Guns Of The Guides

An Alaskan pro gives something to “bear in mind”
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Tia on the job in Alaska. Pretty nice workplace!

Curled up in our favorite easy chair, perhaps sipping a distilled beverage, an outdoor show flickers on the flat screen featuring Alaska’s coastal brown bears. Maybe we ask ourselves, “What gun would I use should one of these furry freight trains charge me, brandishing teeth, claws, snot and slobber?”

We imagine coolly drawing our big-bore, .898 Master-Blaster handgun and stopping the beast with a single shot a mere 10 feet from the toes of our boots. Or perhaps we’re leveling a rifle, causing the furry cataclysm to do backward somersaults after absorbing 2,000 grains of plutonium wonder missile?

Ah, yes … Our fantasy world can often be pretty damn far from the truth so I thought it would be interesting to share what a real-life registered Alaskan guide has to say on the matter.

Here’s Tia carrying her sling-less Model 70 Africa-style in typical bear country.

Born Free

Tia Shoemaker was born in Alaska to a father who spent his day guiding hunters full-time. Living in the wilderness, growing up off-grid, her childhood was quite different than most of ours. She explains, “Living amongst the bears, in their habitat, one takes a different view on things.”

For Tia, respecting bears is essential for survival. While the majority of them are shy and try to avoid human contact, you just never know when you’ll come face to face with the rogue bear, ready to rumble.

Growing up, Tia was taught to never venture anywhere without a gun (sound advice for anywhere, eh?). Even the outhouse had a designated rifle! Living in the bush, Tia has more encounters with bears than humans. Whether getting meat from the meat cache, or simply stepping outside, bears were an ever-present possibility and were known to prowl the perimeter of the homestead, snooping around for an easy meal.

As Tia explains, bears are curious about anything but some juveniles — usually males — can be a little more stubborn. It’s always good to be prepared for the worse but with guides it is virtually a mantra. Encounters with bears are common but the vast majority is non-confrontational and the last thing any guide wants to do is to be forced to dispatch a bear. With over 31 years of guiding, her father, Phil Shoemaker, has only had to dispatch a single bear.

Coastal brown bear are plenty big. Here’s Tia with her old rifle — a Ruger M77 Hawkeye in .375 Ruger — next to one.

Tia’s Guns

For her main backup gun, Tia uses a custom stainless steel D’arcy Echols .416 Remington Magnum built on a Winchester Model 70 action — with controlled-round feed — her dad furnished for the project.

“I requested a short, lightweight rifle suitable for carry in Alaska’s tight “bear cover,” so D’Arcy built my Winchester with a 21" barrel and 12.5" length of pull,” Tia said.

With four rounds in the magazine, tape on the muzzle and a rubber scope cover, the rifle weighs less than 8 lbs. I can wrap my hand around the stock in front of the scope and carry it all day. The weight of the rifle has raised a few eyebrows in regards to recoil, but as Tia says “recoil is momentary, while toting a heavy rifle all hunting season can be rather … tedious.”

The rifle is mounted with a Leupold scope in aluminum mounts, and it never wears a sling. Why? With no sling it always has to be in your hands. Slings also have a tendency to get hung-up in the thick stuff — not a good scenario. Classic African style carry, stock over shoulder, hand on barrel, is Tia’s most frequent form of conveyance unless she’s tracking or backing up a client.

Tia normally stokes her rifle with her dad’s handloads, using Barnes TSX 300-gr. bullets. She says with a chuckle, “The age-old saying, ‘beware the man with only one gun,’ also applies to women!”

Tia also packs an S&W Model 65, a gift from her dad. She carries it in a thumb-break holster made by Rob Leahy of Simply Rugged. It’s a pancake-style rig and Tia runs her belt over the outside of the holster to keep the gun snug against her for better retention during her active hunting and fishing duties.

She loads it with Buffalo Bore .357 “Heavy Outdoorsman,” featuring 180-gr. LFN hard-cast bullets loaded to 1,400 fps (being a cast bullet blaster myself, this put a huge smile on my face!).

Close encounters of the Alaska kind. The bear isn’t fixated on Tia and all is well.

Tia with a happy client who just caught a nice Coho salmon. Notice the ever-present Smith Model 65 on her hip.

Advice For Clients

Tia says the classic “not being familiar with their guns” is the biggest cause of client blunders. Her other advice:

“Bring the largest gun you can shoot accurately and are familiar with, preferably one in stainless steel. Our hunting area is full of saltwater and sea air. Blued steel doesn’t stand a chance. Keeping ahead of the rust is impossible. One client actually had his bolt rust shut and was totally unaware of it until I checked his gun,” Tia pointed out.

There ends the lesson: Know your gun, ammo and conditions. Prepare for the worst, and always be on the ready. Listen to your guide! Lastly, relax and enjoy your hunt. You won’t need the fantasy of a charging bear to experience adventure. It’ll come all by itself.

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