The low humidity of the northern spring stood in stark contrast to the thickness of the air back home in Arkansas. I always look forward to leaving the southern heat and getting far enough north that the chill of spring is still in the air.
It was the last week of June, and I was making my annual migration to Saskatchewan in search of wilderness bears. We chose to drive the 30 hours from Arkansas to northern Saskatchewan. If you’ve never done it you wouldn’t understand, but hunting big bears in June is something special. However, I had no idea what adventure and — without sugar coating it — pure thrill lay ahead. Every mile north brought me closer to what would be the closest bear encounter of my life. In retrospect, it was too close.
Runnin’ the River
The hunt was scheduled for 5 days, and at 1 p.m. on June 24, we jumped into an aluminum boat, fired up the 25hp outboard and headed to bait the sites. Kolby Morrison of Bear Pro Safaris strategically places his baits miles apart so they aren’t attracting the same bears. There is nothing convenient about the way he hunts. With the help of his guide, Dustin, he had five hunters strung out over 22 miles of river. He does things the hard way because it’s the best method to get people on big bears.
“I’m ready for a long boat ride, Kolby,” I said in jest.
“Well, you’re going to get it. I’m taking you to the farthest bait,” Kolby chided back. “It’s 22 miles upriver, and the closest road is the one we are currently parked on.”
This was music to my ears. In the Lower 48, places where you can truly get 20 miles away from any roads are quite rare. In Canada, they’re common. Bears are an icon of the North American wilderness, and it seems right to hunt them in wild places. Clutching the wooden bow as we cruised down the river, I found myself on a bowhunter’s Cloud Nine. The jack pines, lichen and deep blue of the Canadian water were almost too much to take in.
Kolby never gives away too much about the bears coming into the bait sites. But this time, he said, “Clay, there’s a big black bear coming over here, and you’ll know him when you see him.”
The prior year, I killed the wrong bear on the first day. The bear was a Pope-and-Young-class boar but wasn’t the loggerhead giant Kolby put me in there to kill. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake again. However, within a few hours, I’d release three shots from my TimberGhost traditional bow in what would be my most exciting bear hunt to date.
Covered Up in Bears
Brent, my cameraman, and I were the last to be dropped off. We arrived at the site around 3 p.m. and planned to sit until 10. The ground looked like a bear bomb had gone off. Trails, scat and bare dirt were everywhere. “I rebaited yesterday, and all the bait is almost gone. These bears are close,” Kolby explained.
My anticipation rose. All the travel and planning were suddenly worth it, even if it was just for this feeling.
Much of the joy of hunting is the anticipation. The pungent smell of jack pines, and the constantly humming nothingness of the wilderness filled our senses. However, I could feel the stimulation of civilization still in my bones as we settled in for the first hunt. My mind was still leaning toward business, bills and deadlines. Wild places don’t completely push that stuff aside for the first couple days. I find I don’t typically settle into the pace of bear camp until the third or fourth day. At that point in the hunt, you’ve lost track of what day it is and the cares of modern life simply go away. This time, I’d be drawn into the vortex of the wild with a flash of black fur.
We could still hear the murmur of Kolby’s boat in the distance when the first bear appeared. It was a decent-size boar, with shoulders as tall as a 55-gallon drum. The bear was strangely curious as we sat nestled into a ground blind made of spruce branches within 14 yards of the barrel. In other locales, he would have tempted me, but I knew better. The bear had walked within 5 yards of the blind before I shooed him away with a quick movement from my bow. Hunting here, you’ll have to get used to being up close and personal with bears. It’s an exhilarating experience and is what makes a baited bear hunt so exciting. Few other big game hunts offer the same proximity to the quarry.
Within minutes a sow appeared, and she came to within 4 yards before she turned and started eating. These bears have never interacted with humans, and they just don’t have much fear. However, the older males are often more skittish.
Two hours after the sow had left, I locked eyes with the bruin I’d come to kill. As the boar approached the site, he looked like a gorilla. He hardly had a neck, and the crease on his head was evident. His front legs looked like tree trunks. “That’s him, Brent,” I whispered. The bear immediately saw us and intentionally stayed as far away as possible while getting mouthfuls of oats. He stayed at 25 yards for 20 minutes before creeping closer. With traditional bow in hand, I decided not to shoot past 15 yards.
Eventually, the bear crept from right to left toward the barrel, stopping at 14 yards broadside. Honestly, I had watched him so long I got psyched out. Accuracy in traditional archery is as much of a mind game as it is mechanical repetition. After hesitating, I drew the bow but plucked the release, sending the arrow 6 inches left, completely missing the bear.
As the boar ran off, negative thoughts like, ‘I came all this way up here carrying a wooden bow, and I can’t hit the broadside of a barn,’ crept into my mind.
Within minutes, a blonde sow appeared, followed by a decent boar. The sow was one of the strangest bears I’ve ever seen and looked more like a hyena than a bear. The boar and sow proceeded to frolic around on the ground, and all but did the deed right in front of us. The boar would mount the sow, and then they’d wrestle on the ground for several minutes. It was a tremendous display of bear behavior. The next thing that happened would be an experience I’ll never forget.
While the boar and sow wrestled at 25 yards, I caught burnt-orange movement out of the corner of my eye. Coming up the trail was a large color-phased boar with his mouth open and saliva dripping from his lips. He looked orange in the evening sun. When he saw the other bears, he erupted into an all-out charge. The three bears ran full speed within 10 yards of me and burst into the brush. I was in shock. Kolby had said nothing about any color-phase bears on this bait, and I knew that this bear was a shooter. Exactly 43 seconds later, the pumpkin bear appeared and marched right to the barrel. His movements were bold, and it was clear he was charged up from the chase. He glanced our way but seemed to pay us no mind. That was about to change.
The boar fed at the barrel for less than a minute, then turned and started walking directly toward our hide. I was standing and had three fingers under the nock. I was ready to shoot. I assumed he’d turn away from me at close range, just like all the other bears. I was gearing up for a close-range shot, but I wasn’t prepared for how close he’d get. He acted like he was going to veer to my left, but when he got to 4 yards, he turned directly toward me. It was like he was staring through me, and at this point I knew something was about to happen.
He got within feet of me, bumping into the end of my arrow. The contact made him stop and then rear up on his hind legs as he put his nose over the edge of our blind and sniffed. I could have reached out and punched the bear in the mouth — he was that close.
I jumped back, mumbling indiscernible words. After what seemed like an eternity, the bear dropped down to all fours and turned. As he walked away at a steep quartering angle, I shot him at 3 or 4 yards. The arrow penetrated 17 inches, entering behind the rear rib. The bruin trotted to 24 yards and then stopped, at which point I shot him again, hitting him directly behind the shoulder. The bear had two mortal arrows in him. He was mine.
After he left, I almost broke down. My emotions were high, and I was in shock at what had just happened. The type of feeling that comes from being dunked into freezing water when you weren’t expecting it overtook me. My voice shook, and I gasped, “I thought he was going to get in this blind!” The situation had quickly gotten out of control, and I was completely at the bear’s mercy. I probably should have hollered at the bear or shot him in the chest when he first turned my direction. I would later say, “I trusted my instincts, and honestly, I’m not sure my instincts were right. All I was thinking about was killing the bear.”
I didn’t feel like the bear was being aggressive — just curious. After talking with Kolby, I found out that he had no pictures of the bear. We believe it was his first time at the bait site, and likely his first time to ever encounter humans or even human scent. This is the beauty of this type of hunt.
I got on the Garmin inReach and contacted Kolby, who arrived within 30 minutes. We easily trailed the bear and celebrated the whole 22 miles back to the truck. On the same night, my good friend Ryan Greb also killed a whopper bear and had to bear spray a sow that got too close.
What’s the moral of this story? Always carry bear spray, have it accessible when hunting, and go spring bear hunting if you’re looking for the bowhunting experience of a lifetime. Chances are you’ll have one.