Black Bears, Ponytails, and Close Encounters

posted on June 3, 2020

It was my first night in the bear stand, hunting northern Alberta with Grand Slam Hunting Adventures, and it only took six minutes for the first bear to show up. It was easy to tell the midsized bruin was as nervous as a politician on election night. His black ears moved like radar dishes, giving up the location of any noise long before I could hear it.

An hour into my sit, I watched the bear jump to attention, then crash off into the trees. I could feel my heart rate increase, and seconds later, a chocolate-brown-colored bear came into view. It was a big boar, and I knew I was going to level my crossbow at its vitals if given a chance.

Sitting in hunting stand with TenPoint Crossbow as black bear walks into range

Hunting is never as straightforward as it appears, and the brown-phased black bear spent the entire time chasing the smaller bear in every direction it could travel. I was starting to give up hope when my target boar sauntered in and stood broadside at 22 yards. My TenPoint Nitro XRT spit an arrow tipped with a SEVR broadhead through the bear so fast it had trouble getting its footing to flee. I watched the bear drop 30 yards away, tumbling to a stop from a dead run.

I was hunting with Mark Sidelinger, a good friend who has joined me in Alberta for the last three springs. Mark had never hunted black bears until his first Alberta adventure, and he has been spoiled with success since. He came to camp last year with the attitude that he would only shoot a big, color-phased bear, as he had taken extremely big black bears the previous springs. When I showed up with a nice chocolate-brown bear on the first night, my hunting partner was a little jealous.

Hunter with color-phase black bear
An hour into his first sit, the author watched a midsized black-color-phase bear dart from the bait site then felt his heart rate increase. Seconds later, an arrow from his TenPoint Nitro XRT crossbow dropped a gorgeous chocolate-brown-phase boar.

The story of Achilles’ heel is that of weakness despite overall strength, and refers to the physical vulnerability of the mythological figure. Why the history lesson? Hunters are great at making excuses when challenged in the field, and it can often be relayed back to a type of superstition or belief that one’s luck is related to an activity—something physical, or even something dreamed up.

Mark sported a long, silver ponytail for most of his adult life. Growing up in Pennsylvania, Mark’s coveted hair was a symbol of his lifestyle and outdoor pursuits, but the main reason he wore it was he thought it looked great.

Call it a midlife crisis, or just needing a change, but Mark cut off his beloved ponytail for an above-the-ear hairstyle, after sporting the pony since 1985. It was such a radical change his mother didn’t recognize him the first time he went home for a holiday.

Alberta bear bait site marker

The new look suited my old friend, but after cutting his hair, Mark encountered a string of bad luck he blamed on the style change. When he hunted hogs in Florida with a crew of focused handgun hunters, they entered the dense palmettos after a big boar. Something went wrong, and in the blink of an eye a hog ran at Mark and knocked him to the ground, biting and shaking his leg before retreating to safety. Mark was shaken by the ordeal, and quickly blamed his misfortune on his lack of lustrous locks.

It didn’t stop there. Mark went on a mountain mule deer hunt in Idaho, and had a motorcycle pin his ankle against a log, tearing ligaments and sending him for medical care. He limped around for months and blamed his accumulating misfortunes on having cut his hair.

On the second evening of our bear hunt, Mark got another taste of “missing-ponytail bad fortune.” Sidelinger sat high in his ladder stand and watched a huge black sow show up with four of the worst-behaved cubs you have ever seen in your life. To say the football-sized cubs were mischievous is an understatement. They tore up the place under the guidance and protection of mom, who guarded the area like a prison warden.

Mark had placed Wildlife Research Center wicks dipped with Ultimate Bear Lure, and the little furballs proved it worked, finding each one and shredding them. The show was entertaining until one of the cubs either noticed or smelled Mark up in the tree. Within a second, the cub had scurried up the big spruce with needle-sharp claws. Mark didn’t move a muscle and leaned out as far as possible on his safety harness to avoid the cub’s claws as it swatted at him. The cub pounded on the safety strap, annoyed that it couldn’t reach the strange thing sitting in front of it. Mark had left his pack open and hanging in the tree, and the cub took it upon itself to rummage through the goodies. The sow walked to the base of the tree and watched her cub, squinting at Mark as though warning him not to mess with the youngster.

To make matters worse, a huge boar showed up, and mom sent all the cubs up into trees before chasing off the potential cub killer. The sow swatted the ground, popping her jaws and making noises that made Mark’s hair stand on end. The boar was determined to take control of the area, and after a full-on fight, chases through the woods and a lot of flashing teeth the big boar finally won.

The sow was off in the woods, and as the boar sauntered up behind the barrel Mark shouldered his Traditions Outfitter G2 rifle and shot the hulking bruin through the vitals, even though he swore he wouldn’t shoot a black-colored bear. The boar crashed off through the trees like a freight train.

Hunter with Black bear in Alberta
On the second night, Mark Sidelinger sat in his ladder stand while a sow and four cubs ransacked the bait site. After a fight with a boar, the sow ran off and Sidelinger settled the crosshairs of his Traditions Outfitter G2 on the record-book bear "every bit as big as a Volkswagen."

The call came in for help, and when I showed up with our guide, Cam Morrison, Mark’s eyes were still as big as saucers, and he had a nervous shake in his hands. He started to tell us the story, and when we suggested the events were slightly exaggerated, Mark pointed out the four cubs still in the trees around us. The claw marks on his safety strap and pack were enough to solidify the story as fact.

To make the details more believable, the memory card from a Stealth Cam we had set up when dropping off Mark showed the mischievous cubs trying to eat the lens and the sow aggressively defending its territory—and, with perfect timing, the camera captured video of the boar walking in and getting shot. The entire ordeal was hard to believe, but knowing the sow was still watching, we wasted little time finding the downed boar and getting to safer ground.

Even driving a side-by-side right to the old boar, it was all we could do to get the hulking bear loaded. Mark had a look of disappointment on his face, as he reiterated he didn’t want to shoot another black-colored bear. Looking down at the bear that looked every bit as big as a Volkswagen Beetle, I suggested he was crazy, or just spoiled.

It didn’t take long for a big grin to give way to Mark’s sinister side of continual teasing and joking. The bear was an absolute monster, and there isn’t a bear hunter who would have turned down the trophy-class bear for any reason. Mark’s evening might have started with short-hair challenges, but his overall luck was changing.

The weather was incredible, and the warm spring sun made for ideal conditions for a walk. I opted to take Mark’s Outfitter G2 to see if I could put the single-shot to work. I considered the sojourn more of a walk in the woods than a bear hunt, and even joked that the best way to ruin a bear hunt is to shoot a bear.

Alberta black bear paw

Morrison and I drove down some old logging roads, and when we got close to the river I headed out on foot. Some of Mark’s luck from the night before must have rubbed off, as I had only gone about a mile when I heard rustling in the trees. Using my binocular, I caught the movement of a medium-sized black bear, and had almost dismissed it when the sunlight caught some orange-cinnamon-colored fur. My heart raced with anticipation as I strategically tiptoed close to try to determine if the bear was mature.

Before I could confirm any details, another bear came crashing through the trees with the uniquely colored bear hot on its heels. The smaller bear climbed an aspen about 20 yards from me and immediately looked me in the eye. The cinnamon bear ran back into the woods and disappeared. The bear up the tree saw its moment to flee, and keeping an eye on me the entire time, descended the aspen and took off in the opposite direction. I was still trying to figure out what was going on when the cinnamon bear appeared again with another black, which was a smaller sow.

The big, colored bear was a beautiful boar, and the spring rut had put him in a place where he was vulnerable. I could only see part of his neck and head, but the sow was leading him to the trail where I stood. The duo closed the distance quickly, and the sow stopped at 40 yards and looked in my direction. The boar pushing in behind her offered a clear, broadside shot. The rifle was already on my shoulder, and it only took a second to find the bear in the scope, place the crosshair on its vitals and squeeze the trigger. The boar let out a bellow and only leaped about 6 yards before hitting the ground. In the time it took for the bear to move forward, I had already opened the hinged action and loaded another cartridge.

My second tag was filled with another incredible color-phase black bear, and I knew it was going to generate some good-natured jealousy back at camp.

Alberta hunter with color-phase black bear

Mark looked at the bear as an opportunity to get back out and fill his second tag with a dream bear. The year before, he had encountered a huge brown bear but was never able to get a shot at it. He was determined to find the old bruin again and settle the score.

Cam had rebaited several sites, and had a picture of a telling turd left by a big bear. The site hadn’t been hunted, and Mark was anxious to give the spot a try. After a couple of hours, a big black bear approached the site and moved in to feed like it owned the place. Mark rolled his eyes at the thought of having another big black bear, deciding to hold out for some color. However, the tale of the ponytail misfortune was about to rear its ugly head again.

hunter with black bear
The author's second tag was filled with another color-phase bear sure to generate jealousy. Sidelinger matched it with another big black-color-phase bear. After the boar climbed the ladder to look the hunter in the face then climbed back down, Sidelinger wasted no time hitting it with a big .45-caliber Barnes TSX.

The bear noticed Mark in the tree and immediately stood up and postured with aggression. The bear approached the stand, stood on its hind legs and roared at Mark like it was going to eat him. Mark was 12 feet off the ground, but the bear was close to 8 feet tall, leaving its front paws just short of getting a hold of the hunter. Mark could see a pronounced scar on the bear’s nose as it snarled and growled. The bear wandered back and forth beneath Mark, bluff charging the stand and woofing his disapproval of the visitor while swatting the ground. Then the bear climbed the stand, and, as Mark described it, the bear looked into his soul and shook the hunter to the core. The bear moved back down on the ground, and Mark wasted no time shooting the dominant old boar at the first chance he got.

The bear was only 5 yards from the stand, and the diminutive Outfitter G2 put an end to the territorial dispute. Getting hit by a .45-70 Government at close range, the bear did a backflip and growled with blood-curdling noises that still make Mark shiver.

Mark refers to his bear as Scarface, and after getting two huge bears, even though they are black, he can hardly wait to go back. It isn’t often a hunter can put two black bears into the record books and say he didn’t want to shoot either.

The encounter with Scarface was a turning point for Sidelinger, and he no longer looks at the loss of his long hair as his Achilles’ heel.

Bear Necessities
We used Traditions Outfitter G2 rifles in Alberta, but now the rifle has been upgraded to an Outfitter G3. It is lightweight, compact and easy to maneuver in the stand or in tight spots. Its muzzle brake tames the lightweight nature of this firearm, even with larger cartridges. The Outfitter G3 is a second-generation rifle, upgraded from the G2 with the Traditions Elite Trigger System that breaks with just more than 3 pounds of pull weight. The G3 is a break-action, single-shot cartridge rifle that features a 22-inch Lothar Walther barrel that is accurate and dependable.

Traditions Outfitter G2

A solid-copper Barnes TSX is a perfect bullet for dangerous game, where you want to reduce tracking. The 300-grain bullet on our .45-70 Government cartridges offered greater than 90 percent weight retention and stopped our huge bears without follow-up. The “TSX” grooves cut into the shank reduce bearing surface (pressure) and fouling. The grooves also increase accuracy. The bullet stays intact to deliver maximum energy at any range. The consistent expansion of the bullet is what hunters will appreciate.

The Truglo OMNIA6 1X-6X-24mm riflescope with a wide field of view and illuminated reticle was an easy choice for a close-quarters black bear hunt. There is nothing worse than a black reticle on black bear in a dark forest, and the illuminated reticle allowed for pinpoint accuracy. Set on 1X, you can access a target quickly, even if it is only at 5 yards. Built on a 30mm tube, with a 24mm objective lens, it gathers light in challenging conditions, making it clear and bright.

Ultimate Bear Lure from Wildlife Research Center

With a muzzle brake on the Outfitter G3 to reduce recoil, I’m a big advocate of products like Walker’s Game Ear, as such hearing technology protects your hearing and gives you the upper hand, or hearing advantage, to know when bears are approaching.


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