Flashback Friday – Europe’s Biggest Brown Bears

huntforeverCoverSO88070314Editor’s Note: Each Friday we share a story from the Safari Magazine archives. This week we tag along with Safari Club International Founder C.J. McElroy on a hunt for European Brown Bears in Yugoslavia in 1988. This story originally appeared in the September/October 1988 issue of Safari Magazine.

The shadow that I had been watching on the edge of the heavy timber near a jumble of rock suddenly became two shadows when a tremendous bear walked out into the moonlight towards the bait. I had been watching this area because I had seen movement there, and because four other bears had suddenly scampered away into the surrounding bush. There now was nothing feeding on the bait.

I was hunting the European brown bear in Yugoslavia in an area that I feel has more bears per square mile than any other place on this earth, a long section of land in the central part of the country. It contains very thick forest, outcroppings of rock and one of the most beautiful rivers that I have ever seen. The river rushes down out of the mountains towards the Adriatic Sea in a fast-moving stream that creates beautiful, small waterfalls and cascades along the way. Yugoslavia is so picturesque and so beautiful that it compares with any area that I have seen in over 40 years of travels around the world. Small log houses, the summer homes of the wealthy people of Belgrade, had been built on the sides of the stream. But I was not there to see beautiful scenery, even though I love beautiful streams, lakes and forests as well as any other person. I was there to hunt the European brown bear, an animal that is quite rare in most of Europe but so plentiful in Yugoslavia that in five days of sitting in the blind, I saw more than 30 of them as they came to feed.

My host was Sdrja Dimitrijecic of Kompas Jugoslavia, whom I first met at the World Hunting and Conservation Congress in Las Vegas, NV in 1988. He invited me to come and see the great number of bears that live in Yugoslavia and hunt the Baltic chamois, a different breed from Europe’s other chamois. (Currently listed as Balkan Chamois in the SCI Record Book)

huntforeverMcElroychamoisSO88070314Before coming to Yugoslavia I asked how many Americans had hunted there in the past two years. I was surprised to find out that no more than 5 Americans had hunted this beautiful and fascinating country, especially considering the world record brown bear had come from this country.

The plan was to hunt for chamois first. I was picked up in Belgrade and taken to a hotel for the night. We left before sunrise the next morning and drove north to the mountains near Zagreb. Two hours later, we were winding our way up a narrow dirt road and into some very rugged terrain. A short time later we came to a comfortable looking log house that had been built at the edge of a great canyon on one of the highest points around. From the front yard, I could look down over the sharp peaks and valleys below. A big black dog on a sliding leash rushed out at our car as we passed through the gate. I am sure it would have attacked anything that came within its reach.

At the sound of the dogs barking, two men came out of the house. They were dressed in the usual green hunting colors of the Europeans; however, both had emblems of the forest service on their coats.

Near the side of the cabin was a bench rest built from logs, with a comfortable seat and a flat top to rest rifles on. Near it was a second small building with smoke coming out of its chimney. I was introduced to three local gentlemen who invited me in for a cup of tea (I later learned that tea was always ready when someone arrives. These were very hospitable people.) During the next 30 minutes, they informed me that they would like to see me shoot from the bench rest, at a target that they would provide.

As so often happens in my travels, one of my bags was missing, and my hunting clothes were in that bag. The man in charge of the area offered to provide me with some of his clothes, which I gladly accepted. I had only a suit and I didn’t care to ruin it crawling around the rough crags and pinnacles below us. I very soon was fitted out with everything from an alpine hunting hat to the shoes worn in the local area. I really felt like a mountaineer. Two shots from my rifle at 100 yards touched the bull’s eye and convinced them that at least I could hit a chamois.

I walked over to the edge of the canyon and asked Srdja if we would be going down into the canyon. “You will not be that lucky,” he said. “What you will be doing is climbing up to the very top of the mountain on our left where the hunting is better.”

“That sounds good, Srdja,” I said, “Except if I climb up there and then down to the canyon, I’m not sure I can get back out.” “We will solve that ,” he said.

Then a man leading a short, stout horse came around from behind the building.

“You mean that there is only one Srdja? You will not be riding?”

He smiled and said, “I don’t think I am much over half your age. I should be able to walk up there.”

I didn’t argue with him because he looked as if he was very fit. Shortly thereafter, the four of us started up a small trail along the edge of the cliff. We were headed into the forest, skirting a peak that I could see in the distance. It was a fairly steep climb and I was glad I had the horse because it would have been tough to keep up on foot with those mountaineers. In about an hour, we came out of the tall pines onto a rocky outcropping, and after tying the horse, we approached the edge of the great canyon and looked down among the rocks and small ledges that were jutting out. Far below, a little stream would its way through the timber and disappeared down into the valley.

The four of us sat on the edge of this peak and scanned for chamois in the rocks below us. We soon found two of them, a young male and an old male. As we watched, the old male suddenly uttered a short bark and jumped from its perch. It was followed by the younger one and both quickly disappeared from sight. After a few minutes, they appeared again about a thousand yards away. When they reached the safety of almost sheer rock, they stopped to survey the situation. The old male had evidently caught our wind or it had seen our silhouettes when we walked up to the edge of the precipice.

“There will be more,” Srdja said. “Many more.”

He was right. We saw at least 50 of the little animals from that one spot in the next half hour. Most were females, and some had half-grown young with them. They were sunning themselves andhuntforeverMcelroySO88070314 paid little attention when they saw us. After a while, Srdja said, “There is not a good male in this lot.” We then got up an moved to another projection about 500 yards away.

The moment we walked out, Srdja said, “Look down there!” Below us at approximately 175 yards or so, were three male chamois. “Shoot the one farthest away,” Srdja said as I dropped to the ground and rested my elbow against my knee, the only rest I could find. I was shooting almost straight down and I made the mistake that most of us have at one time or another over the years – I shot just a few inches over his back. All three chamois vanished in a second and we didn’t see them again.

We had just gotten to our feet when the head warden said something and reached over and touched Srdja’s shoulder. “He sees two chamois,” Srdja said. I turned around and looked higher up the slope just as the pair of animals reached the flat ground about 200 yards away. We immediately moved to where the trees stood between us and the chamois and I found a limb that gave me a comfortable rest for my rifle. I then shot the little animal right through the shoulders. When it dropped in its tracks, Srdja said “Well done.”

We walked to where the chamois lay and he said, “Well, he’s not a giant but his is a good, respectable chamois, which is all we really wanted.” I shook hands with all three people and took some pictures. Then we loaded up my chamois and returned to the warden’s station.

We returned to Belgrade, where we stayed the night before departing for Zagreb the next morning. After we checked into our hotel, we visited the first hunting blind or “hide” as the Europeans like to call a cabin or hut where one watches for the animals they are hunting. This was a small hide, but it was comfortable. There were three chairs. On the wall facing the baited area, there was an opening with a sliding glass panel.

The Yugoslavians bait for many of the wild species of game in their country, including wild boar, bear and sometimes red deer. In this case, the bait consisted of the remains of horses and cattle from the butchery as well as corn, which the Yugoslavians have found is a great food for bear.

Srdja and I, with a local hunter, slipped into the blind just before dark and settled down to wait. The only light after the sunset was the pale yellowish glow from a three-quarter moon. It lit up the open areas of the forest, but it certainly did not penetrate into the shadows at all.

We were silent for approximately one and a half hours after sunset. Then the first bear came out of the forest and into the open area. All three of us looked it over through our binoculars and it was agreed that it was a small bear and not to be considered.

Three times more during the next three hours, bears appeared before us. At one time, four were sitting out in front not more than 80 yards away. Then, three of the bears left and only the largest one remained.

Then a still-larger bear walked out of the forest and started eating. There was a discussion between Srdja and the local hunter before Srdja turned to me and whispered, “He’s a good bear, shoot him.”

There had been a certain anxiety on my part when I was told that I must shoot with a scope with only the moonlight, knowing that the cross hairs of my rifle’s scope were very fine. They would disappear if there was not enough light to see them. I, like all hunters, have a real fear of only injuring an animal. It is difficult to zero in on a small spot approximately 10 inches in diameter when you must shoot in bad light.

I had looked at the other bear earlier in the evening and found that the only way I could be pretty sure of placing a bullet exactly where I wanted it was to center the scope without seeing the crosshairs, in the area that I wanted to shoot. Still, it is pretty dicey and I felt that I must be very careful.

I had been told that the European hunters had sometimes lost bears because of bad placement of their bullets. They could not be blamed, because a hunter usually can only make an educated guess on exactly where a bear’s heart is located. A bear is a difficult and tough animal to ill. Unless a bullet strikes the heart or the lungs, a bear can disappear and you will not be able to find it. I saw this happen a few days later with a Spanish hunter’s bear.

I centered the scope on the bear’s shoulder as best I could and squeezed off. There was a roar from the animal as it disappeared into the forest. There is no question that I hit it, but exactly where no one could tell. We climbed down from the hide and approached the spot where the bear had stood and found a very good blood spoor leading into the woods. We found the bear quite dead within 50 yards.

When we returned to the hide, I was treated to a small drink of the local beverage. It tasted much like the old moonshine whiskey that we had during the prohibition days. (Let me say here that the Yugoslavian people are some of the nicest and most cordial people I have ever met. They can’t do enough for you. The accommodations they provided for me were certainly on a par with those in the other European countries I have visited, and the food was excellent.

The next evening, we were again talking about hunting and Srdja mentioned that a very big bear was feeding south of us in the area of Sipovo, about 200 kilometers southeast of Zagreb. He suggested that we go down and have a look at the bear. It would be four days before I would leave for Hungary, so we left the next day for Sarajevo and again ended up in the local pub. It was there that I met the officials who represent Yugoslavia’s hunting areas and learned the everyone was excited about the giant bear that was feeding in one of the nearby baiting grounds.

I was not too inclined to participate in another hunt, but during the discussions, it was pointed out that fewer than five Americans had hunted Yugoslavia in the last two years. The people were very eager to have American hunters and they very much wanted to publicize that they have very big bears.

That night found four of us in a hide waiting for the bear to come to feed. We stayed all night, but while we saw five other bears, the giant did not appear. The next night we again entered the hide at about an hour before dark and waited patiently until 11:30, when the two shadows that I had been watching separated and the giant came forward.

The 20 or more bears that I had seen in the five days I had been in Yugoslavia were nothing in comparison to the giant animal that walked out of the shadows. It came straight to the hide, then dropped down on its belly when it reached the batch of corn. The two wild boars and the other four bears that had been in the area had disappeared.

The local man noiselessly slid open the glass and I extended my rifle out through the opening and centered the scope on the bear. Experience of many years told me that I shouldn’t try a frontal shot on the great beast. If I missed as much as an inch or two, I would hit only the fleshy part of its body and we would never get that bear. Two days before, I had helped a Spanish hunter track an injured bear. It had left a few drops of bright blood that we all knew was not from a large artery or even from the rib cage or the stomach.

The bear was eating, not glancing right or left. It knew it was the king of this area and nothing at all would dare challenge the king. Suddenly, it jumped to its feet and disappeared into the bush. You could cut the disappointment in our little room with a knife as we all felt the loss of the moment in which we could have taken this great bear.

In my mind, I knew what had happened. A small wisp of odor from the warm room had drifted out on the cold air and the keen nostrils of this very old and very wise king of the forest had picked up the scent. The smell of the only thing it feared sent it scurrying into the forest. We waited the rest of the night and all felt keen disappointment. With the coming of daylight, we deserted the hut after watching several wild boars and other bears come to the bait.

The next night found us again in the hide awaiting the monster, and again, it appeared at 11:30 scattering the wild boars and other bears that were feeding. This time it came in from the side and walked directly over to the corn, giving me a good view of its wide profile. It was very easy to target in on its shoulder. I am sure all three of us held our breath at the same time before the 7mm Weatherby roared. The bear didn’t roar and didn’t move more than five feet from where it stood. I had shot it through the heart. The three of us rushed out of the hide and approached the giant very carefully. I had my rifle ready, leading the way, when I paused about 40 feet from where it lay. The local hunter picked up two rocks and threw them at the bear, the second one struck it solidly. There was no doubt the bear was dead.

We all approached, shook hands and there was much excitement. Srdja was saying, “You have shot a world record European bear.” I felt he was probably right, because the head was tremendous and the shoulders were the size of a brown bear. However, it was shorter than an American brown bear by approximately two feet.

Once the bear was skinned and measured, it came out to 9 feet 1 inch and scored 23 15/16 SCI points. It ranked as the number 2 European brown bear in the SCI record book.

 

 

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