My 2011 Minnesota bear hunt started out much the same as my 2009 Hunt WARM! It doesn’t take big thoughts to realize that an all-black animal trying to put on blubber for the upcoming winter, doesn’t care for unseasonably warm temperatures. This year’s bumper berry and acorn crop has had many of the guides we came into contact with, a little less than enthused about the 2011 season to say the least. More good news came from the trail camera pics, or lack thereof. Couple that thought with the fact that we’re hunting on public land during the MN season’s second week, and I came into the game with measured hopefulness.
The thing I did have in my favor was knowledge. Not my own, but that of Jon Petrowske from Outdoors with Jonny P Guide Service. Jonny is a second generation bear guide who grew up learning and hunting these animals, and during conditions like that, I was happier than ever to rely on his experience. When bear hunting is difficult, just like with any type of hunting, it makes paying attention to details that much more important. Which kind of details you may ask? Staying still for one. These bears might have spotted a hunter in your stand from the previous week, so they already know the stand location in some instances. Not just kind of still, but absolutely motionless, as these bears will typically circle the bait for up to 3 hours before they come in. Whitetail still just doesn’t cut it. They’ve got a pretty good sniffer too, as I was introduced to an old Indian saying….”An eagle will see the leaf fall. A deer will hear the leaf fall. But a bear will smell the leaf fall.” That makes scent control ever-so important, which we all know is tough when mid-day highs hit the mid-80 degree mark. Either way, my initial notions many years ago about hunting bears over bait, and how “easy” it seemed, were quashed by my memories in 2009 and this year’s hunt.
My first sit was an interesting one to say the least. I was on a bait which did have a large boar visiting it, but his schedule was somewhat random. Still, the thoughts of his picture were fresh in my mind every time I felt like moving around more than necessary. Which was difficult considering the activity going on at the bait and below my stand. Up to five skunks at one time were doing their best to dig out what vittles they could, while a bobcat sat on his haunches 20 yards behind the bait observing. This was by far and away the best look I’ve ever had at one of these impressive animals, until I lost him when he moved back in the brush to my left. 30 minutes later, a ruckus directly below my stand and behind my tree. Two skunks fighting? I could see one with his tail up just below me to the right, then a “hissssssssssss” – and I was counting down the seconds of fresh air I had to breathe. But nothing. No smell? Then the skunk faced its antagonist, slapping the ground then backshuffling a few steps. Then slapping the ground again, doing this repeatedly. Eventually the skunk wandered off, and the bobcat which was trying to make a meal out of him walked directly under my tree. The hissing sound I heard was just that, from the bobcat, not the sound of a skunk spraying. I saw nothing, and upon reaching the end of legal shooting light, I slowly stood up and quietly got my pack off the hook. No sooner could I put it on, I heard a log break 100 yards directly away from me. Jonny seemed to think that the stand was pegged, and the bear had been there watching for some time. Frustrating to say the least.
The next morning we mixed bait in 5 gallon buckets, and headed to the woods to make the rounds. 21 baits in all that day, a far cry from the nearly 50 Jonny starts the season with, this would be an “easy” day. By 2pm, we had just finished up, and I was questioning why anyone in their right mind would want to be a bear-guide. Though I have to admit, it’s pretty exciting coming up to a bait seeing logs strewn about like match-sticks from a bear hitting it, knowing full-well you’ll be in that stand tonight. The problem however, is when you have that many baits with multiple good sites being hit, you have a hard time deciding where to sit. Jonny changed his mind three times, including a last-second text message as I was climbing into the stand he selected. The wind was good on the site they name “toilet” for the old-timey outhouse that once stood there many years ago. I crept into the large cedar that would be my home for the afternoon, taking careful efforts to be as quiet as I could. One hour into the hunt, I heard a tree fall over 100 yards to my west, which Jonny later said was the bear testing myself and the bait. Then another hour later, big brush busting to the east. Half hour later, to the north a big stick breaks. Then silence as the sun sets and the night settles in. It was getting dark fast, and though I heard some very small sounds behind me and then below me, I was convinced it was a coon, or perhaps another skunk. Meanwhile, a pine marten was putting on a show near the bait. The sound I heard next however, was unmistakable. WOOF! Then paws slamming on the ground. One second later, a bear was on the bait and that pine marten was in the next county. That bear was directly below me, twenty yards from the bait, and he covered that distance so quickly and so quietly, I was convinced there were two bears. One where I heard the WOOF, and another one on the bait itself. I was wrong, they truly are that quiet, even when charging a bait-pile. Now, I’ve got about 5 minutes left of shooting light, and the bear is just tucking his head around the tree at the bait pile, facing directly at me, which turned out to be a good thing. I now know how people miss bears at short yardages. They immediately raise their weapon and shoot, full of emotion and that rush of adrenaline which surely will make them miss. I was lucky that I wasn’t given the option. After what seemed like forever, the bear eventually came around the left side of the tree and started pulling logs. The movement and sound, along with the bear’s quartering away position gave me the perfect opportunity to draw. We’re right at closing time here, so I put the pin up and shook my head. I can’t shoot. I can’t SEE! After my eyes adjusted a bit to seeing the pin through the peep, I lined up, and let fly!
A dull “THUNK” was all I heard; that glorious sound that all bowhunters love to hear, as I saw my Nockturnal disappear behind the bear’s shoulder. A small grunt from the motionless bear was all that followed. Did I miss? How come I can’t see my lighted nock anymore? After a few seconds, the bear was a bit tippy, and with a HUFF it took off running to the north of me, growling and gurgling the entire way. Now I could see my arrow and its lighted nock casting a brilliant red sheen on the bait and the blood that lay in pools upon it. Jonny was on his way, and while waiting for him, I never heard the infamous death-groans of a bear that’s been cleanly killed. That concerned me, even though I was pretty confident of the shot. Upon climbing down, it was apparent that the two-blade Rage more than did its job. There were times following the short 75 yard blood trail, where we didn’t want to follow the bears path because of all the blood on tree limbs, grass, and plants. Jonny saw the bear first, legs spread, face-down and said, “It didn’t death groan because she died on her feet!” Like he’s done it a million times before, and he has, Jonny brought the wheeler through a maze of popple I could never have navigated, and proceeded to load the bear in the Otter Sled he uses for transporting bear, gear, and bait through the woods. It was a dry sow, and an older one from the looks of its teeth, though I’ll find out for sure in a few months when the DNR sends back my information from the tooth sample I submitted. In and out of the sled for field-dressing and a few pictures, and I was on my way back to camp with a good bear, and an even better memory. These animals are ghosts of the forest, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to hunt an animal I have an immense amount of respect for.