Sitting still in my treestand was a difficult task. It was raining so hard I would’ve been more comfortable standing in a running shower. Besides the rain, temperatures were dropping fast, and the warm vapor from my breath spewed out my nose making me look like a fire-breathing dragon. I was starting to question my sanity for ever going out in the torrential downpour when movement to my left caught my eye. It was a black bear! Instantly, the cold I felt was replaced with a warm flush of adrenaline surging through my veins.
I know bears aren’t slowed down by a little rain and have shot a couple bruisers over the years using the saturated ground and pitter patter of rain to hide any noise I’d make during a stalk. The bear coming in was also using the soggy vegetation to move in absolute stealth mode. I couldn’t hear a thing as I watched him slowly walk closer. I realized the bear was a young bruin when he stood on his back legs, using a front paw to support his weight against a large poplar tree to scan his surroundings before advancing any farther. Having a bear to watch would certainly brighten my evening, but I wasn’t sure how long I could withstand the miserable weather with temperatures hovering just above freezing.
There was no way I was going to curse the rain, as the region had been tinder dry for months. In fact, the City of Fort McMurray, just a couple hours away, made world news when 88,000 people had been evacuated just three weeks earlier when forest fires consumed 2,400 structures. Our outfitter, Clay Royer, of Grandslam Hunting Adventures had opened his camp and taken in as many families as possible, just to give them a place to stay and three square meals a day. Hunting in the rain just 19 days after the evacuation, I knew the water was a blessing for both man and beast.
Two more bears had joined the party below me and they postured at each other trying to determine who was boss. The largest of the three had extremely long hair and the rain had it matted to his skin. You could see a distinct line down the center of his back, showing bright red skin, as though he’d used a comb to part it. Watching the three bears, I found the night entertaining, if nothing else.
As the sun started to set it got even colder, and the rain intensified. I texted my guide Sean for a pick-up and he let me know he was already on the way, as one of the other hunters had shot a nice boar. I was glad the Can-Am Defender he was driving had a roof, as it provided a bit of relief from the unrelenting rain.
It was like a marathon race of challenges getting back to camp as we plowed through 2 feet of water in the tracks dug by spinning tires on the old forestry access trails. It was raining so hard there were areas of the old logging road that had water flowing over it deep enough to flood the floorboards of our Defender.
Back at camp everyone hustled to get into dry, warm clothes and hang up their hunting gear to dry for the next day. The smell of dinner wafted through the lodge and refocused everyone’s minds from the weather to their stomachs.
The rain had slowed the next day and brought periods of sunlight to warm the potential for the evening hunt. I was headed back for the same stand, as Clay insisted there was a big bear visiting the site. It was the last week of May and with the black bear rut gearing up, boars were showing up with higher frequency and in greater numbers. Clay’s hunters have taken some incredibly large bears over the years and you just never know when a big bruin might wander in. The closer to the rut, the better the odds, and with less than a week left in the season I was looking forward to hunting prime time.
The forest had gone from suffering one of the worst droughts recorded in Alberta in over 100 years to being completely saturated, if not flooded in some areas. We crossed a couple areas of bog, with deep mats of peat that acted like quicksand. We pulled up to my site, and I was surprised how different it looked without the sheet of water draining from the sky. I put on my safety harness and climbed into my stand before hauling up my gear. I wanted to make sure I was comfortable and able to sit perfectly still. I know from experience that old, cagey bears sit back in the woods and watch and listen before ever approaching. If you move at the wrong time you give up not only your identity, but any hopes of having the bear come in during daylight. I set up my shooting sticks and anchored one pole into my boot so I could get my rifle up in the shooting position quickly, with minimal movement, if needed. With a Thermacell under my seat to keep the bugs away, I settled in for the evening watch.
It didn’t take long for the action to start. The three amigos that had entertained me in the rain were soon back and jostling for position. It was interesting to watch each one come in and check its surroundings before committing to come out of the safety of the trees. I’d see a head poke out of the leaves off in the distance, as one would stand to watch for movement ahead. It was almost comical to watch. My stand was perched atop a wide river valley, about 1,500 feet above the river below. This wilderness area holds bears that have never encountered people before, and as I scanned the deadfall and caught black fur moving amongst the logs, a mature bear worked its way toward me and eventually came out just below my tree. The three younger bears had left for safer ground, and the newcomer carefully checked out the place before heading into the forest behind the bait and disappearing. The nervous nature of the bear and the fact he didn’t stop to eat told me two things: the rut was on, and there had to be a bigger bear in the area.
That was the last bear I saw for more than an hour. The evening passed quickly as I listened to ruffed grouse drumming in every direction around me and Canada geese fighting for territory down on the river. A chickadee came and perched just inches from me in my spruce tree and checked me out with an inquisitive glance.
My complacent mood changed in an instant when ears showed up just 40 yards down the slope. I dared not move as the bear slowly ambled into sight. It was extremely cautious and stopped every step or two to completely surveil the site. I know black bears can be deceiving, and I was having trouble gauging the bear’s size. For a second I thought it was the boar that had visited just an hour prior.
The bear kept looking directly at me but I was dressed in Mossy Oak from head to toe and knew I needed only to stay perfectly still to stay concealed. One wrong move and the bear could be gone over the bank in the flash of an eye. It took a couple minutes before the bear finally emerged from vegetation and I could get a good look at its whole body. With ears on the side of his head, and a belly that practically dragged on the ground, I knew this was a monster black bear.
The bear took a few more steps towards the bait then, just as quickly as it had come out of cover, turned and walked into the tall ferns of the forest. My heart sank as I thought I’d missed my short window of opportunity, but I knew if I had moved the bear would have bolted and I’d never have had a chance. The bear meandered away through the vegetation and slowly disappeared. I tucked in behind my rifle and looked through the scope for any signs of fur. It had only been about 10 seconds and the bear was now headed back toward the bait. I thought he might be coming in to settle down and eat but somehow his sixth sense told him something was wrong. The bear momentarily stopped to sniff the tantalizing aroma of a Bear Bomb I had set off on the top of the barrel before getting in my stand. I couldn’t help but wonder if the bomb was what brought the bear to the bait so early in the evening.
I followed the bear with my crosshair waiting for a broadside standing shot, but it wasn’t going to happen. Instead of settling down, the big boar sniffed the bait barrel while facing me then immediately walked out in the open to head right back down the river valley from which he had come. I knew it was now or never, and before the bear got back into the dense forest cover I settled the crosshair of my Bushnell Trophy scope on the back of his front shoulder and tightened up on the trigger. At the report of the rifle the bear bellowed and started to summersault towards the bank. I instinctively worked the bolt and placed a second shot into his front end just seconds after the first one knocked him down. If he made it over the edge of the drop I knew we’d be in for a long night. I had a third round in the chamber, and watched the bear through my scope as he lifted his head. There was no way I was taking a chance so I fired once more. The bear slumped over and didn’t move.
I got down from the stand and checked my bear. He was even bigger than I’d thought. His head was wider than my chest, and I’m a big guy. The paws were much bigger than my face, and I could tell by the fresh wounds that he’d been fighting with another big bear. To think there was another bruin out there even big enough to consider fighting with the one I shot was exciting.
I was fortunate to find cell coverage and texted Sean that I had a bear down. It’s always advantageous to get in and out with daylight, and he’d have plenty of time to get in before the sun set. The days are long in northern Alberta this time of year, and if we were lucky we’d be back to camp before midnight.
When Sean arrived he anxiously questioned me about the bear. I told him I thought it was mature and at least three years old. I pointed him in the direction I thought the bear had gone and after walking for a few seconds he burst, “Oh my gawd! He’s huge.” Sean turned and started telling me the bear was older then three until he saw me chuckling. We rejoiced in the moment and took a few pictures before the real work began.
We tried to load the bruin into the box of the Defender but no matter how much we grunted, pulled and lifted, there was no way we were going to get it in the box. We unlocked the chain on the bait barrel and rolled the 45-gallon drum behind the Can-Am. We then rolled the bear up on the drum and almost had it in the box before the weight became more than we could handle. I had one last trick up my sleeve: I ran the winch cable over the roof of the Defender and down to the bear; we put the cable around the bear’s neck and released the box, which would normally be done to dump the cargo. Instead we winched the bear up into the box then lifted it back to level where it locked into position. I had used the same procedure in the past to load whole bull elk and knew it should work on a hulking bear.
We could feel the extra weight in the Defender driving out, and knew it would be difficult getting back through the deep muskeg. So instead of taking a chance, we ran the winch cable out to slowly pull our rig through the troublesome spot. We rolled into camp after dark, and two other hunters were celebrating their biggest bears ever. With four more days of hunting, it was exciting to think what other secrets the bear woods might give up.
I sat a couple more nights and watched dozens of bears come and go. Every bear has a unique personality, and watching bruins interact is always comical, educational and entertaining. I was going to hold out for something bigger for my second tag, but when a gorgeous brown bear strolled in it was more than I could resist. I took my second bear in five days and can’t wait to hunt the boreal region of northern Alberta again next year.