Biased Bear-Hunting Perception Meets Reality.
The use of ladder stands is a popular tactic when setting up over bait. Not only do they provide a comfortable sit for long hours in the field, they make it extremely easy for inexperienced bowhunters to start hunting and for hunters looking to share a day in the field side-by-side. Mike and his guides can set up stands specifically for those looking to hunt within eyesight of one another.
I never thought a baited black bear hunt would be all that exciting. Growing up in Oregon, where bear baiting is illegal, my bowhunting ethics had been slightly biased against the practice. Taking an elevated position above a pile of rank bait just didn't appeal to me. I thought hunting the four-legged beasts required getting off the beaten path and up high into steep and rugged bear country. But change is inevitable, and my prejudiced mindset met Canadian bear-hunting reality head on in the spring of 2008.
A phone call from outfitter Mike Blanchett put the wheels in motion for a baited hunt in the Cold Lake area of northeastern Alberta. Mike is a passionate outdoorsman with extensive guiding experience and savvy hunting skills that stack up against the best Canadian big-game outfitters. Although I initially expressed skepticism about participating in a baited hunt, by the end of the conversation I felt this was an opportunity to learn some new lessons and gain a fresh perspective. Besides, it was a chance to taste some adventure in the Canadian bush.
In talking with Mike, I learned baited hunts require a lot more than just throwing down some grub and hoping a furry critter shows up for dinner. Maintaining productive bait sites requires hard work, long hours and patience to find what works best in a particular area. It might be oats, fat and meat scraps or sweets; maybe even dog food or grandpa's special marshmallow and molasses mix. All bear hunters have their secret recipe! Also, by using trail cameras, Mike can determine the size and number of bears hitting his baits, which helps pinpoint the most productive stands.
Hearing of the large number of bears that frequently visit the snack shack bait stations Mike strategically sets up in the dense bush, I had high hopes of an action-packed hunt.
Before I knew it, I was booking a flight from Minneapolis to Edmonton, buying a non-resident license and stocking up on Thermacell refill kits to ward off the horrifying hordes of huge biting flies and mosquitoes.
Beaver ponds and dams were plentiful on the trip, which is a rare sight for the author. While on stand, he often heard the pounding thump of a beaver's tail hitting the water as it echoed through the dense forest.
Into The Bush
The month leading up to the hunt dragged along just like the Minnesota winter. When May finally arrived, I was going bear hunting to celebrate the end of hibernation — for me and the bears. Upon my arrival in Edmonton, I was greeted by experienced bear guide Vince Roth, who drove me and four other clients 220 miles north to camp.
The ride was quite entertaining, and my anticipation grew steadily as I listened to Vince tackling questions like a pro and providing a bit of humor along the way, something I found him quite capable of supplying during the week ahead.
We pulled into camp around 6 p.m., and I could tell right away it was definitely going to be an adventure. Our cabins were no more than 100 yards from the lake; the fire pit was ready to burn, and the bare skeleton of a teepee was waiting for us to hang bear hides on.
A generator-powered, single-wide mobile home served as the mess hall, and behind that stood a 3-D archery target for practicing. Mike's operation looked like one fine bowhunting camp.
A serious baiting setup was parked to the side. It included a tool trailer, four-wheel drive truck, numerous bait barrels, two ATVs and a boat, which is used to ferry hunters to more remote areas inaccessible by ATV. In this boreal area, the ground from thousands of years of composting melds into a spongy, fibrous muck called muskeg. Muskeg forms in various thicknesses on top of water and makes maneuvering through these areas difficult, to say the least. ATVs and boats are used exclusively for getting into and out of the bush.
Stuck in a bog of muskeg, the author and his guide Vince were able to free themselves by collecting branches, logs and sticks and placing them under the ATV's tires for traction. Unfortunately, the ATV's winch had broken the day before, making the ride more enjoyable!
After getting settled into our cabins and getting to know the other camp members, Mike joined us for dinner and gave a briefing to calm our nerves and enlighten us on how our time would be spent the next six days. Basically, the camp routine went like this: sleep in, eat an eggs/sausage/bacon/pancakes breakfast, lounge around camp and the lake, eat a huge lunch/dinner around 1 p.m. and then hit the treestands around 3 p.m. We hunted until after 10 p.m. and got picked up by the guides between 10:30 and 11.
Mike also addressed how to size up mature bears. Black bears can be one of the toughest animals to judge in the field. Their long, thick hair is deceiving and makes them appear bigger than they are. To help rookie bear hunters like me, Mike and his guides position each bait barrel so it can be used as a reference for sizing up approaching bruins. When a shooter bear approaches, its back should be taller than the top of the barrel. Other important characteristics to look for include ears off to the side of the head (not German shepherd ears), a blocky nose and a crease running from the middle of the top of the bear's head down to the forehead.
Along with judging size, a hunter should be able to determine the sex of the bear. Spring is not the time to be shooting sows, because newly born cubs need a mother's milk and guidance as they're learning to find food and survive in the forest. Oftentimes, size can be the number one indicator; sows, on average, are 33 percent smaller than males.
The next morning, we were welcomed with beautiful weather, temperatures in the low 60s and a vivid blue sky. After enjoying a picturesque hike along the beach and a midday meal fit for a king
, I gathered my gear and hit the practice range to be sure my bow was shooting accurately.
This gorgeous cinnamon bear hit the author's bait twice during his first afternoon hunting. Due to doglike ears and a smaller framed body, he decided to pass and wait for a larger bruin.
That afternoon, two other hunters and I loaded into a Suburban and off we went to our drop-off point. From there, Vince taxied us individually by ATV into our stands. Along the way, we crossed through muskeg ponds, went around beaver dams, plowed through bushes and creeks and at times were forced to break our own trail. Vince is one large dude (6 feet, 5 inches tall and just plain big), and I'm no lightweight either. The two of us perched on that ATV was surely a sight to behold!
I got on stand by 3:30 p.m. and found myself staring at a barrel filled with oats and fat scraps. It didn't take long before a golden flash of fur materialized 130 yards to my right.
The gorgeous cinnamon bear casually approached the bait. He seemed to be a regular customer and obviously knew the lay of the land. Instead of going straight for the barrel, the bear decided to put on a little show. He seemed more interested in sharpening his teeth and claws on nearby stumps and scratching his back than the food in the barrel. I have to say bears are one of the most enjoyable animals to watch. Their quirky, childlike behavior really makes me laugh.
Although I was tempted to take this beautiful bear, BOWHUNTING Adventures Editor Patrick Meitin had advised me to be patient. He warned that inexperienced hunters often shoot the first bear that comes in only to be confronted with some serious ground shrinkage! Meitin said that when a big bear comes in, I'd have no doubt it's a shooter.
Mike Blanchett operates his spring bear camp near Lake Marie in the Cold Lake area of northeastern Alberta. His camp accommodates both archers and rifle hunters.
And with six days to hunt, I decided to let my furry friend pass.
Later that night, as the sun dipped below the horizon, I spotted movement through a cut of timber on my right. Throwing my binos against my face, I immediately recognized the incoming bruin as the young cinnamon bear I had passed earlier. This time, he had dinner on his mind and gorged himself on oats and meat scraps.
After he had his fill, the bear stuck around awhile scratching on trees, rolling around on his back — and fully aware of my presence. I had already made the decision I wasn't shooting this bear, so I had the camera out and was probably moving around more than I should have been. He looked up at me a couple times and made several circles around the base of the stand. After a good 30 minutes, he vanished as quietly and quickly as he entered.
The next day, Mike and I chatted about my first hunt and he decided to put me in a different stand. Knowing I wasn't going to shoot the cinnamon bear (which he probably still thinks I'm crazy for), he had another bait site that was getting regular visits by a large bear. Getting there, however, required someone with an adventurous soul.
The stand was deep in the bush, and the ride was going to be "fun." Confident, I accepted the stand move. We got to the stand around 4 p.m. It stood in a flat of old timber that dropped down into a flowing creek and beaver pond. Bear and wolf tracks littered the banks. It looked promising.
Daniel Beraldo's first baited black bear hunt was a great success. Along with enjoying an adventurous week in the Alberta bush, he was rewared with this beautifully-coated black bear with a brown muzzle.
I set up quickly and started ranging objects and possible shooting lanes -- 32 yards to the barrel. Sitting in my stand, I heard owls, beavers, songbirds and loons sounding off throughout the evening. Everything felt great.
Around 7:45, a black blob appeared out of nowhere to the left of the bait. It was amazing how quickly he appeared on the scene. I immediately started sizing him up. He looked big, but doubts plagued my thought process. Then I noticed his ears and head. His ears were obviously to the side, and he looked to have a long and wide skull.
After a few intensity-packed minutes watching, I decided he was a shooter. Unfortunately, he never offered a good shot angle, and in a few short seconds, he was walking off with a large chunk of meat and fat. Sick to my stomach, I felt I had blown it.
Luckily, the big boar circled back for seconds and laid down behind and to the right of the barrel. As the bear scratched and pawed the ground, I drew my bow a number of times but never felt comfortable letting an arrow fly. Shaking uncontrollably, with a lump in my throat and my heart practically beating out of my chest, the bear finally presented a perfect broadside opportunity. I drew, settled the 30-yard pin behind the front shoulder and triggered my release.
As the bear tore off, I felt I had made a good hit. But, like many times before, self doubt crept in. I called Vince, and after what seemed like hours, he was on the scene.
Mike Blanchett and his guides use berry-filled chocolate chunks to sweeten their baiting mix of grains, meat and fat scraps.
Checking the impact site, we found bright red blood and then half my arrow 10 yards away. Toting a shotgun for backup, Vince led me on the trail, using primarily the bear's tracks and indentions in the ground to follow. After a short distance, we found him.
Packing the bear out was quite a chore, but thanks to Vince we had him loaded on the ATV just as night started to cast its shadow upon the dense bush. As I mentioned, I was hunting a stand that required an adventurous ATV ride. One flooded spot made it impossible to cross, and the only way around was to break your own trail through the bushes and muskeg chutes off to the side.
However, the passenger (me) had to walk the edge of the w
ater and wait on the other side. Otherwise, we'd just get stuck. I noticed wolf tracks littering the bog on the way in that day, and as I waited that night for Vince, I only hoped a wolf or pack of wolves didn't scent me. After 10 minutes or so, Vince's headlights were a welcome sight.
Unfortunately, due to the weight, my bear was no longer riding along. So, we had no choice but to leave him and get Mike's game hauler from camp. We still had one section of trail to get through before we were home free. It was basically a muskeg pit and similar to quicksand. The muskeg required us to get off and push while Vince kept the throttle pressed. Unfortunately, this time we weren't budging and it was starting to rain.
We were stuck. After an hour of pushing, pulling and rocking the ATV, we finally managed to gather some decent-sized branches and trees to stuff under the tires. Finally, at about half past midnight, we pushed ourselves free.
We retrieved my bear the next morning. The gorgeous boar measured 5.5 feet long and weighed about 250 pounds. He had the thickest and most luxurious jet-black hair of all the bears killed that week, and his skull was abnormally large for his body size. Though I'm still waiting for the final skull measurements, my taxidermist thinks he'll be very close to making the book.
During the remainder of my trip, I enjoyed the scenic lake views, helped the guides with their baiting and camp chores, took a boat ride around the lake, mingled with hunters around the campfire and hunted hard for a bigger bear. The last night, Mike positioned me over a bait a monster bruin was hitting consistently.
Just as expected, about 10:30 p.m. and after shooting light had expired, I heard grunts and groans directly in front, with limbs and branches cracking simultaneously. Too dark to take a shot, I was slightly concerned this bear would investigate my stand. Thankfully, Mike came charging in on the four-wheeler right at the same time. A large crash followed and then silence -- what a great way to end my Albertan adventure.