by Kyle Wintersteen - Monday, June 1, 2009
I checked my seatbelt and clung to an armrest as “The Bear Man” barreled down a backcountry Manitoba road faster than I was comfortable with on the gravel surface. He fishtailed the white Ford around bends in the road like a dirt-track racer executing a controlled skid. I was just about to suggest slowing down when The Bear Man hit the brakes and we slid to a stop on the loose grit.
“Bear scat,” exclaimed The Bear Man, before turning to look me in the eye. “But it was only left by a young one … a 51/2-footer.”
The Bear Man has pursued jumbo bruins for nearly 50 years and owns one of the most written about, most famous and most successful outfits in North America. He may not have a degree in biology, but show me a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service employee who can judge a bear based on the size of its stool. A few miles down the road we arrived at the Bird River Outfitters hunting lodge, and I released my white-knuckled grip from the side of the truck while my face resumed its normal hue.
Bear Hunting 101
The massive bear rugs and full mounts adorning the lodge caused me to recall the first black bear I ever saw in the wild. I was 8 years old and riding my bike on a dirt road in Pennsylvania when a small, terrified bear flew up a tree just to my left. For a second, I thought, Wow, I didn’t know bears could climb that fast. Then harsh reality set in: Oh my, it’s a bear! I screamed, fell off my seat and landed with the support bar between my legs as I crashed to the ground in a cloud of dust and tears. My reflection was quickly interrupted: “What the … !? Take your boots off in the lodge!”
The Bear Man had entered camp, and he was ready to get down to business.
From his rubber boots to his trademark beaver-skin cap and guide badge, Ron “The Bear Man” Alexander looks and acts as his name implies. Tall and brawny with a face forged by a blue-collar ethic, he is plainspoken, politically incorrect and honest to the point of brutality. If you walk into his camp with a newborn, don’t be surprised if he says, “That is one ugly baby.”
The first thing Ron does with all his clients is put them through a crash course in bear hunting that he calls “Bear Hunting 101.” Some of his ideas are a little unconventional, but you can’t argue with Ron’s expertise. I mean that literally, don’t question the man’s tactics unless you’re prepared for an all-out, chest-to-chest argument that would leave even a cable newscaster pleading for calm. We began with an equipment review.“What kind of rifle did you bring, Kyle?” Ron asked. “A Kimber Montana chambered in .300 WSM.” It was one of my favorites. Still is.
“The short mag? HA! They’re garbage! Maybe you can borrow my .300 Win. Mag.”
“What about bullets?” Ron asked. Again I’d brought one of my favorites.
“Trophy Bonded Bear Claws, 180-grains.”
“Bonded bullets? HA! You better put it on the mark. Maybe I can sell you something else.”
One of Ron’s favorite stories involves a single box of ammo he sold to five different clients at $20 a pop. Apparently the first four clients used about four cartridges each, then gave Ron back the box along with their tips. Ron’s next lesson involved video footage of bears being shot over his baits.
“You want to aim 1 inch behind the shoulder. A bear’s lungs are farther forward than on a whitetail’s and slightly lower. You want to aim here,” The Bear Man told me as he pointed at the kill-zone. “But don’t hit him here, and whatever you do, don’t hit him here.”
Next we discussed black bear behavior. “Bears don’t think it’s God putting the bait there,” The Bear Man continued. “They know it’s humans, but they think they can outsmart us, so the key is being undetected. Bears don’t have great vision but they are very attuned to movement. They’re warier and harder to kill than whitetails. Deer will freeze and look when they hear a noise, but bears bolt never to be seen again. They are the most underrated big-game animal in North America, and we’re lucky to have them.”
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