A Book Black Bear on the Beach!
In May of 2007 my very good friend Butch Fisher, of Butch’s Bore Shine, and I made an adventurous trip to Southeast Alaska to hunt big black bears. Butch had gone on this same hunt in May of 2006 and didn’t see the bear he wanted to shoot and decided to make another hunt for the oversized black bears on Prince of Wales Island west of Ketchikan. Knowing I’m an easy mark for that type of fun Butch asked if I’d like to go on the 2007 hunt. I certainly did and we soon had our plans finalized for our bear hunt.
Butch had hunted with registered guide Erik Johnson on the fishing vessel Shiras, a 38’ long twin diesel boat Erik uses for bear hunting and summer sport fishing. Butch and Erik became good friends and we scheduled our 2007 hunt for the second week of May. Though that date seemed early to me Erik explained that the big boars were the first out of hibernation and as a result we’d not see a lot of bears but most of those we did see would be in the big category. He was right. We saw just 7 bears in 6 days of hunting but they were all big with four of them in the very big category.
We decided to travel north in my Cessna T41B to Ketchikan for this hunt. Butch and I had flown together before in the plane and we both enjoy the utility private flying offers. Southeast Alaska is notorious for its foul weather and rainfall and this was a consideration. However, May and June are the nicest months along that part of the coast and as it turned out we had great weather. I’d decided to follow the Trench north from Cranbrook, British Columbia to Prince George as I have on a few other trips north into British Columbia. We cleared Canadian Customs in Cranbrook, fueled up and made the 3.5 hour leg to Prince George on May 5th. We left Montana a couple of days early allowing ourselves plenty of travel time in case we got delayed by the weather. But we had plenty of sunshine on this trip until we got to the Coast Range in the Smithers area. A lowering ceiling let us follow the Skeena River out to Terrace BC where we wisely decided to spend the night. It was raining out on the coast at Prince Rupert and in Ketchikan. We waited until mid day to leave Terrace with a pretty good wind of 20 knots gusting to 30. But the ride was smooth on out to the coast and when we turned right to head up the coast to Ketchikan. Due to the ceilings, scud and showers we stayed at 1500’ above sea level. With an over-flight over cold water I wore a Sterns float coat and Butch had a life vest handy but the engine purred and there was no anxiety over the open water. We found out that it had been blowing 60 knots and raining while we rested in Terrace.
Following a stop with US Customs at Ketchikan we took the water taxi over to the municipal harbor and met up with Erik on the Shiras. The next day, loaded with groceries, full tanks of diesel fuel, guns and fishing gear we headed on out to Prince of Wales Island. We soon spotted a big bear from about a mile away on a beach and made a sneak into shore on Erik’s little Zodiac-type rubber raft. Erik has a 25 hp outboard on “Skiffy” and also a neat little electric trolling motor for silently sneaking up to the beaches. Erik estimated this big bear as a 7 ½ footer but both Butch and I passed on him because his front legs were rubbed badly. Wondering how close we could sneak to him, with the wind in our favor, we got to 66 yards before he sensed our presence and disappeared into the trees. These guys have poor eyes but excellent noses and hearing. The background noise of the surf helps on the inevitable noise associated with sneaking along a rough beach but nothing but a strong wind towards the hunter will keep these rascals from smelling a man.
Luck was with us again that day when we spotted another large bear from the Shiras. This bear was at least a mile from us and feeding in a small grassy area visible from the water from just one small opening. Erik spotted him with a back-look after we’d already motored past this spot. He immediately knew this was a big bear and we made another sneak in the skiff. It was my turn to shoot and after making our out-of-sight and silent stalk in the skiff I slowly made my way along the beach to the spot we knew the bear had been. He was still there but was asleep with his big head pointed right at me and laying flat on the ground – the distance was 142 yards!. I carefully laid my rifle across a downed tree on the beach and had him centered in my 2.5 x 10 Nightforce NXS scope. My rifle of choice for this hunt was my proven Lilja barreled 340 Weatherby Mag shooting 250 grain Sierra Game Kings.
Erik and I stood there behind the blowdown with the wind in our face waiting for him to offer me a good shot. He laid down in a depression and all I could see of him was his big head and shoulders. Every couple of minutes he’d wake up enough to lift his massive head and have a good sniff. I whispered to Erik that the next time he did that I was going to shoot him in the neck. With a full frontal exposure I knew I’d break his neck and that the bullet would range on into his body. And so I did. But up he leaped at the shot and spun in a half circle. Butch was behind us and lower near the tide and said he saw air under all four of the bear’s feet. I quickly fired again through the left shoulder and down he went. But just as quickly he was up again and on his feet. This time I had a good broadside shot and hammered him in the lungs. I knew the third bullet had been through both lungs because a stream of steam erupted through holes on both sides of him! I’ve never seen that phenomenon before and assumed it must have been from the cool temperatures, high humidity and lung-warmed air spewing out .338” diameter holes.
This time he was down for good and Butch yelled from behind: “I see you hit him in the boiler room.” Any of the shots would have killed this brute but as long as he was moving I kept shooting. These big bears take an amazing amount of lead. After Erik had a few hunters loose big bears with good shots with 300 mags he now recommends nothing less than a .338 for coastal black bear hunting.
After pictures we soon had this boar undressed and back to the Shiras. The next day was spent fleshing this big bear and we measured his squared hide at an honest 7’ – 8”, huge for black bear. And with his skull removed from the head we measured it using calipers at 21 – 2/16″. Depending on shrinkage this bear could make the Boone & Crocket all-time record book. Wow, what an exciting first day of our hunt. (Note: As of July 2007 the skull was measured officially by a B&C scorer and scored 13 – 1/16″ long by 7 – 15/16″ wide for an official score of 21 – 0/16″ which makes him elgible for the all-time record book.)
Erik was right, the big bears are rather few and far between at this part of the season. We were seeing a bear or two every day after that first day but were unable to make a successful stalk due to wind problems or the water being too rough for landing the skiff on the beaches. On the 6th day though we spotted what looked like a good bear for Butch and with the wind in our favor. We made a long skiff run from out in open water to the beach and clambered up the rocky beach front at mid-tide. From atop a boulder pile Erik and Butch watched the big black bear feed on sand fleas and work its way over logs and rocks. After watching the bear for a while and wondering if it was quite big enough, Butch decided to shoot this beautiful bear picking a clean shot as it moved along the rocky shore. A 182 yard shot with his custom Lilja barreled 375 H&H Mag brought this blackie down. Butch hammered it through the spine as it climbed down a small cliff. As it turned out the cliff was bigger than we thought and there was an open leade of water underneath the cliff. We ended up piloting the skiff into the opening and lowering the bear down into the skiff with a rope. We then drug it back onto the open beach for pictures and skinning.
That evening we fished for halibut, rock bass, yellow eye and caught a few ling cod though the season was closed on them.
The weather had turned extremely nice for southeast Alaska the next day with hardly a cloud in the sky. The forecast was actually for excellent conditions all the way back to Montana and Butch and I had a nearly cloud-free and very smooth flight back to the Big Sky. In all it was a great trip with a great friend with a couple of exceptional bears in the bag, fresh seafood in the cooler and big bear tales to tell.
July 2007: Sadly my hunting pal Butch Fisher died in July of 2007 of a heart attack. This was Butch’s last big adventure.