8-Year Obsession for the Black Bear Grand Slam

A quest for the black bear Grand Slams turns into an 8-year obsession as a dedicated bowhunter attempts to tag all four of the major color phases.

8-Year Obsession for the Black Bear Grand Slam

Bear hunting has been a life-altering diversion which started off quite innocently. I just wanted to shoot a black bear with my bow. That’s all. I’d been a successful whitetail bowhunter for 25 years, but I always had a hankering to shoot a black bear. So in 1999, I booked a hunt with Chris Ford in northern Minnesota to fulfill my goal of shooting a bear. I just wanted to have the experience of arrowing a bear, a rug for the wall and another checkmark on my list of bowhunting accomplishments. Then I would move on to something else. Simple enough.

It didn’t exactly work out that way. I became fascinated by being in close proximity to bears. The mystical aspects of being so close to a predator that could kill me were intriguing. The heart-pounding excitement was so different from deer hunting, not just because they are a predator, but also because they are so stealthy, so clever, so bold and so elusive.

I shot a bear on the third day, a beautiful bear with a chocolate pelt which is a rarity in Minnesota. I didn’t think much about the color of the bear at the time, I just knew I was totally hooked on bear hunting. Soon I was baiting bears for myself, my family and friends, and being an outdoor writer, I started writing about bear hunting for several magazines.

Bow in hand, the author waits for a chance at a colored-phase black bear. Being close to an apex predator – one that can kill you with ease – is scary, yet exhilarating!
Bow in hand, the author waits for a chance at a colored-phase black bear. Being close to an apex predator – one that can kill you with ease – is scary, yet exhilarating!

Setting a Slam

Fast forward to January 2011, and I was now the managing editor of Bear Hunting Magazine, which opened up a wealth of bear hunting opportunities to me. I could now do two or three bear hunting trips a year.

The incredible saga of my quest for a Grand Slam of all four-color phases of black bears began with a brief conversation that altered the course of my bowhunting life. It took place more than eight years ago on the long return drive from the Archery Trade Show in Indianapolis to Minnesota. Jeff Folsom, the owner of Bear Hunting Magazine at the time, and me, the managing editor, had carpooled to the show, and we were deep in discussion about how we could grow the sport of bear hunting. I made the statement that bear hunters need something to shoot for, a recognition of some sort. Turkey hunters and sheep hunters have their Grand Slams, but bear hunters really have two things they shoot for: A benchmark 500-pound bear and a Boone & Crockett skull.

What bear hunters need, I reasoned, was a slam of their own. How about polar bear, grizzly bear, black bear and brown bear? But those hunts are priced well out of reach of most budgets. It could set a person back $50,000 or more to collect those four species of bears. There must be a reasonable option for the serious bear hunter.

The author bagged this big black bear during his Grand Slam quest.
The author bagged this big black bear during his Grand Slam quest.

Color Phase Variations

There are several variations of black bear color phases across North America, but they can be quite easily grouped into four major categories: black, chocolate (dark brown), cinnamon (reddish) and blonde. There are geographic anomalies such as the glacier bear and the Kermode bears, but for all practical purposes, the four major color phases could be the working-man bear-hunter’s Grand Slam. Jeff was intrigued. He noted that he knew of a couple people who had taken all four with a gun, but he wasn’t aware of anyone who had done it with a bow.

Well that lit a fire under me. The moment he said it, I knew I had to be the one to do it. I had already taken several black bears and one chocolate; and suddenly I was signed up for a wild ride. The quest for the Grand Slam would lead me all across North America on nearly 30 hunts over the next 8 years. The desire to take all four colors would become an obsession that would take me to the lowest point in my bowhunting career and finally to the pinnacle.

More often than not, hunters on a quest for a Grand Slam of black bears tag a black-colored bear first, then a chocolate or cinnamon one next. This chocolate bear is not only gorgeous, but it’s big!
More often than not, hunters on a quest for a Grand Slam of black bears tag a black-colored bear first, then a chocolate or cinnamon one next. This chocolate bear is not only gorgeous, but it’s big!
Trail cams are an excellent tool for learning black bear size at a bait site, as well as color phase.
Trail cams are an excellent tool for learning black bear size at a bait site, as well as color phase.

I started researching the areas of the continent that offered the best percentages of blondes and cinnamons, and I started booking hunts. I hunted behind hounds in Idaho, but ended up taking home a black bear. I did a spot-and-stalk hunt in the Cariboo Mountains of British Columbia where I had a very close call with a gorgeous, deep red cinnamon on the first day. The bear was grazing peacefully 60 yards away but with a swollen stream separating us there was no way to get any closer. My guide offered me his rifle, but I refused. I was going to get the colors with a bow or not at all. That was the most beautifully colored bear I have ever seen, but I watched it walk away.

Over the next couple years, trips to Saskatchewan, Manitoba and western Ontario were mixed in with my bear hunting at home in Minnesota. I also threw in a hunt in Maine, which was a fantastic experience, even though it provided no chance of shooting a color phase bear. I targeted a big cinnamon in Ontario for a couple years; a bear that made my heart skip a beat each time I got a trail camera photo of it, but I eventually lost track of the bruin. Even though I wasn’t shooting color phase bears, I felt like I was learning what worked and eliminating the things —and the areas — that didn’t. I felt it was just a matter of time. 

As all these experiences put things into better focus, it became pretty clear that hunting bears over bait would be the best way to collect the specific colors. Trail cameras would be a key component. I began to focus my efforts on the things that seemed to stack the odds in my favor. In 2014, I met a hunter from Michigan who had killed all four colors with a rifle and incredibly, had bagged all four of them while hunting for 20 years with just one outfitter. A little research on that outfitter led me to book a hunt with Thunder Mountain Outfitters near LaRonge, Saskatchewan. On the third day of my hunt there, trail camera photos showed pictures of a reddish colored bear at one bait. In some photos the bear looked much larger than in others. I felt there might be two different cinnamons on this one bait. I discussed this with the outfitter, Laurie Thorson, but he was convinced it was just one bear. The idea of having two cinnamons seemed like such a long-shot; we eventually concluded it was the camera angle that caused the variations in size.

That evening I took my position in a tree overlooking the bait and settled in for a 6-hour wait. Just 2 hours later, a shadowy form moved through the bush beyond the barrel. When it moved through a sunny opening, my heart skipped a beat; that unmistakable red coloration glowed in the sunlight. The bear was on the small side, maybe 130 pounds, but it was sure the right color. It came to the edge of the bush several times over the next 2 hours, breaking my heart each time, as it would refuse to commit to the opening.

The Quest Continues

Finally, as the sunlight was settling on the treetops, the bear stepped out and cautiously approached the barrel. The sunlight glinting off the reddish pelt confirmed that this was the one. At the first broadside opportunity on the hyper-cautious bear, I sent an arrow through the back of the ribs and the bear piled up within sight. Touching that red bear for the first time was a surreal experience.

I walked back out to the road and hung a ribbon on a tree limb as I had been instructed. Within an hour my guide was at my side admiring my bear. As we were positioning the bear for photos, a noise drew my attention back towards the bait just 40 yards away. My jaw dropped as I saw a much larger cinnamon color-phase bear turn and disappear back into the bush. There were two cinnamons on the bait after all.

The author with his first cinnamon-colored black bear, which turned out to be the smaller of two color-phase bears hitting the same bait.
The author with his first cinnamon-colored black bear, which turned out to be the smaller of two color-phase bears hitting the same bait.

With three of the four color phases collected, my quest took on a life of its own. I was writing about each hunt in Bear Hunting Magazine and recording videos of the hunts on my YouTube channel. Other bear hunters had joined in the quest to get all four colors. Would someone beat me to it? Thousands of followers were tracking my hunts. On most hunts where I did not collect a blonde or cinnamon bear, I had taken a black bear late in the hunt so I would be able to have a success story to write about, and a video to show my followers. The numbers of bears — and big bears — were piling up. I shot a B&C bear as well as a 500-pounder, but the blonde remained elusive.

The hunt for this fourth and final color phase would take 4 more years, and involved some incredible twists and turns in the journey, but you’ll have to wait until next month to hear how the story ends.

Editor’s note: Be sure to check the May/June 2019 edition of Bowhunting World for the exciting conclusion of Bernie’s epic quest.

Images by Bernie Barringer
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