Ursus americanus has gotten under my skin
It didn’t start out this way. Thirty-some years ago I didn’t wake up one morning and have a vision, a visit from a soothsayer or have my palm read. The tea leaves never said, “You are going to be a bear hunter, and shoot 50 black bears.” So I often wonder, what is it, then, about Ursus americanus, the black bear, that has become something of an obsession with me?
Growing up in a small southern California farm town (the “Lemon Capitol of the World”, no less), there were no bears within hundreds of miles. Which is kind of interesting, since some of the biggest bears in the world now reside a short drive from where I went to high school.
I grew up a deer and quail hunter, doing what most young folks do, which is hunt what’s available close to home. I didn’t have the opportunity to hunt black bears for the first time until the early 1980s when I chased them with hounds in the steep mountains near Medford, Oregon, before dog hunting was foolishly banned in the Beaver State. Talk about naïve. Dogs? How tough could it be? I about had a heart attack after chasing hounds and a big bear all day up and down steep, brush-choked ravines in the pouring rain. When I saw how fast, strong and nimble that bear was, I was flat amazed. I gimped away from that hunt fascinated by black bears. I wanted to learn about them, study them, hunt them again.
That’s kind of like my personality. I have always been the kind of guy who thought if something was worth doing it was worth doing to excess. Work, play, hunting … thankfully I never got into drugs back in the ‘60s. So rather than hunt lots of different animals, I have tended to gravitate to those that fascinated me most, and tried to become as good at that game as possible. Early on, it was mule deer and Columbia blacktail, then elk, then wild hogs, of all things. When I moved to Alaska I got bit by the mountain hunting bug, and concentrated a lot of time, effort and finances on pursuing Dall sheep and mountain goats.
Though I’d gone on a handful of additional black bear hunts since that first one, it wasn’t until I moved to coastal Alaska in 1991 when I really got after them in earnest. Again, it was as much a function of location as fascination. Close to home, there were black bears and mountain goats, with brown bears also close at hand.
The black bear limit was very liberal, and I took advantage of it running bait stations in spring and doing spot-and-stalk hunts both spring and fall. At the same time I hooked up with Alaska Master Guide, Jim Boyce, an ex-Navy SEAL who served a couple of nasty tours in Vietnam and at the time owned Baranof Expeditions in southeast Alaska, guiding hunters off a 36-foot boat. I spent many springs and falls on that boat, even holding an assistant guide’s license for a time. My compensation was, essentially, access to some of the finest bear hunting in North America.
Over the years I have hunted black bears every way one can legally pursue them. I’ve followed more packs of wonderful hounds in steep country, and sat over baits set by outfitters from Alaska to Quebec, and by my own hand. I’ve done spot-and-stalk hunts off horseback, ATV, 4×4 truck, canoes, river rafts, ocean boats and shank’s mare. I’ve called them in using both predator and fawn bleat calls. Some I shot as a secondary species while on a hunt focused more on another species such as grizzlies or moose or elk.
Many I shot for meat while living in Alaska. I’ve carried every weapon legally allowed, from bows and arrows to centerfire rifles to muzzleloaders to slug guns to revolvers and single-shot specialty handguns. Rifle calibers have ranged from .243 Winchester to .375 H&H Mag. I shot several with an old Thompson/Center Contender chambered in .35 Remington.
And so, as I sat in a tree stand overlooking one of Wally Mack’s baits in northern Alberta last May, I had a lot of time to reflect on 30-some years of hunting black bears. I was looking to take my 50th bear, and as I sat in the boreal forest, my mind flashed on so many experiences.
Most of the hunts had been routine, though there were some interesting times that included things like ocean skiffs sinking, small airplane troubles, avalanches, crossing rivers roaring dangerously with spring run-off, being trapped for hours up a tree as a grizzly took ownership of one of my baits, and following wounded bears that clients had shot poorly into the thick stuff–never a good time.
Mostly, though, I thought about people, other committed bear hunters I have met through the years. Most were Alaska and western Canadian guides, some with checkered pasts, salty fellows all, all tough as nails and all with a healthy respect for, and love of, both black and grizzly bears. A few were just plain folk like me with a passion for it.
One such person is Linda Powell, a colleague and friend for near three decades and currently Director of Media Relations for Mossberg. When she invited me to her favorite Alberta bear camp last spring, I couldn’t say yes fast enough. Linda is a black bear fruitcake who has taken a truckload herself and who often goes just to watch them, something I both understand and admire.
We were going to field test Mossberg’s new Patriot bolt-action rifle along with Hornady’s new Full Boar ammunition and a Swarovski Z6i 1.7-10×42 Gen-2 4A1 riflescope. All I can say about these items is, you should check them out, they’re first-rate.
When hunting bears I hunt the two “P’s” — paws and poop. Big tracks and big poop mean big bears, and when guide Shane Wilson showed me both near a bait site the second afternoon, I couldn’t get settled in fast enough. With daytime temps in the mid-80s–near all-time record highs–I didn’t expect much early movement. On this day, I saw three small bears.
Two evenings later I hunted the same stand, confident but knowing that that patience–not my strong suit–was the order of the day. Early on I saw two of the three small bears that visited me last time, but they wandered off early and for almost two hours I saw nothing but mosquitoes. Then in the still evening air I heard a stick crack off to my left, and when I slowly turned my head there he was, a whopper bear coming hard with a body posture that told the world that here comes “The Man.” He was just 20 yards away, and I could see that his hide was rubbed, his face scarred, both his rear legs devoid of any hair below mid-calf. Most would have passed for that reason, but I thought, “Here’s a bear a lot like me, he’s older, he’s worn out, his body marred from living life to the limits. He’s just what I am looking for for my 50th.” His hide later squared an honest 7 feet, 2 inches; Wally, who has seen who knows how many bears come through his camps, guessed his weight at around 350 pounds.
And so, before I climbed down and walked over to my bear, I sat quietly for a few moments. I wondered, “How many days have I spent hunting black bears?” Many hundreds, certainly. “How much joy has it given me, not the taking of a bear so much as the experience of bear country, of observing and learning, of being in some of the continent’s wildest places?” Unmeasurable amounts.
When friends learned how many bears I had taken over the years, many asked a simple question: “Why so many?” As I knelt beside this magnificent creature, my mind turned to the question of, “Why do I hunt at all?” Many times I have tried to find the right words to describe to those who do not hunt the exhilaration that makes a man’s blood race through his veins, heightens the senses and allows him to become engulfed in an emotion as basic as the will to live.
Explaining the ache of the hunter to someone born without it is like trying to explain color to a blind man, the beauty of the opera to one born without hearing, the sweet smell of spring to one birthed with no sense of smell.
How do you explain that as long as man has been alive he has had an inborn emotion to hunt, not just for sustenance and clothing and the other essentials that can be made from hide and sinew and bone, but for some primal need to possess the most powerful and most magnificent of God’s wild creatures? That without this inborn instinct, man, like the world’s other carnivores, would have perished long ago? For ancient man, there were no “participation ribbons.” Then the game was simple–kill animals, eat them and make clothing and tools from them, or die.
And so, two evenings later I climbed into the same stand, a second bear tag in my pocket. I told myself I would only shoot if a magnificent bear showed himself. Really, what were the chances? So I sat quietly, swatting the occasional mosquito, enjoying the solitude. A young female came and fed, then wandered slowly off.
And then I heard her run through the thick brush. “What could have caused that?” I wondered. I placed the Patriot on my lap and sat still as a church mouse.
Five minutes later, I heard him coming, a monstrous bear that did not hesitate until he got to the bait where he promptly laid down and began to eat. I took a couple of pictures of him, then got ready, and when he stood broadside, I shot him. He was even larger than my 50th bear, with a perfect luxurious coal black hide. It took four of us to load him on the ATV. Wally figured he was a 400-pounder; his hide squared 7 feet, 7 inches.
Black bears have always fascinated me. They are big and powerful, with razor-sharp senses, an apex predator to be greatly respected. Their fur is luxurious, their meat pretty darn tasty, their fang and claw awe-inspiring. Every time I am around them, I am mesmerized, and learn something new about them, and myself.
So, the question is really not, “Why so many?” but really a question for those who do not hunt bears: “Why do you not hunt them?” After all, I am a hunter, and black bears are a most worthy challenge.
I can’t wait to go again.–Bob Robb