In 1990 I bear hunted with Eric Grinnell of Silver Tip Outfitters in Alberta. This was my second bear hunt with Eric, and it proved to be the biggest black bear adrenalin rush of my life.
I bowhunt for black bears a lot, in fact, starting in 1969, almost every year. The reason I started bear hunting in the spring is because of my work schedule. Most of my life I was a wildlife professor at West Virginia University. My fall teaching and research schedule was very demanding and getting off work was almost impossible. That meant that bowhunting elk, moose, and other species that required long-distance travel, was difficult and most of those hunts would have to wait until I retired (which I did in 1998). For several years I did sneak away over the Labor Day weekend and drive to Ontario to bear hunt. I’d leave on Thursday after my last class and drive until 2:00 A. M. There was this roadside park half way between Buffalo and Toronto, and I’d throw my sleeping bag on a table and sleep there for 5 hours. I’d arrive at my hunting location around noon on Friday, hunt that night, Saturday evening and Sunday evening, and then drive home Monday (Labor Day holiday). I did this for at least 5 years and took 4-5 bears, but nothing big.
My spring hunting was possible because the semester ended the second week of May, and this meant that I could go to Canada and bowhunt black bears. Actually such hunts didn’t start in Canada, but rather in Colorado. Back in 1969, you could still bear hunt over bait in Colorado, so I went there for 5-6 springs and did well. Those hunts were memorable for several reasons. First, there were no bugs and the weather was good. Second, you hunted in the Rocky Mountains, where the scenery was fantastic and the trout streams full. Third, there were many colored bears. In fact, they were almost 100 percent color phased bears.
I shot my first bear on one of those hunts and several big bears thereafter. Following Colorado, I did most of my bear hunts in Saskatchewan and again had some great hunts. Intermixed into those hunts were some others. While on sabbatical at Utah State University in 1987, I bowhunted for bear in Utah, and one year I sat on a bait for three evenings in Wyoming. Twice I went to Newfoundland in June, but both of those hunts proved to be unsuccessful. The bottom line is that from 1969 to 2002, I bowhunted somewhere; the West, some in Ontario, a few times in Quebec and Newfoundland, but most of the time in either Alberta, or Saskatchewan. Later on, 2007and 2008, I ventured into Manitoba with good success as well.
I have a twin brother who was a wildlife professor in Edmonton, and back in the mid-eighties, he told me that the Province was going to make the black bear a game animal (it had been treated like vermin up until that time, no baiting, but farmers and others could literally shoot bears on sight). Legalizing bait hunting and implementing regulations governing how bear guides had to operate proved to be a huge financial boost to the rural economy of Alberta, while doing wonders for bear management. Brother Bill indicated that once baiting started, some huge bears would be taken because they had never been bowhunted. So, in the late eighties (I think it was 1988) they made it legal to bear hunt over bait and I started hunting there. In 1990 I took this trip and it was the bear hunt of a lifetime. Come along as I hunt the biggest bear of my hunting life.
I met my brother Earl and his son at the Edmonton Airport. My twin brother who lives in Edmonton was also there to greet us on that May 1991 day. We visited for several hours, then boarded a plane for Grand Prairie where we were picked up by Mike Ukrainetz, one of Eric Grinnell’s guides (Mike has since started his own outfitting business and is one of the top guides in Alberta). From there it was a relatively short drive to Bay Tree, located in west-central Alberta.
Eric had a very comfortable tent camp, and once we were settled in, the bows came out and we made sure our sights survived the air flight from Pittsburgh. I then suggested to Eric that I’d take a small bucket of bait and head for the ‘Camp Bait’. This bait was only about 600 yards from the camp, and I’d hunted it one evening the previous year. It was positioned on the edge of a swamp, and I really liked the location. But Eric indicated that we weren’t hunting the Camp Bait because it was not being hit. “There may be a small bear there Dave, but it isn’t worth your efforts. Forget it. I’ve got a great bait for you to sit tonight.” I agreed, “but I’ll just stretch my legs and walk down there to see if anything came by last night.”
A short while later I approached the Camp Bait, and noticed that it had been lightly touched. That could mean a martin or some other small critter, but it could also mean a good bear. I’ve seen it before, where a really good bear just touches a bait and leaves. I checked around the bait for tracks or scats, and finding none, wandered down a trail that headed into the swamp and some thick cover. Around eighty yards from the bait, I found what I was looking for. A huge track in the mud and it had been made the night before. A quick check showed that the trail was used regularly.
Whatever was using it was big, and he didn’t use this trail to get to the bait. Rather, he cut off onto another trail that skirted the edge of the swamp. Either way, a big bear was in the area, so I returned to the bait, hauled down the stand and moved it. Returning to the camp I told Eric that I wanted to sit at the Camp Bait that night. I described the situation, but Eric wasn’t impressed. He really wanted me to go to a proven bait. We discussed it a bit more and finally Eric compromised that I could hunt the Camp Bait for one night, but then I’d have to go where Eric felt I had a better chance at a big bear.
That far North, you can shoot until around 10:45 P.M. Yes, the days are quite long. Around 4:00, with a Robert Ludlum book, a safety strap, and my bow, I headed for the stand. Before climbing in, I put one-two drops of doe-in heat urine on the trail at a spot where I wanted the bear to stop. Since I wasn’t hunting over bait, I didn’t want a bear walking thru and not giving me a shot. My thought was that the urine might stop a bear for a few seconds, giving me a chance to draw my bow. I had no idea at the time just how important those two drops of deer urine would be.
I climbed into the newly set stand at 4:30 and began my wait. I’d read a bit, then look around. It was a typical May evening in Alberta. Chilly, lots of clouds, geese flying overhead, and loons calling from a distant lake. Periodically red squirrels chirped from nearby trees, but no bears.
The hours passed quickly, and as the sun went down and the woods darkened, I laid the book aside and started paying more attention to the sounds of the swamp. It was that critical time when you just had the feeling that something was going to happen. And it did.
Around 10:30, I heard a twig snap to my left. There was a big pine blocking my view of the trail, but I grabbed my bow and was on red alert. Five minutes later, he stepped out. I didn’t try to assess his size, but just knew that he was big and chocolate. From the moment he stepped out, things happened quickly. Before I go on, let me note that bears may not have the best eye sight in the world, but they have ears that are unsurpassed.
As I got ready to draw my bow for the 16-yard shot, he heard me. I think my bow hand twisted on the grip just a fraction, but whatever it was, he heard it. Typical of big bears, he didn’t jerk his head around and look at me. He just cocked his head to the side and listened intently. I hadn’t drawn the bow, and frankly was now afraid to do so for fear that he’d hear me and take off. Yeah, big bears do that too.
Suddenly, I noticed his neck extend and he moved his head slightly down the trail. That nose of his was working overtime and I suddenly realized that he smelled the deer urine. It definitely had his attention, so much so that he never moved as I drew and released the arrow. As the arrow struck, he whirled and ran back down the trail into the swamp. When he turned I could see the white and yellow feather fletching just above the back, and my immediate reaction was that the hit was high. Within twenty seconds I heard him growl about eighty yards away.
It wasn’t a death moan that bears give on occasion. No, this was a low growl, and I wasn’t sure what that meant. Was he dying, or was he just angry from a high muscle hit? Ten minutes later I climbed down and got my little flashlight out of my fanny pack and started down the trail. Scuff marks clearly showed where he turned to charge into thick brush. That stopped me cold because I was a bit nervous about following with such a little light. Heck, I would have been nervous with a flood light. So I waited for Mike to show up. He picked up my brother first, then around 11:00 they arrived at the bait. I’d back tracked from my stand to meet them and described what happened.
We returned to the stand, and I pointed in the direction I thought the bear had gone. The three of us plowed around in there for ten minutes and found nothing. No blood, no arrow, no tracks. I didn’t know quite what to make about that, and we returned to camp and a long, rather fitful night of ‘sleep’, if you can call it that. Brother Earl woke me at 6 A. M. and wanted to hit the blood trail, but we waited patiently while the camp woke up and breakfast was made.
Several of the other hunters in camp wanted to join us, so we loaded two trucks and drove the short distance to the bait. Mike and I took the lead, and I climbed into the stand and pointed in the direction I’d heard the bear. “No wonder we didn’t find sign last night Dave”, Mike said, “We were looking in the wrong direction, a good thirty yards from where you just pointed.” In that thick swamp, thirty yards was like a mile. But even with this new direction, there was no blood, and bear tracks were everywhere. So, after a few minutes, Mike and I got twenty yards apart and moved in the direction I’d heard the growl.
Suddenly a raven flew up, and that got our attention. We both moved in that direction, but Mike got there first. I heard him say, “Holy smokes, Dave.” I answered from thirty yards away, “What have you found?” As I walked up to Mike he just scratched his head and laughed. I could see the top of the bear as Mike turned to me and said, “That is the biggest bear I have ever seen.” And so it was.
Soon the whole crew was there and it took all of us to move that bear for a photo session. We tried to haul him out and quickly decided to skin him there. Thus, we never got an official weight, though later Eric estimated him to be over 600 pounds. Mike and I thought he was definitely over 550 . . . either way, a monster bear. Back at camp we caped out the skull and green scored him later that day at 21′ 9″, which meant that if the score held up for the 60 days until it could be officially measured, it would be a new Alberta record for the bow. Wow.
As bears go, he wasn’t that long, and squared 7′ 4″, but this bear was built like a linebacker. His teeth were worn, one canine was broken. But most interestingly he had a front foot missing. The injury was quite old, and I hadn’t noticed a limp when he walked in the night before. Also, when we skinned him out, it became obvious that he’d been in a fight with another boar the night before I shot him, because there were fresh scratches, holes, bites, all over his body and tooth marks to the skull. I’d love to have seen the bear that picked a fight with this bruiser.
If the hunt had ended there, it would have been way more than anyone could ever want. But with a two-bear limit, and five more days in the hunt, I planned on sitting on stands. That first afternoon I stayed in camp and cleaned the skull and cape. But the second afternoon Mike indicated that he had a new, never hunted bait that was being hammered. We offered it to the other five hunters in camp, but they wanted to sit at other baits where they were seeing bears. Thus, that second afternoon Mike and I headed out. The drive was over 40 miles, then there was a one-hour 4-wheeler ride along cut lines to the new bait site.
The bait was in an aspen grove along a small stream. We quickly erected a tree stand in a small aspen, selecting that tree simply because there were no big trees in that location. But the bait had been hammered and by the size and amount of the scat, there were several good bears using it. Based on the remote location we were in, it is doubtful that any bears in this area had ever been hunted. There just had to be a good bear using this bait. And there was.
That first night was one of the most incredible nights of bear hunting I have ever had . . . and considering that I’d just killed the new province record, that is saying something. Here is why I say that. Around 6:30 a small black sow came down the trail toward the bait, followed by a bear that is almost indescribable. He was chocolate, and had to weigh at least 100 pounds more than the bear I’d already harvested. In my mind, then and today, he would have been the biggest black bear ever taken with the bow. He was that big. In particular, his head was just immense. A huge pumpkin.
He had his nose right in the butt of that hot female, but there was an intersecting trail above me, around 20 yards from my stand. The problem was that there was thick alder along that trail, making any shot impossible. I wasn’t concerned when he pulled off the sow and started walking on this other trail, because she came directly to the bait and I just knew he would follow. Instead, he sat down. Yes, he literally sat down like a dog and appeared to be watching something in the small meadow behind my right shoulder. I looked over and there was a small boar, black, not weighing much over 150 pounds.
This little guy was headed for the bait and for the hot sow. The big boar saw him and charged right at him. They were a good sixty-seventy yards apart, and the big guy never slowed down. He growled as he bowled over that small bear, into the brush, with jaws snapping and fur flying. The sow paid no mind and continued at the bait, and the ‘fight’ was over in seconds. The huge boar came out of the ravine, and back on the trail to the bait. The little guy was nowhere to be seen, at least for a few moments.
Suddenly he comes out of the ravine and walks right toward the bait as if nothing had happened. Is this bear crazy? Apparently so, but the big boar would have none of it. He quickly went at the small boar again and this time, there was no mistaking his intentions. They crashed through the alders and the little bear ran off for good. But by this time the sow decided she’d have enough of the bait, so up the trail she goes, and at the intersection of the other trail, twenty yards away, she picks up her suitor and off they go, out of sight.
I sat that bait for the rest of the week, hoping that he would return. I turned down several record book bears, one of which was a gorgeous color, but to no avail. He never returned. What are the odds of taking the province record, then having a much bigger bear within bow range on the same hunt? Probably pretty low. And although I didn’t get a shot at this monster black bear, just being able to see him and to witness the aggressive encounter near the bait, combined with the three-legged bruin I’d harvested, made for a bowhunting bear adventure of a lifetime.
On the fifth day of my hunt, I drove to Bay Tree to call my twin brother and tell him when I’d be at the Edmonton Airport. I planned to spend an extra day in Edmonton visiting with Bill’s family. Before hanging up, Bill interjected something interesting. “Hey Dave, the word in Edmonton is that a bowhunter near Bay Tree has killed a new province record bear. And they say that this bear is huge.” “I know Bill, and I have some pictures of that bear. I’ll show them to you when I arrive.” I sort of forgot to tell him that I had taken that bear. Practical joke time. And so it was that when Earl and I landed in Edmonton we were met by our brother. After greeting each other the first thing Bill wanted to see was photos of this big bear. We found a bench, and I pulled out a photo. “Whoa Dave, look at this bear,” my brother exclaimed. “Do you want to see another photo?” I asked. “You bet.” As Bill looked at the second photo, he suddenly looked at me a bit strangely and said, “How come you are in these pictures Dave?” It was a great question and one I couldn’t wait to answer.
The province officials took a small tooth from that bear and a year later I learned that he was 17 years old. I left the skull with my brother and he had it placed in a beetle colony at the natural history museum there, where beetles would clean off the meat, so it could be officially scored after sixty days without the chance of much shrinking as you often get when skulls are boiled. Our good friend, Ric Visscher, was an official scorer who lived in Edmonton and he promised to score it on day 61. If the skull shrunk even a little bit, it would not be the new record. That is why I did not want it boiled to remove the meat and quickly accepted brother Bill’s offer to put it in the beetle colony. Boiling can easily knock a big bear skull down by as much as 2 inch. Not to worry. On day 61 the bear scored 21 9/16 inches. I believe he was ninth in the world at the time, but as I write this (2012) in the 2005 Fifth Edition of the Pope and Young record book he is tied for 56th. In the 1993 Edition of their record book he was 23rd. Shows you how fast things change, especially with an animal that grew in popularity with bowhunters during the 90’s. Does the fact that he no longer is high in the countries record books make a difference? Not to me and not to the bear. It was an honor to have hunted that bear, and a privilege to have the chance to harvest him. Number 1 or number 1000 makes no difference. He is what he is, the greatest bear I’ve ever hunted and the second greatest black bear I have ever seen. And both on the same hunt. How neat is that?
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr. David Samuel spent 30 years as a professor of wildlife management at West Virginia University. He is now in his 44th year with Bowhunter Magazine, where his Know Hunting column still appears. He currently writes the Know Whitetails column for the Whitetail Journal, The Future of Hunting column on www.bowhunting.net and writes a weekly outdoor column for WV newspapers. His activities on behalf of wildlife are diverse: from initiating the West Virginia Bowhunter Education Program to helping get bowhunting legalized in many European and African countries.
He has won honored lifetime achievement awards from the National Bowhunter Education Foundation, the Wildlife Society, the Quality Deer Management Association, and Whitetails Unlimited. He is in the SCI Bowhunter’s Hall of Fame, and his greatest honor was being inducted into the Archery Hall of Fame in 2007. He has written 9 books, with his three most recent books being Whitetail Advantage, Whitetail Racks, and the one being presented here, An Empty Quiver – A Lifetime of Bowhunting Adventures. You can find the table of contents for the two whitetail books, and get autographed copies of all three of these books on Dr. Dave’s website, www.knowhunting.com.
For more also go to: Straight Talk Interview: Dr. Dave Samuel