Black bears are always interesting, or so it seems to me.
I first seriously hunted black bears on foot, with a bow, by spot-and-stalk methods in the rugged Sierra Nevada Mountains of east-central California in the 1970s. They intrigued me. And, they mostly proved a good deal smarter than my clumsy stalking efforts. Still, I shot a few bears. Later, I sampled hunting black bears over bait and with dogs, where those two hunting methods were legal, and I continued to stalk black bears whenever the opportunity arose.
I learned I liked bears, and I thoroughly enjoyed hunting them. In the last three decades - while bowhunting in the Rocky Mountain West, Canada and in Alaska - I’ve taken over a dozen black bears with a bow, and enjoyed every one of them.
Maybe my fascination with bears is contagious, because in recent years my two stepsons – Travis and Tyler – have been pestering me to take them bear hunting. Tyler, in particular, who has been somewhat luke-warm on serious hunting, has long talked of bears.
“They’re cool,” he’d say. “I like hunting elk, but when can we hunt bears?”
Last Christmas, I surprised each of my twenty-something young men with the announcement that we would finally bowhunt black bears together in northern Canada in May. They needed to arrange for time off from their respective employers, get their gear in order, practice their shooting a lot and I’d arrange for everything else. During the following five months we surely drove the rest of our families batty with our incessant talk about bears and bear hunting.
While Travis, Tyler and I often hunt elk together and occasionally get together to chase deer and antelope, this hunt would serve up of a number of firsts for the boys – first time after bears and first time hunting outside of the United States. Plans were made, passports obtained and broadheads sharpened.
I wanted this hunt to be very special. I wanted the boys to see lots of bears and hopefully have good shot opportunities. But I also wanted them to see some of the wild Canada I’ve come to love over the years. And I thought we could throw in some exciting fishing as well. Both boys love to fish.
To arrange all that, I contacted my old friend Mark Buehrer of Bowhunting Safari Consultants. Mark and I have worked together to arrange all sorts of bowhunts over the years. I spelled out for Mark exactly what I was looking for. Mark did the research and then recommended Sheldon Bang of Northern Big Bear Outfitters. Sheldon runs a modest but very successful bear-hunting operation near Buffalo Narrows in northern Saskatchewan. We’d fly into Saskatoon, rent a vehicle and then drive six hours north into the ever-thickening Canadian bush. A huge lake situated just five mile from Sheldon’s bear camp offered superb fishing. Everything sounded good and I booked the hunt.
Travis, who lives in Salt Lake City, flew into Denver, where he hooked up with Tyler and I. Together we flew on with one bow case, one duffle bag and one carry-on backpack each to Edmonton, Alberta, and then to Saskatoon. My carry-on was a favorite Kifaru SpikeCamp pack, a pack I find ideal for much hunting and all sorts of airline travel. Just for airline travel, I generally reverse the hip belt, buckling that belt around the base of the pack to make things trimmer, and then utilize just the shoulder straps. The Spikecamp easily handles a spare change of clothes, all my optics and camera gear and any travel documents, tickets, cash and whatnot I may need. At times, I strip off its removal camo panel. At other times, I simply leave that camo panel in place. In the field, the pack obviously unfurls into a very serious hunting pack.
On the drive north from Saskatoon the boys got to see the Canadian landscape change from prairie farmland to scattered bush to the all-encompassing taiga forest of birth, larch and conifers that covers much of subarctic Canada, Europe and Asia. The farther north we traveled, the more that forest closed in, the more lakes and wild rivers dotted the landscape and the more we strained to see bears.
Camp was a neat cabin on a small lake at the end of a muddy road. Tyler’s GPS proclaimed the spot 1,237 miles from his apartment and work, a fact that seemed to thrill him to no end.
Once in camp, the first order of business for the excited boys was to race around at top speed assembling bows, shooting practice arrows, laying out camo clothing and putting fishing rods, reels and tackle together. The first order of business for me was to watch it all from a comfortable couch on the front porch of the cabin while looking at the lake.
“What are you doing!” the boys chimed. “We can’t waste a minute.”
Bowhunting gear readied, we trucked off to the nearby lake and a date with some fish. Did I tell you that the boys like to fish. Well, they do. But they’d not ever seen fishing quite like this. The walleyes and northern pike attacked nearly everything we threw at them, although the best producers proved to be easy-to-toss Daredevil spoons and brightly-colored jig heads rigged with white twin-tail Mister Twisters. That first evening, on a blustery lake, we caught over 40 walleyes and northern pike.
The walleyes averaged a whopping 4 to 8 pounds, while our best pike went just over 10 pounds. The boys were pretty sure they’d died and gone to heaven.
The next morning kicked off five intensive days of bear hunting and fishing that would be hard to beat. As mentioned in the above “tease post,” the three of us saw a grand total of 44 different bears in those action-packed days and caught 233 fish. We got up early, went to bed late and had a grand time.
Bowhunting over bait is a fascinating way to pursue black bears. When done properly, it allows hunters to view multiple bears up close and very personal. At 10 to 20 yards, you can see bears blink, and they have see you blink as well.
The days fells into a routine. We fished in the mornings and hunted bears in the evenings. To hunt, we typically bounced to the end of a rutted bush road in the guide’s 4x4 truck, unloaded a 4-wheeler and then slipped, slid and bounced in even further to the remote bait sites on the ATV.
The carefully chosen bait site consisted of a 55-gallon metal barrel strapped to a sturdy tree. The barrels were filled with a top-secret concoction of oats, cooking grease and outdated soft candy and cookie dough. The bears loved it. Each barrel featured a carefully cut circular hole. Small bears simply stuck their head in the hole to gobble the goodies. Bigger bears used an agile paw to fish out what they wanted. The barrels kept each bait site clean and organized.
We all saw bears every time we took a stand, and bears approaching the bait sites often passed within ten yards of our tree on their way to the barrels.
As shown earlier, some bear proved rather bold in investigating stand ladders. I had (as shown earlier in this thread) one bear stand upright on my stand’s ladder before losing interest and melting back into the bush. On another occasion, I had a cinnamon-colored sow with one cinnamon cub and one black cub in tow rush my ladder stand and put on quite a threat display about 20 feet away. Basically, she was saying I know you’re in that stand and you better not come near my cubs. I obeyed.
Tyler scored first. Near the beginning of the hunt, he had a lone bear approach his bait early one evening. To Tyler, the bear appeared to be good-sized with all the telltale big-bear signs I had talked to him about: head so broad his ears appear small, swaying belly, rambling gate, big paws slightly pigeon-toed and standing nearly as tall as the barrel.
For nearly 15 minutes, Tyler’s bear failed to present a broadside shot and Tyler waited him out, as I he had been instructed to do. Double-lung a bear with a sharp arrow, which is best done with a perfectly broadside shot, and that bear won’t go 40 yards before dying. Try a tricky angled shot, get only one lung and he may go a long way in impossibly thick bush. Tyler waited.
“I was so nervous I could barely clip my release onto the bowstring,” he told me later. “But I waited. At one point, he was just 10 yards away, but I waited.”
Finally, the big bear turned broadside and stopped moving. Tyler drew, aimed carefully and shot.
“The arrow hit with an odd PING,” Tyler recounted. “And I thought I’d somehow missed him. But he raced past me, ran into a tree barely 20 yards away, fell over and just died. I couldn’t believe it.”
Tyler’s perfectly-placed arrow had passed completely through the 6-foot bear and hit the metal barrel. By the way, Tyler was shooting a 70-pound Hoyt Katera bow with Easton ST Axis carbon arrows and Rocky Mountain Titanium broadheads.
It is highly debatable who was happier - me, Tyler’s older brother Travis or Tyler. We were all beaming.
Travis struck next. On his fateful evening, he had multiple bears on his bait, fighting around the bait and just generally carrying on all around his stand. After several hours, he picked a dandy 5-1/2 foot bear and made a fine shot at just 15 yards. The bear moved as he shot, but his arrow punched straight through the onside shoulder blade and skewered both lungs. The bear went maybe 60 yards before expiring. Travis was shooting a 70-pound BowTech General bow and Gold Tip carbon arrows with Rage 2-blade expandable broadheads.
And once again, all three of us gathered for a family black-bear portrait.
I would like to report that I killed an even larger bear. But I didn’t. I saw 21 different bears myself, including a few shooters. But I was dreaming of a really giant bear, something bigger than I had ever taken before. My giant never materialized, and the week passed in a blur of lesser bears and happy times.
On the last evening of the hunt, I had a revelation of sorts.
That evening was picture perfect. The temperature was mild and the wind fell away shortly after I climbed into my stand. I saw three fascinating black bears that evening, and I decided that it didn’t matter at all if I shot a bear on this particular bowhunt. The boys had both take good bears, their first bears, and that was enough. I smiled big and broad as I climbed down from my treestand and walked out to the ATV.