Brown bears draw hundreds to Alaska Peninsula for spendy spring hunt

Hundreds of people have traveled to the Alaska Peninsula this month for a chance to bag a brown bear. Most hunters are non-residents who hire guides and charter flights, driving an estimated $10 million dollars of economic activity.

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Dave Crowley, a wildlife biologist with ADF&G, tags a brown bear hide by the Naknek River (Photo by Hannah Colton, KDLG - Dillingham)
Dave Crowley, a wildlife biologist with ADF&G, tags a brown bear hide by the Naknek River (Photo by Hannah Colton, KDLG – Dillingham)

On the bank of the Naknek River in King Salmon is Float Plane Row, where an Anchorage hunter just got flown in from the field. He had a hide laid out on the gravel, alongside a bloody bear skull with eyeballs still in place.

The hunter was waiting for Dave Crowley and Chris Peterson, wildlife biologists from the local Fish and Game office. They set up shop on the tailgate of their pickup with metal calipers and a ruler.

“I’m measuring the length and the width of the skull. You add that together and you get skull size,” the hunter said.

When hunters return with their trophies, they soon call on Fish & Game to do a “sealing.” It’s a quick inspection to tag the animal parts, collect fur and tooth samples, and make sure the hunter has his paperwork in order.

Back in town, I stop in at the King Salmon airport. PenAir agent Lisa Davis told me she’s been checking bear hides for successful hunters all week. She had six the day before, packed up in plastic bags or totes.

“We have a lot of hunters who come in with bears, and you generally know, because they do stink,” Davis said. “Even if they’re well prepared, when they come in they smell very bad.”

Wildlife biologists David Crowley and Chris Peterson tag, sample and measure a brown bear skull in King Salmon (Photo by Hannah Colton, KDLG - Dillingham)
Wildlife biologists David Crowley and Chris Peterson tag, sample and measure a brown bear skull in King Salmon (Photo by Hannah Colton, KDLG – Dillingham)

She’s used to the smell, but getting these hides on the plane doesn’t always go smoothly.

“Oh yeah, we had a passenger come in last night whose baggage was overweight for his bear hide. And he had to lose 20 lbs, so he suggested that he take it outside and cut off the feet… We went ahead and let him ship it as cargo, so he did not have to do that.”

The noon flight has been canceled, and it left one hunter sitting in the lobby, waiting for the next flight out.

“My name is Wayne Hott, I’m a retired Air Force dentist, and I live in Wichita Kansas.”

Hott is a trim 68-year-old. He wears a crisp wool button-up and clean, matching camo pants and jacket.

He was fiddling with his smartphone. “I think one of my family just replied back to the text with the picture of the bear,” Hott said. “Let me see what they said…”

Wayne Hott has been waiting years for this moment: reporting to his wife and kids that he’s taken a brown bear. He’s hunted big game all over the world, but the brown bear has been a sore subject since he had a few unsuccessful trips to Southeast Alaska over a decade ago

“I did other things to try to forget about the brown bear, but obviously I couldn’t forget about it completely,” Hott said.

According to rates listed on the AAA Alaskan Outfitters website, Wayne shelled out more than $24,000 dollars for a 15-day guided trip on the Alaska Peninsula.

During his first week in the field, the weather was iffy; he had a few good hunting days, and a couple rainy ones spent in the tent.

Then his luck turned.

“It must have been Monday, day 8 of my hunt,” Hott said.

He and his guide were in a pop-up blind when they saw a sow with two cubs on the side of the mountain.

“And all of a sudden there was a lot bigger bear above them that saw them and came down toward the others,” Hott said. “And the two bears were just nose to nose like a couple of dogs posturing at each other.”

They watched for a couple hours. Finally, the bigger bear left the others and started moving down the mountain, toward a grassy spot in the valley that looked promising.

“We grabbed our packs and took off at 4 o’clock on Monday afternoon, and shot the bear at 4:45… and we were back in camp either 7:30 or 8 with the bear skinned,” Hott said.

They left the rest of the carcass for scavengers to find. Wayne was ready to get out of the rain and cramped tents, so he headed back to King Salmon.

His 9-foot bear hide will continue its journey. It will be cleaned, salted, and then FedEx-ed back to Kansas, where Wayne has his favorite taxidermist on call. The skull will get special treatment as well, scoured by flesh-eating beetles for a chemical-free clean.

“The thing that’s so remarkable about the bear, though, the thing I like the most… It’s beautiful,” Hott said. “If you took a color scale that went from dark brown to a light tan and continued it through the spectrum, this bear’s got all of ‘em. It’s just a beautiful, beautiful specimen. I’m lucky to have it.”

Besides looks, what Wayne loves about this bear is the fact that he shot it with ammunition he made himself. He says this is the fourth time he’s taken “dangerous game” he’s taken with his own hand-loaded ammunition.

“It’s the satisfaction of taking the components that go together to make a rifle cartridge and making it work, having it shoot accurately and then having it perform well when it better perform well,” Hott said. “You know, if you’re trying to take a Cape buffalo or a leopard or a brown bear, the ammunition better work. It better work.”

Eventually, the bear will be mounted with the rest of the Hott family collection. Wayne wants his bear on a grassy base, in a “natural” position, not fierce or growling. But he does want the teeth to be clearly visible – he is a retired dentist, after all.