My First Bear Hunt
Last summer, I visited Saskatchewan, Canada for the first time to experience world-class pike and walleye fishing. We spent 4 days on the lake and caught over 400 fish between the 4 of us. I had never been on an outfitted trip before and after landing a 14 pound pike and several large walleye, I knew that Colorado fishing would never be the same. The scenery was breathtaking, the accommodations were comfortable and the fish fry dinners were unforgettable.
It was here that the idea of bear hunting first crossed my mind. We had seen several bears on our drive in and heard many stories. There were many pictures and bear rugs adorning our cabin and while the timeless children’s song, “Goin’ on a bear hunt” sings, “I am not scared”, I have always had a level of fear for these creatures.
I began to do a little research on black bears and learned that Black Bear Hunting is a time-honored tradition in the far north. Aboriginal people, trappers and explorers relied on the Black Bear to supply much valued meat as well as warm fur for clothes. Times have changed. The trappers and explorers are gone and the Cree people do not rely on the Black Bear like they used to. As a result, overpopulation of bears is creating problems for the species as a whole.
Why bears should be hunted:
- Bears are legendary- their claws, teeth, grit and will to survive, have stood the test of times. Bears have the one of the widest geographic distribution behind mountain lions.
- Bear populations are flourishing continent-wide and are especially prevalent in Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta. Numbers are estimated to be close to 900,000.
- Bear meat is delicious and their hide makes for beautiful decor. I recently shared bear back strap with friends, family and colleagues and they could not believe how tasty it was.
- Hunting opportunities are abundant. States and provinces are practically begging for bear hunters offering two seasons (spring and fall) and either unlimited or multiple tags.
This information was enough for me to know that I wanted to try to give bear hunting a go. I was fortunate enough to meet Kris and Don from Full Boar Outfitters at the International Sportsman Expo in Denver. Through a short conversation and a view of their set-up, I knew this was my place. They were located in La Ronge, Saskatchewan which was a little south of where I fished the previous summer. They had great documentation of bears through trail camera pictures and personal photographs and all of the previous hunters that I spoke to had nothing but great things to say. The 54 square mile set up was also accessed via land which allowed them to have great bait sites. When bait is transported via truck versus boat, there is a lot more flexibility because weight limits are not an issue. Full Boar Outfitters has 18 different tree stands set up which makes for almost guaranteed success. I secured my dates (second week of June), paid my money and the deal was done.
I spent a lot of time practicing my archery. The last thing I wanted to do was spend the most money I have ever spent on a hunting trip, and precious vacation time to make a bad shot. Plus it was bears! The image of wounding one and him barreling after me was not something I could handle. I knew there was no shot over 20 yards so I worked many hours in the backyard at this distance. In order to stay focused on my practice, I entered an archery competition where I competed in 3 legs in 3 months. Each leg was 40 targets at 40 yards or less, and was perfect for simulating doubt, adrenaline and nervousness, all emotions I know I would encounter on a bear hunt.
There is nothing special or different that I needed for bear hunting than any other big game hunt…Except for ONE thing- THERMACELL!! The mosquitos in Saskatchewan were unreal. I am also apparently a divine treat for them so despite my Thermacell, I left with 900 tiny mementos. Nevertheless, it was tree-stand hunting so all of my standbys were still good:
- Pack/pack hook
- PSE Bow/Bow hook
- SlickTrick Vaportrick broadheads on Gold Tip XT Hunter 500 arrows
- Treestand Harness
- Bow Pull
- Sitka Timberline Pants– thick enough to block the mosquitos
- Sitka Timberline Hoody– built in face mask and mittens (also very useful for mosquito deterrent)
- Hiking Boots
- Snacks- lots of snacks- tree stand sits are 5-6 hours
Since I was driving, the travel packing was pretty easy. I brought a large cooler with frozen water bottles which could be refrozen at the cabin and not dependant on bags of ice (of which there were none.)
The time had come and I was ready to go. The drive to La Ronge, Saskatchewan from Denver is about 20 hours. My traveling partner and I decided that it would be safer to stay the night somewhere and drive only in daylight hours so we arrived at 2018 Bear Camp Tuesday evening. I was already in heaven. We parked in an area about 50 yards from the water and had to follow a man-made trail about ¼ of a mile through thick brush to reach camp. There was a small kitchen cabin with a deck and 2 large wall tents on a platform all looking out to Wapawekka Lake. A huge fire blazed and Drake the lab welcomed us with barks and kisses!
I was so excited to finally be here and camp had all the feels of wilderness comfort. However, the little vessel of fear and discomfort that I had buried, was starting to surface. I am actually here to hunt bears. BEARS! Why did I have a deep incessant fear of bears?
I guess the first and most obvious reason is the fear of being attacked. The media is REALLY good about sharing these stories and portraying a pretty unrealistic image of black bears. The warnings about bears are excessive. These warnings are actually written by lawyers to cover liability and do not provide balanced information. Some publications and television shows focus on the danger because fear sells! We often see bears depicted as vicious in taxidermy work with snarling teeth and beady eyes.
The second reason is fear of the unknown. I had no history of being around bears. I had only seen bears at a far distance or from a car and never spent any time observing them. I had no idea what to expect.
It was approaching hunt time, so Kris pulled us in and went over the guidelines and expectations. He explained where we would be sitting and the process involved in getting there. He helpfully described the difference between a sow and a boar and let us know that while our tag was for either, he preferred we shoot boars. I am glad he covered this because I really did not know the difference. Sows were fuzzier, typically smaller in size and had narrower muzzles. He also went over how to discern between a shooter and a non-shooter. Shooter bears will be about the size of the bait barrel- a 45 gallon barrel, they will have at least a dollar bill size span between the ears and they will act very dominant.
There were 3 other hunters in camp and Kris asked if anyone would feel more comfortable having a guide along. I immediately raised my hand! I was not afraid or ashamed and I knew this was the right thing for me. I had never done this and I trusted that Kris would help me learn and feel at ease.
We loaded up the truck and began the 1.5 hour trek to get everyone to the stands. We traveled with a side by side on a trailer so that once we reached the entrance point to the trail, the hunter would be driven via side by side. Sometimes this portion was 20 minutes in and 20 minutes out and it was always intense! Once a hunter is in the stand, he does NOT GET OUT until Kris was back to pick him up.
We finally arrived to Crooked Tree stand at about 5:30 pm and there was a good size bear already on the bait. Ok, talk about scared. Now I was on the ground with the bear and his food was between me and the stand. Jeesh. Nothing like throwing yourself right out of that comfort zone. We watched him for a bit and started creeping slowly toward him. The crunching of the branches made him alert and after about 5 minutes of stare down, he scooted off.
I climbed up my tree quickly, adrenaline flowing, and settled in. Kris was sitting about 30 yards directly across from me so I felt safe. About 40 minutes in to our sit, bears started coming in. I identified the first bear as a boar but because my barrel was on it’s side, I was not sure on his size. He looked small and I didn’t have the pumping blood syndrome, so I knew he wasn’t my bear. Kris reassured me by yelling from the stand, “He’s a last day bear, eh!” I now had some perspective and could cross “second guessing” off my to-do list.
A little later, I heard a commotion behind me, a sound that I had never heard before. It was a very quick paced scratching noise and it was in stereo. Two bears had climbed about 30 feet up in neighboring trees about 20 yards from my stand. Wow.
After what seemed to be a long stand-off, they slid down, taking out a few branches and headed over to the bait. I thoroughly enjoyed watching them eat, they were so curious, and almost cute as they pawed through the oats. This must be where the term “belly-up” comes from, because once they started eating, they plopped down and stayed for the long haul. One bear ate oats for 2 straight hours! I enjoyed my snacks and moved around freely and no bears cared. It was awesome!
About 3 hours into the sit. I heard some rustling to my right. I always try to stand up right away in case it is a shooter. This makes it easier for me to grab my bow and be ready. So I stood up and saw a bear, at least it was making bear movements and it had the fur characteristics of a bear but I wasn’t sure what I was seeing. As he moved closer, I realized I was looking at something I had never seen before, a blonde black bear. He was so white and so beautiful and he made my blood pump. I grabbed my bow and watched him come into the bait. He was breathtaking. I kept glancing at Kris for some kind of feedback, because while he was gorgeous, he was very young.
I relaxed and watched him feed and play for a while and decided to pass, meanwhile Kris is making bow shooting motions from across the way. I made the decision to pass for today so that is what I committed to. About 15 minutes later, I heard sounds that made me think bigfoot was coming. The ground was booming and large logs were cracking. I began to see the figurations of what truly would be the biggest bear I have ever seen. He was making his way toward me up the trail and his slow, deliberate movements resembled a bow-legged freight train. Needless to say, I was standing, shaking, sweating, panting with my bow in hand.
He moved so slow. It gave me time to breathe. There were three other bears at the bait and they were all on edge staring intently in his direction. He took another step closer and was now situated at about 12 yards with 2 trees separating us. I hooked my release in to the string loop. 4 steps and he would be broadside at 12 yards. He huffed. This was the signal to all the other bears because they quickly scattered in 3 different directions. 4 steps. He admired his fear tactics for a brief moment and just when I thought his 4 steps were coming, he about-faced and thundered off into the sunset. I sat down quickly for fear I would fall, and shook my head. What a first night at Crooked Tree!
That night at camp we all shared our experiences and it was here that I learned how rare blonde bears were. They are the rarest of the four color phases- black, brown, cinnamon and blonde and because blonde bears are desired by most hunters, they rarely live to be large. The blonde color phase gene is recessive so it requires that both parents have the recessive gene. Even then, there is a low percentage chance that they will produce blonde offspring.
With that knowledge and the fact that I saw a 300 pound giant, there was no doubt where I wanted to sit on night 2. This time, I was content to sit alone. I felt way more comfortable having had a night to observe and learn about bear behaviors. I had made up my mind about the blonde bear. If he came in and presented a shot, I would take him.
I was the last to be dropped off so I arrived at the stand at around 5:30. No bears at the bait so I comfortably climbed up my tree and got set up. Things were quiet so I grabbed my book and began reading. I was too engaged in my book to notice that the same small black bear from the previous night, tiptoed his way directly under my tree. He startled me and I hoped he was not going to try to see what my book was all about. He mosied to the food and ate for a while and then took off.
My tree stand was located in a beautiful area with part of the lake behind me. I listened to geese and ducks chatter most of the night. At about 8:00 pm, I heard a loud splash behind me. The bush is thick so I can’t see more than 25 yards past my tree. The splash was definitely from a substantially solid object rather than a duck or goose, so I stood and became more focused.
I heard rustling to my right so I grabbed my bow. I still could not see anything, but I knew it was a bear. This time, when I saw that blonde fur, I started shaking uncontrollably. This was it, it was him, the rare blondy. I couldn’t breathe and contemplated if I was even going to be able to draw. I let him come in to the bait as I tried to put my child-bearing/yoga breathing to work. He plopped down and started eating. I knew I would not take a shot with him laying down, so I relaxed. I watched him eat and felt the excitement. This is what it is all about, this moment. All the money, time, hard work was coming together in this moment. I stood there still shaking but much more relaxed than a few minutes ago. Release was in my string loop, waiting for him to stand. He continued to eat, I continued to breathe. After about 10 minutes, he began to rise. I drew. He plopped back down. Another 5 minutes passed, he rose again, I drew, he laid back down. And again, he rose, I drew, he laid back down. It was becoming a bit comical, like a game, but it was the time I needed to be in this moment. For the last time, he stood, turned broadside and presented me with a perfect shot. I saw great penetration and blood spraying immediately. He ran off over 2 logs, leaving me a clear sight of blood. I heard a small crash about 30 yards away and an eerie moan. The death moan is commonly discussed among black bear hunters, it is a sound the bear makes when the last bit of air is leaving the lungs. It is both creepy and reassuring.
That night was a celebration at camp! I was elated that I was able to harvest a rare color phase blonde bear as my first bear. I was grateful for the easy clean shot and I was relieved to be done hunting with 2 days left. Sometimes the pressure that ensues when time is running out, is intolerable. I was glad I did not have to experience that.
I will never forget this hunt for many reasons and now I will be able to go back with hopes of finding that giant that didn’t give me a shot. As for now, I am done chasing blondes in Saskatchewan. A huge thank you to Kris and Don Cheaters at Full Boar Outfitters for a world-class experience.