Confessions of a bear hunter

by Gord Ellis | August 8, 2013

confessions - bear paw and a man hand

For most of my adult life, I cared little about bears or bear hunting. Like many Ontario residents, I mostly considered bears a nuisance. When I was a boy growing up in Thunder Bay, black bears were pretty much shot on sight if they wandered into town. Yet, that didn’t happen a lot. In fact, bears were a rare sight for most of the first 40 years of my life.

My clearest childhood memory of a bear is tied to a camping trip we spent at Sleeping Giant Provincial Park, about an hour east of Thunder Bay. My dad was banging pots and pans at a hungry bruin that was trying to steal lunch off our picnic table. As I recall, the bear did finally leave, with lunch and tablecloth in tow.

During the first two decades of my hunting career, black bear were definitely not on my radar. I was well aware that bear hunting was done and I met American hunters who’d come to lodges for just that reason. Some were super passionate about bears, which was hard for me to understand at the time. A bear was a varmint, a furry critter that frequented garbage dumps and knocked over barbecues. Who could get passionate about hunting that?

Part of my low opinion of bears was due to ignorance. I’d heard that bear smelled like rotten meat and was not fit to eat, and that they were dumb animals — easy to kill. Bear hunting was what other people did.

Cancellation spurs interest
Fast forward to the fall of 1999, when I received a phone call from an industry friend.

“The Ontario spring bear hunt is about to be cancelled,” my well-placed source said. “It’s happening tomorrow.” When I started making calls, most Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) types and politicians put it down to rumour. But my source was good. The next day, a fax rolled off the computer and like that, Ontario’s spring bear hunt was cancelled. Breaking that story in Thunder Bay, and then watching the aftermath of the decision, changed something in me. I became immersed in bear biology and the history of bear hunting. My interest in bear as a worthy game animal began to grow. And it wasn’t just me. The attitude of many of my hunting friends also started to change.

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With the cancellation of the spring hunt, the numbers of black bears began to grow. It became clear the fall bear harvest would need to increase. Moose and deer hunters started buying a bear tag as well. Taking away the spring hunt created a new generation of keen resident bear hunters.

Still, it took me a few years to actually take a bear. It wasn’t until 2004 that a hunting and outdoor-writing colleague offered to take me on a hunt. “It will be a late-season hunt, so dress warm,” he said.

On a cool September evening, I climbed into a two-seater tree stand with him and waited for a bear to show. In that two hours before dark, I learned how to tell a sow from a boar and how hunting over bait improves your chance at a clean shot. It was also in that tree that I learned just how quiet a bear can be.

“There he is,” whispered my bear-hunting mentor, as last light approached. Sure enough, a good-sized bruin appeared just out of comfortable range. It carefully sniffed the air.

I lifted my slug gun, but a bit quickly. “Go slow,” my friend whispered. “Or he will bust you. Let him come in.”

The bear padded closer. With slightly, shaking hands, I dropped the crosshair of the gun on the bear’s shoulder. I took a breath, squeezed the trigger and the animal crumpled — my first bear.

Going down to that animal was a thrill. The pelt was long, black, and luxurious. The bear also had fearsome claws and a mouth full of impressive teeth. Most amazing to me was that the bear smelled just like the forest, the exact opposite of what I’d expected.

“This pelt is perfect,“ said my proud friend. “You should consider getting a rug made.” And I did. It remains one of my most prized possessions.

The meat was made into various products, all of which were delicious. I became a huge fan of smoked bear and bear burgers — so much for inedible.

Bruin fever
In the nearly 10 years since that first hunt, I’ve become a full-fledged bear hunter. My largest bear, a 400-pounder, was shot at 100 yards in a blueberry patch near Upsala. I’ve harvested a couple of bear in and around cornfields, including a 200-pound beauty taken by my eldest son Devin with a crossbow. Each and every bear hunt has been a thrill, but some of the near misses have been the most amazing experiences.

One evening, as I sat on the edge of a cornfield with my crossbow, an enormous boar appeared on the trail about 70 yards away. It was leaving the corn, and looked to be heading my way. He was literally the size of a small car. My heart was ready to exit my chest. The bear ambled down the trail and I did my best to ready for a shot. The thought of putting an arrow in the direction of this beast made me light headed. Then, at 50 yards, the bear stopped, sat on its haunches and looked directly at me sitting in the tree. It’s hard to describe exactly what that felt like. It was something of a relief to watch it turn and walk back towards the corn. Less of a relief was the realization I’d be walking back to my truck in that same direction in the dark.

It’s at those moments you know you’re truly alive. And yet another reason why I’ve grown to love bear hunting.

Bear hunting opens in August in some Wildlife Management Units. Do you hunt bear? Comment below and let us know why or why not.

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