IN 1992, I FIRST hunted bears in Alberta with Mike Ukrainetz. Mike had done some guiding for other outfitters, but this was his first year of outfitting. To get some mileage out of an unfilled slot, he invited me up to write about his great bear hunting.
Well, for me, it didn’t turn out so great. For six straight days, eight hours a day, I sat at a bait trampled with five-inch tracks. A big bear was pounding that site. Yet I saw only one small bear, a 100-pound female.
However, that hunt forever changed my perspective on bear hunting. When Kevin Hayden, a bowhunter from Texas, shot the biggest bear I had ever seen, I wrote in my journal:
"Kevin’s bear was the most awesome animal I’ve ever seen. Mike estimated its head at 20½", the hide over 7′, the weight over 400 lbs. I just couldn’t believe how much animal was there. You have to see one on the ground to get the real import of the size of an animal like this. It inspired me to try even harder to kill a big bear. Sometime I have to get something like that!"
In short, I became obsessed with trying to kill a bear like Kevin’s, and over the next 20 years I hunted black bears from Alaska to Manitoba to Wyoming, and many places in between. During that time, I killed some very good bears, but none like Kevin’s. Oh, did I want to kill something like that!
In early 2010, Mark Buehrer of Bowhunting Safari Consultants called me to say Mike’s Outfitting had an opening in May. Would I be interested in hunting with Mike Ukrainetz and shoot a program for Bowhunter TV?
Well, yeah, I would. Mike is a great guy, and because he’s a serious and very successful bowhunter himself I had no doubt he would put on a good hunt. Baited bear hunts make for pretty easy TV, so I might be able to produce a good program for Bowhunter. Above all, my obsession to kill a bear like Kevin Hayden’s still raged. Mike has built a reputation for producing big bears, and since he’d started my obsession to kill something like that in the first place, maybe, after 20 years, he could satisfy it. I was eager to find out.
THE TRIP STARTED OFF BADLY. While drinking a cup of coffee in the Portland, Oregon, airport, waiting to meet my hunting partner, Larry D. Jones, I felt a little queasy. By the time we reached Grand Prairie, Alberta, where Mike met us, I was sicker than a dog and spent my first hunting day in bed — and the bathroom.
The plan on this hunt would be for Larry and me to alternate hunting days. We both had bear tags, and we could both shoot camera, so we would trade off duties during the hunt.
As I lay moaning in bed that first day, Larry went out to hunt alone. He mounted the video camera on a swing arm attached to the stand tree to tape his own hunt. Although he didn’t kill a bear, he was excited when he returned to camp.
"Dwight, I saw a BIG bear," he said. During 50 years of bowhunting, Larry has seen and shot more than his share of big animals. He is not easily impressed, but he was impressed now. "He walked right under the stand, but I was out of camera light. So I didn’t shoot…"
The sighting of a BIG bear was great news but not a huge surprise. During the 20 years since my first hunt with him, Mike has expanded and refined his operation to ensure that hunters will consistently see big bears. His area now covers 2,000 square miles of prime bear country — rivers, creeks, swamps, and aspen/spruce forests. With agricultural crops providing rich food throughout, bears grow fast, and most five-year-old males make the Pope and Young record book. And with light hunting pressure from locals and very selective hunting by Mike’s hunters, the area supports lots of older — and bigger — bears. In 2010, 26 hunters took 17 P&Y bears.
Mike and his guides maintain 40 active baits throughout the season, and they continuously monitor all of them with trail cameras so they’re never hunting blind. They know the size and color of bears hitting each bait and can put hunters on the hottest baits with the biggest bears. From a hunter’s point of view, that’s huge. It doesn’t guarantee anyone a bear, but it certainly instills a high degree of confidence.
That’s why it was no surprise Larry had seen that monster bear. Mike had already told us he was there, and Larry’s sighting had just confirmed it. To make things better, I was starting to feel okay and would be able to hunt the next day. Also, not lost on me, it was my turn to man the bow. Larry would be behind the camera.
LARRY AND I ARRIVED on stand about 3 p.m. With the camera mounted on the swing arm and our gear organized, we settled in to wait. From the stand we could see some of the refinements Mike makes to all his bait sites to ensure clean archery kills. He places baits 20 yards from comfortable p
latform stands, and he builds log cribs around all his baits to position bears for perfect shots.
In addition to a bait barrel, Mike mounts a honey pot on a tree near every stand. No bear can resist honey, and when a bear stands to lick honey from the pot, it gives the hunter a good look at its belly for positive sex identification. Mike encourages his hunters to shoot only mature males. To further ensure that hunters make good decisions, he places a five-foot log near every bait barrel. Any bear on all fours longer than the log is a solid shooter.
We’d been on stand about an hour when we heard whimpering and saw a bear cub wandering through the woods. The next thing we knew the cub was climbing the tree beside our stand until it was looking us in the eye from two feet away. Our only concern was, Where was momma? Would she hear that whimpering and come charging up the tree to protect her baby? Some people say hunting bears over bait is boring, but not with events like this!
The cub eyed us for 15 minutes until it finally realized we were not its momma. Then it slowly backed down and wandered off into the woods, squawling and whimpering. An hour later, we were still wondering where the mother was when two bears seemingly answered our question. As the bears came into view 50 yards away, we could see that the first was a female, most likely the cub’s mother. The second was clearly a boar.
"That’s him!" Larry whispered. "That’s the big one."
He really didn’t need to say it. As most veteran bear hunters agree, when you see a huge bear, you don’t have to ask. You just know. And right now I knew. His gnarly head dwarfed the tiny ears that seemed to be growing off the side of his head, and his head appeared to be attached directly to his body — no neck. With his massive chest, he didn’t walk by swinging his legs but swayed back and forth menacingly. Most telling, he dwarfed the mature female he was following. Over the years, I’d seen some very impressive bears, but none had inspired the awe I had remembered from Kevin Hayden’s monster. This one did.
As these thoughts ran through my head, the bears passed 20 yards behind the stand. Unfortunately, they showed no interest in the bait and wandered on by into the brush, presenting no shot. My heart sank. Man, he’d come so close, and I couldn’t get a shot. I felt deflated. But what a sight! At least I’d finally seen something like Kevin’s bear.
Larry and I sat quietly for an hour or more, watching and thinking about what could have been.
Then Larry motioned. Another bear was coming. At first we saw only black motion through the branches. Was it the big one, or just an average bear?
The black motion came directly under our stand without giving us a good look, but when it emerged out the other side, we had no doubt. It was him. To prepare for a shot, I set my feet and ran a mental checklist over my bow and form. Everything was ready.
As the bear began sniffing around the bait, I forced myself to wait. With 40 years of bowhunting under my belt, you’d think I would be immune to bear fever and other nervous afflictions. Well, maybe I am around average animals, but this was no average animal. This was the culmination of a 20-year obsession. I had to do it right. I had to get something like that!
When the bear settled in and I settled down, I drew and placed my pin at the center of his chest. Only when the glowing green pin seemed steady, with no quivering, did I begin pulling with my back muscles. The release of the string startled me.
As the bear crashed off, a juggernaut plowing through brush and tree limbs, I couldn’t help but question, Was I on?
Suddenly the woods went quiet. He was down. Larry and I waited a few minutes, straining to listen. When we heard only birds and squirrels, we quietly climbed down and crept toward the last place we had heard the bear.
Seeing black hair in a grassy opening, 60 yards from the stand, I slowed and approached cautiously. I did not want to rush ahead, fueled by high expectations. He might not be as big as I’d thought. I did not want to face disappointment.
Finally, standing over the bear, I sensed something familiar. It was the feeling I’d had on my first hunt with Mike, 20 years before, as we stood looking down at Kevin Hayden’s bear. Yes, I had got something like that.
Author’s Notes: The day after my success, Larry caught the flu and had to spend one of his hunting days in bed. When he got back on his feet, Mike put us on a stand where his trail camera showed a massive chocolate-colored bear. Our first night at that stand, six bears fought and chased and put on a great show all afternoon. Our last two nights were repeat performances, but the big chocolate never made an appearance. So Larry chose not to shoot a bear.
My equipment included a Mathews HyperLite at 48 lbs. draw weight, Carbon Express Maxima Hunter 250 arrows, Rage 40KE broadheads, and Cabela’s Microtex clothing in Outfitter camo.
Not at all incidentally, I took home the meat off my bear, and it was delicious!
To book a hunt with Mike’s Outfitting for black bears, whitetail deer, mule deer, moose, and elk, or to book other bowhunting adventures across North America, contact Mark Buehrer, Bowhunting Safari Consultants, (419) 943-3743, (419) 890-7199 (cell), firstname.lastname@example.org, www.bowhuntingsafari.com.