There’s no hunt quite like one for the big, furry bears of the north country. Granted, brown bear hunting is some of the most boring hunting in the world as endless spring days spent with 16+ hours behind the tripods and glass can wear on even the most seasoned hunter, but when you finally spot that furry Volkswagon-sized bear moving effortlessly across the tundra, the boredom is replaced with one of the most exhilarating experiences a hunter can have. Boots are laced, packs are loaded, and you’re off! I vividly remember my first brown bear hunt on Kodiak Island where the snow was deep and the tents were frigid, but when we finally found a big bear, it became one of my most cherished memories I’ve had in the outdoors.
Over the years, I have had the privilege to guide and hunt for both grizzly and brown bears in many areas of Alaska, and I feel it is one of the most rewarding hunts we can experience as sportsmen. Oftentimes, I speak with hunters who have a brown or grizzly bear hunt on their bucket list, but few know how many options are truly open to them. I hope you can look through the statistics and meat of this article and gain enough wisdom to better explore the big bear hunt options that are out there.
The Boone & Crockett Club, as well as The Pope & Young Club, recognize four species of North American bear for their record keeping purposes – Alaska brown bear, grizzly bear, polar bear, and black bear. The B&C definition of brown vs. grizzly bears reads as follows: “The big brown bears are found on Kodiak and Afognak Islands, the Alaska Peninsula, and eastward and southeastward along the coast of Alaska. The smaller interior grizzly is found in the remaining parts of the continent. The boundary between the two was first defined as an imaginary line extending 75 miles inland from the coast of Alaska. Later this boundary was more precisely defined with the current definition as follows: A line of separation between the larger growing coastal brown bear and the smaller interior grizzly has been developed such that west and south of this line (to and including Unimak Island) bear trophies are recorded as Alaska brown bear. North and east of this line, bear trophies are recorded as grizzly bear.”
Safari Club International recognizes more species of brown bear in its record book and defines the Alaska boundary line slightly different than that of B&C, “All brown bears taken in Game Management Units 1-10 and 14-18 are classified as brown bears and bears in all other units are considered grizzly bears.”
There is still debate about the proper taxonomy models and classifications of the subspecies of brown bear, and it is almost impossible to find identical species lists from multiple sources. However, I have separated the “subspecies” that I feel are distinguishable regions inhabited by brown bears that have current huntable populations so that you can better understand where it would be best to start looking for your dream hunt. Keep in mind, I am not referring to record book subspecies types, but rather I am giving you a breakdown of the different areas for hunts and what kind of bears to expect. Don’t forget, all nonresident grizzly or brown bear hunters in Alaska and Canada must be guided by a registered guide or a resident second degree kindred relative under certain conditions.
Without a doubt, the Kodiak brown bear is the most famous of all the subspecies of brown bear. Considered to be genetically isolated for the past 10,000+ years, it is the largest of all subspecies of bears. You will find that the Kodiak Archipelago (unit 8) is responsible for most of the top entries in the record book because of skull size. Large boars genetically have wider skulls on Kodiak than a bear of equal body size would have on the mainland of Alaska. A hunt on Kodiak is one to remember.
Hunters who experience a Kodiak hunt usually have endless stories about the alder brush, scenic views, and horrible weather. Spring and fall seasons are available annually on Kodiak Island, and permits are allocated through a unique draw system that is dependent on the assigned guide use areas of each outfitter. Kodiak requires a “guide-first” approach, meaning you must sign a contract with your preferred outfitter before you can apply in the draw. Guides are limited to the number of applicants they can apply in their area, and many subunits have near 100% drawing odds.
Kodiak utilizes a classic brown bear hunting style with hours spent behind optics, looking over large valleys and basins to locate a giant boar as he moves to find a sow or some feed to fill his belly. There are no horseback hunts on Kodiak, so you’ll either be on foot, floating a small river, or using a boat to cruise the shoreline. Kodiak has the largest range of brown bear hunt prices available with cheaper hunts running around $16,000 and upper end hunts being $35,000+. Most of the price difference will be based on the accomodations, air charter expenses, private/native land access, and past success rates of the outfitter. Kodiak has a bag limit where only one brown bear can be taken every four regulatory years. Many outfitters book their hunts two or more years in advance, so plan as early as you can.
More often than not, when you speak with a hunter who has hunted bears on the Alaska Peninsula, they will bring up the weather. Winds, rain, snow, and some of the harshest conditions imaginable seem to govern the success of most hunts on the Peninsula. Permits to hunt the Peninsula (units 9 and 10) are available over-the-counter in open registration hunts for the spring season (May of even numbered years) and fall season (October of odd numbered years). Peninsula hunts also have a bag limit where only one brown bear can be taken every four regulatory years.
There are multiple outfitters that operate on each side of the Peninsula, including the Bering Sea side on the north and the Pacific Ocean side on the south. Most base camps will consist of medium sized four-season tents and remote camp style food. Some outfitters will have permanent lodges to start and end their hunts out of and will use SuperCub airplanes or boats to move you to spike camps along salmon-filled rivers or remote beaches. Generally, Peninsula hunts will have tons of glassing time, so you’ll want to have plenty of down or wool gear to brave the windchill.
The first island at the far west end of the Peninsula separated by only half a mile of saltwater is Unimak Island, which is in game management unit 10. It is also the only island in the Aleutian Islands chain that has a population of brown bears. Hunts here are available annually with spring and fall seasons and permits available by drawing only. Twelve permits are typically awarded to residents and non-residents alike for each season during the main draw period. Draw odds are extremely tough as you must compete against all residents for the same permits. The majority of Unimak is a National Wildlife Refuge and is only open to a select few guide services. There is also a governor’s type permit available at auction each year. I have had the privilege to hunt on Unimak Island, which is home to active volcanoes, a small caribou herd, packs of wolves, and a healthy brown bear population. It is an extreme Alaska adventure that very few will experience.
It’s no secret that some of the largest bodied bears come from the Alaska Peninsula every year, and they are taken by those hunters who choose a worthy guide and bring their mental A-game to the field. The country is barren and the weather will try to kill you, but if you can hold out for a 9'+ monarch, you may just get lucky.
Generally considered to be the same subspecies as the other coastal brown bears, the southeast brown bear inhabit the ABC Islands (Admiralty, Baranof, and Chichagof) of southeast Alaska (unit 4). For the purpose of this section, I would consider brown bears from the southeast Alaska units 1, 3, and 5 as well. On average, they are the darkest-colored race of brown bears with sizes similar to those of other brown bears in Alaska. The coastal islands these bears inhabit are like a rainforest with thick timber, deadfall, and many canopy layers.
Most guides and outfitters in this portion of Alaska operate live-aboard vessels and have U.S. Coast Guard certifications. Hunting methods include glassing from small skiffs as you cruise the shorelines and short hikes up river drainages to glass the river bottoms. As with most coastal hunts, tide levels and weather will greatly affect your chance of finding a big boar in the open 52 and it will most likely be during the gray light hours of morning and evening. This hunt can be extremely frustrating if the boars do not show themselves on the shore. When selecting an outfitter in the southeast, you’ll want to look at their experience and track record as well as their accommodations to make sure they are warm and comfortable in this wet, salty region of Alaska.
These hunts can often be combined with black bear, mountain goat, or Sitka blacktail deer as combo hunts. Average hunt prices for a guided 10-day brown bear hunt are $13,500-$29,000, and most outfitters claim an 8-9' average bear size. Permits are available over-thecounter or via open registrations. The more expensive hunts usually include a first-class yacht to stay on during the hunt. Southeast Alaska hunts in these units have a bag limit where only one brown bear can be taken every four regulatory years. If you’re looking for a hunt that does not include sleeping in a tent, extensive hiking, or eating freezedried food, southeast Alaska may be for you!
All bears between the B&C record book boundary line and the Pacific Ocean are classified as brown bears. These bears would be found in units 6, 7, 11, 13-17, and the southern portion of units 18 and 19. There are dozens of hunts in all varieties that you can experience to hunt these brown bears. The closer you get to the boundary line, the more likely it is you’ll run into smaller bears that have less salmon in their diets. The bag limit for most of these units is one brown bear per regulatory year, and some units even allow two bears to be taken per year. These hunts can be the most economical, depending on logistics, accommodations, and your own hunting style. Expect $11,000-$26,000 for most of these hunts with everything from remote tent camps in the mountains to yacht-based hunts along the the coast.
Baited bear hunts are also available in some units during the spring and summer seasons. The diversity of hunts available in this portion of Alaska is so vast, so it is wise to visit with our Outfitter Specialists to select the best outfitter that fits your expectations.
Genetically, these bears are considered to be the same as all other inland common grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis), but I feel that hunters should look at grizzlies in this region as being potentially different than most inland grizzly hunts. These bears fall north of the B&C and SCI boundary line and would be entered as grizzly bears in the record books. Similar to the lifestyle of a common inland grizzly that feeds on berries, small mammals, grasses, and legumes, these grizzlies must endure the long winter months with extreme cold temperatures. However, along the northwest coast of Alaska, some rivers are home to large salmon runs that provide the grizzly populations with a late summer protein feast. Over time, simple presence of salmon can help bump a grizzly bear into the size of a typical brown bear, especially in units 21-23. There is less brush in the northwest portion of Alaska to deal with, but the tundra can be wet and difficult to hike on. Fall hunts in this area are very productive as it is not uncommon to see 5-10 bears per day as they wade the streams, fishing for salmon.
Barren-ground caribou and some moose opportunities exist as combo hunts in this region. Travel and charter flights will be more expensive in this area when compared to southern Alaska. Common hunting methods are floating small rivers, glassing from high knobs, or locating den sites in the spring as bears emerge from hibernation. Grizzly bear hides from these remote areas of Alaska are typically very thick and in prime condition. Most guided grizzly hunts utilize remote tent camps in this region and will run $15,000- $19,000. Permits are available over-thecounter or via open registrations.
Not to take anything away from these “common” grizzly bears, but this category includes everything else. From central Alaska to Wyoming, you are dealing with the common grizzly bear variety. Obviously not all bears are created equal. Grizzlies that have plenty of food to engorge themselves before going into hibernation will grow up to be larger bears, and some that have to brave the frigid, long winters in northern Canada may never even make 7'.
The most current news to report here is the intended closure of all sport hunting of grizzly bears in the province of British Columbia after November 2017. With an estimated 15,000+ grizzly bear population, it does not make sense to me to crush the guide industry and remove the revenue and conservation piece from their management. It is our hope that this closure will be short-lived and hunts will open up once again. In Alberta, grizzly bear hunting is currently closed pending a recovery of their population numbers. Further north in the Yukon, many outfitters prefer to offer hunters a chance at a grizzly as an add-on to a moose or sheep hunt.
Trophy fees can run $6,000-$12,000 to add on a grizzly if you find a big bear to harvest. All of the Yukon is on a limited quota for grizzly hunting to help manage their relatively low numbers. Since 1982, non-residents have not been able to hunt grizzly bear in the Northwest Territories.
Thanks to proper management and lobbying, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem at the junction of Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana now has a population of grizzly bears that will soon be open to limited hunting. We are awaiting the final decisions and lawsuit rulings to know how states will be able to manage their own grizzly bear hunts in the coming years. A rare opportunity to harvest a grizzly bear in the lower 48 may be just around the corner.
Grizzly bears living east of the Mackenzie River Delta in the Northwest Territories and Nunavut are typically smaller and considered to be Barren-Ground grizzly bears. The average bear size is 6-7', and the hair color can vary dramatically. They are some of the prettiest grizzly bears you can hunt. Guided spring hunts are available along the coastal and inland areas of Nunavut and run $13,000-$15,000.
Surprising to some, North America is not the only place to hunt big brown bears. The European brown bear can be hunted in Romania, Croatia, and Turkey. Russia is home to four subspecies of brown bear, with the Kamchatka brown bear being the most famous and largest. Inhabiting the Kamchatka Peninsula just a few hundred miles from the Alaska mainland, these bears are thought to be an ancestor of the Kodiak bear.
Spring and fall hunts are conducted annually by many local outfitters. Most Kamchatka bear hunts run $12,000- $17,000 and should be booked from an agency familiar with Russian travel and logistics. Extra travel time, export fees, and expediting will add more cost to the basic hunt, but many hunters travel to Russia every spring and fall for a chance at a big bear at a cheaper price than that of Alaska.
If you’ve made it this far in the article, you probably care a bit about hunting a big brown bear someday. With the closure of British Columbia hunts, overall grizzly hunt opportunities are diminishing. My best piece of advice is to not get wrapped up in shopping for a “10 footer” brown bear hunt. Find the hunt that you can afford and handle physically. Find the hunt that provides you a chance at taking home the bear you’ll be happy to live with and look at in your trophy room.
Once you find the hunt for you, prepare yourself mentally. Learn how to be tough. Learn how to crawl into your sleeping bag with sopping wet clothes on and dry them out with your body heat. Learn how to eat freeze-dried meals and keep your face and feet warm while glassing. Most big bear hunts will push you to your limits, and most unsuccessful hunts are a product of a hunter being miserable. You will get wet and you will be cold, but when you finally get your hands on that furry, prehistoric creature, it will all be worth it.