Sep 10, 2015

The Biggest Bear I’ve Ever Shot

By: Mike James

The story starts with my annual ritual of sending off our group’s spring turkey hunting choices…and the addition of another point for my bear hunting permit. The plan was to apply for my bear kill permit when my son was done playing high school soccer therefore giving me more time to pursue Ursus Americanus.  And 2014 turned out to be the year.  With the 10 points accumulated in my account, I was assured of a kill permit regardless of the area I chose to hunt, but that was a foregone conclusion. Of course, I would hunt near our family’s cabin south of highway 8 in Rusk County—zone C. No dog-chasing bears during our bear hunt, but as we soon found out, a number of other baiters were in our chosen area.  

Joining me in my first time bear hunt was my friend Mark, from Oshkosh like me, who had scored a zone C tag. Oh, didn’t I mention, this was my first ever bear hunt and a totally DIY hunt at that. We were to learn a lot in the process.

To start with, I had always had second thoughts about harvesting a black bear. What would I do with a bear? My lifelong hunting philosophy has always been “you eat what you kill.” Consequently, our family has been raised on venison, so when steak dinner is announced, the kids know we’re having back straps, and grilled tenderloins, wrapped in bacon, have become their favorite. But bear meat? So yeah, what would I do with a bear? Even though the farmer whose land we were to hunt wanted the bear  population thinned, I really didn’t want to bag a bear just to kill it. I’m not one to invest a lot of money in taxidermy (and neither is my wife). I hunt to enjoy the outdoors, spend time with the kids, and of course to feed the family. I still don’t understand why my wife doesn’t buy my “hunting to feed the family line.” I got mixed reactions when I asked the locals about the flavor of bear meat, some saying they loved it, others making a face that plainly said… not so much!

At any rate, 2014 rolled around. Misgivings aside, the accumulated points needed to be used. I had my zone C permit.  All that was left was the plan, the preparation and the hunt. So what were the lessons learned during this process?

Lesson 1. A DIY bear hunt is hard work. Just clearing paths to get a four-wheeler pack to bait sites was a challenge. (I was intent on 4 different sites). This should be done in April/May, not in 80 degree humid June/July. Hollowing out big pine logs to hold the bait was also demanding. Of course, the last two went more quickly than the first two after I got the right sized chainsaw. I knew there were lots of bears in the area but getting back to where they lived and setting up bait sites with 100 lb. hollowed logs and 75 lb. rocks and logs did test my endurance.

Lesson 2. When it rains, it pours. Our family has owned the cabin on the Chippewa River for more than 30 years but I had seldom seen a rainy season like this, starting in mid-August and finally letting up at the beginning of bear season. The river climbed the banks to the third highest level I have ever seen it…right up to our neighbor’s front steps, surpassed only two times when it ran right through their cabin. That meant the alder swamps were waterlogged providing the reason my bear came from the direction it did.

Lesson 3. Mosquitoes love hot, humid weather. Maybe I’m getting soft in my old age, but when you get seriously concerned about taking a leak outside, you know the bugs are bad.  And that means Thermocell is your friend. Unsolicited testimonial. No money has exchanged hands to promote Thermocell products. They simply work. If you own a cabin on the water, do spring turkey hunting, go night catfishing, or are into camping you need at least one Thermocell. Add bear hunting to the list. I had two of them going during my hunt which just made it bearable (sorry). We’re actually blaming mosquitoes for the quality of the bagged bear photo. We just wanted to get the heck out of the swamp and missed the best light for photography.

Lesson 4. Be consistent with scents and noises used around bait sites. We used Liquid Smoke not only as my attractant scent but also as our cover scent, spraying it going in to each bait site… on the ground, high into brush and trees and around each stand. We also sprayed the bait site buckets and hit the trees on the way out. We wanted any nearby bears to start to pattern us. As the story unfolds, you’ll find out how important the scent prep was.

Lesson 5. Bear meat is delicious!

Now getting back to the biggest bear I ever shot.  I took the beast on opening night. Here are the preparation details.

How did we choose our bait sites? Carefully. Permission had been obtained from the farmer whose land we hunted during the previous deer season. As soon as I received the kill permit I let him know and asked him to inform other inquiring bear hunters that the area already had hunters. We chose four locations with bait sites one and two about 200 yards apart on the south end of a large swamp with site three on the swamp’s north side about a mile away as the crow flies. The fourth site was at a different swamp a half mile northeast of number three. During the baiting process, we discovered we had three other hunters baiting nearby. One 500 yards from our number three and another on the east side of the swamp a half mile away and yet another southeast of the swamp. We had the bears surrounded (and well fed)!

What did we use for bait? Based on input from locals and the bait seller, we went with cookies and cookie dough. Then we threw in stale leftover cereal, frozen pastries, old fryer oil and whatever else family and friends wanted to get rid of.

When did we start baiting?  The first week of August. And the bears found all four stations within five days. The bait seller had been surprised that we started baiting so late, but was encouraging because we were in zone C where only baiting is allowed and on private land. If I had it to do over, I would start two weeks out as the longer we baited the less frequent or consistent the bears came in.

How much bait did we use? Two 55 gallon drums of cookies and cookie dough, along with many other contributions, were eaten.

What did we see on our cameras? We didn’t set up cameras until the second week of baiting, and by the time we figured out how to actually use them it was two weeks before opening day. Still we had tons of bear pix at all different times of day…and thousands of raccoons, fishers and branches being moved around by wind and rain. The largest bear on camera we estimated at 400 lbs. Another pix revealed an ugly, grey 300-400 hundred pound, wire-haired male with almost all the hair rubbed off his rear end from dining at bait sites all his life.

In addition to the bears captured on camera, we knew there was a brute over 500 pounds that I had spotted feeding in an alfalfa field that spring. He’d been visiting the farmer’s corn bins for the past three years. An area just a mile south of us has produced a 575 pounder two years in a row, both bagged along the Chippewa River.

Finally, the hunt. We were optimistic on opening day and baited at 10:30 a.m. because our cameras showed bears mostly just before dark, during the night and an hour after sunrise. We had figured on fishing after baiting, but with river levels rising, water up over the bank and more showers in the forecast, we decided to get in our stands at 2 p.m. planning to stay ‘til nightfall.

 I chose the southern-most site because that had the most bear activity during daylight and the northwest wind was perfect for the stand’s location. At least so I thought. When I got into the stand I could see that the bait was tipped over and partially eaten, but decided to stay and hunt because there was still bait left. With a new front coming in, wind was swirling around, mostly out of the northeast but sometimes from the north. I didn’t see or hear anything except a few mosquitoes until I heard splashing to the southwest at 6:45 p.m. As it kept getting closer and closer, I knew it could only be one animal making that much noise yet cautiously approaching the bait site. Within a few minutes, the pitch-black creature appeared in the alder swamp and standing 30 yards south of me. He made his way out of the Alder swamp moving very carefully but right at me, cutting downwind at 15 yards. All my scent prep was either going to work or he would be making a mad dash to get away from me. Just then he started to veer toward the bait just ten yards below. Yes! Along with some help from my scent-free coveralls, Liquid Smoke had done the job. That 10 yard angle would have been a beautiful bow shot, but I was here to kill a bear, and knew a gun would give me more range to get the job done.

I identified this bear by a large white circle on his chest, estimated to be male and in the 200-250 pound range from camera photos. I had already made up my mind before the hunt began. If I saw the white-spotted bear we had seen on camera, I was going to shoot him.

But now, with my bear only ten yards below me, I suddenly heard a second bear coming on the same path. Should I wait to see how big this new arrival was? Or should I take the first good broadside shot at old white-spot who was now on his way to the bait pile. I quickly decided. Yes, I really did want to get this bear hunt over with. So I let white-spot get over to the bait giving me a nice broadside shot. My 270 Savage found the mark and the bear tore-off and tipped over within 30 yards.

I heard him gurgle which might have been his death moan if his head wasn’t submerged in yet another small swamp. I could still hear bear number two splashing water as he moved away. I stayed in the stand for 10 more minutes just to see if he would come back in but the sounds of splashing had continued to drift away from me.

After tagging my bear I began walking back to the four wheeler, not looking forward to the task of hauling the carcass out of the swamp. But fortunately a friend had driven his vehicle in toward our hunting area and was waiting for me to get out of the woods. He hadn’t heard me shoot, so was quite surprised when I told him I had just bagged the biggest bear of my life. We had a good chuckle when we reached my bear. He really was the biggest bear I had ever shot. The only bear I had ever shot.  Four years old and 150 pounds.

My friend took a quick photo and we threw the bear onto the four-wheeler and got out of there as fast as we could, blaming the mosquitoes for the quality of the picture. They were making the woods hum as they got real active right before dusk.

And how about the meat? That night we skinned old white-spot, quartered him up and refrigerated the meat. Next day, the deboning began and I quickly discovered that bear have many more, but smaller, muscles than deer. Therefore, it is much easier to take larger pieces of venison such as roasts, while it’s more painstaking to peel the silver skin off smaller bear muscles to get at usable meat. That night we did cook the bear loins and paired them with walleyes caught earlier in the summer.  Terrific meal! No unpleasant cooking odor. The nearest comparison I would make for the bear loins is the darker meat of a pork roast. I took the rest of the meat to a local butcher who made bratwurst which also proved to be excellent and a big hit whenever it has been served. I repeat, bear meat is delicious!

I did end up keeping white-spot’s head which has been sent to a guy who has Dermestid beetles which eat all the flesh off the skull, so I can have a European skull mount. It will make a nice conversation piece sitting on a shelf at the cabin.

Mark also had an opportunity the first night, but decided to pass on a small female. He hunted the next four days without seeing another bear.  We returned the first weekend of October with another barrel of cookie dough and only used half of it during two evening hunts and one morning hunt over that weekend.  No luck. Mark did not see another bear.

Revisiting lessons learned on my very first bear hunt.  

  1. Start setting bait sites early. If you have no bait sites established, make them in the spring or even late winter.
  2. Prepare for any weather condition and for insects. Know the lay of the land and what could happen if it rains 9 inches just before your hunt. Have plan A, B, C and even D.
  3. Buy and get familiar with a Thermocell. I prefer earth scent.
  4. The huge bears you see on camera are subject to shrinkage. (I was surprised at the amount apparent size loss when all the fur and lankiness that a bear has isn’t standing on all fours.)
  5. Remove the molar with proper tools prior to registering your bear. Wisconsin requires you to provide a molar and, as we discovered, a pocketknife will not do the job. A hammer, pliers and screw driver are needed.
  6. Investigate employing a bear guide. I hear that guides make from $900 to $1500, and it may certainly be worth the investment by the time you add up all the expenses: gas, bait and time. Lots and lots of time.

Whether you prepare for a DIY hunt or retain a guide, here’s hoping you have as much luck as I did…and SHOOT THE BIGGEST BEAR OF YOUR LIFE.