Big Bears Of Barney Creek

The southern exposure of Barney Creek valley from our glassing hill.

The southern exposure of Barney Creek valley from our glassing hill.

As hunters we all have our favorite spots where we have taken some of our biggest or best trophies.  Some just call it their secret spot while others may call it “the honey hole” or by some other name.  Guides have their favorites also and in AAA’s early days our “honey hole” for big brown bears was Barney Creek, a small alder filled valley with a southern exposure in our Cold Bay area.  The valley was almost four miles long but we never killed or stalked a bear in the last mile of it.  We did take quite a few bears on the north entrance to the valley.  It was mainly a breeding or hook-up valley.  We only hunted it in the spring and during eight springs, we harvested eleven bears over 9’ with seven of those over 10’ and one 11 footer.  We also know of a King Cove resident who took his brother to this valley and they harvested two bears over 10’during that same time period.  Now that’s what I call a “honey hole.”

Our first season as AAA Alaskan Outfitters was the spring of ’84.  Brent and I were the only guides and our first two clients were George Caswell and Tim Orton.  We felt that more than likely we would take our first two bears out of the Izembek Wildlife Refuge.  We were only allowed two hunters per season in the refuge and had already submitted their names.  We hunted around the shoreline the first day but not seeing anything, we hiked into the refuge where we had set up a spike camp.  Brent and I were hunting in different directions most of the time and neither of us was having any luck spotting bears.  It was a late spring and really slow hunting so on the afternoon of day five Brent and George hunted their way back to base camp planning to hunt the shoreline.

George Caswell with his 10’10” 29 5/16 B&C bear.

George Caswell with his 10’10” 29 5/16 B&C bear.

After another day and half of only spotting a couple of small bears, Tim and I headed back to base camp.  Once we arrived we got caught up in the excitement of George taking a giant 10’10” brown bear with a 29 5/16 B&C record book skull.  He had taken the bear the night before in a small valley south of our base camp called Barney Creek.  That was AAA’s first time hunting that valley.

George with his giant mounted bear at the 1985 FNAWS Convention.

George with his giant mounted bear at the 1985 FNAWS Convention.

That evening Tim and I decided to take the Zodiac out and hunt the shoreline down to Barney Creek.  It wasn’t a nice weather evening and we ended up not seeing a single bear.  We woke up the next morning to Tim’s last hunting day and headed back to Barney Creek.  With all the alder in the valley I wasn’t exactly sure how to hunt it so we ended up climbing way too high.  In fact, I never climbed that high the next eight spring seasons even to stalk a bear.  We did spot a sow and two cubs but no lone bears.  Sometime after 9 PM, we boarded the Zodiac and slowly hunted our way back to base camp.  About an hour or so later, I spotted a big bear about 200 yards above the shore.  With the wind in our favor we pulled into shore below the bear.  After a great stalk to within 75 yards Tim slowly squeezed the trigger of his .338 Brown Precision rifle and the big bear was down.  It was 11:05 PM on the last day of Tim’s hunt and he had just taken a super furred 10’2” brown bear with a B&C 28 5/16 skull.  What an end to a hunt!  We skinned the bear out using the light of a Coleman lantern, another first and last for me.  You can read more about this hunt in “It Pays to Wait.”

Barney Creek spike camp.

Barney Creek spike camp.

Brent had picked up our next hunters on Tim’s last day and that next morning I took Tim to Cold Bay to catch his flight.  That evening Brent and I took our next two hunters Mike Dobransky and Karl Kliem to Barney Creek and set up a spike camp.  We used that camp spot our next eight open springs.  We only spotted a few bears during their hunt, including one giant that Mike called “Big Foot.”  We didn’t get that one but Mike ended up shooting a beautiful blond 9+ footer.  Karl left without a bear, but came back the next open spring and harvested a 9’3” inside the Izembek Wildlife Refuge.  The two ten foot plus B&C brown bears were the largest and third largest taken by guided hunters that year.  What a great start for AAA.

Mike Dobransky, Brent and me with his 9’+ brown bear.

Mike Dobransky, Brent and me with his 9’+ brown bear.

Our next spring brown bear opening on the Peninsula was ’86.  Spring brown bear season is only open on the even numbered years as a management tool.  We had a lot of bad weather that year but after the weather pattern changed we headed to Barney Creek in the Zodiacs.  Right before the entrance to the creek we spotted a giant bear going into an alder patch.  After checking the wind direction I headed for the shoreline.  My client Kurt Jaeger from Liechtenstein, my soon to be partner Dan and I moved above the alder patch and began glassing for the bear.  I finally spotted him moving up the hill in the alder.  He was a strange looking bear with his head attached to his body like a young bear with no neck but I knew he was a giant.  As soon as he was in the open I gave Kurt the go ahead to take him.  Kurt hit the bear hard with a 300 grain bullet from his .375 H&H Magnum and we both fired as the bear went back into the alder.  Brent and his client Karl Kliem were in another Zodiac off shore watching the action.  After the shots Brent came to shore and yelled that he would go to the right of where the bear went in.  Dan stayed above the alder watching as Kurt and I got ready to go in after the bear.  I jokingly told Kurt that I knew he couldn’t wait to go into the alder after a giant wounded brown bear.  We were locked and loaded as we moved cautiously into the alder.  After only few steps into the alder a huge brown bear slowly rose moving away from us and the blast from the two .375 H&H’s simultaneously was deafening.  The bear disappeared into the thick alder as I shouted to Brent that he was coming their way.  The bear only traveled another 15 yards before he died.  It was a massive short fat bear.  I could not get my 35” arms around his short neck.  The bear only squared 10’ because of his shortness with a 27 8/16 B&C skull.  Still a great bear!  Read the hunter’s view in the story on the blog “Hair’s Breadth Bear” by Kurt Jaeger.

Brent, Kurt and me with his monster bear.

Brent, Kurt and me with his monster bear.

Kurt and me with his fat 10’ brown bear. It took all five of us to roll him out of the alder.

Kurt and me with his fat 10’ brown bear. It took all five of us to roll him out of the alder.

The spring of ’88 Dan guided Martin Johnson in Barney Creek and scored with a beautiful 9’6” bear.  Tim Orton had returned to try to take a larger bear, over 10’2”.  We were cruising the shoreline in the Zodiac when I spotted a big bear on the right side entrance to Barney Creek.  The bear went into the alder, laid down and went to sleep.  I was able to find him and we slipped to within 100 yards.  We finally woke him up and he stood up looking over the seven foot alder and then spun around back into the alder.  Tim got a shot off but only ended up with a flesh wound.  We trailed him about a quarter mile following only a few drops of blood.  I tied my handkerchief in an alder bush and I told Tim that Dan and I would come back the next morning to continue the blood trail.  When Dan and I returned, we found and followed a very weak blood trail, a drop about every ten yards or so for about a mile then it dried up completely.  It took us four hours on our hands and knees most of the time.  We felt the bear would be fine and headed back to camp.  Tim left without a bear.

Marty Johnson with his beautiful 9’6” brownie.

Marty Johnson with his beautiful 9’6” brownie.

 John Bermen our last client came in for the last ten days of the season.  All the other clients had left so Dan, George Lockwood, an assistant guide, and I took John inside the refuge to hunt.  I think it was his second hunting day when I spotted a big bear about a mile and half away on the hillside.  He was on the back side of Barney Creek.  We made a great stalk to within three hundred yards from where we had last seen the bear go into the alder.  We got John set up downwind and I had George go over and climb above where I thought the bear would be and let the wind carry his scent through the alder.  Within minutes after George got above the bear it came bursting through the alder, sometimes even going over it.  As soon as the bear made it out of the alder he stopped and looked back and that’s when John put him down.  It took a couple more shots to keep him down, but we now had a dead bear.   I love it when everything comes together like that.  It was truly a big bear, the largest that I had ever been in on.  He squared 10’5” with a 29 5/16 SCI skull that scored 28 11/16 B&C.  When we rolled him over we found a new wound.  He had been hit by a bullet that entered through the fat of his butt and exited by his testicles.  He was the bear that Tim Orton had hit six days earlier in Barney Creek.  It couldn’t have worked out any better, especially for John.  Check out John’s story, “Cold Bay Trophy Bear” on the blog.

John Bermen and me with his big 10’5” 28 11/16 B&C brown bear.

John Bermen and me with his big 10’5” 28 11/16 B&C brown bear.

In ’90 one of our guides, Kurt Johnson, guided Rod Bohn in Barney Creek and they harvested a 9’5”.  At the same time I once again guided Tim Orton.  We hunted both the refuge and Barney Creek.  We didn’t see any giants so Tim ended up taking a real nice 9’3” on the front face of Barney Creek.

Rod Bohn with his 9’5” brown bear.

Rod Bohn with his 9’5” brown bear.

1992 proved to be our best year with record setting beautiful weather and a couple of super bears.  Dan and I took Randy Cain, a first time client and Matt Caldwell, a returning hunter, and set-up a spike camp in Barney Creek.  The weather was beautiful the second day when we spotted a good bear feeding out of Barney Creek.  We moved up higher to get a better view but the bear must have laid down in the alder because we never saw him again.  Later that evening Matt and I decided to hunt the shoreline using the Zodiac.  Close to base camp we spotted a big bear with a sow but decided he wasn’t as big as we were looking for this early in the hunt.  On our way back on the beach very close to our spike camp I spotted a big bear feeding.  It looked like the bear that we had seen earlier that morning.  Luckily, the wind was in our favor as we pulled over to the shore.  We made a perfect stalk getting to within 150 yards and Matt made a deadly shot.  What a beautiful trophy bear.  He squared 10’1” and was only a short 500 yard pack to spike camp.  It was getting dark so we decided to take photos and skin him the next morning.

Matt and me with his beautiful furred 10’1” brown bear.

Matt and me with his beautiful furred 10’1” brown bear.

Matt again with his giant. They always look bigger when you roll them over.

Matt again with his giant. They always look bigger when you roll them over.

Several days later after fleshing and salting Matt’s bear, Jeff Hamburg, another one of our guides, and I took Matt to the Cold Bay airport to catch his flight home.  When we got back to spike camp Dan had left us a note saying that they had spotted a big bear coming over the ridge from the refuge into Barney Creek.  The bear had laid down in the alder and they had gone after him.  We started glassing the south slope of the valley and spotted two guys moving around in the alder.  We grabbed our packs and took off to help them.  Once we arrived Dan could hardly contain himself, and for Dan that is unusual as he is typically pretty laid back.  They had just taken the largest bear that I had ever seen.  It squared out 11’3” with a 30 5/16 SCI skull which was the new SCI world record.  It was the largest bear taken in Alaska in the last 26 years.  That bear was killed less than 400 yards from where our first 10’10” was taken back in ’84.  What a year!!  Two giant bears.

Randy Cain with the largest brown bear AAA has ever taken. 11’3” 30 5/16 SCI World Record at that time.

Randy Cain with the largest brown bear AAA has ever taken. 11’3” 30 5/16 SCI World Record at that time.

During the spring of ’94 Dan and I took Pete Seda and Dave Gandee to Barney Creek.  The weather was worse than normal, raining part of every day.  On day three while I was cooking breakfast Pete spotted a big bear crossing the bottom of Barney Creek.  Dan and Pete went after him but didn’t connect.  After all the other hunters were gone, Dave was still hanging in there.  Right before dark the evening before his last day we spotted a big bear up in the snow following a sow.  We were pretty sure that Dave had spotted that big bear earlier in the hunt in the same general area.  It was too late to go after him so we could only hope that he stayed close.

The next morning I studied the tracks in the snow and it looked like they ended up coming back down the mountain into the alder.  So we all got ready for a long day’s hunt back in the valley.  There were five of us, two of our guides John Koldeway and Bob Wambach, Dave, Dan and me.  We went up the creek and found a good place to spot from on the south bank.  It was right across from where the tracks went into the alder.  After sitting there until about 1 PM and not seeing anything I came up with another plan.  The wind was blowing out of the valley so John and I took Dave up on the hillside to get above where the bear had come out the night before.  I told Dan and Bob to wait until around 5 PM and if the bear had not shown himself to go further back into the valley and then climb up through the alder making noise hoping the bear would move toward us.  Being the last day of the hunt I felt this was our only chance at that bear.  We had Dave set-up using a pack as his rest and John had the camera set-up to film.  As Dan and Bob were climbing through the alder they started yelling.  About 400 yards from them and 300 yards from us the big bear stood up looking over the alder toward them.  He dropped back down and we spotted the sow that he had been after run out of the alder about 300 yards below us.  He stood back up looking around, dropped down on all fours and started out of the alder and up the hill running straight at us.  At about the 150 yard mark he turned to our right giving Dave a great broadside shot.  Dave opened up with his .340 Weatherby Custom Magnum.  Missing him completely twice but right before he went over the ridge the 250 grain Nosler Partition bullet hit its mark and the bear crashed to the ground.  The bear was dead and it was all caught on video.  He squared out at 10’3”.  What a way to end a sixteen day hunt!  To get the hunter’s perspective check out his story, “The Gift Bear”.

Dave and me with his 10’3” gift bear.

Dave and me with his 10’3” gift bear.

In ’96 Frank Kusler, guided by Mark Confer, took our last 10 footer, a 10’4”, out of Barney Creek.  Most of the years talked about above, we harvested one or two eight and a half foot bears to go along with the big guys.  Barney Creek is truly a “honey hole”. 

Frank Kusler with his 10’4” brownie.

Frank Kusler with his 10’4” brownie.

Currently where AAA’s spike camp once set there is a parking lot where heavy equipment was stored during the building of the famous road from King Cove to Cold Bay.  If you went there today, more than likely, you would find numerous beer cans thrown around the area from where the locals party.  That was the case at the head of Lenard Harbor before the road was built further into the refuge.  I am also sure that if you could put up with the local traffic, you could find another giant bear in our old “honey hole.”