Three local businessmen tell their exciting stories of big bears and unusual elk.
by Tom Loeffler
Lee Wilbers has had a lot of hunting success in his life, starting with squirrels, graduating to deer, then on to elk and bear, with a few animals sprinkled in between. He enjoys being the hunter more than the hunted — he’s been on both sides, so he would know.
“I was salmon fishing in Alaska with my partner’s 22-year-old son, Dylan [Lueckenotte],” Wilbers says. “We were on the bank. We’d fished there for five days and never had any problems. I was about 100 yards from the boat, and I told Dylan that if a bear comes, leave your fish on the bank.
“So I’m fishing,” he continues, “and I keep hearing something behind me. All of a sudden, I hear a big crunch!, and I turn around to see this big bear standing maybe 30 yards from me. He stands up on his back legs, looks at me, and I holler to Dylan, ‘Bear!’ They tell you not to run, but I ran anyway.”
Understandable. The bear started running after him, and the bear was winning the race.
“When I went to where Dylan was standing,” Wilbers says, “the bear was right on my tail, he was probably only ten yards behind me. Luckily, he stopped to eat the fish, and I jumped in the boat. It was a big old brown bear, in the same family as the grizzlies. He was probably about four or five years old, and when he stood up and looked over that brush, he was probably eight or nine feet tall.
“My heart’s still working, it’s still pumping. But that was quite a thrill. It got my attention. That was our last day up in King Salmon, Alaska, and after that, we didn’t need to fish anymore.”
Wilbers, 59, who works at Wallstreet Insurance Group, has seen much of what nature has to offer, like elk running in herds of 200 or 300 or up to 1,000. When describing the 1,000-elk variety, he made it sound like a buffalo stampede in a classic western. “It was phenomenal to watch,” Wilbers says. “They started running, the dust was just flying. It was unreal.”
He’s had great success hunting elk and bear. (Wilbers actually does hunt bears. He’s not just hunted by them.) He says he’s killed “a number” of them in his normal hunting ground of Manitoba, Canada. His next goal is a cinnamon-colored bear.
Gary Kempker has a success story in elk hunting that you could call beginner’s luck, if you wish, but this was a first-time strike. His hunting experiences started at age eight with rabbits and squirrels. He got his first deer at fourteen — he says he’s harvested about 100 deer in his life, give or take — and he hunts wild turkey. But Kempker, 55, owner of The Blue Diamond, struck gold on his first elk hunt in Kalispell, Montana.
He didn’t know what he was getting into when he scoped the elk on that fall day in 2001. “It’s got one typical antler on one side, and that’s the side I shot it from,” Kempker says. “I didn’t realize until I walked up to it that it was different, and when I took it to the Game and Fish Department, that’s when I realized what I had.”
Kempker had bagged what officials called a freak of nature, an elk with three antlers, a 6x4x6 rack, an elk rarer than what’s called a “non-typical.” The local newspaper in Kalispell was contacted and did a big spread on Kempker and his odd success story.
“I haven’t had anything close to that since,” says Kempker, who later did get a unique 8×3 white-tailed on his land in Jamestown.
Then there’s the hunting adventure of Jeff Krieger, 55, of Krieger & Krieger Accountants, who made his own splash in the media. Krieger started hunting at age ten, once again starting with small game and working all the way up to elk, bears, and mule deer. His first elk hunt was in Colorado when he was fourteen, “but that was more of a learning experience in living in the wilderness for a week,” Krieger says. “I didn’t know what the heck was going on.”
While he has “killed a few elk” over the years, he learned on that first trip that it wasn’t all fun and games.
A herd of 35 or 40 elk came crashing over the side of a mountain, and “they came flying right at us,” Krieger says. “We didn’t have time to get off our horses, we didn’t have time to get our guns, we didn’t have time to do anything. Being fourteen years old and having very little experience riding a horse to begin with, and then to have 35 elk come running at you in woods you can’t walk through, that will get your attention really quick.”
Krieger, however, still relishes the hunting experience. “I always tell people who don’t understand hunting that killing is a bonus,” he says. “Hunting is waking up in the morning and hearing the world come alive in the woods.”
He has a bear story to remember as well, one he calls the highlight of his hunting life. Krieger had talked to an outfitter, a hunting guide, for two years about taking a father–son trip on a hunt for a coastal black bear. It finally happened in April 2009, when they boarded a 34-foot boat that would be their home for the next week off the coast of Ketchikan, Alaska.
This hunt was strictly spot-and-stalk, no bait. With help from the outfitter, they spotted a massive bear from the boat and went to land. After tracking him for 45 minutes — “I could have shot him 100 times,” Krieger says — the wind switched. Krieger was within about 65 yards of the bear, who picked up the hunter’s scent and took off.
But within the next hour, Krieger got another chance. He didn’t miss. The bear ended up being seven feet and three inches tall and weighed 600 pounds — the second-largest black bear killed in Alaska in 2009.
Krieger received awards from both the State of Alaska and the Alaska Professional Hunters Association, and Hunt Alaska used a picture of Krieger and his prize on the back cover of their magazine. And there’s this — he was contacted by Nikon, who wanted to use the photo on one of their brochures. They didn’t pay him money, but they did give Krieger roughly $2,500 worth of Nikon equipment, from scopes to binoculars to range finders.
“For a hunter to receive a package like that,” Krieger says, “it was like Christmas morning.”
Being the hunter pays a lot more than being the hunted, that’s for sure.