Saturday, April 23, 2011

Guided Bear Hunting- A Primer

I received some correspondence a few days ago that asked about bear hunting- specifically for folks who aren't Alaska residents and who aren't U.S. Citizens. The fish and game laws in Alaska are somewhat peculiar in that regard so I'll give it my best go, of course the usual disclaimer of "use at own risk" and "contact an expert" prior to using this information applies. To point out, I am not a guide nor do I have any financial ties to any outfitter or guide service so the net benefit to me is zero. Much of the information I've presented comes from talking to numerous guides, both in and out of the field.

Alaska Fish and Game categorize folks looking to hunt in Alaska into three categories, they are:
Residents- folks who reside, work, play and otherwise make Alaska their permanent home, have done that for at least 12 months, and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. For the record on this- I am a resident.

Non-Residents- are folks who make their permanent home somewhere other than Alaska but are citizens of the United States. Being a non-resident has nothing to do with where you've been living- for instance an out-of-state worker can be in Alaska for 12 months but if they make their permanent home in another state, they're a non-resident. Many folks try this angle every year and ADFG make multiple citations in that regard.

Non-Resident Alien- are people who live outside Alaska and are not citizens of the United States. These would be considered the "International crowd". My blog has a substantial readership outside of the U.S. and most of those folks reading this will fall into this category.

Residency is a tricky issue and I highly suggest you go to the Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game website to read the rules on this matter. You may be asking yourself, "But Hodgeman- why does it matter?". Well matter is does since the fee structure and guide requirements differ for each one. In fact, in many units there are separate seasons, drawing tags, and harvest allocation for resident and non-resident hunters. Since this particular post is to be thought of as a primer, and was specifically requested for bears, I'll attempt to stick to that. I won't try to discuss the various seasons and limits for each unit- since Alaska is so large, with such a diverse number of creatures and environments- the seasons and limits vary widely. Please consult ADFG for more information on the area you particularly want to hunt.

For the specifics-
Black Bears, are found nearly everywhere in the state and can be hunted by residents and non-residents without a guide. Non resident aliens however must hire a registered guide to hunt black bears with- in fact, non-resident aliens must hire a guide to hunt any big game animal in Alaska. Alaska has a strict licensing requirement on hunting guides and while there are a few dolts who slip through the cracks, the majority are hard working and knowledgeable folks who are there to help you get your game and get home in one piece.

While black bear hunting is, in itself, a relatively safe pursuit given that black bears are generally not "fighters" and tend to run off to die after being shot- the environment they're found in can be subject to the worst Mother Nature has to offer. Other, more germane areas that house bears require unique methods to effectively hunt bears with (such as calling or baiting) that it often is beyond the skill set or time allotment for many out of area hunters. Prices for guided black bear hunts vary widely throughout the state and many outfitters don't offer them at all. The most common method of guided black bear hunting is via ocean going vessels hunting the densely wooded coastal temperate rain forests. This is a great way to hunt in relative comfort- living shipboard and ferrying out to hunt each day. As a bonus the fresh caught seafood served by many outfitters is a treat in itself. A quick check of pricing on the Internet shows an average of about $5000 U.S. for a guided, vessel based hunt on Prince William Sound/ Katchemak Bay, bear in mind that the geographic area of Alaska will have substantial price variations and any maritime based adventure will be subjected to fuel price increases.

Brown/ Grizzly Bears, truly fall into the category of dangerous game. Only residents can hunt these without a guide and both non-residents and non-resident aliens require a fully guided hunt for these creatures. As an aside- the bears generally referred to as Brown Bears are coastal specimens and eat a diet with a lot salmon in it. With nearly unlimited protein and short hibernation periods (some island residing boars do not hibernate at all) they can grow to truly massive (and fearsome) proportions. Grizzly bears on the other hand reside in Interior areas and live a much harsher existence- they eat a poorer diet, have longer hibernation periods and, as a result, are usually much smaller.
While a coastal bear can reach proportions of incredible size, an "8 foot" 500 pound Interior grizzly is a very nice bear indeed. As a word of caution- the Interior grizzly has a much more dangerous reputation than the coastal bears, their harsh conditions and sparse environment make them more aggressive overall than their coastal dwelling counterparts. Many bear hunters rank a fair chase Interior Grizzly hunt as one of the more exciting types of hunting here given the bear's sulkiness and the wide terrain. Aside from diet, attitude and resulting size- these are genetically only one species of bear. Much like a slight built Finn and a hulking Samoan are both genetically humans, they can be very different in appearance.

For the guided hunter these hunts are often the most expensive and frustrating experience of their sporting life. Many (wealthy) hunters may return several seasons to harvest that true "10-footer" after repeatedly unsuccessful trips. A quick check on the Internet shows that coastal bears command a higher price overall - about $20,000 U.S. on average for a 15 day hunt while Interior grizzlies are somewhat less expensive. Hunting brown bears is an often unsuccessful hunt, even using a guide with tremendous experience. As a large apex predator their densities run extremely low, the animals are reclusive and true trophy specimens somewhat more so. Many frustrated sportsmen may spend an entire 15 day hunt in a great location and never see a single bear.

For further consideration:
For the non resident or non resident alien who may have never been to Alaska, it is important to rely on and work with your guide and his staff to make your hunt pleasant. I can confess I've never been on a guided hunt but I know and am friends with many guides and often hear the guide's version of unsatisfactory hunts. You're paying your guide for his knowledge and expertise- USE IT. Ask his opinion about everything you can possibly think about- right down to what kind of boots to wear. Your guide will spend more days in the field than many sportsmen hunt in a decade and he's seen people show up with any and every kind of equipment imaginable. Many reputable guides will literally provide everything you need except the clothes on your back and most will be very forthcoming about what they are going to provide and what they expect you to show up with. Remember-this is what these guys do for a living. If you show up to camp prepared, with some experience in the field, can follow his directions, and are willing to work hard for your animal you will be a delight to your guide and the entire hunt stands a much better chance of success.

When it comes to importing firearms into the U.S., I've often heard visiting non-resident aliens bemoan the laborious process of getting a firearm into the United States. I have no personal experience with such matters but I bet your guide has...ask him. While obtaining a rifle in the U.S. is as easy as it gets anywhere in the world as a resident, I've heard getting one in from another country is rather a pain. I would ask your guide to provide advice if you have a special rifle you want to use and just flat ask him to loan or rent you one if you don't. It's a good idea, particularly if you're hunting brown bears- it is unlikely many European hunters would have an appropriate rifle for such a beast just lying about. Many African rifles will have the right ballistics for bears but African hunting is generally dry and easy on guns- Alaska hunting is usually a wet nightmare. If you have a wonderful old Hollands it simply may be too valuable to bring here.

For the non-resident flying in from the Lower 48, transporting your rifle as luggage on your flight up is a piece of cake. I've done it often enough that its now routine for me. The Anchorage and Fairbanks airports have a streamlined process since there are so many firearms in transit here but your local airport may not- it would be advisable to check prior to your departure to see what they have in place. As a final note on firearms- it is not unusual for a guide to ban handguns in his camp and its his prerogative to do so. I carry a handgun when I don't expect to see a bear and that isn't when I'm bear hunting. Many guides are reluctant to have a camp full of tenderfoots sleeping with pistols under their pillows. I don't blame them. If your guide says handguns are not allowed- leave it at home, they are frequently nothing but dead weight on a hunt anyway.

Prior to choosing a guide it would pay to check around with some of his past clients, many will provide referrals upon request and I would be suspicious of one who wouldn't. Given the popularity of hunting forums on the Internet, I would certainly search out everything I could find on a guide prior to booking an expensive and, frankly, dangerous hunt with him. I would also suggest that you use good logic when sorting such unsolicited referrals because it is quite possible for a guide to work his tail off, do everything right and a client leave empty handed and unhappy through no fault of the guide's. Many guides will be forthcoming about such hunts and after meeting some guided hunters in the field it is a wonder that as many harvest game as they do. Unfortunately, bear hunting is often the ultimate expression of ego-maniacs who care little about hunting but want a "10-footer" for the office lobby to show his prowess. I would be leery of that person in any endeavor.

Which hunt would I choose? Frankly if I were a non-resident alien (or perhaps a non-resident) looking to experience Alaska hunting for the first time I would without hesitation go for black bears from a vessel. Moderate cost, high success rates, world class fishing and outstanding scenery are a wonderful experience no matter the outcome. Even as a resident, many hunters choose these vessel based hunts as a "hunting vacation" if you will. If I were someone with experience hunting in the American West or in other mountainous terrain I would most likely pursue Interior Grizzly as a secondary species with either a caribou or moose hunt. In fact, most resident hunters pursue bears as a secondary objective to other game- I know I do.  The hunting is often the same and many outfitters offer grizzlies and other predators at a moderate cost when attached to another hunt. For an outfitter primarily guiding moose hunters, a grizzly in their area may negatively effect the moose population and if they can sell you a trophy fee to bang a griz off your moose's gut pile the next morning its a real win/win as far as they're concerned. In regards to brown bear hunting, given the low chances of success, the considerable (!) expense, and the relative misery (think 15 days of rain and wind) of many coastal brown bear hunts it would take a very big itch for me to want to scratch it with that hunt.

Good hunting to you!


The Suburban Bushwacker said...


So that's trips 1 & 2 planned out.

You had me from - for $5k-ish I can live aboard a floating seafood buffet and hunt bears during the day, using someone else's kit. With a reasonable expectation of taking Mr bears Hat n Coat home with me. All I have to do is rock up. Sold!

Then back for Interior Grizzly on a caribou or moose hunt for a second visit.

Now here's a question:
I once met an officer in the guards (the regiments that guard the english royal family) who told me that his hat was made from the fur of a female bear and his men's hats were made from male bears fur which was courser - Having met him I thought he was using his arse as his hat - but wondered if this were true?

Great post

hodgeman said...

I've got no idea whether boars have coarser fur than sows...and that's after skinning a few!

In regards to hats- your guys are the only folks I know of making hats out of them.

Most fur hats here are made from other furbearing critters- beaver, fox and marten are perennial favorites.

Albert A Rasch said...


It is true that those hats are made out of bear fur. Whether the bear was male or otherwise I don't know.

I have frequently thought about one of those coastal forays for a big blackie...

Albert “Afghanus” Rasch
The Rasch Outdoor Chronicles™
Extreme Wild Boar Hunting in Florida!