With over an hour of shooting light remaining, the big bear slowly started to lumber up the ATV trail toward the bait barrel that was strategically positioned twelve yards from my tree stand. A smaller bear had been entertaining me for the last couple of hours. I estimated that the smaller bear weighed in the neighborhood of 200 pounds. He was much too small to consider harvesting when the area held giants.
Two days before, my twenty-year-old son, Brad, and I made the trip to La Crete, Alberta from our Pennsylvania home to hunt black bears with Kyler Knelson. This would be the first time that either of us had the opportunity to hunt black bears with a bow, and we were looking forward to it. Kyler and his crew maintained more than thirty active baits. Many of the baits were located within an hour drive by truck from camp and required a short ATV ride thereafter to get into them. Camp was a very nice two-bedroom cabin located on Kyler’s partner’s farm just outside of town. It was the perfect father and son hunting trip–no roughing it, big bears and the likelihood that we would both be gaining weight from the wonderful home cooked meals that they fed us.
We would be hunting in the evenings. This would leave time during the day for shooting our bows into the 3D bear target and generally relaxing in the cabin. We would typically get into the stands between 3 and 4 p.m. and our guide, Bob, would not return on the ATV to get us until dark. Brad was usually picked up first. On most nights, our tree stands were located several miles from each other. So on a few nights I found myself sitting in complete darkness while I could hear bears below me still working over the bait barrel.
In preparing for this hunt, Brad and I watched several videos and read everything that we could get our hands on concerning how to judge the size of a black bear. Kyler offered that if the bear’s back is even with or above the top end of the bait barrel, we should probably be shooting. He further explained that big bears tend to have short, wide necks and often have a noticeable crease in their forehead. Kyler also indicated that a big bear will usually have a potbelly and may tend to waddle as he walks. Lastly, he advised, “You will know one when you see one.” I was not so sure.
The tree stands that we would be hunting out of consisted of wooden platforms that were located about fifteen feet above the ground and anywhere from twelve to twenty yards from the bait barrel. Years of chasing Pennsylvania whitetails made me initially think that the stands were too low and too close to the bait. However, the parade of bears that Brad and I observed during the week proved me wrong.
The bait was placed in a fifty-five-gallon drum that had a hole cut through the top end. The hole was large enough for a full-grown bear to get his head and part of one of his shoulders through, but it was not large enough even for some of the smaller bears to crawl in through. The baits consisted of oats that were mixed with cooking oil that Kyler obtained from one of the local restaurants. The oats were typically accompanied by day-old bakery goods that might consist of donuts, cakes, breads and other delectables. Usually, a beaver carcass was also placed in a locked cage that was fashioned from welded rebar and was cabled to a tree next to the barrel.
Many of the bait sites were monitored by trail cameras that enabled us to determine which baits were being hit by the larger bears. A true giant was intermittently visiting one of the baits, and Brad hunted that bait on the first evening while I hunted a bait located not far from the main road. There was no camera on that bait, but bears were cleaning out the barrel on a regular basis.
As I climbed into the tree stand that first evening, I was impressed with the size of the platform and the amount of room I had to organize my gear. I quickly attached my safety strap around one of the trees and hung my bow on a conveniently placed nail. The platform was triangular in shape and was built between three adjacent trees. A series of 2×4 boards served as steps onto one end of the platform. A side rail extended along each of the other two sides of the platform. I suspected that they were there for safety reasons as well as to serve as a steady rest for a rifle hunter. I took note of the side rails and quickly dismissed them as a concern. I concluded that when I was at full draw, my lower limb should easily clear them. A check with my rangefinder revealed that the barrel was fifteen yards away. A chip shot, I thought. Let the show begin.
It wasn’t long until the smaller bear showed up. While we could take two bears on our license, I decided that I would not release an arrow the first evening unless a true monster appeared. The smaller bear spent a considerable amount of time tasting the cinnamon rolls that were left around the barrel. The wind was blowing from the barrel toward the stand; it was a perfect setup. Every once in awhile, the little guy would look up at me, but then he would quickly return his attention to eating. At one point, though, he decided to investigate the blob in the tree stand, and he started to climb up the 2×4 steps. When his paws appeared on the third step, I walked over and stomped my foot, sending him in a quick retreat down the steps. He circled the tree a few times, then went back over to the bait. He seemed nervous, though, looking around the bait site after every bite. He then made a quick exit into the thick brush behind my stand. There had to be a bigger bear around.
It was about an hour later when I noticed the bigger bear slowly making its way up the ATV trail. As soon as I saw him, I thought that he might be a shooter. I started to apply all of Kyler’s tests and concluded that, notwithstanding my prior plan of not shooting on the first evening, I would try to take this bear. It took forever for him to get close to the barrel. The wind direction was still good. I knew that he could not smell me, but he acted like he knew that something was wrong. I didn’t dare move.
When the bear’s head went behind a spruce tree located between the stand and the barrel, I came to full draw. He stayed behind that tree for what seemed like an eternity, and then he waddled toward the barrel. I carefully picked a spot behind his shoulder and released the arrow. I immediately heard a dull thud and watched in horror as the arrow struck a small log at the base of the bear’s left rear foot. My lower limb had struck the wooden safety rail causing the arrow to miss the bear cleanly. When the arrow struck the log, the bear made a quick exit.
About forty-five minutes went by when I caught a glimpse of black fur moving through the trees beyond the bait barrel. “Maybe he is coming back,” I thought. I waited with bow in hand, but the bear did not appear. Less than an hour of shooting light remained. After continuously scanning the brush, I finally spotted movement on the ATV trail. There he was. I was almost out of shooting light when he made it back to the barrel. This time I was careful not to hit the side rail when I released. He didn’t go 40 yards. His skull measured 19-5/16 inches. Maybe black bears weren’t so difficult to judge after all!
Brad’s night was uneventful as the big bear did not show. The next evening found Brad watching a bait site that was on the edge of a huge swamp. The trail camera watching that bait revealed that it was being hit by a huge boar. Brad wasn’t on the stand very long when a small bear appeared at the barrel. Soon the bear was accompanied by a larger one. Because these were the first two bears that he had seen, Brad passed on them. Brad later told us that he had difficulty determining whether the larger bear was a shooter. I hunted the bait that Brad watched on the first evening and did not see any bears.
The next evening, Brad was back in the swamp stand. It wasn’t long until a bigger boar came in and quickly snatched a cinnamon roll lying on top of the barrel without giving Brad a shot. A couple of hours later, the big boar cautiously approached the barrel and grabbed another roll.
The next night on the swamp stand, Brad saw the two bears that had visited the bait on the first night he had sat that stand, but the giant never showed. I had been hunting a different stand each night and was seeing several different bears. I had just about convinced myself that one of the bears at one of the baits was a record book candidate, but I wasn’t sure, so I decided to wait for a bigger one.
Brad was back on the swamp stand for the last night of our hunt. It wasn’t long until the bigger bear that Brad had seen at this bait on several evenings appeared. It was the last evening of the hunt, so he decided to take him. He made a great shot and watched the bear fall not fifty yards from the stand. As it turns out, this bear that he had been passing up all week had a 19-11/16-inch skull! We were thrilled, but we couldn’t help wonder what the giant bear that Brad had videoed would have scored.
No doubt black bears are hard to judge, but they make the perfect hunt for a father and son or daughter to enjoy together. We were headed back to Pennsylvania with two bears and memories that will last a lifetime.–Tom Edgington