September 05, 2017
Big black bears in tight quarters are just one of the thrills of an Alaska bear adventure with a crossbow.
Popping teeth, heavy breathing, grunts and thrashing brush were easy to hear. The enraged black bear was less than 100 yards away.
I continued blowing on the handheld predator call, and finally an agitated bear emerged from the dark timber. My buddy, Mike Jenkins, who won the coin toss, was up first.
Prince of Wales Island is one of the world's premier black-bear destinations. (Photo by Scott Haugen)
When the bear hit the rocky shoreline, the bruin zeroed-in on the call, put his ears back and started coming in quickly. Mike let him have it. Dropping a bear inside 70 yards was an adrenaline rush that's hard to capture in words. Especially when the bear is reacting to a predator call, he's coming in for the kill, and you're the dinner.
Admiring Mike's bear, one he took with a rifle, I was up next, and I had a crossbow. I'd taken many bears over the years, but never with a hunting tool like this one. The fact I was hunting on Alaska's Prince of Wales Island — one of the world's premier black bear destinations — made the adventure even more exciting.
It's said that planning a trip is half the fun, and nowhere is this truer than on a hunting adventure to Alaska.
Day 1 found me flying into Ketchikan, where I spent the afternoon sightseeing and exploring the historic coastal town. Cruise ships came and went, folks were friendly, and with 24 hours of daylight, the port was abuzz with people, boats and wildlife.
In your own truck, you can drive the 1,000 miles from mainland USA to Craig, Alaska. Then drive onto a ferry for POW Island. Outfitters can help you out, or you can get a non-resident license and hunt the national forest on your own. (Photo by Scott Haugen)
The next day I boarded an Alaska Inter-Island Ferry, which took me to the town of Craig, on Prince of Wales Island. The scenic three-hour ride is one possible way to reach the island. You can also get there in a 30-minute bush-plane flight.
This was a self-guided hunt at Thorne Bay Lodge. We had a place to stay and cook our own food, and means to cover as much ground as we wanted by land and sea.
The lodge has been offering hunters and anglers self-guided opportunities for years. With access to 2,600 square miles of public land within the Tongass National Forest, there's plenty of ground to cover. If you're looking to go totally on your own, he's a tip: You can drive the road system, hop on a ferry with your truck and camping gear, and hunt the extensive logging road system on the island.
The catch is getting a tag. Non-residents now actually have to be on Prince of Wales Island to draw a tag. Fortunately, the success rate is 50 percent. For residents, it's still a two-bear unit, and they can purchase tags over-the-counter.
If you're from the Lower 48 and you want to apply for this tag, start early: Alaska has one of the earliest permit application deadlines and drawings in the country. Check adfg.alaska.gov/ for details, and you'll see what I mean.
The first stop on the island wasn't to glass for bears, but I had to wet a line. Fishing here is epic. On my first cast with a jig into the Thorne River, I latched into a hard-fighting steelhead. I released the beautiful sea-run rainbow and hooked another a few casts later. What a way to start this visit!
We drove on and stopped to glass logged units, grassy hillsides, the beaches below and the snowline. We saw bears, but none were in a stalkable position that late in the day.
The following morning we were back at it, glassing for bears and calling where sign was plentiful. On this early June hunt, the Sitka blacktail deer were dropping their fawns. Deer were everywhere, and the bears were after them.
Mike took his bear later that day. We were on one of the many nameless islands that we had accessed by skiff.
Eager to call in my own bear, I laid into the fawn-distress mouth call. Many deer came to the call, but no bears followed. Bear sign was everywhere, so we kept at it. Their droppings were filled with baby crabs and seaweed, making it easy to know we needed to concentrate hunting efforts close to the beach.
[ When the sea is calm, glassing from a boat is a good way to search for bears. Rounding the point of an island, we found a lone bear grazing on grass near the ocean's edge. (Photo by Scott Haugen)
We motored to another island and glassed as we went. When the sea was calm, glassing from a boat is a good way to search for bears. Rounding the point of an island, we found a lone bear grazing on grass near the ocean's edge.
Mike dropped me off and stayed with the boat. Bolt in place, I commenced a stalk. The closer I got to the bear, the more clear it became I would have to enter into the dark timber and come out where the bear was feeding.
When I got within 100 yards of the bruin, the wind changed. Quickly I backtracked and hit the beach before he got a whiff of me.
There was little cover to work with, but knowing the keen sense of smell a bear has, I'd rather it see me than smell me. When the bear put his head down, I moved closer. When he lifted his head or turned broadside, I laid down. When it turned and fed away from me, I kicked it into high gear.
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Ranging the bear at just over 50 yards, I felt confident and steadied to take the shot when it turned broadside. When the bear dropped his head and started feeding away, I realized I could close the gap even more.
Inside 30 yards the shot was simple, thanks to the scope and accuracy of my Excalibur crossbow. The bolt smacked the bear with a resounding thud as it hit bone.
I had pulled the trigger when the bear had his head down, feeding. Both front legs were back, and his head was extended forward. The bolt struck the near shoulder blade, passed through both lungs and exited the opposite shoulder blade.
The bear ran 11 yards and just piled up. Of all the big game I've taken around the world with a bow — and now crossbow — I've never seen an animal expire as quickly as this double-lung-hit bear. I've had many expire within 15 yards, sometimes less than 10 yards.
We loaded the fat, long-haired bear into the front of the boat and headed back to camp where we would skin and quarter it. On the way across the bay we stopped and checked the crab pots we'd dropped earlier in the day, which were full of Dungeness crabs.
That night in early June we enjoyed fresh crab and bear backstrap. It was the perfect end to an Alaskan adventure.
Photo by Scott Haugen
ALASKA'S CROSSBOW RULES
- At least 100 pounds peak draw weight and must be shoulder-mounted.
- At least 16 inches in overall length, tipped with a fixed or mechanical, but not barbed. The arrow and broadhead setup must weigh at least 300 grains total.
- Only electronics that do not project external light can be used.
- Starting this year, big-game hunters must have completed an Alaska Fish & Game approved crossbow certification course. Carry proof in the field.