Besides the action pursued by year-round predator hunters, one of this country’s largest and most widespread predators, black bears, are also in season in many Western states and Canadian provinces. Just last month in May, I had the privilege to join renowned shotgun writer Dave Henderson and industry representative CJ Davis on a rare trek to the northern limits of the province for black bears. We were hunting with outfitter Pat McLean and his Alberta Bear Busters operation (albertabearbusters.com). We would be field testing Winchester’s new Supreme Elite Dual Bond (winchester.com) sabot slugs, as well as a variety of Nikon (nikonhunting.com) optics, on what we hoped would be some big–and numerous–black bears. Alberta is one of the few places with such a ridiculously high black bear population that hunters are permitted not one, but two, bears per season. Even better, the region is so remote, most bears have never even seen people before so they are normally not as spooky as bears in other parts of North America. I had passed up on a springtime opportunity for a black bear while hunting Wyoming some years back. Even though I had one large bruin in the sites of my bow at the time, the hide had been so rubbed up already (from the bear scratching on trees), that I passed on the shot since I really wanted to preserve my trophy as a rug. I never got another shot during that hunt. Coming to Alberta, I was hoping to get a chance at redemption.
While some states and provinces are suitable for spot-and-stalk hunting or limited it to it by law, most folks rely on baiting bears from the thick, reclusive forests these creatures call home. In the virtually endless boreal forests of northern Alberta, that is certainly how they do it, though some of the sweet grasses along the sparse road edges and openings do present the occasional stalking possibility.
Both CJ Davis and I were shooting Winchester’s ( winchester.com) new Dual Bond sabot slugs through Winchester SX3 ( winchesterguns.com) slug guns topped with Nikon ( nikonhunting.com) 1.65-5x Slughunter scopes. The loads were 2 ¾-inch shells loaded with 375 grain sabots that left the barrel at a reported 1,800 fps.
Airport delays kept my group from hunting that first day, but other hunters in camp–Danny Farr and Gary Messersmith–took a bear each their first evening out. Our first day in the field saw two more including one by Dave Henderson and Chicago, Ill., hunter Roman Cirignani. On our second day hunting, both CJ Davis (left) and Henderson (second from right) connected on two of the larger bears taken during the week. Texas hunter Brian Gerstenberger (far right) also connected. Also in the photo is Davis’s and Henderson’s guide, Dallas Tiegen.
Dave Henderson poses with his second bear in as many days of hunting. It would prove to be the largest one taken that week at a huge 7 feet. Henderson’s quick success left him with a long week in camp reading novels and catching up on work!
Northeastern Alberta is a remote area. Alberta Bear Busters camp is located on the banks of the Chinchaga River an hour due west out of High Level. Once you leave High Level on the highway, you don’t pass a single gas station, business, house or even a shed for the next two hours until you hit the small town of Rainbow. For that reason, outfitter Pat McLean has to bring in his own gas (as well as generators and every other provision). Gassing up before dropping hunters or checking a bait line is a prerequisite. In mid-May in northern Alberta, it starts turning daylight around 3 a.m. and doesn’t get completely dark until 11:30 p.m. Hunters head to their stands around 3 p.m. and stay there until usually about 11, getting back into camp around midnight. By June it stays daylight 24 hours a day. The nights are long, hunters don’t usually finish dinner until around 1 a.m. and are generally in bed by 2. But there is no early waking for morning hunts making this a great hunt for those sportsmen who are anything but an early bird.
CJ Davis’s black bear taken on his second day of hunting measured an impressive 6 feet, 8 inches. He would see an even larger bear later that week, but would be unable to get a shot off on it.
My hunt had a much slower start than some of my counterparts in camp, though some of that was purely my fault. My first night on the stand I blew an opportunity at a blond color-phase bear because of some indecision on his part (I know, what indecision could I have possibly had?) The second night, I sat the same stand waiting on the blond bear, which never showed. The third night, nothing happened either, though I didn’t sit the same stand deciding to give it a rest. My guide the first few days, Chad Digby, set a trail cam out to see what and when the bear would show again. On the fourth day of the hunt, more than halfway through the week, I sat an early bait along guide Dallas Tiegen’s baitline. Just under an hour on stand, this large sow strolled into the bait. It was time to fill a tag. I shot the bear once right behind the shoulder. It dashed less than 50 yards before piling up. The bear was just shy of 6 feet, but had a beautiful thick coat all the way around it’s body.
Later that same evening after taking my first Alberta black bear, I was sitting over another bait when what looked like a nice 6-footer (maybe slightly bigger) came walking in. I watched and filmed it for more than an hour, and after spotting a perfect white chevron on its chest, was darn tempted to shoot. I had come to Alberta with the sincere hope of taking a large black bear that would make a great rug. If I didn’t shoot another one, I had satisfied the goal of taking a good sized bear with a beautiful coat, but felt I should hold out for a truly big bear if possible. I also still harbored some hope of getting back on the blond bear. This one, I felt certain would be here the final night if nothing else materialized before then.
Curious at the sound of my camera’s shutter, this black bear became curious and strolled cautiously up to my stand, at one time looking as if it was going to climb the tree with me.
Thank goodness for my ThermaCell. See how big the mosquitoes are on this bear’s head? They were like bats and swarmed every living creature with a vengeance. Despite their size, the ThermaCell more than did it’s job keeping them away. Strike another one for technology.
The blond returned to the bait on the fourth night of my hunt, while I was an hour away, watching a black bear beneath my new stand. Chad’s trail camera caught it with a series of photos as it moved about the bait until well past dark.
To add insult to injury, the bear was still there at 7 a.m. the next morning.
Still unaware of the blond’s return, and honestly not even sure if I wanted to spend more time hoping it would come in, I recommitted to my original goal of taking a large black bear on the fifth day. Walking in to merely drop off more bait, we walked up on a pair of black bears–one that looked truly huge. “Do you see that one?” my guide excitedly asked. “Oh yeah,” I replied. With a huge head and heavy body, this one stood out over everything else I had seen. Unfortunately, I had left my gun back at the truck. Quietly we slipped back to the truck, grabbed my binoculars and shotgun, and eased back to where we had seen the two. Through the trees, I spied one. It looked like the big one and it was heading away from us. Dallas and I immediately began putting a stalk on the bear. At the beginning of the hunt, the Nikon Monarch 8.5×45 binocular and the Riflehunter 550 rangefinder felt nice but unnecessary. But having to stalk the bear and suddenly deal with it at greater distances than common to a bait hunt, they proved their worth. The binocular proved particularly beneficial in determining that the bear I was following was indeed the larger of the two bears and not a sow with a cub. I eased to just under 50 yards of the broadside bruin, which was partially hidden by some trees. Until it raised it’s head, I couldn’t tell if I was aimed behind the right leg. Again, thank goodness for optics. As soon as I was sure, I took the shot.
The bear leapt in the air like a cat and dropped straight down dead. Winchester’s Dual Bond sabots had done their job. Dallas returned to the truck to retrieve his ATV for hauling the bear out. You don’t want to drag these as it can damage the hair and pull it from the body.
My second bear of my hunt with Alberta Bear Busters fulfilled my hopes when first embarking on the trip. The bear measured roughly 6 ½ feet, had long, curling claws, a wide head and a thick, beautiful coat.
One hunter had driven his Jeep into camp earlier in the week, but as the road became more rutted, he figured he better not wait until the end of the week to make his escape. It was already to late. The truck quickly bogged down in the mud. Not even a team of guides could budge it. A truck was finally retrieved to snatch it free.
A black bear eating on grasses and shoots in a small clearing along a gas and oil field road, scampers for cover as we drive by.
Texan Danny Farr poses with his second bear of the hunt. He shot his first bear the first night of the hunt with his compound bow after the animal climbed up into his stand with him.
Sporting a purple Mohawk, retired high school librarian Tom Henderson poses with the second of his two bears of the hunt. It was his and Roman Cirignani’s second time hunting with Alberta Bear Busters and both men said they would return again.
After guide Chad Digby (left) discovered that the blond bear had returned to the bait on the fourth day, hunter Gary Messersmith (right) sat the stand that night, only to have nothing show. Going into the final day of the hunt, he weighed whether or not to go for the blond or sit a more reliable bait that was getting hit nightly by bears. He still had his last tag to fill. He opted to go for the blond and after a long quiet evening on stand of no bear sightings, was feeling he had made the wrong decision. Then, just as it started to get dark and his guide was on his way in to get him, the bear showed and Gary let his arrow fly. Two hours later, they found the bear and made a triumphant return to camp.
The blond bear was a true double trophy by bear hunting standards. Not only was it a rare color phase bear (something that is not all that rare in this part of Alberta as attested to by the success on color-phase bears at Alberta Bear Busters), but it also had a perfect heart-shaped crest on its chest. Did I regret not shooting the trophy when I had the chance that first night? Yeah, a little. But at first glance, I wasn’t sure it was all that big, and I really thought it would return the next night. Oh well. Gary and his dad had been hoping to take a hunt like this together before his father passed away recently. Before dying, his dad told him to take some of the money he would receive and go on that hunt they had always talked about. For that reason, I’d like to think that bear was destined for Gary and not me anyway and that’s why I hesitated and then it never showed. In the end, I still got what I came for and more. I got my big bear with a great coat for a rug and a better story to boot. Plus, I got the chance to see a true color phase trophy. Not a bad trip for anyone involved.
Boiled and cleaned so the hunters can take them home are the skulls from the week’s take. With eight hunters in camp with two tags a piece, we wound up taking 15 bears in seven total days.
Besides the action pursued by year-round predator hunters, one of this country’s largest and most widespread predators, black bears, are also in season in many Western states and Canadian provinces.
Just last month in May, I had the privilege to join renowned shotgun writer Dave Henderson and industry representative CJ Davis on a rare trek to the northern limits of the province for black bears. We were hunting with outfitter Pat McLean and his Alberta Bear Busters operation (albertabearbusters.com). We would be field testing Winchester’s new Supreme Elite Dual Bond (winchester.com) sabot slugs, as well as a variety of Nikon (nikonhunting.com) optics, on what we hoped would be some big–and numerous–black bears. Alberta is one of the few places with such a ridiculously high black bear population that hunters are permitted not one, but two, bears per season. Even better, the region is so remote, most bears have never even seen people before so they are normally not as spooky as bears in other parts of North America.
I had passed up on a springtime opportunity for a black bear while hunting Wyoming some years back. Even though I had one large bruin in the sites of my bow at the time, the hide had been so rubbed up already (from the bear scratching on trees), that I passed on the shot since I really wanted to preserve my trophy as a rug. I never got another shot during that hunt.
Coming to Alberta, I was hoping to get a chance at redemption…