The Perfect Bear Hunt

To those of you who have read about sweet success, it does occur—but bear hunting is no different than any other hunting ... there are no slam dunks.

I was inspired to write my black bear story after reading Breaking a Bear Jinx, in the April/May 2008 issue of NAH, written by Dave Maas. To those of you who have read about sweet success, it does occur—but bear hunting is no different than any other hunting—there are no slam dunks. Bears are cautious by nature, and they have excellent senses, they trust their instincts and usually don’t do anything stupid—especially around bear baits.

Before this hunt, the most action I’ve had bear hunting was spot-and-stalking bears with bow and arrow in Prince of Wales, Alaska. Nothing but action and I have the pictures to prove it! The bears there are huge, and thanks to me still growing even larger! Looking back at my bait vigils, I have tallied close to three solid weeks over the years of seeing only ground squirrels and an occasional snowshoe bunny.

What makes the perfect bear hunt? For me, the three most critical factors are: the company you keep, the outfitter you choose and the luck of timing! For me the outcome is already predicted—I am going to have fun and take away special memories, any game harvested will surely be icing on the cake—your personal outlook is paramount to ensure success.

Shelby’s Motivation
Our perfect bear hunt started when long time friend Charlie Baechtle told me he was heading up to Quebec for his annual bear hunt and wanted to know if I would join him. I actually declined for that season but planned to save up some cash for my new hunting buddy and me. My hunting buddy had joined me on many hunts, but only as an excited observer … my daughter, Shelby, finally came of legal hunting age in New York and passed her hunter and bowhunter education classes. When she turned 12 she got a 20 gauge shotgun for her birthday and an invite to a bear hunt, this of course came with strings attached: She had to have solid 90 percent grades her first year of middle school. Shelby finished the school year in the high 90s, and also was named student of the year—she was motivated!

When that following spring came around, Shelby and I turkey hunted hard, and nearing the last week of the season she sealed the deal on a big jake with a 7-inch beard. Excited talk of her bear hunt was now the topic at dinner every night. Between our busy schedules, we shot our bows and guns every chance we got.

I was confident and so was Shelby. Before we knew it the third week of June was upon us and final plans were made for our leisurely 13 hour drive to Forestville, Quebec. It poured the entire 2 days we traveled—and it stayed dark out—but our enthusiasm was not damped one bit. There were seven of us all together riding in three trucks. To the veteran hunters, the most exciting part of our hunt was having two youth hunters accompany us. I think we were actually more excited then they were since we knew exactly what they were in for. Shelby was 13 and Caleb had just turned 15. Charlie, along with his son Dave and Grandson Caleb, was looking forward to a three-generation hunt! For Dave and me, our goal was to have the new hunters succeed before we would hunt.

Monday dawned reluctantly bright with ominous clouds, it sprinkled off and on but it looked like the worse weather was over for now. I had this sinking feeling that it could be a very wet week. Our guide Donnie unloaded his ATV and drove Dave and Caleb into the bush. While we waited for his return it started to pour. We hopped in the back of the truck until Donnie returned and then set out for our blind.

The night was uneventful until a single rifle report echoed down the valley; I told Shelby that Caleb just killed his first bear! He was about 5 kilometers away, but that shot punctuated success for our first night. Caleb’s his 175-pound bruin was a beauty and a very good start!

The second evening we headed out around 3:00 p.m. for our 6-hour vigil; I was already proud of Shelby for sitting still and quiet for 6 hours the day before. A few things had changed from yesterday. First the sky was blue and the weather was great, and second, Donnie moved us further into the ZEC (Zoned Economically Commercial) property. We sat in the middle of a hydro-electric power line right-of-way in a make-shift ground blind, 47 yards from the bait. Donnie freshened the bait and I cut shooting lanes in the branches for Shelby to shoot through. Donnie gave us the thumbs up and we soon got quietly settled in.

Shortly after hearing the gravel give way to Donnie’s tires when he reached the hard road, I instructed Shelby to watch the game trails and bait site. I opened up my book and set aside the bookmark, and Shelby said, “Bear!” I told her to quit joking—and never looked up from my book until a heard the restrained click of the safety being disengaged. Looking up, I confirmed the bear to be a mature shooter, and told Shelby to wait for the bear to be stationary. It stopped slightly quartered away, and instructed Shelby to be steady and put the crosshairs right on the shoulder as we had practiced.

The .280 Rem. bucked upward at the shot, and the bear dropped. Anxiously, Shelby ejected the shell and prepared for a second shot. I was shaking quite heavily—the whole ground blind was moving from the shaking both Shelby and I were doing. The bear never even wiggled. Cautiously, we approached the bear; it was gorgeous. The 175-pound sow had a perfect black coat, and the shot entered the near shoulder blade and exited behind the far ear.

We took a few pictures, and Shelby opted to stay and admire her bear while I drove the truck up the skidder road. We dressed and tagged the bear and headed out to leave a note on Charlie’s truck. When we pulled in Donnie was there loading up his Quad. He had an incredulous look on his face, but when I gave him the thumbs up he was all smiles. He was happy to say our friend Larry shot his bear on the way to his stand. He had a plan: we’d dress and drag out Larry’s bear and then get Shelby’s.

That incredulous look reappeared when I told him it was already in the truck—he was surprised he didn’t hear the shot when he pulled out. We hurried back to camp and cooled the bears down. Donnie told me to grab my gear because he wanted to get me on stand. I gathered up my gear and asked if I could hang an additional stand for Shelby. He doubted there would be time because he still had to go back to midway for a stand and fresh bait.

Dad’s Turn
I agreed and was just excited to start hunting. It was after 6 o’clock by the time we pulled to the side of the road and banged the ladder stand together, hauling it into the bush about ¼ mile. We leaned it up against the tree and Donnie retreated to the truck for bait and a seat cushion. I ratcheted the stand to the tree, secured my harness, attached my haul line and pulled up my bow while Donnie refreshed the bait and tossed me the cushion.

I sat down and watched Donnie through my binocular lenses as he passed the clear-cut and into the bush. I don’t know if I even had time to take a deep breath when a twig snapped. I slowly stood up in one motion grabbing my bow and slipping my release on the string. The bear was a shooter, and I waited until the bear was broadside and stationary before drawing the bow.

My fiber optic pin was on the outline of the shoulder blade when the smack of my arrow hitting the metal bait bucket disrupted my concentration. It was all too surreal, I blinked, the bear was gone and my arrow was buried up to its fletching in the metal can. I could see my red nock clear as day. I didn’t even start shaking; I think I used all of my adrenalin on Shelby’s bear.

I sat down to absorb the encounter when another twig snapped. I remained sitting and a second bear of similar size came in. He eagerly sniffed the ground, and then my arrow. He turned his head and looked up at me, then at the bait and then me again. His mind was made up—he was out of here! As I processed what had just happened, I fumbled for my binoculars and scanned the forest floor; the blood trail was a good one.

I walked back to the hard road and waited for Donnie’s return before tracking the bear. He arrived just at dark, and by the time we recovered the bear, dressed it, drug it out of the bush and drove 45 minuets back to camp, it was nearly midnight. When we recovered my bear I was pleasantly surprised by two things: There was no ground shrinkage, and the bear had a beautiful big white blaze.

Shelby knew something was up, because if you’re the first one or last one back to camp you’ve probably killed a bear. I would be the last one this night! We celebrated over soup and some grilled cheese. I was tempted to call home and wake up my wife, but morning would come soon enough to tell about the daughter/father black bear double!

The rest of the week shaped up even better. Charlie Baechtle arrowed his twelfth bear and Charlie Wells shot a huge boar right where Shelby sat that weighed about 350 pounds. Dave, accompanied by Caleb, shot another fine bear. When the smoke from Dave’s muzzleloader wafted away, a fallen bear signified the completion of the three-generation bear slam.

The rest of the week provided picture-perfect weather. We worked together to process all of our bears. We left Canada with coolers of prized bear meat and some awesome hides for great mounts. Our bears were all good-sized representatives of black bears. My sow tipped the scales at more than 200 pounds and stayed in the lead until Charlie Wells’ hulk came in. My bear had three broken canines and was aged at 22 ½ years old, while Shelby’s and Charlie Wells’ bears were both 7 ½ years old.

Of course, the second part of our success was clearly our guides. Donnie Helstrom from Medway, Maine, has been guiding Quebec since 1982, the year Maine stopped their spring season. Head Guide George Smith claims Donnie to be the most successful black bear guide in North America. Since these two began guiding together in the early 1980s, they’ve harvested more than 3,000 bears. They have a 90 percent success rate in the spring, and an average 96 percent opportunity rate.

The week we were in camp was the third week of June. In camp, there was our group of seven, and ten other hunters from New England. We were seven for seven, and the other group went eight for ten—one hunter missed and one passed up at least six bears with something bigger in mind.

Donnie hunts all 4 weeks, and if the timing is right—which is the third ingredient to success—you hit the rut. For us, it started the week before we arrived and continued through the week we were there. My sow was in heat, and the other hunters also saw sows that were accompanied by boars, which can be both good and bad.

The area we hunt is referred to as the Cote Nord, or north side, which is west of the St. Lawrence Seaway in very rugged mountains. Donnie hunts in four separate sectors, totaling 700 square kilometers. His success in part is due to his intimate knowledge of his territory and understanding the habits of black bears. Donnie and his guides set out roughly 3 bait sites per hunter—as close as 3 kilometers apart and as far away as 30 from each hunter.

Bait sites are started in late April, with deep snow drifts still blocking many secondary trails. Once bears break den they go to and stay at the bait sites. Moose are occasionally encountered, fishers and martens are in abundance and on hiking trips I have seen caribou tracks, and bear sign is everywhere—making this a very special place!

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