Boddington: Hunting the World's Big Bears
November 13, 2013
Modern humans love statistics, and we hunters are as bad as anyone. We attach importance to certain numbers associated with certain animals. For instance: 100-pound elephant, 50-inch buffalo, 200-inch whitetail, 60-inch kudu, and 10-foot bear. It's silly, and I actually heard a young lady say a 100-pound elephant sounded awfully small. I guess a 50-inch buffalo is also small nose to tail!
The animals that grow to these dimensions, whether tusks, horns, antlers, or body size, are amazing. In each case, a very few are taken each year. Sheer magnificence aside, there are two remarkable things about the taking of such awesome trophies.
First, it is usually pure luck. This is not to make light of the achievement. Even if the hunter blunders into the animal and doesn't realize how big it is, he or she still must do things right in order to bring that animal to bag. But most of the great trophies are taken by people who would gladly settle for less, so luck counts.
Second, while this doesn't apply to all game animals equally, the taking of a really huge trophy, especially of key species, often sparks really weird reactions among our fellow hunters. I actually feel sorry for the guys who are fortunate enough to take a whitetail deer that approaches world record dimensions. The scrutiny, the rumors'¦the jealousy! Considering what I do for a living, it would be truly horrible if I ever slopped into a 200-inch monster.
Realistically, I don't expect to ever take animals that attain the first four of those legendary dimensions, but I did take a 10-foot Alaskan brown bear a long time ago. It was pure luck to see such a bear and better luck to be with a guide, Michael Joe ("just call me 'Slim'") Gale, who knew exactly what he was looking at'¦because I didn't.
It was the first day of the hunt and I demurred, telling him there was no reason to hurry. The bear was more than a mile away. Slim looked up from the spotting scope and said, "Man, are you crazy? That's a 10-foot bear. Lighten your pack. Drop everything extra. We gotta go."
So we went, and we shot the bear, and Slim was actually wrong. While bears enter the record books by skull measurement, the dimension hunters talk about most is the "squared hide." Properly, you take a freshly skinned hide and lay it out flat — stretching is cheating, but since it's not an official measurement, there is often a bit of exaggeration.
We didn't stretch this bear (there was no point), and he actually wasn't a 10-foot bear. His hide measured 10 feet, 10 inches nose to tail; 11 feet, 2 inches across the front paws, longest claw to longest claw. Add that and divide by two and Slim was very wrong: It was an 11-foot bear (to me, a dark form on a hill).
I wasn't yet 30, not long off active duty, and new in the business. I have no idea how much...stuff I would catch if I lucked into such an animal today. And of course, that was pre-Internet. Back then I was grateful for an awesome bear, but I didn't know what I had. So I was surprised at the outcry, especially from my supposed new colleagues.
In particular, two guys who no longer write for this magazine were really up in arms. One maintained I was simply lying. The other was more creative. He hunted brown bear within a few months of the same time, and he took, as I recall, a very credible 8½-foot bear. Hey, I'd have been perfectly happy with such a bear — I just got lucky. But they get bigger. Honest, they do.
As I recall, this guy's outfitter convinced him that "10-foot bears" simply didn't exist; they were purely a myth. Therefore, anyone who claimed such a bear was fibbing. Today I'm a lot older. I know how lucky I was, and I better understand the knee-jerk reaction and the green monster of envy. You want to be happy for the hunter who takes a truly world-class animal'¦but you can barely contain the green monster, and sometimes he dominates.
There is a hierarchy among brown/grizzly bears. Interior grizzlies eke out a harsher existence than salmon-fed coastal bears, and the northernmost bears have a longer hibernation. Using honest squared measurement, a seven-foot grizzly may be OK, but eight-foot bears and a bit bigger exist.
Coastal brown bears start to pick up where interior grizzlies leave off. But an eight-foot brown bear exceeds the Alaskan average, so a nine-foot bear is a great bear. But they get bigger. The old-time outfitters, mostly gone now, told me about 12-foot bears (maybe?).
There's another unique thing about bears, especially if you're talking about that "squared hide." An eight-foot bear is a monstrous black bear, a very big grizzly, and, depending on the area and condition of the hide, an acceptable brown bear. But the difference between an eight-foot bear and a nine-foot bear isn't just 12 inches; it's exponential in mass and weight. I shot my first grizzly 40 years ago, not a big bear, but with the wisdom of hindsight, the photos with this column will show the progression of bruin bulk from seven to 11 feet.
In May 2013, Donna and I went on a long-awaited brown bear hunt with the Rosenbruch family's Glacier Guides in Alaska's ABC Islands. Long awaited because, honestly, we've been making payments on the hunt for several years! The big bears fascinate me, but that 1981 monster is the only Alaskan brown bear I have ever taken. I tried a couple times in the 1990s, but today I realize I can't beat the bear I have'¦so I'm done.
But this was Donna's hunt, and history can repeat itself. It was much too early in the hunt when guide Alisha Decker spotted a bear at an impossible distance (maybe two miles) from a moving boat! It was a calm day, so the plan was to go clear around the (nameless) island. But I got it: This was a lone bear, so we better go take a look. We were still a mile away when I looked back and saw that Alisha was totally serious.
At maybe 600 yards the bear turned broadside, and for the first time I understood that the decision was already made. So I kept my head down and my mouth shut! We managed to beach with the wind in our favor. Alisha orchestrated a perfect stalk, Donna made a great shot, and that was that. Most bears look smaller when you walk up to them, but a really big bear is the opposite: This one kept getting bigger.
Well, it was not a 10-foot bear. With no stretching it was 9 feet, 11¾ inches. Round it up or down, it's a big bear, anywhere, any time. Like me 30 years earlier, Donna was ecstatic with the bear'¦but she couldn't have a proper sense for what she had'¦or, unfortunately, for what people would think.
And, of course, today we have Facebook and all that stuff. Yes, cute and cuddly bears are hot buttons for anti-hunters, but even I, forced to fight constant Internet battles, didn't expect the reaction. Today, as a political necessity, we men give great lip service to wanting more women in our ranks'¦until a woman takes a really great trophy. Then the claws come out.
I think the comment that irked Donna (and me) the most was something like, "Nice bear, but you didn't have to pose 12 feet behind it." Uh, nobody did. It's just a big bear (posed with a small hunter and petite — and very competent — guide). Big bears do exist, and sometimes lucky hunters will take them along with trophies that reach all the other near-impossible dimensions that we dream about.
When that happens, regardless of who has the luck, it would be a better world for hunters and hunting if we could push back the green monster and be happy for them. Next time it might be your turn — or even mine, once more.