April 13, 2016
Bent over, as if it actually helped to conceal me, I skittered like a water bug across a wide-open field of short clover. It was one of those moments when the smart half of my brain was questioning the "bowhunting" half.
In the middle of the lush green field was a beast of a black bear — the kind that rippled when he walked. Had he been brown I'd have wondered if he was a grizzly. I was, after all, bear hunting in British Columbia.
The huge bruin grew tired of what seemed like labored waddling and settled to his belly to lazily graze the succulent clover.
Unaware an apex predator was lurking, the boar swung his massive head side-to-side, snatching mouthfuls of salad. Trying to keep his obese torso between us, I followed the bear's lead. When his head went left, I went right. When he turned right, I drifted left. They were my best "bear moves."
I dropped to one knee and pulled up my rangefinder — 51 yards. Not close enough. As I resumed my stalk, I thought to myself: Wait a minute. I'm sneaking across a coverless field toward a 400-lb. predator with fangs, claws, and unspeakable strength — on purpose! Reality, through objective eyes, can be unnerving.
Then the bowhunting side of my brain took control. I checked my backtrail to see if cameraman Conrad Evarts was keeping up and he was right at my elbow, wide-eyed and ready.
I knew it wouldn't take long for the bear to eat all the clover within reach and he'd be up, so I stole yardage as fast as I could until the range was 40 yards. The two halves of my brain wrestled. One side said sneak closer. The other side was screaming incoherently so I ignored it and pressed on.
At 32 yards I set my knees in the grass and nocked an arrow. All I could do was wait for something besides a Texas heart shot. Conrad's camera was rolling and outfitter Ken Watson, of Opatcho Lake Outfitters, watched from the treeline 150 yards back.
It was exhilarating to be so close to such a beast. On equal terms, predator-against-predator, I'd infiltrated the bear's comfort zone. Regardless of the outcome, I'd won the game and mentally whispered, Tag — you're it!
Then, in one smooth motion, the bruin slowly sat up like a dog waiting for a biscuit and turned 90 degrees to his right. He could have been blind and still picked us off. My sight pin was inches from the 12-ring when the bear made his own move, bolting straight away, the sheen of his black fur rippling in the sunlight. One more second and the arrow would have been gone!
I'm addicted to the adrenaline rush created by any stalk, but the thrill of stalking bears comes with an extra edge. Attacks are unlikely, but like a nasty toothache, it's always in the back of your mind.
Ken and his wife, Crystal, run a family operation and their rustic and cozy lodge is the kind of place you would envision for B.C. The sleeping cabins were new and built along the shore of Opatcho Lake. It was the first time I've ever watched big rainbow trout swim past my bedroom window! Crystal's cooking was spectacular and Ken was a real kick. I don't remember ever laughing so much on any hunt.
Because he was booked up, my hunt started a week earlier than is the norm for Ken's schedule. A warm April pointed toward an early spring so we decided to book the first week of May. Of course, that was the trigger for cold weather to return, which slowed spring's arrival.
Weather is important because the key for spot-and-stalk bear hunts is "green up." Until new clover begins to sprout in fields, along logging trails or anywhere the sun can warm the ground, bears can be scarce. Find clover; find bears.
A bright sun greeted us on the first morning but there was no hurry as early mornings are largely unproductive. After a great breakfast I shot my bow and then we took off in search of bears. A short hike into a high-country clearcut established there wasn't enough clover yet to draw bears so we drove down to the agricultural lands where it was much greener. We glassed several fields but the only bears we saw were two blacks and a chocolate during the drive back to camp.
Spot and Stalk
Day two was similar — spectacular weather and the occasional bear being spotted as we covered lots of ground. We were definitely early, but on the third morning things were looking up. We hiked up into a clearcut and spotted a bear grazing the edge of a logging road. It wasn't a big bear but I never pass up a chance for a "practice" stalk, so I broke out my bear moves.
Using available cover along the abandoned logging road I worked my way toward the bear, finally using a singular young pine as cover. Just as I reached the 40-yard mark the bear turned and started grazing toward me. When he got inside 30 yards I wondered if he would walk right up to the pine and sniff my boot. When he finally spotted me he launched over the edge and ran full-throttle downhill. That was a rush! Had he been a seven-footer my hunt would have been over.
That afternoon we quietly slipped back into a few of Ken's favorite hidden clover fields and one held two "practice" bears. I only made it to 70 yards before they picked me off.
The next day we snuck to the far edge of another field and spotted a black sow with three cubs, all as blonde as Lady Gaga. To her left was the huge boar I described at the beginning of this story. I feared the sow would blow the stalk but she was 200 yards off and didn't see us.
We saw a total of 10 bears that day and 10 more bears throughout the following day. We made a couple of unsuccessful stalks on decent boars but, as Ken would say, we didn't see, "the right bear in the right place."
Walking a Bear
The next morning was dead but in the afternoon we did something Ken calls, "walking a bear." A boar was grazing on the logging trail and ducked into the bush when he heard the truck. We stopped, turned the truck off and Ken said, "Let's just wait; he might come back out."
Sure enough, the bear cautiously stepped out 10 minutes later and started grazing away from us. Conrad and I slipped off our boots and started after the bear, hugging the brush along the trail. We "walked" that bear for a couple hundred yards, slowly inching closer as he fed, but when we got around a curve in the road another bear was coming from the other direction and both spooked.
While driving back into some logging areas I spotted a burly-looking bear grazing the edge of a clearcut trail that branched off the logging road. We continued up the road far enough to park and then quietly worked our way back toward the bear. Using a small stand of young trees as cover, we closed in while my brain frantically tried to determine if this was a good bear. No matter your experience level, judging bears is not easy. But this bear had "the look" — wide front paws and that waddling gait.
When I hit 45 yards I ran out of cover, so I drew my bow and waited for the bear to turn and offer a shot. Still unaware of our presence, the bear presented a quartering angle so I split my 40 and 50-yard pins and touched off the shot.
I did not see the arrow in flight but the bear bolted to my right. I quickly ran 10 yards back to the logging road to see if the bear would cross it but saw nothing. Ken, who was watching the stalk through binoculars, told me the arrow placement was perfect. The crucial bit of visual evidence was the arrow was still sticking out of the bear. I was shooting a lot of kinetic energy. The only way I wouldn't have had a pass-through is if I hit the opposite scapula. That was encouraging.
My confidence waned, however, as the blood trail was weak. That's not uncommon with long-haired bears and just one hole but the trail was short as well. With the sun getting low we backed out. Ken had a friend, Michael Schneider, who owned a phenomenal tracking dog, a Slovakian hound named Mook. The next morning, Mook embarrassed me.
I'd assumed the bear ran straight away but somehow the speedy bruin sprinted across the road before I made the 10 yards to watch for him. Mook nonchalantly followed the trail across the road to the bear, which was laying 20 yards from the edge. Had we looked that direction when we drove away we'd have spotted him from the truck! It was the easiest tracking job Mook ever had and he threw me a look that seemed to say, "What's your problem, rookie?"
The bear was, indeed, hit perfectly and dead within seconds. And he was big! The boar was pushing seven feet, his skull measured over 19 inches, and his fur was silky black. He must have run into a tougher bear because his muzzle was torn to shreds from fighting. That's character in a black bear!
I enjoy all kinds of bowhunting but when I can raise my heart rate by employing my best "bear moves" throughout a gorgeous week of hunting the Canadian bush, it makes both halves of my brain very happy.