By Bob Humphrey
THE SUN SETS VERY late in Newfoundland during the first week of July. So late that it was still well above the trees and almost directly in my eyes when a bear suddenly materialized in front of me on the last night of my hunt. When his head disappeared behind the bait barrel, I drew, and when he took two more steps and came into the clear, I picked a spot and released. It all happened so fast it took several long minutes after the hit for my brain to process what had just transpired. My hunt was finally over - or so I thought.
My guide wasn't due for at least an hour, so I nocked another arrow, just in case, and settled back to wait. Much later, with only minutes of light left, a twig cracked in the thick evergreens, then another. I've been around bears enough to know you seldom hear them coming. Unless they're big. Still, I wasn't prepared for the hulking dark shape that emerged from the brush, barely 10 yards away. He was enormous, and he was so close I could hear him sucking in air as he searched the ground for food scraps. Had he gone for the bait, everything would have been fine. Instead, he came straight for my stand. What happened next will forever remain a secret between me, the bear, and the great provider. But it sure was exciting. And I hope one day to get another crack at that behemoth bruin.
To many bowhunters, spring bear hunting means western Canada, especially after the politically motivated cessation of spring hunting in Ontario. However, spring bear hunting opportunities abound in the eastern provinces of Quebec, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland. Further, the huge remote and undeveloped regions of these provinces have an abundance of bears, as well as trophies that will rival those found anywhere else in North America in terms of body and skull size. Perhaps best of all, eastern Canada hunts are affordable, particularly when you take into account the currency exchange rate.
Of the three provinces, Newfoundland may hold the best reputation for producing big spring bears. My first trip there was to Owl's Nest Lodge, just outside the village of Buchans. According to head guide Randy Parsons, most Newfies consider bears a nuisance and don't even hunt them. In fact they disparage them for their predatory nature and its effect on the more coveted moose and caribou. Because there is virtually no local pressure, the bears on this easternmost province are reserved largely for nonresident hunters. Parsons observed that Americans make up the greatest percentage of his bear hunters.
"When I started guiding years ago there weren't nearly as many people bowhunting bears," he said. "Now roughly 50 percent of our hunters are bowhunters and we have some weeks when we're exclusively bowhunting." He has also noted a recent increase in hunters using traditional archery gear.
Newfoundland outfitters do a good job of managing both themselves and the resource. Although their territories are not exclusive, they have developed a self-regulating policy that prevents encroaching on each other's territories. And they're careful not to over-exploit the resource. Each outfitter's territory covers a large area and logistics prevent them from reaching many parts. Most outfitters seldom hunt any one bait for more than a week without a break, and they have so many active baits that they never hunt some at all. Further, they usually don't hunt the same areas in consecutive years. Finally, the provincial government limits the number of bear permits issued for each zone although the bag limit in spring is two bears.
Owl's Nest maintains a success rate of about 80 percent, and many of the bears are of true trophy caliber. The island is small enough that bear densities and success rates are fairly similar throughout, and there are several reputable outfitters to choose from. During the week prior to my visit, one hunter watched five bears feed on a bait at once. Five hunters took five bears, including a P&Y bear that weighed more than 400 pounds, and in an earlier week a hunter took a bear that made the Boone and Crockett record book. A friend of mine who hunts Newfoundland regularly has taken three bears weighing more than 300 pounds each there.
Quebec may be the most underrated spring bear province, possibly due to the language barrier. Quebec's population speaks predominantly French, which may intimidate some hunters and may hinder promotion of hunts there. However, the secret is slowly leaking out.
My first spring bear hunt in La Belle Province was in the upper St. Maurice region of south-central Quebec. According to my contacts with the provincial tourism department, this region is among the best in the province for bears. Eventually, I found my way to Windigo Outfitters, one of several in that region. Here too, the territories are not exclusive, but there is so little competition and there are so many bears that outfitters have little trouble with interference. Outfitter Michel Lamarre explained that much of his clientele comes from Europe and increasingly from the United States. Still, he limits the number of hunters he takes every year, and he rotates hunting areas to avoid depleting the resource.
On my first hunt, seven hunters took five bears the first evening, and by week's end all were successful. One of those bears topped out over 300 pounds. On my second hunt, six hunters took five bears, including two that dressed out at 220 and 254 pounds. Everyone saw and shot at bears, and one hunter watched and videotaped three 200-plus pound bears on a bait at the same time.
I have not hunted in New Brunswick, but I've talked to a number of hunters who highly tout the bear hunting here (see "Wheelchair Bear," by George Bolender). Several of the hunters who were with me on my last Quebec trip raved about the spring bear hunting in New Brunswick. Jim Kelley hunted with an outfitter who specializes in trophy-class bears, and he told me all the hunters in camp with him took bears in the 200 to 300-pound range. Several others in our camp had hunted with another New Brunswick outfitter and likened the hunting to what we were experiencing in Quebec. They also observed that rates were similarly affordable.
Planning Your Trip
Newfoundland's spring bear season generally begins May 1, but in most years the late snowmelt prevents hunting until at least mid-May. Outfitters typically don't begin hunting until the last week of May. In response to these logistical constraints, the government sometimes extends the season through the first or second week of July. According to my Newfoundland guide, success rates are similar throughout the season.
Air Canada runs regular flights into Deer Lake and Gander, and most outfitters will provide tra
nsportation to and from the airport. Or, you can take the ferry to St. John and drive from there. Regulations prohibit hunting the same day you fly, and many flights arrive late, so you should plan on flying in a day before your hunt and spending the night in town. You may also want to allow extra time to do a little sightseeing and fishing. Spring is salmon season in Newfoundland, and many of the larger rivers support good runs of Atlantics.
Contact: Newfoundland & Labrador Dept. of Tourism, Culture and Recreation, Confederation Building, 2nd Floor, West Block, Higgins Line, P.O. Box 8700, St. John's, NF, A1B 4J6; (709) 729-2831; 1-800-563-6353 (North America only); firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.gov.nf.ca/tourism
Quebec's spring bear season begins around the middle of May and runs through the end of June in most regions. Lamarre believes the best hunting usually takes place in early June, when the bears begin feeding in earnest, and late June during what he calls the "season of love." From Montreal, the upper St. Maurice region is roughly a 4-hour drive, or 6-hour train ride. Passenger trains run regularly, and most outfitters will pick you up at one of the many "relais" stations along the route. Fishing in the upper St. Maurice region, predominantly for pike and walleyes, is exceptional. Contact: Tourism QuÃƒ©bec, P.O. Box 979, MontrÃƒ©al, QuÃƒ©bec H3C 2W3; 1-877 -266-5687; fax (514) 864-3838; email@example.com; www.tourisme.gouv.qc.ca; or MinistÃƒ¨re de l'Environnement et de la Faune, C.P. 22000, QuÃƒ©bec (QC) CANADA G1K 7X2; (418) 643-3127; or Mauricie Region: Association Touristique de Mauricie, 777, 4e Rue, Shawinigan QuÃƒ©bec G9N 1H1; 1-800-567-7603; fax (819) 375-0301
New Brunswick's spring season runs from April 15 to the end of June, but most outfitters don't begin hunting until mid-May, as it takes some time to get the bears accustomed to eating again following their long winter fast. Air Canada runs daily flights from Boston to Fredericton, and most outfitters are located within an 8-hour drive of Boston or a 3-hour drive of Bangor, Maine. New Brunswick is also home to some of the most famous Atlantic salmon rivers in North America, most notably the Miramichi. Many outfitters offer combination packages that allow you to fish in the morning and hunt in the afternoon.
Contact: New Brunswick Outfitters Association Inc., 820 Main St., Unit #2, Woodstock N.B., Canada, E7M 2E8; 1-800-215-2075; fax (506) 328-4570; www.nboa.nb.ca; firstname.lastname@example.org; or New Brunswick Department of Tourism and Parks, P. O. Box 12345, Campbellton NB E3N 3T6; 1-800-561-0123; www.TourismNewBrunswick.ca