EL Range binos. Hitting at just over 400 yards, this was the first time I felt like this was going to happen. Then the bear slowly stood and lethargically sauntered in our direction. “If it keeps on this path we’re in good shape,” whispered Hallingstad.
At 400 yards out, the bear suddenly turned 90 degrees and kept walking. “If the bear goes out there, we’ll never catch up to it,” Bruce urged, grabbing his pack. Soon we were chasing the bear; that’s not a good scenario. Unless a bear stops, the odds of catching it are slim.
Despite walking as quickly as we could while trying to remain hidden, the bear was now over 800 yards away. My heart sank as I felt the reality of catching up to it slipping away.
Pausing to catch our breath, Hallingstad tapped me on the shoulder. “The bear just laid down!” he whispered. We’d been pulling the little raft with a rope, and we decided to ditch it in order to more quickly cover ground. As long as we didn’t have to cross any more creeks we’d be fine, but if a surprise turn in any of the area’s meandering streams surprised us, the stalk would end.
With less than an hour of daylight remaining, we stuck to the edge of a creek bed and started walking quickly. Soon we were 650 yards from the bear, then 500, then for the first time, inside 400 yards.
I was shooting a .338-378 Weatherby Mag’ topped with a Trijicon 3×9 AccuPoint scope. The bullet of choice was a 225-grain Triple Shock. With this setup, combined with my favorite, three-leggexd Bog Pod shooting sticks, I felt comfortable shooting out to 400 yards. But on a bear of this stature, I really wanted to get within 300 yards.
Then, we caught a break. A sharp bend in the creek led precisely where we needed it to. Belly-crawling into position and laying in tall grass, I struggled to get a range on the bear. Then when its giant head slowly lifted, the sight took my breath away and I instantly pushed the rangefinder button. When a reading of 290 yards came back, I hit it again to confirm the distance. The bear was laying perfectly broadside, head facing to the right, toward the ocean. All the bear had to do was stand to clear the tall grass and it would be over.
For 15 minutes we sat motionless, waiting for the bear to stand. Finally, the bear rolled on its side, pivoted on its hind quarters, slowly gained its feet and started walking directly away. There was no shot.
The bear walked with surprising lethargy. Each stride seemed painful. All day we knew we were looking at an old bear, but for the first time I realized just how old it was. When the bear sauntered into a creek bed, dipping out of sight, we ran as fast as we could. That’s when we hit a meandering creek. It was too wide and too deep to cross and we didn’t have our raft.
I had no choice but to get set and hope for the best. As the bear sauntered from the creek bottom it quartered away, offering the perfect shot angle, but the grass was too thick to shoot through. Getting a range off the top of the bear’s back, I was relieved when 295 yards illuminated.
“As soon as it turns, I’ll take him,” I whispered to Hallingstad. But the bear didn’t turn. In fact, the bear kept slowly walking, straight away. My dreams of tagging the true bear of a lifetime were slipping away.
Watching the bear through the rifle scope, its stride suddenly slowed. Just beyond 325 yards, the mammoth bear sat on its hind legs.
At that angle the bullet would hit the spine and continue into the lungs. At the roar of the rifle, that’s exactly what happened. The bruin dropped on the spot, and though it wasn’t necessary, two insurance shots into the chest between the front legs made sure it was down for good.
More than 12 hours after spotting the bear, our hunt came to an end. Walking up on that bear was one of the most moving moments of my hunting career. I wasn’t shaking with adrenaline from having just taken this creature. Nor was I sad. It was a feeling of peace and contentment. I’d been fortunate to take a lot of amazing big game animals around the world, but this was the true pinnacle. And right then and there, I felt like my brown bear hunting career was over for good. This bear was extra special.
Skinning the bear for a life-size mount, the hide squared an incredible 10’9”. When dried, the skull measured a whopping 295/16” making it the third largest bear Bruce had taken in his camp in over 25 years. The bear was aged at 23 years; that is one of the oldest that’s ever been recorded on the Upper Peninsula.
I’ve been fortunate to experience some gratifying and deeply meaningful hunts in my life, but this brown bear hunt with Bruce Hallingstad was extra heartfelt. Bruce is a special person, a quiet, humble, hard-working man with a big heart. He’s also one of the best hunters I’ve ever been afield with, which made the experience even more special to me.
For signed copies of Scott Haugen’s popular line of hunting books, visit scotthaugen.com. Follow Scott’s adventures on Instagram and Facebook.
To learn more about hunting brown bear and moose with Bruce Hallingstad, call 907-439-3482 (summer months), 208-337-8211 (winter months) or email him at [email protected]