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Bowhunting Afognak Island Brown Bears

By Jake Ensign


 

 

Jake Ensign's History with Brown Bears

Many Bowsiters over the years are familiar with Jake's history of bowhunting for bears. Whether it be his two attempts for a polar bear , or his four unsuccessful attempts on an Alaskan Brown bear, the great bears of this continent seem bent on being Jake's hunting nemesis. Then there is the animal itself. Stockier, but perhaps not quite as long as a polar bear, the Alaskan Brown Bear is one of the two largest land carnivores on the North American continent. Able to outrun a horse in a short sprint, chasing these animals is not for the faint of heart.

On December 30th, 2009, I received a phone call from Mark Gutsmiedl. Mark is a registered Alaskan guide and also a hardcore bowhunter.  Alaska had recently changed the application deadline for brown bear on Afognak Island. What used to be March was now moved up to December. Mark thought that since many people might not be aware of this change, I might have a better chance this year.  I applied online and thought nothing more of it.

After the spring of 2010 I was 0/5 on brown bear. Everyone has a nemesis big game animal and mine was definitely a brown bear.

In the summer of 2010, I was outside preparing for the fall season when a visit to my mailbox brought me a surprise.  I had drawn the Afognak Island bear tag for 2010. Despite my dismal track record on brownies, the opportunity to hunt them again consumed me...once more.

Preparations began almost immediately.  I borrowed a life-sized McKenzie target from my friend, Bob Miller and started shooting everyday. Bob told me to use that target as much as I wanted since he wouldn't need it back.  I practiced with broadheads all summer until my accuracy (and confidence) were in top form.

Discuss Jake's Bowhunt Here

Due to conflicts and other scheduling issues, the earliest that Chris could make it to Kodiak was November 4th, more than week after the season started. Allowing for logistics and a charter flight to Afognak Island, we were looking at November 6th as our first full day to hunt.....weather permitting. This started to concern me. Most salmon runs occur well before this time and that late start could affect my chances for an opportunity to kill a brown bear. Additionally, November can bring some pretty severe weather (a typhoon had washed the fish out of the streams in the Fall of 2009). Nonetheless, before I knew it, November 4th found me on Kodiak Island and we arrived on Afognak Island early afternoon at high tide the following day.

The first thing we did was camp chores. We set-up the two Bomb Shelter tents – one for the food, and one for sleeping. Once that was done, I took my bow out for some shooting. I had packed a piece of foam and was walking back from setting it up when I heard a motor!  Sure enough, from the mouth of the bay I could see a man and woman in a small raft propelled by an outboard motor. They were scouting for Roosevelt Elk and Blacktails since both seasons were now open.  After a brief chat, they left and the three of us went into the sleeping tent to unpack and go to sleep.....when we heard voices outside again!  Some deer hunters were passing by. They stated that they had just scouted the entire valley we had planned on hunting, and had even managed to kill a buck.

I am a positive minded bloke, but by now I started adding everything up;  we are late for the salmon, there might be weather on the way, there is human scent up the valley, and a gun has been fired.  I chuckled at myself and wondered what else can go wrong?

The next morning, I got my answer. As Mark and I were leaving camp to set-up a spike camp upstream, we noticed the stream looked like chocolate milk!   The sediment content was so high that I seriously doubted any fish could survive in it.  Another nearby stream did not look this way, just the one that we intended to hunt. That was odd. Mark said that in all of his years of guiding this area, he had never seen such a phenomenon.

The Lower part of the stream was gray with silt

I suggested it was probably caused by some type of mass wasting upstream, like a landslide, and suggested we continue upstream to find it.  This stream was only six miles long on the map and the source of the sediment should be somewhere up ahead. We traveled close to four miles upstream (seeing NO fish and very little bear sign) until we found a small 3 foot wide tributary that was supplying the source of the sediment.  Just beyond that intersection we found salmon, and ten yards beyond that we found fresh bear tracks.

Eventually, we found a large pine tree at the base of a hill and set-up our spike camp 150 yards downwind from the stream.  By now, it was noon so we had a bite to eat then climbed the valley wall to glass the clear upstream portion which held the salmon.

This lone pine would be base camp for as long as it took

Mark spotted the first bears. For an hour we watched a sow, with three cubs catch fish. They slowly moved toward us before veering off to our right at the junction of a sharp 90 degree turn in the river.

We continued to glass for close to 45 minutes when I spotted a single bear 1,000 yards away. A quick glance through our binoculars confirmed the bear was larger and solitary - probably a boar. He was headed for the upper part of the stream which would likely bring him downstream and towards us.

Dropping quickly from our elevated position, Mark stayed 80-100 yards behind me, keeping dark brush and a pine tree behind him to break-up his outline. While he had a loaded .375 on the ground by his knee, he was going to try to video the hunt so long as things appeared to be going well.

The boar would need to travel a fairly curved section of the stream before making a sharp turn to his right (right where the sow and three cubs veered off to the southwest).  If he continued following the stream, there was a large pine tree one yard from the water's edge which had a large opening in its lower limbs affording me an outstanding view of the stream and a 15 yard shot.

Brown bear bowhunting

The big boar was going to walk by me at 15 yards - then something happened...

If the bear followed the stream past my position, 15 yards would be my longest shot. I was almost giddy with anticipation and excitement. The bear continued lumbering towards me and I confirmed it was a boar.  The wind was blowing about 30-35 mph, quartering towards me from my left (the northeast). The bear would be approaching from my right, so the wind was good. My jinx was in trouble!

When the bear reached the 50 yard mark he started to “cut the corner” off of the stream. His new approach would have him quartering towards me at 15 yards when he reached the edge of the stream again.  I could hear my pulse pounding in my ears.  THIS is what bowhunters live for.....an opportunity.....our own personal moment of truth. I had an arrow on the bow, and my release was clipped on my D-loop.

The bear had closed to 35 yards when he paused. I knew that I had the wind in my favor, so he certainly didn't wind me. He took 2-3 more steps, stopped, and then reversed his direction!

In situations like this, time seems to slow down. Our senses become magnified. I remember thinking that the bear was between 8 ½ to 9 feet - a shooter for me. I remember thinking that he was rapidly going to put distance between us. I remember thinking that the far bank was 40-45 yards away, and that I would not have time to range him.

I remember drawing the bow and telling myself that if the sight picture looked good when his foot hit that far bank, I would take the shot.  When it did... I did. The bear presented a sharp quartering away shot. I aimed 10 inches behind the last rib and released.

Watch Jake's Brown Bear Bowhunt Video

The arrow was perfect for elevation - my range estimate had been fine. However, the arrow was 1 ½ – 2 inches left to the left of my aiming point. Therefore, the arrow hit him in the right, rear ham with excellent penetration. He roared, and let me tell you, it made the hair on the back of my neck tingle. He turned to bite at the arrow then ran up the bank. I was now in what I refer to as “second arrow” mode. ANY chance to put another shaft in that animal will be taken....distance be damned.

I shot again when the boar was at 70 yards, and again my elevation was right on, but I hadn't led him enough. Because of the sharp angle, my arrow hit him in the back ham. He roared again, spun several times, bit the arrow off, and continued to run to the south.

He was crossing a large field of waist high grass and water-filled sluices. I took a long shot (just trying to get another arrow into him), and this time I led him perfectly, but the arrow went just over his back. However, instead of heading for the alders at the far end of the field, the bear appeared to be slowing.

I signaled to Mark that the first arrow had hit him a little too far back (for the shot angle that I was given), and I trotted the 80 yards back to Mark's slightly elevated position. When I reached Mark, we could both see the bear. It appeared that the bear was preparing to bed down in the field.

Mark kept the camera rolling as I circled downwind. I approached the bear with the wind in my face. He was lying on his back with all four feet in the air. Every 30 seconds, he would right himself and look around. When he dropped his head, all four feet would then come back up in the air.

Drawing a bow on a Kodiak Brown Bear

Jake draws on the big boar for a finishing shot

Once I got the timing of this routine, I continued to close the distance. When I reached 40 yards, I saw him lift his head and expose his shoulder. I immediately drew my bow and released, hitting exactly where I had aimed. Unfortunately, he was laying in such a way, that what I thought was his shoulder, was his rump. After thrashing around in the high grass for a few seconds, he dropped his head again.

This entire event (up to now) only took 5 minutes, but it sure seemed longer. My complete focus was to finish this animal off and end it as quickly as possible. I closed to 17 yards. When he picked up his head (and I could positively identify his shoulder), I released my last arrow. The arrow hit an inch behind the shoulder. Within seconds, he dropped out of sight into the grass.

Mark came over with the camera. We approached the area where the bear had gone down but he was gone!  We cautiously closed the distance, only to discover that the bear had fallen into one of those deep sluices partially filled with water. He was dead.  I was not happy where the bear landed, but at the same time thrilled nonetheless.

The circle is the outline of the boar's pawprint

Reality set in. We now had a dead brown bear - probably weighing 850-900 pounds, laying on his back in a deep, narrow sluice with 2 feet of water running over it. His last moments were spent pulling himself into that ditch.

I swear that if that bear had weighed 10 more pounds, we would have had to skin him in that ditch.  After 45 minutes of struggling, Mark and I managed to get under the boar in the water, and lift, then roll him out of that sluice. We were a soaked and bloody mess. We took a few photos, and while I spent a few minutes with the bear, Mark checked the trail back to the streams edge. He only traveled 100 yards from where I shot him and he went down quickly.

The reason for that became evident when we saw the blood trail. My first arrow had cut a major artery in his leg, passed through his intestines and liver before anchoring in a rib on the left side.

brown bear bloodtrail

The bloodtrail was pretty hard to follow... ;-)

Darkness was approaching, and Mark mentioned that he wanted to skin the bear in the morning. I was concerned that other bears in the area might try to eat my bear overnight, but Mark was confident they would not. We left a couple articles of clothing on and around the bear, and I urinated a perimeter as well......hoping that it would keep other bears away. When we approached the next morning I sure was relieved to see that Mark was right, my bear had not been bothered.

 

jake ensign brown bear
Jake Ensign and his hard-earned Brown Bear (notice sluice in background)

 

We skinned the bear, and I asked to pack it out (something I prefer to do). Mark didn't seem to mind, so I carried the hide and skull while Mark carried some of our essential gear back to base camp. As we approached base camp (only one day after leaving it), Chris Cassidy was surprised to see us back to base camp so soon.

Keeping a straight face, I told him that we ran into “a guy” as well as a “female with three youngsters” (all true.....a boar, a sow, and three cubs). Chris was assuming that I was referring to people. He was still in shock from seeing the two groups of hunters the day before. Mark and I played it up for about ten minutes, and when Chris started to think about other areas where we might want to consider hunting, we confessed - I was already tagged out! Chris was understandably pleased with the news and we spent the rest of the day relaxing while we skinned and fleshed my brownie.

skinned out brown bear

And this is what it looks like nekid...

The next morning, Mark and I returned upstream to pull the rest of the spike camp. Almost as an afterthought, we visited the area where the bear carcass had been.  It was gone.   Another bear had dragged it away to an alder thicket. If that bear had found that carcass one day earlier, the hide would have been ruined. I caught a couple lucky breaks when I needed them the most.

A few days later I arrived back in Kodiak and settled into my hotel room. It' was only 8 pm, so I walked over to the Kodiak airport to change my ticket.  On the way back to the hotel I saw something walking in the street - , in the shadow of the hotel streetlight, walking down the middle of the road towards me, was a 10 foot brown bear!

The boar was walking at me some 100 yards away.  I quickly crossed the road, and made my way through cars in the hotel parking lot. About 30 yards from the front door of the hotel, the bear was about 60 yards away.  I ran to the front door and quickly entered. The woman behind the front desk nonchalantly looked up at me huffing and puffing. Then she looks at her watch and says “Yup, the kitchen is about to close for the evening, and that big bear will be ready to visit our dumpster for the scraps.” A ten foot dumpster diver! I sure hope that the person that had to take out the garbage can run fast! 

I later told my guide, Mark Gutsmiedl that I didn't need to go to Afognak to kill a brown bear. I could have stayed at the Comfort Inn, watched football, drank beer, and killed a ten footer right by the dumpster.  Seemed like a fitting end to a fantastic, but short, bowhunt.

 

 

 
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