Update on Brown Bear Hunting in Alaska’s Katmai

The Katmai National Park and Preserve in Alaska is a popular spot for bear watchers and has a reputation for producing record-book brown bears. After hunting outfitter contracts for the area expired in 2009, the National Park Service reassessed the preserve and issued a prospectus for two guide areas in 2012. In March 2014 we reported that guiding rights to the preserve finally had been granted to two outfitters (see Article 3284), reopening the area to nonresident hunting in two revised concessions of roughly equal size. These are the Sugarloaf Guide Area, which is operated by Cabot Pitts of Alaska Wild Wind Adventures (www.alaskawildwind.com; 907-414-5434), and the Moraine Guide Area, operated by Don Willis of Alaska’s Extreme Hunting (www.alaskasextremehunting.com; 253-740-3201). We recently checked in with Willis and Pitts for an update on their operations. We also have reports from two subscribers who have hunted the Katmai, including a recent report from subscriber John Hoestenbach, who hunted the Moraine Guide Area this October.

Don Willis of Alaska’s Extreme Hunting did not book hunts for spring 2014, as he had remaining obligations for hunts in the Kamishack Bay area. Willis did, however, get his crew into the area in fall 2014 to test the camp and scout for bears, and he tells us that everything was in place for the fall 2015 season, which ran from October 1 to 21 (Peninsula bear season, readers will recall, is in spring in even years, and fall in odd years). Here’s what Willis told us about his first season in the Katmai:

“We had six hunters booked for fall 2015, with hunters from Texas, Maryland and Louisiana and three from Brazil. All six hunters took bears in the first five days out of 10 scheduled hunting days. Four bruins squared between 9 feet 4 inches and 9 feet 10 inches, with two bears just missing the 9-foot mark. The largest skull size was 27 5/16. We had a lot of rain and low ceiling, and three days of the season saw winds over 80 mph.”

We have a firsthand report from subscriber John Hoestenbach, who was one of the hunters to get hit with one of the Peninsula’s notorious storms. Here’s his account:

“I enjoyed a couple days of fishing in Kenai, where it was raining hard. Extra time was factored in for a weather window to fly to Katmai by charter and then to fly into spike camp. After a two-day delay, we got to the Katmai on September 29, but could not fly to spike camp until the first day of the season.

“My camp was placed on the shore of Mirror Lake, which was a good central location for bears with good plane access. We had a walled, two-person tent and a small backup tent just in case. We also had the park-service mandated electric fence surrounding camp, which was definitely helpful.
“The hunt area was excellent, with open moraines and plenty of visibility. We had strong winds and temperatures in the 40s to start (top-notch wind/rain gear is a must here), which kept us close to camp. I saw no boars, but plenty of sows with cubs, as well as fox and caribou. Hunters in the other spike camps were having success. A hunter from Texas took a very nice 9-foot 7-inch bear early in the hunt while returning from losing another big boar in the fog, and a hunter from Louisiana had another nine-foot-plus bear walk right into his camp.
“On day four we had sun and almost no wind, and were able to go higher up to get a commanding view. We spotted a big bear, and moved for two hours to get another look and could not see anything. Another walk and another peek over the ridge and there it was, about 550 yards off. After the bear sauntered out of sight my guide, Tad Gilbert, and I advanced. We saw it again in a small creek below, and Gilbert declared the bear a shooter. The big surprise was that it turned out to be a tremendous sow.

“We spent an anxious night in gale force wind, with the tent collapsing partially. We shored it up for another day of 60 knot winds, which kept up through day five in spike camp. On day six we had a visit from two park rangers who had kayaked and hiked to reach our position. The rangers were a credit to the park service. They had coffee with us, checked everything, and then went back out into the storm. We debated hiking to another camp, but chose to ride it out.
“Thirty minutes before dark the winds picked up substantially, gusting to an estimated 80-85 knots. Our tent failed right at dark, and we found the backup tent cratered as well. Earlier, Tad had scouted two bear holes that were on the lee side of a small hillock some 300 yards from camp. We stumbled and crawled our way to the holes, where we took shelter in our rain gear. We passed an anxious night, hoping that a bear would not turn up. When morning broke we did see a sow with two cubs, but our scent turned them away.
“We stayed in our holes, and finally heard the Otter coming at 11 am. After that, we did the rounds to the other camps, which had fared better than ours.
“This was certainly a full-blown adventure, and a great hunt. My guide was an excellent companion, and made the best of the difficult weather. Don Willis is a very professional outfitter, and did a great job coordinating and planning for every eventuality. I would definitely recommend the hunt, so long as hunters are ready for tough conditions.”
We also communicated with Cabot Pitts of Alaska Wild Wind Adventures via email and in a follow-up phone conversation. Pitts has already completed two bear seasons in the Katmai.
“In May of 2014 Alaska Wild Wind Adventures took two hunters into the Sugarloaf area. Conditions were less than ideal, with no snow and temperatures rarely dipping below 45 at night. I expected low activity during most of the day, but we saw 20 to 25 bears, a quarter of which were in the 9-foot-plus range. On the seventh day the hunter I was guiding harvested a very mature boar that squared 9 feet 4 inches and had a 27 1/2 inch skull. My other hunter saw a number of bears in the eight- to 10- foot class but did not get close enough for an ethical shot, as can happen on open tundra.

“For fall brown bear in October 2015, I had three paying clients, two brothers and one single hunter. Unfortunately, the solo hunter left on the morning of the third day due to a sudden illness. The hunter that I guided passed on a few smaller bears waiting for the larger boars to show themselves in a spot where we could connect. We saw some bears over nine feet, but he did not harvest a bear. The second hunter, guided by one of my assistant guides, saw numerous bears and stalked in to 200 yards on a large 9 1/2 to 10 foot bear, but got winded and did not connect on that animal. Both hunters are returning this coming May to hunt again and hopefully connect on a nice spring bear.

“This was not the best start we could have hoped for, but what we saw was very promising overall. After hunting the first half of the season with my hunters and not connecting I headed to the other side of my concession and guided my father on a hunt. We ended up seeing 60-70 bears feeding on the last remaining salmon of the year, including adolescents, family groups and large males. On the third day of our hunt my father connected on a 9-foot 6-inch boar with a Boone & Crockett skull measuring 28 3/16, estimated to be 22-25 years old.

“After assessing the season and talking with Don Willis, I believe that the Katmai Preserve offers one of the best opportunities to take big coastal brown bears. If strong salmon runs continue, selective hunters will have a good chance of seeing and possibly harvesting B&C bears. As with all hunting, and especially hunting in Alaska, nothing is guaranteed.

“The area also offers excellent moose hunting, and I plan to offer one or two hunts each fall. We took a client on a 50-mile float trip into Nonvianuk Lake from September 5 to 15 this fall, and he took a nearly 65-inch (green) moose that scored 238 B&C after drying.”

One of the hunters that visited the Katmai for the 2014 spring bear hunt with Pitts was subscriber Bruce Mabrey. In Report 9730 he says that he did not harvest a bear, but that he still recommends this outfit.

“This is definitely not an “old man” hunt; it was difficult moving around on the tundra. I saw around 15 bears on the hunt, including several shooters, but did not get close enough. I had a good trip in any case. Cabot Pitts did everything he could to get me a bear, and I may go back again.”

In a follow-up phone conversation, Mabrey told us that he had seen a number of smaller bears that he could have harvested, but he had taken a smaller brown bear on a previous hunt and was holding out for a bigger trophy.

“We got to within 250 yards of a big trophy bear at one point, but he got out of range before I could set up, and we could not catch up with him again. There certainly are opportunities to take some very large bears here, but I had tough conditions and didn’t get the shot I wanted.”

Pitts says that the cost of a 10-day bear hunt for 2016 will be $25,500. Depending on the timing, in some cases hunters can spend additional time in camp for the cost of guiding fees (Bruce Mabrey spent most of the bear season in camp). Hunters travel to King Salmon and fly from there by Super Cub into camp.