It didn’t start out this way. Thirty-some years ago I didn’t wake up one morning and have a vision, a visit from a soothsayer or have my palm read. The tea leaves never said, “You are going to be a bear hunter, and you’ll shoot 50 black bears.”
So I often wonder, what is it, then, about Ursus americanus, the black bear, that has become something of an obsession with me?
Growing up in a small southern California farm town (the “Lemon Capitol of the World,” no less), there were no bears within hundreds of miles. This is kind of interesting since some of the biggest bears in the world now reside a short drive from where I went to high school. I grew up a deer and quail hunter, doing what most young folks do, which is hunt what’s available close to home. I didn’t have the opportunity to hunt black bears for the first time until the early 1980s when I chased them with hounds in the steep mountains near Medford, Oregon, before dog hunting was foolishly banned in the Beaver State. Talk about naïve. Dogs? How tough could it be? I about had a heart attack after chasing hounds and a big bear all day up and down steep, brush-choked ravines in the pouring rain. When I saw how fast, strong and nimble that bear was, I was flat amazed. I gimped away from that hunt fascinated by black bears. I wanted to learn about them, study them and hunt them again.
Over the years I have hunted black bears every way one can legally pursue them. I’ve followed more packs of wonderful hounds in steep country. I’ve sat over baits set by outfitters from Alaska to Quebec, and by my own hand. I’ve done spot-and-stalk hunts off horseback, ATV, 4×4 truck, canoes, river rafts, ocean boats and shank’s mare. I’ve called them in using both predator and fawn bleat calls. Some I shot as a secondary species while on a hunt focused more on another species like grizzlies or moose or elk. Many I shot for meat when living in Alaska. I’ve carried every weapon legally allowed, from bows and arrows to centerfire rifles to muzzleloaders to slug guns to revolvers and single-shot specialty handguns.
I was invited to Alberta this past May by my old friend Linda Powell, who works for Mossberg, to hunt black bears and test the company’s fabulous new rifle, the Patriot. It was on this trip that I shot my 50th and 51st black bears, both giants whose hides squared 7’2 and 7’6, with body weights estimated at 375 and 425 pounds.
After shooting my 50th bear, I worked the Patriot’s bolt to clear the rifle and saw that my hands were trembling a bit. I climbed down and walked slowly over to him, then sat quietly for a few moments. I wondered, “How many days have I spent hunting black bears?” Many hundreds, certainly. “How much joy has it given me? Not the taking of a bear so much as the experience of bear country, of observing and learning, of being in some of the continent’s wildest places?” Unmeasurable amounts.
When friends learned how many bears I had taken over the years, many asked, “Why so many?” As I knelt beside this magnificent creature, my mind turned to one question: Why do I hunt at all? How do you explain that as long as man has been alive, he has had an inborn emotion to hunt, not just for sustenance and clothing and the other essentials that can be made from hide and sinew and bone, but for some primal need to possess the noblest, most powerful and most magnificent of God’s wild creatures? That without this inborn instinct man, like the world’s other carnivores, would have perished long ago? For ancient man, there were no “participation ribbons.” Then, the game was simple – kill animals, eat them and make clothing and tools from them…or die.
Black bears have always fascinated me. They are big and powerful with razor-sharp senses – an apex predator to be greatly respected. Their fur is luxurious, their meat pretty darn tasty, their fangs and claws awe-inspiring. Old bears – the oldest I have killed was aged by a biologist at 21 years – are smart as the proverbial whip. Every time I am around them I am mesmerized and learn something new about them – and myself.
So, the question is really not, “Why so many?” The question really is, for those who do not hunt bears, “Why do you not hunt them?” After all, I am a hunter, and black bears are a most worthy challenge.
I can’t wait to go again.