WE WERE ONLY A FEW HOURS INTO my first Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, black bear hunt, and I was already convinced: There were a lot of bears, and they sure seemed active. We tooled down miles of logging road on the ATVs, checking bait station after bait station. At least half of them had been hit during the night—some seemed like just minutes before we rolled up! This was going to be easy.
Well, when you’re taping hunting television shows, you’re cursed as soon as you have that thought. The hunting gods pick up on those vibes and send lightening bolts to mess you up. The first three nights we hunted at baits—8 hours per sit—and not a single bear showed. In fact, activity on the other baits we checked each day dwindled considerably too.
I was reminded there are two immutable, universal laws of spring black bear hunting, and these rules are undeniable no matter where you go or how you hunt.
Rule No. 1: Your eating and sleeping schedule will be turned upside-down.
In black bear country, the days of May and June are the longest of the year. The magical hours of twilight, when bears are most active, don’t arrive until somewhere around 10 p.m. To top it off, bear hunting areas are usually large, so a drive of even a couple hours back to camp isn’t out of the ordinary. Added up, that puts you in your chair at the dinner table about midnight.
Thankfully it’s nearly as universal that bears aren’t very active during the morning hours, which allows you to sleep in.
Rule No. 2: There will be bugs.
There’s no sense grousing about it: On a spring black bear hunt, you’ll face some sort of insect population whose preferred entrée is human blood. Just find out ahead of time what kind of bugs you’ll be up against, and then bring an arsenal of weapons to combat them. A combination of head nets, gloves, bug suits, spray repellents and thermal incense will keep you comfortable … and gloating to your buddies that you planned ahead.
What is unfortunately not universal is the quality of spring black bear hunting, and the high odds of taking a good-sized bear. Luck helps, but you go a long way to making your own luck by picking a great hunting location and a great outfitter by careful planning and research.
That’s how the “North American Hunter-TV” team decided to hunt in Newfoundland during the spring of 2008. The province offers a combination of high bear density and low hunting pressure that’s unmatched anywhere else in North America.
The bottom line is Newfoundland/ Labrador’s black bear population is too high! As the only place in the world with a huntable population of woodland caribou for nonresidents, restrictions on hunting caribou are becoming tighter each year as the number of animals declines. The biggest reason woodland caribou populations are declining is predation, and the No. 1 predator of caribou in Newfoundland/Labrador is these meat-eating black bears—specifically during the spring when bears move with the caribou to their calving grounds.
Despite being impacted daily by black bears and the negative effect bears are having on the highly valued caribou, the province’s residents don’t seem to hold much interest in hunting bears themselves. What little hunting pressure there is comes nearly exclusively from nonresident hunters served by licensed outfitters.
With black bears spread out so universally across the province, variety in hunting services, terrain, style and timing is abundant. Black bear hunting seasons run during both the spring and fall. Outfitter services operate in coastal areas, mountain terrain, inland bogs, on river systems and about everywhere else. Most spring hunting operations are baited hunts, but some outfitters provide glass-and- stalk hunting as well. The spring hunts are specifically for bears, but during the fall, black bear hunting can be added to moose and/or caribou hunts.
Room With A View
Night No. 4 of our hunt started much like the other evenings. Mid-afternoon we loaded into the pickup truck and headed for a group of baits about 20 miles from camp. Getting there would take more than an hour because travel was exclusively via old logging roads with numerous river crossings. We’d also stop to check baits along the way for signs of new activity. Our destination was a cluster of baits at the very end of the line that had shown some activity. Though separated by a couple miles each, at least one of these baits had been hit nightly. There was at least one good bear still working this area while it seemed most had temporarily moved to the calving grounds to dine on caribou veal. Our success would depend on guessing the bait site the bear would hit that night.
Based on the sign at the sites and in their vicinity, we selected the last bait at the end of the trail. The stand was a “double-wide” ladder stand constructed by our guide from spruce poles cut close at hand to open up the shooting lane to the bait. While the seat was some 12 feet up a big tree, a wide and sturdy ladder made it easy to climb with confidence. There was plenty of room for the TV producer and me to sit side-by-side and still give her ample space to move the camera wherever we might need it.
The bait was a collection of barrels and buckets 43 yards away across a clearing. It was tight on the edge of a huge, dark spruce swamp. This location should give a bear confidence in approaching the bait because it wouldn’t have to move far from protective cover. The range would be no problem for my Thompson/Center Encore .50 caliber muzzleloader, Nikon Monarch scope, 260-grain Fusion bullet and three 50- grain Pyrodex pellets.
We climbed into the stand, lit our Thermacell insect-repellent units, taped up the wrists and ankles of our bug suits and hunkered down to wait. (Some folks won’t even consider using spray or thermal insect repellents on stand for fear they’ll spook game, but I think that’s hogwash. Think about it: If you’re not downwind of the bait, any approaching bear is going to smell you anyway. If you’re downwind of the bear, there’s no way he’s going to get your scent—period.)
The Sound Of Silence
Because Newfoundland/Labrador is such a classic kind of place to hunt black bears, I shouldn’t have expected the hunt to unfold in anything but classic form. We sat on the stand for several hours with no action, just the hum of mosquitoes and black flies around us, but not on us. Then the wind stopped completely. The birds went quiet. The red squirrels froze in place and were silent. The complete stillness went on for a long minute. Then the distinct “crack” of a fallen branch being intentionally snapped shattered the silence. It came from somewhere in the black timber just beyond the bait.
Then, somehow, without movement and without sound, there suddenly was a bear at the bait. Only the head, shoulder and left front leg were visible as the bear scooped rancid chicken parts from a 5-gallon bucket. The bear seemed cautious, but not overly wary. I unslung the rifle from its peg on the tree, eased it down to the top rung of the ladder and snugged into a rested shooting position.
The bear was alone. In comparison to the 5-gallon buckets, its head looked large and ears looked small, they seemed reasonably set on the sides of its head. A shooter! It was all black with the classic tan muzzle.
The bear tipped back on its haunches and sat down. It could still reach the bucket, but now its shoulder was hidden by the undergrowth as well. Now that I’d decided it was a shooter, there was no shot.
The bear continued to feed undisturbed for another minute or so. Then, as magically as it appeared, it seemed to melt into the black timber—gone—and with it the only opportunity it looked like we would have. Though her eye stayed glued to the viewfinder on the camera, I could tell my producer felt the same way.
Suddenly there was movement between us and the bait! The bear had turned and was quartering toward our stand down a well-used game trail. The undergrowth was thick, but the bear’s wide head suddenly emerged in an opening. I swung the muzzleloader to it, and when the shoulder crossed the opening I took the shot.
It’s both the allure and curse of hunting with a blackpowder rifle—that huge cloud of game-obscuring white smoke. When we could see through it, the bear was gone. We could hear it run through the thick woods, breaking off low-slung branches in its path. Then the complete stillness returned, broken only by the sounds of loading a muzzleloader. There was no death moan, and that worried me.
I climbed down and went to the spot of the shot. The producer stayed in the tree to make sure I was spot-on. No blood, no hair, nothing. I followed down the path the bear had taken. Still no sign. What the …? Could I have missed at 15 yards?
The producer and I made a few swings through the thick cover and picked up no sign. Time to call in the experts; we radioed the guide and outfitter, who came quickly in the truck. We recreated the shot for them and looked at the video in the camera a couple times. Then we all looked again. No blood.
Darkness was coming on pretty quickly, so the four of us started to make coordinated widening circles in the direction we’d heard the bear run. The spruce was so thick we couldn’t see each other 10 feet apart. At times we had to get down on hands and knees and crawl. Then I heard what I’d been praying to hear or say myself, “Here it is!” Our guide had literally crawled right up to the dead bear that was wrapped around the base of a tree. It must have run head-on into the tree in a death dash.
The bullet had performed perfectly, entering behind the shoulder, mushrooming and exiting the size of a quarter on the offside. But as so often happens on bears, the thick hair acted like a sponge soaking up every drop of blood. Persistence pays, but even then we were fortunate to find the bear that night.
The bear turned out to be a barren sow. She was so old and decrepit that she had one upper fang on one side and one lower fang on the opposite side missing. Even so, she tipped the camp scales at 330 pounds—good for a spring sow. While the rest of the bears were off eating caribou and moose calves, this old girl was hanging out where there was nice soft chicken gizzards and ground-up Twinkies for her to gum.