The Bear That Wouldn’t Stop
A seemingly well hit bruin turns a
recovery mission into a total nightmare.
By Randy Templeton
It was September 1986 and we were along on our second Ontario black bear hunt. Our hunt in the spring had been a total bust for my hunting pal Craig Owens and me. It didn’t take long to realize swatting skeeters and no-see-ums wasn’t exactly our idea of hunting. Even after dousing ourselves with bug dope—and our ankles and shirt cuffs duck-taped shut—the biting, blood-sucking phantoms always seemed to find a clear pathway to bare flesh. Plus we didn’t have a crack at any bears on that trip.
Bud Dickson, one of Ontario’s leading authorities on problem bears and certainly a top-shelf outfitter based out of Atikokan, invited Craig and me on a return trip, this time during the upcoming fall. I was very reluctant to the invite at first, considering our previous journey. Not to mention, the dates conflicted with when Craig and I usually go elk hunting. But Bud explained during the fall it’s too cold for bugs, and bears would be feeding rigorously before hibernation. Bud also explained that boars would be roaming the woods for the last receptive sows. After hearing all this, the temptation was too high, and we moved our elk hunt out a week and headed for Ontario!
Upon arrival, we were greeted by our guide Garth Stromberg who told us the bears had been quite active and visiting the baits at nearly the precision of a Swiss timepiece. In fact, just days before our arrival they filmed five large boars over one bait site. Garth said one would tip the scales at 400 pounds or better and another would be pushing 600 pounds. We were excited.
Our accommodations were better than most, a log cabin on the bank of a pristine lake. The first afternoon was spent fishing for walleye and northern pike, both or which we enjoyed for dinner. That evening, Craig and I experienced a spectacular show of northern lights, neither or which we’d ever seen. An assortment of bright beams of light shot from between the clouds and danced on the lake.
The first morning we walked to our stand sites under the cover of darkness, each of us carrying a bait bucket in one hand and a bow in the other. A layer of frost covered the ground, and the smell of autumn was in the air. Without warning, a cool breeze hit and I was overcome with an eerie feeling we weren’t alone. A sudden “woof” coming from the darkness and the sound of rattling brush sent chills up my spine. A bear hadn’t been more than 25 yards from where we stood. The remaining distance to our stands seemed like eternity. An occasional snap of twigs and rustling of leaves had my wits on end.
Craig and I split up and moments later I was settling in my stand. That is when I spotted a bulky figure beginning to materialize. Then, just as quickly as it appeared, it vanished back into the shadows. I wasn’t sure what it was.
That afternoon found us carrying bait in plastic grocery bags filled with fruitcake, peanut butter, sweet rolls and bread smothered with pancake syrup. As I approached my bait I could hear twigs snap nearby. I thought I’d be lucky to reach the stand before a bear comes charging in for dinner. Rather than bury the bag under the pile, I simply laid it on top and tiptoed to the stand.
Suddenly, I heard a rustle then saw some small poplar trees whipping back and forth. Two giant bodies towered on the skyline. Slowly, two moose moseyed down the slope and passed within 40 yards, but neither paid any attention.
I was caught off-guard some time later when a large bear ever so quietly stepped out from beneath an umbrella of brilliant colored foliage. He stopped at less than 10 yards and balanced on two legs. His jet-black eyes met mine in a blank but cold and chilling stare. At that point, I wasn’t quite certain the goodies lying on the log pile were his primary objective.
Remembering what Bud Dickson told me about shot placement I wasn’t about to take the shot until the old boar settled in for the smorgasbord. Those thoughts had no more than passed when he made a beeline for the bait, grabbed the entire bait bag and ran for cover! One small piece of bread fell in the opening marking his escape route. At less than 30 yards the bear ate all the contents, including the bag from behind a cluster of berry bushes.
Thinking the bear would return for the last scrap, I stood ready with an arrow knocked. He came close, but much to my surprise the temptation wasn’t great enough. Instead, out came another bear, but one that didn’t compare to the big bear’s size. I passed on the shot.
The following morning we spent baiting various sites getting ready for the afternoon hunt. Craig elected to hunt elsewhere and I chose to stay put hoping for a second opportunity at my bait site.
Upon arrival a dozen clattering gray jays were scavenging the bait station. To ensure there wasn’t a repeat performance of the afternoon before, I buried the bait deep beneath a pile of logs and then poured raw molasses on the logs to sweeten the deal.
Only minutes had passed when the woods grew silent, and I sensed something was amiss. Looking over my shoulder, I spotted two black silhouettes. After nearly an hour the smallest outline cautiously inched toward the opening licking its chops. Within a few yards he stopped long enough to take a brief but sneering glance, then woofed before running for cover.
Overcome by temptation, just minutes later the old bore walked directly beneath the stand spanning two trees and stopped. Sniffing the ladder, he put one paw on the first step and stared upward as if he were going to join me. Let me tell you, I was about to jump out of my pants. Fortunately, he must have decided the aerial perch wouldn’t support both our weight and climbed back down. Slowly but surely, he slumbered to the pile and began peeling off logs, tossing them aside like toothpicks.
Giving the skittish critter plenty of time to settle in, I slowly drew my bow and anchored for a quartering away shot. Milliseconds later the 160-grain Snuffer broadhead sank out of sight and reappeared while exiting the front shoulder on the opposite side, sending the bear charging.
About an hour later, it was nearly dark. Figuring the bear had plenty of time to expire, I climbed down with flashlight in hand and soon picked up a good blood trail. I remember thinking at the time how ludicrous it was trailing a bear in the dark. These thoughts had no more than passed when a growl and popping jaw sent me hightailing for higher ground.
Returning to camp, we collectively agreed to wait until morning before taking after the bear, giving it plenty of time to expire. Craig hunted the following morning, but unfortunately it was another no-show.
Garth arrived sometime around 10 a.m. with his tracking dog. The blood trail petered out at the edge of a swamp, at which time he turned his hound loose. No more than 10 minutes had passed when the dog began baying. Garth turned toward me and said, “There’s your bear!” Suddenly the barking stopped and then picked up again some distance away. Oh, no, the bear is alive!
We hustled into the swamp and soon located the dog some 80 or more yards away snapping at the bear’s heels. From behind, Garth and Craig whispered, “Why don’t you just slip up there and finish him off?”
“Ok, I’ll try,” I said reluctantly. Really I was thinking, Why don’t one of you go finish him off if it sounds so easy.
Closing the gap to about 35 yards, I was taunted from behind to shoot. Not exactly in a calm state, I drew and released the string, sending the Dougherty Natural aluminum arrow skipping into oblivion. The bear ran a short distance, maybe 30 yards before lying down, giving me only a rump view.
Once again taking my two buddies’ ill advice from behind, I sent another mini-missile on the way. With the shaft buried to the fletching the bear spun around in circles like a dog chasing its tail and then took up the charge. Having made only two steps backward the dog suddenly appeared between us, luckily diverting the bear’s attention.
To make an even longer story short, I was down to three arrows and there was no sign of the bear weakening. While in the process of trailing the bear, he eventually offered a broadside shot. Quickly I shot and my arrow passed clean through his chest. Craig quickly and graciously volunteered to walk some two miles or more to get a slug gun—just in case. Garth and I continued following the bear hoping he’d expire—soon. He’d have to.
Eventually the bear bedded down in a stand of tightly grouped saplings where we watched from a distance. After a half-hour or so without any movement, I decided to slip in closer. At 20 yards a narrow opening offered what appeared to be a clear path. As bad luck would have it the Snuffer found the only tree between us. Startled, the bear jumped up and ran from sight.
Now I was down to one arrow. Within minutes the dog located the bear again lying on a rise in the swamp. Although he appeared to be dead, we approached with caution when closing the gap to maybe 25 yards the bear got up and slowly began circling down wind. I quickly drew and held steady before letting the last arrow slip free. Upon impact the bear let out a roar and turned to make a charge. Once again the dog redirected the boar’s attention, giving us time to escape out of harm’s way.
Scouring the area we found the badly bent and blood-soaked arrow. Looking at Garth, I said “So now what?”
“ We wait,” he replied.
While in the process of trying to straighten the arrow, I was entertained by Garth chopping down a small sapling. “What the heck are you going to do with that,” I said.
“Well, I’m making a spear just in case.”
Please, Craig, hurry with that gun.
After an hour the young guide turned the god loose again. Having barely lost sight of him, the all-too-familiar baying sound pinpointed his location. Following our ears, we found the bear bedded down behind a large brush pile growling and snapping its jaws at the circling dog. First eyeballing a clear path for retreat, I made a mad dash for the brush pile with an arrow knocked. Leaping aloft, I drew and sank the arrow behind the shoulder. All hell broke loose upon impact, causing the bear to let out a furious roar, standing on its hind legs and swatting air!
I’ve never been much for a long distance runner but I’m somewhat quick out of the gate. Leaping out over the barking dog, I was running for all it was worth. Hearing a yelp. I glanced over my shoulder only in time to see the dog sailing through the air and hear Garth yelling. “Oh my dog!” With one swat the enraged bear sent the dog airborne before sprinting another 50 yards and going down.
Shortly thereafter the dog reappeared and a close examination uncovered four claw marks on the rump, none of which were serious. Nevertheless, I truly believe things could have taken a serous turn for the worst had the dog not been there.
While field dressing the bear, I was somewhat curious to know where the first arrow had taken the bear, considering how long he lived. Interestingly, the first arrow caught the top of the liver and one lung. I’ve known of whitetails that have survived with one lung but never without both. The second arrow penetrated the same lung and the third severed the heart. One can only surmise this was one tough bear with a will to live.
If you’re wondering what happened to Craig, well he showed up after all the excitement and field dressing was complete, none of which he claims to have missed. The Ontario Department of Ministry aged the bear from a tooth submitted and later sent a letter stating the bear was 7 years old, much older than the “average bear.”
When we returned to Atikokan, I was approached by a man who claims to have harvested more than two-dozen bears (26 to be exact) over the years and consequently has plenty of exciting stories to convey. His advice was to never, never take up the trail of a wounded bear. Good advice, I’d say.
Some years before he and a friend found themselves in a very similar situation that nearly turned tragic. While moving in for a finishing shot, the bear attacked, taking down hi friend. Before he could stop the bear, his hunting partner’s arm had been severely mauled. Although surviving, he nearly bled to death before arriving at a nearby hospital!