I was cold. I was adequately layered and all that, but on the way to the stand the 4×4 became stuck in the wet snow and sometime during all the lurching and spinning, pushing and winching I dipped my rear end into a steep snowdrift. I was wet, and just knew it was going to be a miserable afternoon in the stand. No matter how cold I got, though, I was determined not to call my guide until I bagged a bear, or it was the last minute of legal shooting light. This was a very important hunt to me. I didn’t want to disappoint my friends in camp, and with others in camp from Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois, this Arizona carpetbagger surely wasn’t about to come in first because he was cold.
I checked my watch and it was a quarter past six in the evening. I’d already been on the stand for about two hours and had at least four more to go owing to the latitude of High Level, Alberta, where the springtime sun doesn’t set until well past what was ordinarily my bedtime. Then I remembered I had a ThermaCell with me. “Mosquitos” I was warned. But the faint snowflakes drifting by suggested I wouldn’t be seeing any bugs, so I yanked the wick, fired it up and wedged it delicately under my bottom, hoping the “Attention Hot Surface” warning meant the device had what it would take to dry me out, or at least keep me comfortable.
This was an important hunt because I was hunting with industry friends Linda Powell from Mossberg, Rob Lancelotti from Swarovski and Neal Emery from Hornady. Both Hornady and Swarovski are SCI Corporate Sponsors, and Mossberg is one of the supporters who help make this magazine possible. Time afield together is time well spent for SCI as it builds new and solidifies existing relationships. SCI didn’t get to be the biggest and most influential conservation organization protecting our hunting heritage worldwide by luck or accident. It takes strategic partnerships and collaboration with others to make things like that happen, which is why SCI’s partners are so important. They’re our Most Valuable Partners, so it was sort of serendipity that I was also hunting with another type of MVP, Mossberg’s MVP FLEX rifle.
As its name implies, the FLEX is flexible in that its quick-change buttstock feature makes it easy to configure one to fit different size hunters or individuals who, like me, could be bundled up for a bear hunt in Canada one day, and hunting in T-shirt weather somewhere else the next. It also simplifies having a gun that can grow with a child or grandchild, and for our PH and outfitter friends, a FLEX lets them have a durable and accurate loaner gun in camp that fits everyone from short and fat clients to tall and lean ones.
It was a tough start to the week. Outfitter Wally Mack of W&L Guide Services was visibly upset at the unusual absence of bears for that time of year. It was the first week of the spring season and bears should have been popping up like toadstools after a summer rain, but an unusually cold winter was hanging on with bitter tenacity and the bears didn’t want to leave the comfort of their cozy winter dens any more than I wanted to be squatting over the element of a butane-powered bug repellant.
Things remained slow the first part of the hunt, though one young hunter in camp connected on two bears — a big blond and a nearly 8-foot black — with only enough time between the two to shuck the action on his slug gun and sight-in on the other bear’s shoulder. Later in the week, the threat of a steady drizzle seemed likely and the weather warmed to balmy temperatures complete with squadrons of mosquitos so big I swear they had body hair. The hunting was also heating up with all baits hit and almost everyone seeing bears. I was not so fortunate, but that’s hunting, and fortune had other plans for me.
The weather continued warming with more bears sighted and our hunting party helping some of them find their way to the skinning table. When not skinning bears, the table was regularly in use skinning beavers for their pelts and casters with the carcasses retained as baits for the season. We had the benefit of a local damage control trapper nearby who brought more than 30 beaver at a time so our baits were always plentiful and fresh with the trade-off being that our guides had to help skin his beavers. I even gave one a try, too.
By the fifth day of the six-day hunt I was one of two hunters who still had not taken, much less seen, a bear. I was really beginning to question whether it was just the stubborn weather or if I was possibly moving too much in the stand. Black bears I hunted previously in Maine were so keen on movement that it seemed one could see you blink and not come to the bait. But I had been staying so still that I was seriously considering the possibility of deep vein thrombosis and desperately trying to recall some of those in-flight exercises from the airline magazines that didn’t require movement to keep the blood flowing.
Rusty nails holding up my decades-old tree stand creaked in rhythmic protest as a slight breeze swayed the white-barked trees that held it. The sun had long since dipped behind the tall spruce, and with hours of legal shooting light still ahead of me, I glanced at the power ring on the Swarovski Z6i to make sure it was still on about 2.5 power, then flicked the red dot control to daylight and made sure the dot would show up well in the still ample light.
It was 9 p.m. and mosquitos swarmed like heat waves rising from the beaver carcass when I saw a hint of movement down the black throat of a line of spruce trees. I watched a small bear as it made its way to the bait as quietly as only a bear can do. Standing on its hind legs, it was not quite able to reach the bait. Frustrated, the bear made short work of shimmying up an adjacent tree and was rewarded with a bite that came off with a sharp “pop.” Something behind me caught the bear’s attention and it raced off as if scalded. The degree of its flight could only be interpreted as running for its life, and I knew a bigger bear was nearby.
Turning my head slowly, I saw movement in the distance as a much larger bear made its way toward my stand. It’s always fascinating to me to watch bears move through the woods, as their length and girth simply defy the silence of their movement. Rather than walk on the forest floor, this one was determined to balance and bumble its way cautiously between points on fallen logs as if performing in some sort of woodland high wire act.
It made a slow circle around the tree I was perched in, and gave me a sideways glance as if contemplating whether or not to climb up and see what I was. Post-den hunger drew the bear’s attention back to the bait, and soon it was standing on its hind legs savoring the high aroma of the beaver carcass. My guide had reset the bait when he dropped me off, and I couldn’t remember if the carcass was even with the guide’s head while he was standing on the ground, or on the snow piled just behind the bait. The difference was whether this was an average six-foot or huge eight-foot bear, so I sat and watched, hoping the bear would at some point pass by the nearby popcorn-filled 55-gallon drum as a second measure of its size.
While I was struggling with the decision to shoot or not, the bear handily snapped off the beaver’s head and melted into the shadows of the spruce. The sound of powerful jaws crunching strong bones ran through my head along with doubts for not taking the shot. This hunt was about over, and we were just now seeing bears. As I continued listening to the crunches, I looked for every conceivable measure I could use if the bear came back. Was he big enough? They’re so hard to judge when you don’t see them all the time, and I really didn’t want to come back to camp and have my fellow hunters congratulate me on shooting a bear “with a nice coat” because there wasn’t any other attribute up to the measures we typically use when judging a “trophy.”
Determined to take the bear if it came back, I positioned myself with the rifle pointed toward the bait and waited anxiously as the crunching of bone turned to empty silence. With the taste of beaver still fresh in its mouth, the bear returned to the bait less cautiously, facing me, presenting a shot I wasn’t going to take. I learned while hunting black bear with Jim Shockey to take these big predators seriously so I waited for a broadside shot that would let me take out the shoulders along with its vitals.
At the shot, the bear did what bears do when you interrupt the normal function of heart and lungs with the impact from a Hornady Superperformance load. It leapt straight up, bellowing out the moan that only bear hunters know. It’s one of the most powerful sounds I have ever heard and takes the thrill of a hunt to a screeching realization that you just killed a bear. This one was not done making a lasting impression on me, though, as it whirled and lunged in the direction from which it came. That lunge was met with the impact from another shoulder shot, leaving the bear laying in silence beneath the dripping bait.
There were several more bears taken that evening, and on the last day Linda connected with a huge chocolate-colored black bear. The weather changed to short sleeve temperatures and the sun shined down on our camp. With a successful hunt behind us and decades’-long relationships renewed, we headed south and returned to our daily routines.– Scott Mayer