When you play chess with a big game animal, the end of the match can be bittersweet.
For three years my bear seemingly had the upper hand. A change in the season dates tipped the hand in my favor.
LONG BEFORE I SAW HIM, I heard the rhythmic huffing of the approaching bruin -- just as I had many other times. Immediately I stood in my treestand overlooking a hardwood creek bottom between two mountains and scanned the timber for the source of the noise.
Finally I saw him, walking slowly up the creek from the north. It seemed like only seconds passed before the bear had covered the 75 yards between us and was standing below me at 18 steps. He was cautious now, no longer making any sound, scanning the timber for danger. Then he took two steps into my shooting lane and stopped. Pulling the string on my bow, I aimed behind the front left shoulder and let the arrow go.
THIS WAS NOT the first time I'd shot at this bear. This story really began four years earlier, when I was new to bear hunting. I'd killed my first bruin two years prior to that in a hardwood swamp in southeast Arkansas. That one weighed between 350 and 400 pounds, and his skull measured 199„16 Pope & Young.
That's all it took -- I was hooked as a bear hunter. On our hunting property, we had only an occasional bear, so I spent much time trying to locate bears and to gain permission to bait. Arkansas allows baiting only on private lands, and most of the bears roam public lands, in particular expansive national forests. So finding places to hunt over bait was tough.
I was not having good luck finding large bears until one day my good friend Morgan Richardson called to tell me his dad had seen a good bear on our hunting property about 30 minutes southwest of Little Rock. I already had baits out there, but had not seen a shooter bear. Immediately I drove to the property and put out a new bait and a trail camera in a remote area, not far from the last sighting, hoping the bear lived near that spot.
Almost immediately the big bear hit the bait, and before long he was visiting daily during shooting hours. Hunting season was only days away. I was excited.
My excitement wilted the next day when one of my hunting companions tragically died. I tried to keep motivated for hunting, but it was difficult. The funeral and the opening of bear season were on the same day. Whether I would even get to hunt that day was in doubt, and I didn't feel like going.
Still, I knew my friend would want me to be up a tree and camo clad. After the funeral, I changed clothes, drove to the woods, and climbed into my stand for the evening hunt. The woods were eerily still. My thoughts were on my friend, our numerous hunts over 15 years, and his tragic end. Bears were far from my focus.
That's when I saw him. The big bruin was standing only 30 yards from me. Where did he come from? Something that big should not be able to slip in that close without detection. The bear circled the bait and, passing only 10 steps from me, looked straight at me and would not take his eyes off of me as he slowly walked to the bait.
Not daring to stand, I raised my longbow while sitting and slowly pulled the string. When he turned broadside, I released. The arrow hit high. The bear spun and ran across the creek. He then walked out of sight.
Climbing down in the dark, I found a little blood but no arrow. By flashlight, I followed the blood 50 yards until I heard him move only 30 yards ahead. I could not see him, but I sure heard him woof at me! A chilling jolt of fear rushed through me. Slowly I walked back to my stand, keeping a close watch over my shoulder, picked up my pack, and booked it up the mountain to my truck.
After a poor night's sleep, I returned with my hunting buddy Billy Scott, his two boys, my wife, Jane, and our daughter Sarah. We looked for hours, but the blood trail was short. Returning to the bait, I checked my camera. The bear had returned at 2 a.m. and fed until daylight, and he returned daily to the bait but only after dark.
Many days I sat in the stand and watched him walk down to the creek and lie on the other side. The creek was our property line, and I could not cross and hunt him. He seemed to know that, and he taunted me. Almost daily for three weeks he tortured me with this ritual. Then the acorns started falling, and he was gone.
Our digital scale showed my bear weighed over 500 pounds. Trail camera photos of the bear from previous years indicate he was on the decline when I killed him.
THE NEXT TWO YEARS were carbon copies of the first. The bear would find my bait within a couple of days of my opening it up. He would feed eagerly during daylight, but as the days shortened in September he would come in later and later, and by the October 1 opening of archery bear season, he would be nocturnal. Each day I would climb into my stand during the first week of October and watch him walk down the mountain, feed on acorns, and lie under trees 40 yards from our property line. But he would not cross that line until after dark.
I tried every trick: I always kept the wind in my favor, wore a carbon suit, moved my stand, put out other baits, tried various attractants, reduced the amount of bait, and tried bait burns. Bear Psychology 101 just didn't work. The problem was he spent his entire life on our neighbor's property, and he came onto our property only to feed at my bait. And he knew I was hunting him.
During those first three years, I learned a lot about that bear. I knew where he slept, his travel routes, his preferred feeding sites. My treestand gave me a window into his world. I could watch him almost daily as he prowled my neighbor's property.
This was torture. I wanted this bear so bad, but he always had the upper hand. Worst of all, I worried all season that someone would kill him on the adjoining property. Every September when I reestablished my bait, I eagerly checked my trail camera, hoping he had made it through another year so he could start torturing me again.
LAST SEPTEMBER WAS NO DIFFERENT. The bear hit my bait the second day, and he hit it daily, during daylight. But I knew that by the time bear season opened on October 1, he would again become nocturnal, and the torture would resume.
On September 12, I went into Archer's Advantage, the local archery shop, to visit and look around.
"Are you going to hunt bears next Monday?" my friend Dewey Mahan asked. "That's opening day."
"What?" I said. "Are you sure? Let's check the regulations." Sure enough, the season would open in three days. "That's the best news I've heard in years!" I said. "Maybe I'll finally get a chance at this bear."
The next day I went out to the site to hang my treestand. Rain was falling, wind was howling, and tornados were forecast, but I had to get that stand up. When I finally had it in the tree, I freshened the bait and then hustled back to my truck to sit out the hail and high winds as a thunderstorm passed over.
On Monday, September 15, I left work early. The weather was perfect -- partly cloudy and cool, rare for Arkansas. Commonly in September the temperature hits 100 degrees.
At 3 p.m., I climbed into my stand and intently scrutinized the mountain west of my stand, hoping to see the bear as he approached on one of his familiar trails. The three-hour wait went by quickly as I reminisced about all the hours I had spent overlooking this bait, waiting for the big bear to give me a second chance. As the sun began to disappear behind the mountain, the bear, "my bear," finally appeared.
THIS BRINGS ME BACK to the start of the story. As the arrow hit the bear behind the left shoulder, he whirled and ran back the way he had come, crossing over a small hill 30 yards away and out of sight. The shot looked perfect, and my excitement was overwhelming. I never thought he would give me the opportunity.
Waiting in my stand for several minutes, I heard the "death moan" and knew the bear had expired -- or so I thought. Maybe my judgment was skewed by how quickly my first bear had died. He had run only 10 steps. Or maybe I was just overly eager to see this giant.
Whatever the reason, I wanted to get down and take a look, expecting to see a massive black blob lying in the leaves. Once down, I nocked an arrow and started following the wide and obvious blood trail.
My trail camera captured the bear hitting my bait during daylight hours right up to the season opener, at which point he went almost completely nocturnal.
My steps were quiet as I cautiously followed the trail, and periodically my eyes left the blood trail to scan the thick underbrush ahead. Topping a small rise only 40 yards from my stand, I looked up and saw the bear -- sitting on his rump, 15 yards away.
Oh, no! I thought as fear rushed through me. What am I going to do now? First, I developed an escape plan, picking a route I thought would give me an advantage over a charging bear. Second, I raised my bow and placed another arrow behind his right shoulder.
Upon impact of the arrow, the bear did a back flip and slid down the hill, taking out numerous saplings and saw briars and ending up in about six inches of water in a creek.
Surveying the situation from 10 yards, I finally could appreciate the enormity of this animal. His head was massive, and his forearms were thicker than my thighs. He was huge! Part of me was ecstatic that I had finally got him, the object of my desire for four years. Another part of me was deeply saddened that our chess match was finally over.
WITH THE HELP of my wife, Jane, our daughter Sarah, and friends Joel and Nick Turpin, we got the big bear out of the creek and up to the truck. Then, using a 1,000-pound digital platform scale, we tried to weigh the giant. However, the platform was only four feet long and the bear was over seven feet. We finally settled on 507 pounds, but he could have been more.
All of his upper incisors were gone, and his canine teeth were just nubs. By comparing photographs from previous years, I figured he was 25-percent thinner now than he had been in the past. His belly and hips were much narrower. He obviously was on the decline. In his prime he no doubt weighed more than 600 pounds.
He squared seven feet two inches and officially scored 217„16 Pope and Young, which makes him large enough to qualify also for Boone & Crockett's all-time record book. He is the new Arkansas state record by any harvest method, and according to the P&Y Club, he's the largest black bear ever taken with a longbow.
I hope that one day I will be fortunate enough to take another bear of this magnitude. One thing seems certain -- I'll never develop a relationship with another wild animal as I did with this bear. I just can't describe the admiration and respect I gained for him. I hope that during your lifetime you experience all the emotions, good and bad, that grow from a lengthy match of wits with a formidable quarry.
Oh, one more thing: If your first opportunity doesn't go perfectly, hang in there! Maybe, just maybe, you'll get a second chance.
Don Barnett, a veterinarian by trade, has been bowhunting for 35 years, 20 with traditional gear. He has taken four turkey slams with his bow. He, his wife, Jane, and daughters Sarah and Hannah live in Bryant, Arkansas.
Author's Notes: I used a 51-lb. Roy Hall custom takedown Apache longbow, Beman ICS 400 arrows, 100-grain G5 Montec broadheads, Mossy Oak Brush camouflage, API Baby Grand treestand, Seat-O-The-Pants Safety Harness, Steiner Predator Pro 10x42 binoculars, Bear Scents Bacon Spray Attractant and Cover Scent, Cuddeback trail camera, and Danner Pronghorn boots.