The Huge Boars of High Level

High Level, Alberta, is a long flight and an even longer drive from just about anywhere on the planet, but its giant black bears are well worth the trip.

Be honest: you want to shoot a black bear, a big-ass boar—literally—one with a creased forehead, massive shoulders and paws the size of porterhouse steaks.

Me, too, and my quest for just such a bear has included do-it-yourself hunts in my home state of Minnesota, as well as fully outfitted adventures in Manitoba (twice) and Quebec. A year ago I wrote about my long and bear-less journey in this magazine, explaining how big bruins had given me the slip on every prior hunt (see “Breaking a Bear Jinx,” April/May, 2007).

With no black bear hunt planned for the spring of 2007, I resigned myself to the fact that springtime wild turkeys would have to keep my hunting brain sane. And then my office phone rang on March 15. “Dave, this is Linda Powell from Remington. I know this is short notice, but I’m putting together a black bear hunt to northern Alberta this spring for a few outdoor writers, and I have one spot left to fill. Are you interested?”

Hmmm . . . let me think: Does a bear “you know what” in the woods? Of course I was interested! Truth be told, I did have the decency to first call my wife to check if our family had any prior commitments, although I can’t even pretend to think of an event that could’ve kept me home. Thankfully, my wife’s an avid hunter and was supportive, perhaps even a touch jealous.

“Linda says it’s a two-bear bag limit,” I was checking to see just how supportive my wife would be. “If I happen to kill a big, jet-black bear and then a big chocolate-colored . . .”

“Pick your favorite,” she interrupted. “We can’t afford two bear rugs.”

Has Anyone Seen Spring?

I was amazed at the lack of tree buds when we landed in High Level on May 2, and the lake in front of our tent camp was still covered in ice. Perhaps I should’ve left my gun at home and packed ice-fishing gear instead?

“It’s been a real late spring,” said W&L Guide Services Co-Owner Wally Mack, “and we’ve never had the lake iced over at the start of bear camp. My guides and I have been baiting at several dozen bait sites, but it’s taking a while for some of them to get hit. The bears just aren’t moving and feeding much yet. But don’t worry, you will get your bears. Big ones, too.”

Was this simply “outfitter-speak” (words to keep paying hunters happy in the face of probable failure) or did he really believe it? Only time spent on a bear stand would tell.

Tent Camp Journal

MAY 3, 2007: 40-45 degrees, on and off rain showers, little to no wind

Trevor, my guide for the week, used his ATV to drop me off at a treestand at 4:25 p.m. I had good visibility in almost every direction, yet a small black bear still surprised me by showing up right beside my stand at 6:20 p.m. The 41/2- foot bear never made a sound on the wet ground. It fed on cookies and a hanging beaver carcass for 30 minutes and then trotted off. I was sure a bigger bear had spooked it, but nothing showed. At 9:20 p.m. a 51/2-foot bear crept in with the same 41/2-footer in tow. Both bears fed until Trevor arrived to pick me up.

Of the six hunters in camp, only Tim Herald punched a tag. He arrowed a beautiful 6-foot 10-inch boar, but the kill wasn’t the most exciting thing to happen to Tim and his cameraman that afternoon. Shortly after arriving at their treestand, they had a small but very aggressive bear climb their tree. The bear was only 6 feet below Tim when he threw binoculars at it, hitting the surprised bear right between the eyes! It reluctantly retreated, and the bigger bear arrived a few hours later.

MAY 4: 35-50 degrees, steady rain, calm

I sat on a different stand today, and at 7:30 p.m. a 51/2-foot bear appeared. I laughed almost out loud when the bear slipped on a wet blowdown and smacked its chin on the log. The bear grabbed a chuck of beaver meat and took it 60 yards away to feed under a pine—a sure sign this wasn’t the biggest bear in the area. Moments later a 6- footer arrived from the left and fed for 20 minutes.

Three more hunters killed bears tonight: Steve Comus, a 5-foot 11-inch bear; Colin Moore, a 6-foot 8-incher; and Linda, a 6-foot 9-incher. Not even the constant rain could damper everyone’s mood that night as we feasted on tasty homemade soup, sandwiches and deserts in the cook’s tent. After only two afternoons of this 6-day hunt, four of six hunters have killed good-sized bears; perhaps Wally knew what he was talking about all along.

MAY 5: 45-55 degrees, cloudy but no rain, light winds

Afternoon No. 3 and once again I traveled to a new bait site. Although the weather had improved, the bear action at this spot unexpectedly shut down. No bears. Surprisingly, the other hunters also reported little action. With six hunters spread across an area more than 60 miles long, no one spotted a mature bear.

MAY 6: 45-60 degrees, partly cloudy, 10-mph north wind

“Dave, a big boar is visiting the spot you went to yesterday,” Trevor said as we ate breakfast. “I know you didn’t see anything there, but I think it’s worth giving the stand another shot.”

I learned long ago it’s best to trust your guide’s instincts. “Sounds good,” I said, “but what do you think about hunting during the early afternoon, too? I can pack a lunch and hunt from 11 a.m. until dark.”

Trevor nodded and smiled. He wanted to be the guide who broke my bear jinx, and he appreciated the fact I’d hunt hard to make it happen.

Unfortunately, my 11 hours in the treestand was a bust—no bears again! As we drove back to camp, Trevor shook his head in frustration. “I can not believe you sat there 11 hours and didn’t see a bear.”

The other hunters were standing beside two dead bears when we arrived in camp. Dean Capuano shot a 6-foot 4- inch boar, and Tim arrowed his second bear of the trip, a massive 7-foot 7-incher. With Dean punching his tag, it means only one hunter has yet to kill a bear; I hope tomorrow is my day.

MAY 7: 45-55 degrees, partly cloudy, 20-mph northwest wind

We took photos of Dean and Tim’s big bears after breakfast, and I have to admit I was beginning to feel jealous. Tim had killed two bears now—where was my first one?

Trevor had been seeing decent bear sign at the bait site I watched during my first afternoon hunt, so he dropped me off there. As I sat on the stand, I tried to trick my brain into thinking about anything but bears. Perhaps my mental intensity of wanting to kill a bear so badly had been broadcasting bad vibes into the bush. It was a far-fetched theory, but I was desperate.

I thought about family, friends, work—you name it. I recalled past hunting trips, and even challenged myself to count the number of wild turkeys I’d killed during my lifetime. I sat there staring blankly into the treetops remembering hunts to Alabama, Florida, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota, Texas and Wyoming. Twenty-three birds. I think that’s right. So if I arrow one next week in South Dakota, that will make an even two dozen.

I don’t remember what I was pondering when a small bruin arrived at the barrel at 5:15 p.m., but it definitely wasn’t hunting related. In fact, I did a double-take and had to kick-start my brain into predator mode. Another slightly larger bear joined in the feast a half-hour later. Soon though, both bears moved off into the distance and I again forced my mind into thinking about times, places and faces from my past.

What’s that light-colored thing? I couldn’t reconcile what I was seeing coming from my right, 125 yards away. It’s a cinnamon bear! My heart raced as the beautiful animal made its way closer to the bait. No one in camp had even seen a color-phase bear this week, and according to Trevor, out of 53 bears taken during 2006, only four were non-black.

As the bear passed behind the barrel, I knew it wasn’t a big animal, but I didn’t care. It was the first cinnamon bear I’d ever seen, and I quickly fired when it stepped into the clear. The bear fell on the spot, and I listened for the fabled “death moan,” but it never came. Everything had happened so fast—I could hardly believe I’d pulled the trigger—but the evidence was lying only 30 yards in front of me.

To lessen the chance of a live bear taking a bite out of my dead one, I dragged the cinnamon boar 15 yards away from the bait. I didn’t know if that would help matters any, but I figured it was worth a try.

I still had a silly smile on my face when a large black bear suddenly arrived at the bait. Immediately my brain screamed SHOOT to my body, and in a few seconds I again pulled the trigger. I hit the bear directly on the near shoulder, sending it to the ground, but it got up just as fast and ran off before I could fire a follow-up shot. Seconds later, and coming from behind some nearby pines, I heard six spine-tingling death moans, each one lasting 2-3 seconds. I looked at my watch: 6:45 p.m. I’d killed two bears in 40 minutes.

“Trevor, I’m out of tags!” he could hear the excitement in my voice as I called on my cell phone. “But I’m not getting out of the stand because this place is crawling with bears.” As I held the phone, another mature bear appeared from the thicket to check out the spot where my big bruin had fallen, and as I waited for Trevor to arrive with his ATV, yet another adult bear came to the bait.

I was the first hunter back to camp but wasn’t the only one who was successful. Dean tagged his second boar of the trip, a 6-foot 9-incher, and Colin scored the biggest prize, a massive 7-foot 10-inch boar, which he shot at only 15 yards with Remington’s Genesis muzzleloader.

MAY 8: 32 degrees, partly cloudy, calm

As I stared at the spectacular northern lights dancing above my tent at 1 a.m., I couldn’t help but be thankful for the chance to experience some of the finest black bear hunting in the world. The journey to killing my first bruin had begun nearly 20 years ago, and I couldn’t go to sleep until I had one last look at my bears. I wanted to make sure they were still there—that this hadn’t been a dream. And as my flashlight illuminated the cinnamon and black hides, I felt proud. They weren’t the biggest bears in camp, but they were my bears.