Sterling resident Lee Riley turned 63 in June, and as he reflected on successful hunts and the animals taken in Alaska and elsewhere, one trophy was missing -- a brown bear.
That goal was realized two days into the hunting season on the shores of the Kenai River this month, as Riley shot a trophy Kenai Peninsula brown bear near the old Renfro cabin -- just a few miles from his home in the Kenai Keys. The bear, a 20-year-old male, tipped the scales at more than 800 pounds.
"I decided in June that it was now or never to get a brown bear," Riley said, "and this was an amazing animal."
The season opened Oct. 15, and in the days prior Riley scouted the area of the river below Skilak Lake with friends and family members. They saw plenty of bears, each usually following the same routine.
"It's amazing how many bears we saw," Riley said. "One evening we saw 19, 14 on another evening and seven on another time out. They came to the same place to eat fish every evening. Usually the cubs would appear first, then the sow, then the boars."
On Oct. 16, Riley followed the same pattern of motoring to the outlet of Skilak Lake and rowing back. That evening he and partner Larry Gray spotted five bears -- a boar and two sows with two cubs -- feeding on fish.
"We knew where they were coming out, so we pulled to shore above them to check the sizes," Riley said. "They went back up into the high grass, then the boar came back out. He was nervous and was pacing back and forth. He eventually went back into the grass, then the bigger one came out."
Riley said the size of the bear soon became apparent.
"He was huge -- his head looked so small in proportion to his body," Riley said, "and he sat right down on the edge of the river like it was his dinner table."
Riley took aim with his .338-caliber Winchester and around 6:30 p.m. brought the bear down.
"I was shaking -- he really intimidated me," Riley said. "We waited for about a half hour before we approached him."
Then came the task of getting 800 pounds of animal prepared for the trip downriver in Riley's boat.
"We couldn't budge him," Riley said. "Larry and I went back down river to our homes and returned in the dark with some equipment to try and move him, but it wasn't the right gear."
They returned the next day and skinned the bruin on the riverbank.
"We just made the decision to skin him right there on the gravel bar so we could get him out of the water," Riley said. "We managed to get the skin, head and feet into the boat. He had a lot of fat on him."
Alaska Department of Fish and Game Kenai-area biologist Ted Spraker estimated the bear's age at around 20 years, adding that Riley's trophy is especially unique because the hide doesn't have the battle scars usually accumulated by a bear that age.
"Physically, he was a healthy bear and didn't have any scars on him," Spraker said. "He was probably the biggest in the area and didn't have to deal with other bears. That's a nice animal for the Kenai."
Spraker said the bear's skull measured 25 12/16 inches and "squared" at 9 feet, 3 inches. He said squaring involves laying the hide flat and taking a measurement from the claw tips of the two front legs as well as measuring from the tip of the nose to the base of the tail. The two numbers are added together and divided by two.
"With skull measurements, you take the greatest length and the greatest width and add them together," Spraker said. "That's the standard measurement used by Boone and Crockett."
Riley said he is planning to submit the numbers to Boone and Crockett as well as Safari Club International.
The season ends Tuesday, and Spraker said so far five males have been taken since the Oct. 15 opener. Three other bears -- two females and one male -- were killed in defense of life and property later in the summer, increasing the total to eight. The quota for Units 7 and 15 is 14, Spraker said, six of which can be females. He praised hunters like Riley who have targeted males.
"The hunters have done a good job in passing up the females," Spraker said. "We have a very conservative quota on brown bears, and if we get to six (females), we'll shut it down."
Riley said he plans to have a full-size mount of the bear created in an upright pose, a project being handled by Ron Aldridge at Caribou Unlimited Taxidermist in Sterling.
"Lee is pretty excited about it ... it is a bear of a lifetime," Aldridge said. "We're going to put him in a natural pose, and that bear is going to go right to the ceiling."
Riley said his home's 8-foot ceilings will hold the trophy.
"He will take up a good part of the room, I know," Riley laughed.
"I've hunted all over Alaska and even in Africa for all kinds of trophies," he said. "But this big brownie gave me the biggest thrill of all ... this will be a hunt I will always remember."
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