"You better load that front-stuffer before we go check for blood!"
With shaking hands I dropped two 50-grain Pyrodex pellets down the pipe, followed by a 275-grain hollow point slug, then concentrated on putting a cap on the nipple. As I fumbled to lock the bolt down, Randy pointed behind me and hissed: "Bear! Bear!"
The first night of the 2001 season hunting with my in-line muzzleloader was that of one riveting with adventure. Weeks earlier I had discovered an oat field being frequented by a couple hefty bruins. Now in stocking feet, I closed the distance to fifty yards before settling the crosshairs on a solid black mass of teeth and claws, the coal-black boar charging straight ahead as blue-grey smoke filled the crisp autumn air. Although neither Randy nor myself heard any rumour of a hit, I was confident the sabot had found its mark and delivered full punishment from the .44 calibre bullet; instead of the loud “Whack” accustom to hot lead striking a host of impressionable matter, the bear lunged forward suggesting he was indeed cudgelled.
My hunting partner, Randy Hermann, was watching a few hundred yards back from the top a rise holding my possibles bag. Moments later he was at my side. After short deliberation, a plan was surmised to ferret out any clues that would justify our suspicions of a hit.
Kneeling, I packed a bullet and was slipping a cap on the nipple when Randy’s pleas to turn around rousted my immediate attention. Operating on nothing more than instinct, I raised the smoke-pole and levelled the stainless steel barrel of my model 700 Remington in the general direction of a second monster black bear quickly closing in on us. As I pivoted and rose to unsteady feet, my eye gathered his right shoulder in the luminous window of my Bushnell Trophy.
Timing is everything, as is “luck,” and this night both were on our side. Everything happening extremely fast, at 20 yards the bear stopped while I slipped off the safety. He was now standing in brush along the edge of cover glowering in our line of compass bearing, which thankfully allowed enough time for me to collect my senses and focus on the task of stopping the disgruntled subject should he decide to advance any further.
With a deep growl emanating within the pit of his stomach, the bear let out a hair-raising woof and charged directly away from us. In as quick of fashion he spun around and started back, his mighty shoulders rocking with animation as he lunged forward one offended swagger after the other. At 25 yards he stepped into the open and paused broadside, still grumbling at us. In the time it took to let my breath out, I applied steady pressure to the trigger and heard the bullet bust through his right clavicle. Seconds later the night fell eerily silent.
Nearly two weeks prior – on the same oat field – I had taken a shot at a nice boar with my crossbow. The bolt had gone straight in the air as if it had struck heavy muscle or leg bone, but I never did find a bear or any sign that would indicate he was even wounded. Still, the shot had me puzzled and scratching my head as to what actually redirected my broadhead. There was definitely something with the whole affair that just didn’t seem quite right.
Turning our attention from the second blackie, we quickly checked on the first bear. In the dwindling twilight we were unable to find any spoor, so left him and returned to the vehicle for flashlights. Less than an hour later, Randy and I were standing beside the second bear not 40 yards from where I had shot him. The slug found both lungs, bringing swift demise.
Leaving tracking responsibilities on the first bear until the following morning, we arrived full of vigour and ripe with anticipation. Winters are historically long and cold in Canada, so black bears will consume as much as 20,000 calories per day in an effort to pack enough weight on to help shoulder them through their frosty slumber. With that said, a wounded fall bear will usually leave little to no blood in its tracks because of all the fat and thick hair they tend to be carrying at this time of the year. Hence, it came as no surprise when we couldn’t find any blood in the oats.
Due to the fact that the bear had entered heavy cover, we didn’t want to disturb things by tramping around in the dark. This paid off, as we found torn patches of earth where the bear’s claws ripped through a carpet of dead leaves littering the ground along the field’s edge. As we were closely inspecting a small tillage of soil, Randy glanced in the bush to see the dangerous predator piled up no more than five yards from the threshold of cover. An even bigger bruiser than the second one I folded, the Core-Lokt bullet had done enough damage to kill pretty much instantly.
The reality is that if you hunt long enough you’ll lose game at some point in time, but there are days when clouds do have a silver lining. To our surprise, the second bear was sporting massive head trauma. In fact, he actually had a small portion of brain exposed. Upon closer inspection, the gapping wound proved to be a laceration caused from my 100-grain Wasp Hi-Tech S.S.T. broadhead. This explained the deflection of my bolt nearly two weeks prior. Amazingly, the blackie had survived and was still coming to the grain to fill his belly with nourishment. Nevertheless, it also spelled out why he was so aggressive. Moreover, it proved just how tough black bears are. I’m just thankful I was given a second chance to dispatch the old boy from any suffering he may have weathered, truly reproached that I was unable to mortally quell his last breath at the onset.
Both of the bears six-foot candidates, casual observation will tell you that each has enough skull bone to stretch the tape into the Longhunter Society record book. Regardless, now that my dream hunt of successfully stalking autumn black bears in oats has finally become reality, keeping score strikes no interest or fancy. Do my bears make the grade? I’m sure they will, but I’ll never know because I’m never going to measure them. You see, this hunt was simply far too special for that.
Stalking trophy black bears is one of the most challenging and intimidating pursuits in North American hunting, especially with a primitive weapon. Doing this when the autumn landscape is shrouded under a bounty of radiant tincture – the air thick with fall’s aromatic pleasures – is the biggest kick of all. For me, this whole episode has been a 20-year quest. And while I may have taken a number of bears over the years, including a 7-foot plus Booner, it just seemed that I could never connect whenever hunting over oats under spot-and-stalk conditions. A time when black bears are at their heaviest (in body weight) and their coats rich and full, this challenge eventually fuelled into an obsession. Was the wait worth it? Put it this way, I can’t hold my britches until I complete this whole enterprise all over again with archery tackle. With that said, hopefully it doesn’t take me another 20 years to fill my next bear tag!
Even with a high power firearm, I’ve endured some blood chilling moments when hunting black bears. Take the small boar I shot a few years back, it too harvested over a field of ripened oats. As close of brush with Hades as I’ve ever flirted with, the very thought of that night has chills worming up and down my spine as I sit here reminiscing.
“Shoot straight!” they had said as I closed the door on the pick-up.
Now cosseted in a nest of grass in the shadow of a neatly heaped rock pile, I recalled those words of encouragement my two hunting companions had offered moments before they drove off, leaving me to sit all alone until dark. Nearby, the rusted skeleton of an antique tractor sat idle in a small clearing, a monument of an old homestead now grown up with willows. Situated at a slight elevation no more than a hundred yards from the edge of heavy timber, my makeshift blind was the perfect site to take stand from.
I had just gone through the customary routine of working all the kinks out to make my hiding place as comfortable as possible, when I noticed a dark object materialize off to my right. It was a small black bear. Sitting on its butt at eye level facing me, it swooped several swaths of oats into its lap and started munching. Shifting back and forth feeding, it’s jet-black coat radiated like a chunk of polished coal under the magic of September’s late evening rays of honeyed sunlight.
Although no wall hanger, it was a healthy young boar the farmer would later congratulate me for culling, a “little mischief-maker” as he had said earlier in one of many conversations. The landowner had watched the bear all summer long while working his fields, never really paying much attention. As fall approached, however, the little rascal started to show a mischievous and potentially dangerous side. At one point the bear actually approached the elderly gentleman when he had his back turned working on a piece of equipment, swatting him hard enough to send the poor fellow tumbling across the ground.
I thought of this as the crosshairs settled on the bear’s chest, my index finger tightening against the trigger until my rifle abruptly shattered the empty silence. Slamming a second round into the chamber, I desperately scanned the field’s edge for any hint of movement … no bear was spotted.
Positive he was just lying dead in the oats, I cautiously made my way toward the exact spot I had last seen him sitting. To my utter anxiety, all I discovered was sprayed blood. Realizing I now had a tracking job that would lead me into heavy cover, never have I felt more alone than that very moment. My stomach tightly knotted into the size of a clutched fist, beads of sweat trickled down my brow. Adrenaline surging through bulging veins, I could hear my heart pounding in my ears as I started on his trail.
Leading me into thick brambles, my throat was as dry as popcorn flatulence. He was laying a trap, and I could sense trouble. Almost through a small clearing in the gnarled jungle of undergrowth, I turned to glance back over my shoulder – splotches of blood still leading me onward – and saw him standing against a deadfall. What I remember most about that eerie flash of time is seeing a crimson ribbon around the tree trunk where he kept shifting as I moved closer, using it to hide behind. He had backtracked, cunningly waiting for the perfect moment to even the score.
My second shot wasn’t more than 40 yards, and again ripped through his upper chest and shoulders. Once again as I approached tenser than ever now, he had vanished into thin air. Before I could absorb what was taking place, I pointed the gun barrel at snapping teeth when he lunged from beneath the overhanging boughs of a spruce tree.
The shot rolling him over backwards, he tumbled down a ravine bawling and slapping at his left side. The fourth shot took him face on, and stopped him from a second attack. The fifth shot echoed for an eternity, my legs too weak to hold me up any longer. As he laid motionless, steam rising above his riddled body, I lit a cigarette and burned it to the filter in three long pulls.
This wasn’t my first experience with an enraged black bear. Back in the late 80s, while hunting elk in northeastern British Columbia, my guide and I were headed down a mountain trail when we noticed what appeared to be a porcupine (or so we thought at the time) weaving in and out of the tall grass alongside the narrow course we had to follow. The sun long hidden behind the western skyline, it was the time of night when you can still see with the naked eye but everything seems grainy.
Both of us shooting at the exact same moment, it was a black bear waiting in ambush. What we thought to be a porcupine walking on and off the trail was actually the bear sticking his head out to keep winding us, a steady draft wafting our scent directly into his face. As he stood and bellowed at 10 yards, the bright-orange flash of muzzle blast momentarily blinded me. Once I gathered my bearings, though, I instinctively joined my partner in a two-mile sprint (thankfully which was all downhill) returning the next morning to follow up tracking responsibilities.
There was a small slough not far from where we levelled the bear the evening prior, evident he was hurting bad by the large pile of scat he left behind in a pool of dark blood. A third party had joined us for safety measures. While two of us worked the edge of the slough looking for sign, the third stayed back in case the bear was still alive and broke cover. I hadn’t made it a hundred yards when gunfire erupted, followed shortly thereafter by a whoop of victory.
The record size boar, pushing 450 pounds and in excellent shape, was covered end to end in mud. He’d evidently holed up in the cool mire of the slough to break fever that must have ensued shortly after being shot, and you could see where he packed his wounds full to stop all bleeding. Upon hearing us return, we later determined that he headed uphill but was way too sick to make it very far. It was big open spruce with lots of blow-down, so he crawled under some stumps for security. When Randy – who was with me the night before – unknowingly went to climb over top of them, he came out like only a cornered bear will do. One shot to the melon at point blank range ended the whole ordeal, his hide later squaring well over 8 feet.
Coming in and out of hibernation at free will, black bears have the uncanny ability to dramatically lower their heart rate, and will readily do so if injured as a mechanism to help save blood loss. All the more reason to employ a calibre large enough to not only inflict as much tissue and bone damage as possible, but to leave a gapping wound that will hemorrhage. Any of the .300 calibres are suitable, with Holland and Holland’s .375 probably one of the most accepted implements of knowledgeable hunters.
Oddly enough, it’s been my experience that black bears succumb to mortality much quicker with archery tackle than they do with firearms. That’s not to say there aren’t basic requirements, as bow hunters need to shoot as heavy arrow as possible – for greater penetration – tipped with a wide surface cutting broadhead. Shot placement all the more critical, archers need to take aim on a quartering away target before releasing the string. Seldom will a bear make it 40 yards with a double lung shot, and following up a wounded bear with stick and string is one game I never want to test the waters with.
From places like Maine and Arizona to Northern Canada the opportunity to hunt black bears across North America is an endless proposition. As adaptable grazing on short grass in a high desert plain as they are fishing for salmon from a rain-swollen creek cascading through the peaty terrain of coastal rainforest, black bears are omnivorous, pursued by a variety of methods characterized by their habitats.
One such modus operandi is baiting, but it has not been without criticism. Those who haven’t tried hunting over bait and who condemn such actions cannot fully appreciate its effectiveness as a management tool. A recent study carried out by the University of Alberta determined that baiting black bears was actually beneficial, in that older mature boars – who predate on cubs and smaller bears – are removed from the social order. In many W.M.U.s of Alberta where baiting is allowed, black bear populations have actually risen dramatically since this form of hunting was implemented. Baiting also targets specific populations dwelling in areas hostile to other forms of hunting. In thick wooded areas, it’s the ultimate tool. Likewise, baiting allows a hunter to take the time and field judge their quarry, eliminating any risk of shooting sows or younger bears, plus affording one the simple pleasure of observing a creature that often thrives in secrecy.
Steeped in tradition along the Eastern Seaboard and South, the sound of hounds working a distant ridge is an experience all hunters should strive for at least once in their lifetime. Nothing quite matches the lonely bay of a blue-tick or red-bone, and that in itself is what this kind of hunt is all about. The actual act of shooting a treed black bear is nothing too spectacular, but rather the closing chapter of an adventure that can leave miles of boot leather in some of the roughest terrain imaginable.
Maybe you’re the dragonslayer type, seeking the thrill of shuttling into camp by air. If you prefer more conservative travel, riding on the back of a horse or A.T.V. might be all the peril you’ll want to tangle with. From slapping mosquitoes under a canopy of budding poplar while nestled high in a treestand overlooking a 50-gallon drum full of “fermenting” beaver carcasses – waiting for action to hit the bait below – to being glued to a spotting scope with a 100-pound backpack strapped to your shoulders, the possibilities are truly endless when it comes to black bears. So … what are you waiting for!