Sep 8, 2020

A Guide’s Perspective to a Successful Bear Hunt

Expectation, preparation, the hunt and harvest

By Sara Trampe 

As a big game guide in NW Ontario there are a few things that I wish all my hunters knew before the start of their trip, and the two biggest factors to victory are knowing what to expect and being prepared well before you arrive at camp. And when I say be prepared, be prepared for anything, for example, me greeting you at bear camp, a woman guide. Each season I spend over 8 weeks in the bush; with an overall 90% success rate (at shot opportunity) and having tracked and recovered 81 bears, you should feel confident in your chances!

If you are dreaming about booking a black bear hunt, whether it be a once in a lifetime event or something you want to do frequently, there are several factors to consider first. And while each individual hunt is different, narrowing down your expectations to match with an outfitter will increase your sense of satisfaction and accomplishment from start to finish. But before you pick your outfitter, you should decide on the following: 

1.) What is your price range? – Cost of outfitter, license, travel, etc.

2.) What hunting method do you want to use? - *Sight and stalk, hounds, or over bait

3.) Where you want to hunt? – Geographically. And will this require a draw?

4.) What you are looking for from the animal? – Color phase, trophy potential, hide and meat quality

5.) When do you want to go? – Season: spring or fall; immediately, next year, etc.

6.) Do you want to do-it-yourself?  Fully guided? Or something in between? 

*There are numerous articles and resources out there in regards to the differences in methods that can help you narrow down what you want to experience.

Do your homework

Since I can only speak about the technique’s we use, let’s pretend you have decided to book a trip with us. We are located in a dense area of NW Ontario and our hunts are semi-guided over bait, nonresident hunters are able to purchase a tag over the counter (no draw) but are required to hunt with an outfitter. We have a high population of black bears and an 90% opportunity rate.

Due to the harsh, dense terrain we use bait sites. We begin baiting our sites as soon as we are legally able and continue baiting every other day throughout the season. Black bears use sight, sound, and their keen sense of smell to navigate the tough terrain of NW Ontario, so in order to draw in hungry bears from miles away we use Northwoods Bear Products in addition to our bait sites. There are numerous theories on when, how and how much to use and every outfitter does what works for them to have the most success. 

In an area with low human population and lots and lots of forest the black bear population is healthy, and one of our jobs as an outfitter is to help maintain that, because hunting not only maintains the bear population, but moose, deer, and other small animals as well. In addition, hunting over bait gives hunters time to judge the size and sex of any bears coming in, allowing hunters to be more selective on their harvest.

We suggest using a shotgun or bow because all of our stands are within 40 yards of the bait site.  There is no right or wrong answer to whichever weapon you choose; however, you should choose the best weapon for the following: method of hunting, distance you will be shooting, what you are confident in and have practiced with. 

Some hunters assume their deer rifle will do the trick; however, this assumption can create some problems. If you are using a rifle, make sure it is set up correctly and has the proper ammunition.

Should you use a scope? Are your bullets sized correctly for your weapon, and designed for big game? Bear have thick hides, lots of muscle and fat, and larger bones so the bullet needs to be able to penetrate through all that before reaching the vital organs for a quick, humane kill. Make sure to research your rifle and what bullets (grain, velocity, weight, etc.) will work best so you know, with confidence, when the time comes your shot will count. Remember, researching ammunition or rifles separately is not enough, you have to know that your ammo and rifle coupled together will get the job done.

Practice and packing

Once you’ve decided on your weapon, start target practice. The more you practice the better off you are, and once you pull the trigger on your animal there is no do-over or second chance.  There is a small margin of error for shot placement between a successful harvest and a wounded, lost animal. In mere seconds, a 450-pound bruin ran over 200 yards before falling after a being directly shot thru the heart, so an injured bear with poor shot placement can run for miles before bedding down. We’ve seen large areas of blood where a wounded bear bedded down, rolled around in the moss and got up without a drop to be found within several hundred yards. The combination of thick fur and large areas of fat absorb the blood from the wound and the bear is lost to the bush.

When it’s time to start packing for the trip all our hunters should wash their hunting clothing in no scent or scent killer detergent and keep all articles of clothing and gear inside a sealed tub for travel – this includes your hunter orange vest and hat and underclothes. Then leave the tub outside of your cabin each night to avoid any cooking scents, cleaning products, or other human smells from absorbing into your clothing.

Hunters should also bring up no scent shampoo and body wash and shower before each trip to their stand. Bears are known to circle a site, sometimes laying down several hundred yards out determining if they want to come in. Eliminating any foreign scent on your person and gear is a key defining factor in harvesting a bear, and it can mean the difference between the aged dominant bear coming in during hunting hours or waiting until after you leave.  

Alternate plans

Your hunt is here! You have arrived at camp! On arrival we direct hunters to their cabin to unload and unwind from the trip while I explain our camp rules and fill out all the necessary paperwork. I ask each hunter their prior experience, current expectations and what weapon they are using to make a decision on where each hunter will sit. It is my job as the outfitter to try and read each hunter as well … not everyone plays by the rules.

Hunters are not legally allowed to shoot sows with current year cubs, but we as an outfitter do not allow hunters to shoot sows with cubs, period. And although most of the time I know if a sow is using a certain site, they wander quite a bit because dominant boars push them around – ultimately it is up to the hunter to take the time to know what they are shooting.

If it is a hunters first time at camp or they have booked a luxury package, I will be walking them into their site on day one. We go over any questions they may have, make sure everyone is as scent free as possible and head out into the bush. The majority of bears are harvested in evening hours though it is not uncommon to harvest a bear during any time of day. And despite some belief that bears come in right after baiting, you will have to spend time in your stand, especially for an aged bruin.

However, that isn’t always the case. There was that one time… I was an hour out from camp dropping off a hunting party when the last hunter looked at me and sheepishly told me he forgot his key to his trigger lock back in the cabin [trigger locks are mandatory in Ontario]. I didn’t want risk bumping off a bear by driving back almost two hours later. Baiting is a lot of work, and to be consistent on times to develop pattern bears isn’t worth disturbing the site and losing the bear for one night. I quickly came up with an alternative plan. I told him we would head back, unlock his gun, and then I would drop him off at the closest stand to camp. 

The same stand that I had harvested my own bear off just a week prior. The same stand that just the day prior a different hunter sat and told me that he was definitely allergic to something in the site and sneezed and sniffled all day and “probably ruined your stand.” I wasn’t holding out much hope for a bear from him that night, but he could at least sit the first night even if he didn’t see anything. 

I left a little early picking him up, planning on parking close and just listening until after shooting hours, but he was waiting for me at the end of the road so I pulled in to pick him up ready to hear “saw some squirrels” and head back to camp. But I got a different reply.

“I shot one.”

“You shot one? – a bear?”

“Yes! I think it was fairly decent in size too, but I’ve never hunted bears before so I’m not exactly sure.” … before I go on, let’s back up to a few weeks prior.

Hunting half ear

There are three days between the season opener and our first hunting groups arrival, so this year I took to the woods to hunt during that time. I had been watching trail cams and trying to decide which site I would sit on when I saw a large boar with notches in both ears – a bear I had seen in previous years and had named half ear – on the stand that is closest to camp, one of our only single man stands (aka the most uncomfortable). I decided that was where I would sit. 

My first night, opening day, I saw nothing. It was hot and I was sweaty, the bugs were terrible and I felt guilty for leaving my baby all day (at the time our daughter was 3 months old), but my husband reassured me another day would be fine and off I went for day two. I sat for over eight hours and just minutes before shooting hours were up a bear crept into the site. He came in silently and from a direction I wasn’t expecting and therefore couldn’t appropriately size him up. I kicked myself for this because I tell all my hunters to check your surroundings to know approximate size.

I felt he was maybe too small but I lifted my gun and aimed, took a breath and decided to pass. I snapped two pictures, memorized the height of his back on the tall weeds and made a huffing noise so he would walk off. Shooting hours passed, I got down and examined how big the bear was. Bigger than I realized and definitely shootable. But he wasn’t half ear, so with mixed feelings I returned to camp empty handed again. 

After sitting for about five hours on the third day, around 7:30 pm I heard some sticks breaking and a nice boar came confidently crashing through the undergrowth. He came in directly opposite of where he came in the night before and I had done a better job of judging size by being aware of the surroundings so I could tell he was a nice one. He went right to the bait with his nose up sniffing the air, then nosed the bait. He had two beautiful round ears, so I knew he wasn’t the original bear I was after, but after a quick decision I knew I would be stupid to pass and when he gave me a quartering broadside shot I took a deep breath and pulled the trigger.

I made contact and the bear fell, rolled and lay there for a few seconds before lifting his forearms and pulling himself off into the bush where I heard crashing for a few seconds. My emotions were bouncing between elation, happiness, and worry because he just ran off. But shortly later we found my 250-pound boar with a 21-inch skull about 40 yards from the site. But old half ear was still out there.

Write your story

Fast forward one week back to the hunter who forgot to unlock his trigger guard … after tracking the blood trail for a mere 20 yards we found a 400-pound boar with two notched ears laying at the bottom of a very steep hill.

This hunter sat in his stand – a stand I didn’t have originally picked out for him – for approximately two hours before harvesting a 400-pound trophy that I had been watching for a couple of years. Sometimes it’s the preparation and hard work, and sometimes it’s just the timing. And I couldn’t have been happier for my hunter

A wise man (and very good friend of mine) always says “It’s not about the killing, it’s about the doing.” And I think most hunters would agree that the story, experience, and adventure is a huge piece of it. If you come prepared to enjoy the experience, as well as the harvest, you shall find yourself happier during the entire course of your hunt. There will always be someone with a bigger, prettier, or more unique bear; it’s not all about the records or ‘the best’ but about your story.