It was the 12th day of the season, and already I had spent over 24 hours in my stand. The Labor Day Monday opening day had made it difficult to get any extended time off, and I'd only been able to hunt 4 days. And the weather had not been very cooperative. I'd hunted in everything from 85+ degree heat wearing only thin cotton shorts and a tank beneath my camouflage netting to a 50 degree cold rain wearing several warm layers and a rain suit.
But this day, as I climbed up into my stand, I was confident that it would be a good day. My husband's "bear-o-meter" was going off, and I had learned long ago that when he gets that feeling, to pay attention. Besides, it was a perfect afternoon to sit quietly in a tree and wait. No howling wind. No rain. No heat. There was only the peace and quiet that is the essence of the northern Minnesota forest. I got settled in as my husband dumped more bait and reset the crib. We blew each other a kiss and he quietly headed back down the trail.
My ladder stand hides in a thick stand of trees, but still, it has a blind built around it with camouflage fabric and tree branches tied on for cover. A small window looks out the to the bait area 15 yards away. From the ground, I'm virtually invisible. Inside, I'm well shaded and can move slowly without fear of being noticed. This was our sixth year hunting bear together, and each year my husband and I worked hard to perfect our game; we kept what worked the year before, threw out what didn't work, tried new ideas and new baits, learned from talking with others, scoured the internet for information, and absorbed as much knowledge as we could about what it takes to lure in a black bear during legal shooting hours. Judging from the activity so far this season, our persistence was paying off and we were having our best year ever. We had both seen multiple bears at each outing, and my husband had already harvested a respectable bear. The meat was in the freezer and we would savor it through the winter for our special meals. This gave me the go ahead to relax a bit and take my pick of the rest of the quarry.
I had an entertaining afternoon show to watch with a delightful mix of players; squirrels, chipmunks, both blue and Canada jays, magpies, chickadees, kinglets, redstarts; they all enjoyed feasting on the goodies at the bait site. The funniest participant was a ruffed grouse that put on an interesting display right underneath my stand, and so the afternoon passed quickly. At five o'clock, something made me lean forward and take a look out to the side. Generally speaking, you can hear the bears as they make their way close to the bait site. A twig snap, a sniff, a lick…but this one had come in silence. He seemed particularly anxious as he paced back and forth; obviously wanting to come into the bait, but too cautious to do so. He stood up on his hind legs for a better look, which made me think there was likely a bigger bear near by that he wanted to stay clear of. I was able to watch him for a good five minutes before he took off running. I would guess he went about 50 yards before he stopped. Hopefully he would be back, or whatever spooked him would show up.
The next two hours seemed to go by slowly, and I was getting restless. I could feel a cold coming on, and my body was feeling a bit stiff and achy. It became necessary to stand up to stretch my legs, but thanks to my shelter, I was able to do so unnoticed and without making any noise, and soon I was settled back in and comfortable. At seven o'clock, I took another look to the side, and there he was, back in the same spot. This time he wasn't as anxious, and within five minutes he had worked his way around the brush and was making his way into the clearing. I slowly picked up my rifle, and laid it on my lap. When the opportunity presented itself, I would be ready. He was a beautiful bear with a thick, jet black coat, a honey-brown muzzle, and a white blaze on his chest. Not a monster bruin, but he was a hefty bear, bigger than the last bear I had harvested, and he was bigger than my husband's bear, so he was definitely a "shooter". At first he hugged the near brush line, which shielded most of his body from me. Twice he stepped into an opening, but had his big fat butt facing me. At one point, he was balancing all fours on a ten inch flat rock, obviously not wanting to get his feet dirty…I almost burst out laughing when he assumed the "Dumbo position" and lifted one back paw to keep his balance as he leaned forward and ate from the bait pile. But as he picked through the pile his front leg was always protecting his vital zone. And so he came and went without providing me with a clean kill shot, but also without knowing I was there. He would be back, but probably not during legal shooting hours on this night.
As darkness took over, I quietly left and made my way down the hill, taking the long trail around to keep the bait area as undisturbed as possible. It's a good 10 minute hike down a steep hill to a gravel pit that has road access, but the moon was bright and there was no need to turn on my headlamp. With perfect timing, my husband pulled in to the gravel pit just as I came off the trail. As I unloaded my weapon, I told him about the shot that never came. We stood in the brightness of a clear sky and nearly full moon and I shared with him the details of my evening. I thanked him for the work he had done keeping up with the daily baiting, and teased him that his work was not over yet. There were four weeks left in the season, and tomorrow is another day, and another opportunity to hunt black bear in the big woods of northern Minnesota.
It was now day 20 of the 2008 bear hunting season, and the first opportunity I’d had to get back into the woods. The ache I had felt during my last outing had turned into a full blown cold. Thanks to a selection of OTC cold aides, I was just now able to make it for any length of time without coughing, sneezing, or blowing my nose. The bait site had been a flurry of activity all week with multiple bears visiting at various times of the day. The scouting cameras had given us good photo confirmation of a large sow with two cubs, and three different mature bears. Of particular interest to me was the photo of the bear with the blaze that I had seen the week before. He was still making regular visits to the bait site, but not always during legal shooting hours. I was hoping he would choose tonight to make a visit, but I had to face the fact that the season was half over and the woods were filling up with grouse hunters and archery deer hunters, making a bear’s visit during legal shooting hours much more unlikely. I had decided that I would take the first respectable bear that came in.
I was settled in my stand by 3:30pm, and prepared myself for a long afternoon. It was a perfect late summer day with mild temperatures and very little wind. But the woods were so noisy! Squirrels and chipmunks running over drying leaves and sparrows flitting through the brush made a terrific racket. It was no wonder that I never heard the bear approach. It was relatively early, seven o’clock, when the animal walked right into the bait site without hesitation. This bear was not the one with the blaze, but it was a definite shooter. It had a familiar face, one I had seen from the trail camera photos, and it had always appeared alone. Still, I could not tell if it was a boar or a sow, so I waited to make sure there were no cubs along. Once I had decided I would take my shot, I carefully lifted my rifle from its resting place. But not quite careful enough; the stock bumped the metal stand and let out a soft "ping". OMG!! My heart nearly fell out my feet and I froze, knowing the bear had heard the noise as well. It stopped, looked around, stood up and looked behind it, then went back to feeding. After I took a minute to regain my composure, I slowly raised my weapon, took careful aim, and made my shot. It was a good solid hit, and the bear ran, but not far. I waited 15 minutes before I slowly and quietly made my way out of the stand. But I practically ran down the hill! Talk about excitement... a true adrenalin rush.
Daylight was gone. The area around the bait site was extremely dense, so recovery would have to take place in the morning. Trailing an animal that is at the top of the food chain is not something to do alone and in the dark, I don’t care who you are! The night temperature would be cool and there was no chance of spoilage, so we would wait until morning.
I was back at the bait sight at first light with my husband, and together we tracked the bear's path for 75 yards through thick brush. She had left an easy trail to follow, and we had her out of the woods in less than 30 minutes. I'm not sure who was more excited, my husband or me, but together we celebrated and gave thanks for a successful season. As we slowly made our way down the hill, the sun was up and the turning autumn leaves set the woods ablaze with color. The air was crisp and clean. It was another beautiful day in the big woods of northern Minnesota.