Summer Plum Thickets Provide Hot Action for Bears

Instead of dozing on your rifle awaiting long-range pokes, try hunting summer predators in plum thickets!

Summer Plum Thickets Provide Hot Action for Bears

Michael McMichael of Accura Outdoors glasses for bears while hunting with his CVA muzzleloader. Accura produces about 60 million bullets annually including muzzleloader bullets favored by many hunters. (Photo: Wayne van Zwoll)

Just so you know, I have nothing against bears — though my first made me out a fool. Failing to find the iron sights as no-see-ums strafed my head-net, I gingerly raised that veil. The black form beneath my stand stiffened. My hand went to the trigger. The veil fell. The bear turned away. I raised the veil. The bear turned around. I found the trigger. The veil fell. The blast of my .303 came somewhere in this game of peekaboo, deep in Maine’s summer woods. Hardly deserving, I almost apologized to the bear; but it was too far gone to hear.

Since then, I’ve mostly left bears alone. A pal once brought his Cessna 180 down on Lord’s Flat above the Snake River Canyon. Our plan — scout an evening for elk, then sleep under the wing. We separated. Elderberries were ripe. Dusk to dark, I came upon nine different bears up close. They ate; I shuffled off. 

Another time, high in Montana snow, fresh grizzly prints kept me alert. I found where the beast had climbed a smooth slope, slid down, climbed it again, slid down, then napped in nearby timber. Bears know how to have fun. Later, I came upon the carcass of a hunter-killed elk. By chance, the grizzly found it too, barreling down the mountain in a halo of sun-shot snow, silvertip ruff rippling in the arctic wind. Shielded by a skinny pine, I tried to look green and smell like a conifer. The bear batted the skull around as if a mid-fielder moving a soccer ball toward the goal — my pine, it seemed. Closer, closer. Then the wind gave me up. At 19 steps, bear and hunter marked time for breathless seconds, then parted quietly.

I’ve watched black bear cubs frolic in the forest, stared down a truculent garbage bear raiding a cabin porch and shot as few bears as guests are allowed from baited stands. At this writing, I hunted Wyoming elk with care while grizzly traffic so heavy that on sections of pack trails, paw prints erased the deep cuts of horse and mule shoes. A grizzly with a cub blasted from the timber to challenge a hunter from our camp. Two .357 bullets in front if its nose turned it at mere feet. Another hunter killed an elk at dusk. Before our dawn effort to retrieve it, a grizzly had eaten the choice meat off the back and ribs, and buried the quarters. A hunter some miles away was less fortunate. He was injured and his guide fatally bitten by a grizzly that rocketed from cover as they field-dressed an elk.

Still, I’ve nothing against bears, so I began last year’s late-summer hunt in an industrial section of Boise.           

FireStar pellets for muzzleloaders have deep longitudinal grooves that help the pellet burn more efficiently, yield higher velocities and leave bores cleaner.”
FireStar pellets for muzzleloaders have deep longitudinal grooves that help the pellet burn more efficiently, yield higher velocities and leave bores cleaner.”

Michael McMichael runs Accura Outdoors. He makes bullets. The first, introduced in 1998, were PowerBelt missiles for muzzleloading rifles. Distinguished by their polymer skirts, PowerBelts shot so well from the Bergara barrels of CVA rifles, Dudley McGarrity of CVA ordered enough, deadpans Mike, “that for the same money then, he could have bought our company!” A CVA rifle bears the Accura label. And Accura Outdoors, now an affiliate of CVA, has grown substantially.

“We turn out 7 to 9 million pure lead muzzleloader bullets annually,” Mike told me. “And 45 to 50 million lead pistol bullets alloyed with 3 percent antimony,” he adds. The 17-person staff works four, 10-hour shifts to sustain that “million per week” pace. Slugs chug through each of the nine swaging machines at the rate of 5,000 per hour. Plating is the bottleneck, as the bullets endure timed immersion in a series of tanks. “The plating operation runs 24 hours, six days a week. Plated bullets are dried, then cycled through a re-strike machine, whose polished die ensures precise dimensions. A nipple is bumped onto the heel of each Power Belt bullet to hold the skirt.”

Accura .308, 9mm, .357 and .45 pistol bullets are sold under various labels. “They’re among the best available,” Mike insisted. “Not the cheapest, but excellent in all respects. Demand for them continues to grow, so our customers must consider them a solid value.” The company does not load ammunition. 

Mike explained that the black finish applied to its new “Platinum” muzzleloader bullets is a new feature. “It adds no appreciable weight; it doesn’t change the diameter; but it’s very slick, to make loading easier. Velocities are consistent, accuracy top-drawer.” Mike and the Accura staff test bullets regularly in an on-site chronograph-equipped 100-yard shooting tunnel.

The company offers a variety of bullet types and weights for .45-, .50- and .54-caliber muzzleloaders. The AeroTip polymer nose follows flat-point and hollow-point designs and is one distinguishing feature of the .50-caliber Platinum series, 270-, 300- and 338-grains. Standard plated .50s come in five bullet weights, 223- to 444-grains. The PowerBelt bullets I watched tumble onto tables for skirting and final inspection have proven themselves on tough game world-wide. Mike has even taken Africa’s biggest beasts with his muzzleloader! 

On to bears. Late summer is a flat season for many predator hunters and for shooters who earlier camped on prairie dog towns. Rodent estivation during August keeps them underground. Pelt quality on coyotes rates no higher than my high school grades in typing. But as county fairs float dust toward skies smudged by forest fires, bears start thinking about fat.

OK. That’s speculation. But bears do become more active as huckleberries, elderberries and wild plums add fruit to their diet of carrion, grain and garbage. “We also draw them in with table scraps and peanut butter, M&Ms and granola,” said Anthony Neidlinger, of Whiskey Mountain Outfitters. His bear camp above the Salmon River near Riggins, Idaho, now has a cement mixer to churn that peanut butter! White wall tents at creek-side pamper hunters with extension-cord power. My friend, Chad Schearer, had organized this hunt – after I told him I have nothing against bears. 

“You don’t have to bait,” he replied. “You can spot the bears from afar and sneak in.” As if such tactics would guarantee their longevity.

Mike herded me toward a Polaris ATV. “We’ll reel in some elevation with this,” he said.  

Great coulees pitch steeply toward the Salmon, slicing grassy hills for hundreds of yards below conifer timber. Above, volcanic rock west of the river caps the Seven Devils peaks, ushering sunrise to my old digs on the hem of Oregon’s Wallowa Mountains.

Wayne van Zwoll with a plum thicket bear that fell to his muzzleloader. (Photo: Wayne van Zwoll)
Wayne van Zwoll with a plum thicket bear that fell to his muzzleloader. (Photo: Wayne van Zwoll)

Hiking to a promontory, Mike and I glassed deer, elk and a coyote. Near dusk I poked along a trail on the north side of the ridge. My careful step brought me past a whitetail buck and a herd of elk to a thick place. Night’s shadow engulfed the hills. A cow elk emerged and looked back. But not at me. 

On a hunch, and on the trail, I inched into the thicket. The movement that drew me on wasn’t elk-like. The bear appeared as a black wink in cover nearly black itself. Thumbing the hammer of the CVA .50, I eased ahead. There! At 22 steps a sliver of rib was enough. Five Hodgdon Fire-Star pellets roared to life. Smoke and recoil hid the impact; but the shot had felt good. As I reloaded, the thicket became still.        

That was the second bear I’d taken with that stiff Fire-Star load and a PowerBelt bullet in a CVA rifle. During a zero check, that combo had drilled a three-shot 50-yard knot so tight it defied measurement. One hole – and not ragged!

Chris Hodgdon had told me FireStar pellets, introduced early in 2018, share a chemical make-up with Triple Seven. “But FireStars have deep longitudinal grooves. They burn more efficiently and yield higher velocities and leave bores cleaner.” Chris suggested I get more details from Ron Reiber, whose 41 years in the shooting industry include 27 at Hodgdon. 

“A FireStar pellet is lighter than a Triple Seven pellet of the same length,” Ron said. “But if you think in terms of charge weights for blackpowder substitutes, you’re on the wrong track. Loads for these propellants in granular form are volumetric. In pelleted form too, substitutes deliver more thrust per grain than black, so pellets are listed in grain equivalents.” 

Pyrodex, the first blackpowder substitute marketed by Hodgdon, weighs 70 percent as much as blackpowder. Triple Seven differs in composition from Pyrodex. A Triple Seven pellet is shorter than a Pyrodex pellet, but each is “50-grains equivalent” in thrust. Weighing pellets shows the folly of weighing charges as you might weigh smokeless powders. On my scale, five, .50-caliber, 50-grain-equivalent Pyrodex pellets averaged 38.8 grains each. Five, .50-caliber, 50-grain-equivalent Triple Seven pellets averaged 30.9 grains. 

About the same length as a Triple Seven pellet, a FireStar pellet has less material due to its shape, so delivers less thrust. “You’ll want a three-pellet FireStar charge to match a two-pellet charge of Triple Seven,” said Ron “That’s a 100-grain equivalent. You’ll load five FireStar pellets to match a three-pellet load of Pyrodex or Triple Seven.” That’s a frisky charge. Five FireStars have sent 240-grain XTP bullets at nearly 2,350 fps, 260-grain Scorpion PT Golds at more than 2,140. Hornady 300-grain SSTs reach 2,100 fps. 

Like Triple Seven pellets, FireStars can be oriented either end down in a barrel; there’s no igniter surface as with Pyrodex. FireStar pellets stack taller than an equivalent charge of Triple Seven, spreading the burn over a longer section of bore, so fouling is less concentrated. Thanks to the grooves that promote more complete burn, there’s also less total fouling – which means easier loading without cleaning. 

FireStar pellets currently sell in blister packs of 10 field-ready plastic tubes, each with six pellets.

The guns and loads you carry into the hills figure less into memory than where and how you hunt. If you delight in rolling coyotes a township away, well, that scoped centerfire rifle takes bears at distance, too, as they gobble new grass in spring or scuffle between plum patches come autumn. Me, I’m partial to close encounters. Sneaking into thickets for 20-yard pokes hardly ensures a kill. But then, I have nothing against bears. 

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