Our jet boat powered into a steep turn, taking us off the main lake and onto the river. We’d just careened our way into the narrow waterway when we came face to face with a big black bear feasting on dead fish along the shore. Our presence sent the bear hightailing it through the dense black spruce forest. As we passed the spot where the bear had been eating, the stench of rotting fish overwhelmed our olfactory senses. It was all part of a great adventure, going deep into the remote wilderness of northern Saskatchewan in search of trophy black bears that had never encountered man.
My journey started two days earlier when I left home and drove six hours to Saskatoon International Airport. From there I took a flight north to Stony Rapids, situated just south of the 60th parallel. The plane ride was a milk run in every sense of the word, stopping at several small communities to drop off people and cargo and pick up more.
It was late in the day when I arrived in Stony Rapids and was met at the quaint, one-room airport by Patrick Babcock from Cree River Lodge. He had a large van he used to shuttle people to the river, about an hour’s drive away. To say it was rough going would be an understatement thanks to the heavy truck traffic and the freeze-and-thaw cycles in the far north. Pat was used to the road conditions, and I sat back and listened to his stories of huge fish and even bigger bears. We weren’t five miles out of town when we slowed to look at a mature boar standing on his hind legs, his front paw against a power pole to get a better look at the traffic.
When we arrived at the river, we loaded my gear into a boat. The trip was starting to remind me of the classic movie Planes, Trains and Automobiles — all the changing transportation and encountering different people and wildlife was reminiscent of John Candy and Steve Martin trying to get home for Thanksgiving.
It wasn’t long before we were motoring down the river, watching eagles soar along the banks. We entered the bottom end of a set of rapids, and Pat wove his way through the rocks and current, making it obvious he had done it hundreds of times before. We eventually arrived at the lodge, parked the boat, unloaded gear and bags, and found the cabin in which I would be staying.
Pat was working with Jason Peterson, a well-known bear outfitter and the host of the television series Jason Peterson’s Into the Wild. Jason has killed more trophy black bears than anyone else I know, and had come to the same area the previous two years to hunt bears on his own.
The area is remote, with no roads for hundreds of miles to the north or east. It truly is untamed territory, where bears die of old age without ever encountering a human. Jason and Pat were able to acquire licenses and tags to outfit in the area, and this was the first year they had established bait sites.
So Many Choices
Pat pulled out his laptop and started showing me trail camera photos of some of the bears working their sites. My jaw dropped to the floor, and I stood in disbelief. Almost every site they had established just weeks earlier had a dominant boar — or two, or three — that would make any bear enthusiast drool with anticipation. In fact, I almost wished Pat hadn’t shown me the pictures, as it would be next to impossible to pick just one of the locations to hunt.
One black bear really caught my eye. He was comical in the way he came in to the bait, and pictures showed him stretched out on his back as if lying down to enjoy the warm rays of the spring sun. The exposed view left no doubt the bear was a boar, and although some hunters might laugh at this, it was a real dilemma, as there was a sow also using the site that was practically the same size. If the sow walked in front of a hunter with no knowledge of the bears, she could easily be mistaken for a boar. The old boy had character, including gold-tipped ears, making him distinct and easy to recognize. In fact, the golden hairs ran down the back of his ears, making him one of the most unique black bears I’ve ever seen.
Final Preparations (And Some Great Fish)
Jason would join me in camp the next day with more supplies, giving me a full day to shoot my TenPoint Venom Xtra crossbow and ensure the Easton Full Metal Jacket bolts were flying straight after being bounced on rough roads and handled by airline staff. It didn’t take long to dial in the bow, and grouping arrows under an inch at 20 and 30 yards left me confident I could fill my tag if given the opportunity.
Part of the next day was spent fishing, and we hooked into some incredible northerns — several over 45 inches and one whopper that stretched the tape to 50 inches. As we motored to different areas of the lake, we checked bait sites, changed out memory cards on trail cameras, refreshed bait and marveled at the remarkable sign left by monster bruins marking their territories. It is a virtual cornucopia for bear hunting, as they could move to new spots every year and encounter the same caliber of animals wherever they went.
Hunt day finally arrived, and we decided old golden ears would be our target bear. We got up in the morning and loaded up with a big breakfast before getting our gear into the jet boat. We would run a shallow river that wound its way back through old-growth spruce forest. It was as picturesque as the northern forest gets.
That’s when we encountered the bear eating dead fish. After seeing him run off, we continued several miles on a twisting, turning waterway that at times made my heart skip a beat. One wrong move and we’d end up on shore or high centered on a sandbar. Jason drove like an old pro as we occasionally ducked to avoid overhanging limbs and prevent a head-on collision.
A Short Wait
The ground was covered in ancient moss and lichen, and the trees were old and mature. Being so far north, and dealing with long, cold winters, the trees are stunted by most standards. There wasn’t a lot of undergrowth, and some of the younger spruce and pine had been burned and scarred by a forest fire, giving the forest a mysterious look, as if a deep black hole existed. We put fresh bait in the barrel and headed over to a ground blind Jason had built from spruce limbs for natural-looking cover and scent.
We set up a few GoPro cameras to capture action from different angles and screwed in an anchor for an Ozonics unit above our heads. As we settled in for what we thought would be a long wait, I detected movement about 140 yards into the burned forest. It was a black bear.
The old bruin was headed right for us, and even though he’d never seen a human, he acted just like any other mature bear would, showing caution and using all his senses to check out the surroundings. Five minutes later, the old boy was standing just 21 yards in front of us. He looked directly at us several times, but our camo-clad outlines didn’t move, so he never gave us a second thought. Before we knew it, he flopped onto the ground, eliminating any chance for a shot or a short hunt.
The bear teased us by moving around the area, but he never turned broadside before lying down again. I was nervous at first but settled down to enjoy the show. We had been watching the bear for 20 minutes when he came around the barrel and laid down broadside to us. He ate, rubbed his ears and acted like he owned the area without a worry in the world. Jason and I whispered back and forth, waiting for a shot opportunity, when it happened. The bear propped up on his elbows as if doing a plank in the gym.
I raised my crossbow and settled my crosshair on the vitals of the boar just behind his right elbow. I gently squeezed the trigger until my bolt launched. The red glow of the Omni nock was like a flare shot through a gun. The broadhead zipped through the bear so fast the whole event was just a blur. The bear reacted like he was coming out of the starting blocks at an Olympic race. His feet and claws scrabbled to find ground, throwing clumps of moss 10 feet into the air. He covered 40 yards in a matter of seconds and started to waiver before crashing behind a clump of spruce.
Jason and I buzzed with excitement and couldn’t believe the show we had just been treated to. I have shot dozens of bears, but I’d never had an encounter quite as wild as this. Most bears I’ve seen were well in tune with man and what we meant. This old bear was just being a bear in his regular daily routine.
We spent time taking pictures and marveling at the incredible hide and the super-sized head the old bruin sported. We skinned him on the banks of the river, wondering if we’d ever get back to the same area. The hunt was short by most standards but was rewarding in ways that are hard to explain. I can only hope that someday I get to return to the wilds of northern Saskatchewan to find another true bruin adventure.
Cree River Lodge
Contact: Jason Peterson
Images by Brad Fenson