Story and photos by; J. Alain Smith
Bears have always held a special place in my hunting heart for some unknown reason. I would probably rate them second only to Cape buffalo as my most favorite dangerous game to hunt anywhere in the world.
I’ve been blessed with being able to pursue bruins from one end of the globe to the other and have collected all the huntable species with the exception of the Amur Brown bear from the Southeastern part of Russia and I plan on going back there this year to finish my bruin busting quest.
Of course the bigger they are and further they are away from your front door, the more the danger and thrill factor increases. So, if you find you need a heart-thumping break from your daily ritual of security and comfort I recommend you book yourself a vacation to the heartland of big brown bears, the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia!
Located right next door to Alaska, not far from where the Aleutian Islands chain runs into the Bering Sea, the famed peninsula holds incredible numbers of brown bear and because of that fact alone, you have a legitimate chance at a BIG brown bear. Unlike Alaskan brown bear hunting where the odds run somewhere around a fifty percent success rate on killing any bear, on the Kamchatka Peninsula you have more like a ninety percentile chance of killing a bear.
Let's be realistic about sizes of the bears found there though. Not everyone kills a ten-foot bear because just like any other hunting scenario the really big males are not leaning up against every tree having a smoke and waiting for you to provide them with a one-way trip to your trophy room. Big bears are smart and cagy and mean as hell, that’s why they got to be so big. However my experience on the Kamchatka has been that you have a really good chance at a big fella if you are willing to pass on smaller bears. That by the way is not always an easy thing to do…
So I ask you, what better place or specie to test out the brand new Gunwerks Skuhl 375 Ruger than in Russia on a bruin?
Lucky me, I was going to be the first person to take a big game animal with this mega-powerful tack driving big caliber rifle that the creative crew at Gunwerks in Cody Wyoming had concocted. It is no secret that I absolutely love the 375 calibers as my go to caliber in any dangerous situation so the chance to put this work of firearm art thru its paces in really tough conditions had me all jacked up like a ten year old kid the night before Christmas.
Spring conditions were about as bad as they could get when we landed in the hub that serves as the gateway to the Peninsula, Petropavlovsk. Seventy-degree clear sky conditions greeted us as we stepped off the Aeroflot airplane that had hauled us the nine hours from Moscow. Cameraman Jeff “Buck” Parker [who was filming the event] and I live by the theory that time is a wasting so we don’t overnight anywhere along the route to our destination when filming an episode of Rugged Expeditions. We suck it up and travel straight thru which in this case was forty-one hours of travel without a bed, just planes and airports. Another seven-hour gravel road ride in a SUV brought us to a small commercial fishing village at the end of the road where our local guides met us. Here we transferred all our gear into small home made fiberglass boats and began the last leg of the journey, winding our way up river dodging ice bergs that were still flowing down stream during the annual spring break up.
Two hours later found us meeting another group of locals who loaded our stuff onto sleighs towed behind snow machines. I hopped on the pile of gear as the snow machine took off across the barren tundra. And I mean barren, as in no snow barren. Now if you have not had the pleasure of riding on a wooden sleigh behind a snow machine as it bounces across dry terra firma, spraying twigs grass and occasional mud back at you, you are really missing out on a day not to remember.
Forty-five minutes later we bounced over a low ridge and I saw a cluster of cabins nestled onto the shore of a blue lake choked with broken icebergs.
“This is going to a tough hunt,” was my only thought as we hauled our gear to a waiting wood stove heated cabin.
The plan laid out by the Russian guides the next morning was to take the snow machines and sleighs with all our gear to higher ground where there was in theory snow and for sure another cabin that we would base out of for the remainder of the bear hunt. The nightmare of riding in a sleigh behind a snow machine driven by a Russian who could care less that there was a human being holding on for dear life behind him began. Even though I was clothed from head to toe in the best Kryptek gear money can buy, there was so much mud, filthy water and occasional snow being thrown up by the tracks of the machine onto yours truly that I was required to wrap myself in a blue plastic tarp. When the going got especially ugly I would hold the tarp up over my head, which meant that I now could not see bumps, brush or branches that were in our pathway.
The million dollar question, “I’m paying to do this?” ran thru my beat up head as the forth hour of show machine mis-adventures began.
The technique for finding a bear is fairly simple; you ride around looking for fresh big bear tracks in the snow as you ride higher into the mountains. Once you reach a high vantage point you begin glassing the mountains and valleys for tracks or hopefully a bear. Once we got to an altitude where the snow was still frozen, the ride became much more tolerable and we began seeing sign and tracks and by noon our first bear. Not a monster but a lone male working across a snow covered hillside. Things were looking up, attitudes of all involved became much more positive, and the sun was out. Thank you sweet Baby Jesus!
Several days of following this same routine of departing the cabin around seven in the morning, doing the ride from hell by crossing flowing rivers, mud flats, weaving thru thick brush and trees on snow machines with me cocooned in a blue tarp, before getting enough altitude to find snow, produced lots and lots of bear sightings. I quit counting after we saw the fiftieth bear.
We would return to the cabin between ten and midnight each night.
The bad news was that none of the bears we were spotting were shooters and each day the temperature were getting warmer and the snow was melting quickly making the rivers we crossed deeper.
And we were running out of time…
At some point the early spring conditions were going to make it so that we just would not be able to get around and that would finish the hunt. Mother Nature decides if you are going to hunt or not, not you.
Late on day six we rode over a shallow ridgeline and I spied a bear working thru an alder thicket along the river below us. Getting the Russian drivers attention and signaling him to stop, we glassed him from 500 yards away and knew immediately he was the biggest bear we had seen and definitely a shooter. I uncased the Gunwerks Skuhl from the soft case that had been tied to the sleigh for the past week, jacked a round into it, flicked on the safety and began a stalk. Trudging thru the soft deep knee high snow was miserable and tiring but we had to move as fast as we could before the bear disappeared. For once the wind was steady into our face and the bear had not heard or seen us which let us eventually close to within a hundred and fifty yards where we hunkered in to let Parker the Cameraman get some video of the bruin as he meandered about, looking for dinner or a sow in heat. The trees were fairly dense with sporadic openings, which gave us the chance to close the gap between the brown bear and us. Sneaking as quickly and quietly as I could to an up close and personal range. I had one round in the chamber with three tucked below it in the magazine so that if things got dicey I would at least have a fighting chance.
The camera was rolling as I went in alone for the shot. The brown bear angled slightly away and the thick stand of trees was making a clean shot virtually impossible. It’s times like this when you really need to have confidence in your weapon, that when opportunity knocks you will be able to answer the door without any doubt what so ever of your rifles capabilities. Looking over the scope I saw a slight opening in the forest and the big bruin was walking thru the deep snow straight for it. I repositioned my stance so that I had a decent rest against an old tree trunk and when the huge boar’s shoulder passed the last tree giving me an opening I squeezed the trigger. The Kamchatka bear let out a deafening roar when the 300-grain bullet struck, angling in just behind his ribs, wrecking havoc thru the vitals before coming to rest under the skin in his far front shoulder. A thousand pounds of bear hit the ground as if a bolt of lightening had hit him! Instinctively working the velvet smooth action of the Gunwerks 375 Ruger I took ten steps forward, found another tree to rest on before shooting the bruin one more time in the near shoulder for good measure.
It turned out that the second shot was not necessary, but hey, I didn’t come all this way to save money on ammo and I have a peculiar habit that has stood me well so far of making sure that critters that bite are really, really dead before I walk up for the glamour photos.
The brown bear had the absolute best hide of any bear I have ever taken, thick and luxurious with no rubs or flaws, a rare condition indeed. This was a bear that any hunter would be proud to take.
And what better way to break in the new Gunwerks Skuhl series of rifles than by collecting a truly magnificent trophy in some of the harshest hunting conditions known to man? Thanks Gunwerks for making a rifle built for what we do on Rugged Expeditions and I simply couldn’t wait to try it out on a few Cape buffalo that fall!
For more of J. Alain Smith’s hunting stories, check out www.jalainsmith.com for J. Alain Smith’s newest book, Chasing the Adventure!