The stellar jay sitting in the small pine tree quit squawking and looked nervously around. Something had bothered it. It swiveled its head side to side, trying to confirm its sixth sense. Whether the fear was real or imagined, the bird flushed, sailing through the trees and out of sight. My senses were on edge, ears straining to hear the slightest sound, eyes searching behind every piece of brush and limb for a patch of black. Nothing. Then I heard it, the slightest swish. The white noise sounded like nothing in particular, but to a bear hunter it sounded like everything. I couldn't see him, but I knew a bear had just arrived.
I sat statue-still, swiveling just my eyes, not risking to move my head under the camo facemask. A mosquito buzzed around my ear and settled on the skin between my lobe and neck. I felt him take a tentative step then pause, getting ready to feed. As the proboscis met skin, pure instinct fought with reason as I decided to not swat him. Another swish of hair against a wet branch floated through the air. This time I was able to mark the sound 30 yards away, somewhere off to my right. I slowly turned my head, eyes reaching first, chin following, as slow as a sundial. I stopped when I saw a patch of black that didn't look quite right.
The black spot first looked like shadow, then the shadow shifted position. It was a bear and a cautious one at that. He stood downwind of the bait, partially hidden by brush, testing the wind. His head lifted and turned as his nostrils flared in and out, taking in the delicious smells of doughnuts, grease and molasses, but at the same time searching for the repugnant smell of man. Satisfied no one was immediately present, the bear took one tentative step out of the bush. Coal black with a white chevron on his chest. My heart sank when I saw the bear was mid-sized — a shooter in other parts of the world, but not in Manitoba. I looked at the bear again, trying to shrink his ears and grow his belly. He was almost there, but one lesson I have learned about bears is if you have to convince yourself he is big, he isn't. You never look twice at a true shooter, you just raise the rifle.
He came in, taking over the bait pile, settling in, completely relaxed, feeding until darkness obscured the scene. Even when I could no longer see him, I could occasionally hear the chain tethering the barrel to the tree rattle like a ghost walking a hallway in the night. After 15 minutes crept by without a sound, I snapped on my headlamp to scan the ground. No beady eyes reflected back. Silently packing my gear into my pack, I felt for the top rung on the ladder with my boot. I lowered myself to the ground and trudged through the dark swamp, following the flashlight's beam to the two-track road 20 minutes away. I could have had Rick or Colleen Liske from Agassiz-Waterhen River Lodge come in and pick me up with a four-wheeler, but the extra noise and smell don't help your chances of tagging a bruin.
Rick was waiting with his pickup on the road. "See anything?"
"Just one bear. All black, medium sized'¦not a shooter."
"Another night. The hunt is still early."
"Anybody else see anything?"
"Yeah, Jeff had a blond bear on his stand. It came out early around five and sat there most of the evening."
"Pure blond, not cinnamon? That's cool. How much did it weigh"
"I would guess 175 pounds."
"Yeah. He let it walk"
"You got to be kidding me — he didn't shoot it?"
"Nope, he's looking for a huge bear."
"OK, I get that, but it's a blond bear? Does he know how rare that is?"
When we got back to the lodge, Jeff showed me the video. It was a gorgeous bear. He was right, it wasn't huge, but it was beautiful.
"Are you having second thoughts?" I asked.
"Yeah, I probably should have shot him, but I really want a massive bear. But if he comes back in tomorrow, I think I will take him."
Deep down I knew that bear would never come back in, but I wished him well as we all turned in.
The following day, I learned why my hunting partner Bob Kaleta of Zeiss returns to this lodge every year'¦the bear hunting is out of this world. Not only are there lots of color phase bears, there are some massive bears as well. While my stand was cold, Bob's was red-hot, and he put the hurt on a bruiser of a boar right at dark. His .338 Win. Mag. only barked once, but once was enough to anchor the 7-foot, all-black bruin. He and Rick could barely roll the ungutted boar onto the low-slung trailer towed behind the four-wheeler. His coat was thick and lush with a massive white band across the chest.
I knew the answer when I asked, "Are you going to full body mount him?" Bob is a bear freak who loves big boars, and his trophy room looks like a Cabela's showroom. His ear-to-ear grin confirmed my suspicions, and he said, "I don't know how I can't, but I have no idea how I am going to explain this to the wife." We skinned the brute that night, listening to the loons on the river behind the skinning shed, sipping Molsons and retelling the day's hunt. A perfect cap to a perfect day.
Later on that night, at our ritualistic midnight dinner, Jeff finally staggered in from the field.
"Did you get one?" I asked.
"'Blondie' came back."
"I passed him again."
I couldn't believe it, but then, that is bear hunting — everyone has their own idea of what constitutes a marvelous bear. Some hunters are driven by color, some covet size, others fancy skulls — to each his own. I have been fortunate enough to shoot some exceptionally large-skulled bears, but never much color, so the blond was really tripping my trigger.
"Man, that bear is lucky. If he was hitting my bait, I couldn't pass him."
"Do you want to sit there tomorrow? I have decided I am not going to shoot him, and he is all that is coming into that bait. I want to move anyway."
"DO I WANT TO SHOOT HIM? Does a bear'¦never mind. Yes, I will gladly take you up on the offer."
The next afternoon about 3 p.m., Colleen drove me to the stand. It was the closest stand to the lodge, perhaps five miles away, and Blondie had been coming in around 5 p.m. for the past two days.
"I'll drive back over around 8 o'clock," she said. "I won't come into the stand but will wait on the main road. If you shoot Blondie early, walk out to the main road, and I'll pick you up. If you don't get a shot, stay in the stand, I'll come get you around 11 p.m."
By the time I got into my stand it was 3:30. Summer was starting to break free of spring, and the sun beat down overhead, making the day unseasonably warm. Unpacking my bag, I settled in for a prolonged evening. Even though the bear came in early for Jeff, I knew that probably wasn't in the cards. With my luck, Blondie would come at last light — if he made an appearance at all.
I had just settled in and decided to get comfortable. Leaning my rifle against the large stand's wood railing, I adjusted my spare jacket behind my head and was planning on taking a 30-minute catnap. I was beat tired from the late nights, the large lunch and the hot sun. I had just closed my eyes when I got a premonition that sleeping in the stand was not the best way to get a bear. I opened one eye and noticed Blondie had arrived. Unaware I was even there, Blondie was elbow deep in bait and going for more. Jeff was right, he wasn't massive, but he was big enough and absolutely gorgeous — blond down the back, brown head and cinnamon legs. I could no more pass him than I could pass dessert at Thanksgiving.
I slowly reached down and grabbed my Wild West CoPilot .45-70 and lifted it above the railing. The bear quit feeding and sat up. I centered the glowing red dot of the Zeiss Compact Point behind his shoulder and squeezed the trigger. The 350-grain Buffalo Bore bullet dropped the bear on the spot. I did not cycle the gun but waited to see if he got up. He finally twitched a paw then jumped to his feet. Remaining perfectly silent after the shot paid dividends as he ran directly toward my stand unaware of where the shot had come from. I threw the lever and put another bullet into the running bear, which bowled him head over tail. Regaining his feet he turned and entered the brush where I put a third and final shot in him. He died less than 10 yards from the bait pile.
I climbed down from the stand and approached the beautiful bear. Running my fingers through his long, luxurious hair, I knew I had just shot a bear of a lifetime.
With at least six hours and thousands of mosquito bites until a four-wheeler arrived, I weighed my options. No cell service, no radios, the only option I had was my two feet. If I walked to the main road, I was within five miles of camp — less than two hours. With any luck, I might even be able to thumb a ride once I hit the main highway. Shouldering my pack and carrying the lever gun, I felt like John Wayne walking into the sunset. I hit the main road within a half an hour and stuck out a thumb at an approaching car. They slowed'¦just enough to confirm that, yes, I was in full camo and carrying a lever-action rifle before speeding up, leaving me in a cloud of exhaust fumes and burning rubber smoke.
I kept walking and stuck out my thumb to every passing car only to get a repeat performance of the first. I covered four of the five miles and had given up any hope of hitching a ride when I heard a large vehicle approaching from behind. I didn't even bother to look around or stick out a thumb. Then I heard the cadence of the engine change and the rumble of gears being downshifted. Looking over my shoulder, I saw a semitruck slowing down behind me. "What kind of lunatic would pick up a gun-toting stranger?" I thought to myself. As the truck got closer I realized it wasn't a semitruck at all but a septic pump truck. Stopping next to me the driver rolled down his window. "I figure you are going to Waterhen lodge, want a lift?" he asked. With only a mile to go I could walk to the lodge in another 15 minutes. Instead, I grabbed the door handle and climbed aboard. I mean, how often do you get to fulfill two Bucket List accomplishments in one day? Ahh, killing a blond bear and arriving back to the lodge in a shit truck — it doesn't get much better than that.