This was originally published in the December 2018 issue of Boot Life Magazine. To see full photos, you can subscribe to Boot Life Magazine for only $24.95 a year!
As I listened to the radio, I heard Olympic champion, Scott Hamilton describe how incredibly hard it was for him to realize that in all the times he failed, he was learning and taking in information eventually to be successful. “Everything that I’ve ever been able to accomplish in skating and in life has come out of adversity and perseverance.”
And this pretty much is how I feel about bear hunting. Bear hunting isn’t as simple as it’s made out to be by the anti-hunting establishment. My husband John, and I love to bear hunt, and we do it all ourselves. Bear hunting on your own requires a lot of preparation and perseverance, and just as with any kind of hunting, it takes a little luck. We’ve been at this bear hunting for some time now, but I only started bear hunting four years ago. It’s quickly become my favorite season. The anticipation that builds with a month of baiting prior to the actual hunt, followed by hours upon hours sitting and waiting for a bear to show up makes for exciting adventures. Every year that we hunt, we encounter new obstacles, and each year we learn more and more on how to be successful, but no year is a guarantee.
Every year, the different weather patterns and natural food conditions directly affect how bears behave. Beechnuts were abundant in 2017, and literally the day the wind blew and the nuts fell, the bears stopped coming to the bait…well, except for the sow and cubs, which I wouldn’t shoot. They continued to visit the bait and I’d watch them for a bit in hopes someone else would show up.
This year, there were few natural berries or beechnuts, and the land that we hunt on has almost no oaks or apple trees, so come July, the bears were hungry to put on some extra fat before they den up for the winter. This makes for a prime baiting season, but these type of conditions can also be a problem for bear hunters since bears will den early if there isn’t enough food, i.e., the right kind of food.
We started off our season by securing three barrels of bait, which would give us enough bait for three sites. Given a few choices, we opted for the donuts over the trail mix and granola. We also has some really yummy frosting, but we didn’t get as many flavor choices as the previous year and had only one peanut butter bucket.
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Once the baiting season began, we baited the two established sites we had, plus we baited two new sites further and deeper up the mountain where they would be less chance of any human interference that might keep bears away during daylight hours. These two new sites proved to be key in our consistently having daylight bears on our sites for the first time in several years. More importantly, we had several new bear that we had never seen.
Scrapper was an old bear that had been on my lower bait site for three straight years, but this year he never showed up. Along with one sow and a cub, we had several bruins, young and mature as well as a well-known sow that had no cubs this year. Last year, she had three cubs, but none were with her this season.
After testing out our sites, John opted for the “tunnel bait”, and I took the “top bait”. We continued to bait the established bait that was mine, but discontinued the other one since it had no bear on it.
The first day of bear hunting was a well anticipated day. The sun was shining, but it wasn’t hot and humid as it had been the last two years. Bears move more in cooler weather, so I was optimistic that I’d have a bear this year. I even had a different gun than I had planned to use originally. My son, Tyler scored a moose permit so he bought a new .45-70 rifle. I was so impressed with how easy it was to shoot that I asked him if I could use it. This gun felt like a cannon with a short barrel, so it was easy for me to handle. The only obstacle was that it didn’t have a scope so I had to get used to shooting with an open sited rifle. I’m used to shooting rifles with scopes, so this was new to me.
I strategically drove my four-wheeler most of the way to my stand, but left it about 100 yards away at the bottom of the mountain. I hiked up to my tower stand and took my seat. The sun was hot on my back. I had my new Ozonics running above my head, and I also had a jelly donut scent stick burning. Behind me I could see far off mountains, and the light breeze kept the mosquitoes and bugs at bay. I watched several gray and red squirrels duke it out over who could steal the most bait. As the afternoon closed to an end, and with only about thirty minutes left, I reached in my bag for my prescription glasses. As soon as I looked up, I watched the biggest bear from nowhere, come out of the woods from behind the barrel and step out in front of it. At this second, I had a “Holy Crap” moment. Seeing a bear that size, with his black face and back as tall as my barrel, that close, was not something I had ever seen. I pulled my gun up. The bear looked right up at me as I sat in my tower stand. I took aim making sure the front sight was seated at the top of the back peep site. I let out an exhale and shot. The bear acted as though I had hit it and it bolted into the woods.
I sat there in shock. This bear was huge. I think I heard him go down, but I don’t know. I texted John a few expletives that I had shot a bear. I began to shake, which I never do. I had so much adrenaline running through my body, I didn’t think I’d ever stop shaking.
John came and met me at my stand. By then it was dark. Using flashlights, we went to see where I had shot the bear and to go over the whole scenario again so that we could find it. There was a tiny bit of red blood right where he stood. I knew which direction he ran, and we went that way. There was only a tiny drop now and then. I was afraid he was so fat that he wouldn’t bleed, but that’s why I had used the gun I chose…to make sure it made a big hole. We followed into the thickest woods I had ever gone. I heard the bear huff at one point. He was mad, and obviously not dead. It was just too hard and too unsafe to be tracking a wounded bear at night in those kinds of woods, so we backed out and decided to go back in the morning at daylight.
Morning finally came after a toss and turn night. We spent the night in our camper and I awoke to rain drops coming in the roof vent. How are we going to track a bear in the rain?! I was devastated at the thought we might not find my bear. We searched for four hours following just tiny spots of blood, and we never found him. Later I went back to where I had shot at him in front of the barrel. There in the root of the tree was my bullet and some bear hair. I had only grazed him, just enough to make him mad and guarantee that he wouldn’t return this season. I was sick to my stomach that I had lost best chance yet at getting a bear, and a big bear at that.
When I told my son that I couldn’t believe I shot low, and explained how I lined up everything, it was only then that I learned I wasn’t supposed to put the front site at the top of the peep, but center it in the middle. A hard lesson learned for not using a gun I wasn’t totally familiar with, and this failure will haunt me for a very long time. John also lost a bear the same night; a bear that came in but was just out of bow range. He figured it would be back, but it never came back during daylight.
I didn’t feel totally defeated since I am a licensed Maine trapper and I still had a chance to get a bear. This is the second year I have tried to trap bear with a snare. Last year, with sow and cubs nearby, I ended up not being able to trap because I didn’t want to catch a cub in my bucket snare. This year, there was an emergency law passed that banned bucket traps. This left me with either not trapping or having to learn how to trap on a trail, which is what we did.
The very first time we trapped, we tried setting the snare in front of the barrel, but with so many squirrels running all around the barrel, the chances of them tripping the snare before a bear did was inevitable. Opting for a bear trail setup wasn’t hard because the bear had been using so many of them to come to the bait that deciding which trail to use was the hardest.
We moved cameras so that we could monitor bear activity in case the trail we chose wasn’t working. I had a small bear trip my trap, but with the cable stop, it prevented it from being caught. I moved my snare as to not educate the bear. The second tripping was simply the bear didn’t step perfect. I moved my snare again. This time, I put branches in the way so that the bear wouldn’t have any option but to go where I wanted it to go. I set the trap on a downhill walk right where it had put its paw time and time again. Two days went by and I had not hits. Then it rained, which washed away any of our remaining scent from being there. I think this was key to the bear being caught. Yes, I caught a bear. I caught a bear for over 8 hours! And he was mad! He fought and clawed, and chewed at trees to get free. He eventually got himself tangled around a small maple sapling that I had thought wouldn’t be a problem. And he got free. Bears two. Staci zero. So close but no bear for this girl.
We continued to trap with different bait because we ran out of donuts and although we had several other close calls, we never caught another bear for any length of time. Eventually we had to call it quits because the bear never really liked our bait and instead, went to den.
It took me a long time to be able to talk about missing the first bear, especially when seeing posts on social media with picture after picture of “successful” bear hunts. I was embarrassed that I missed. Then I saw a guide post the number of his clients who missed a bear, and I didn’t feel so bad.
Time will heal the failure, and I’ve learned to look at the positive side. We had a successful bear season. We had the most bear ever come during daylight. I know where I’ll hunt next year, and what to use for bait, and I’ll trap a bear next year making sure my catch circle is clear of anything that could help my bear escape.
Next year, I’ll do it all over again because I absolutely love the challenge, the anticipation, the thrill and the rush of bear hunting. But the one thing I have to keep telling myself is that it’s not bear shopping, it’s bear hunting, where nothing is a guarantee. Wish us luck!