The BAREBOW! Chronicles: Behind the Eight-bawl
Dennis Dunn 12.31.13
In the end, behind the eight-bawl, lay a large, dead male black bear, but there is quite a story to be told that leads up to that exciting ending.
The true tale began in 1995, when I went on a black bear hunt with Alan and Mary Young of Ottertail River Outfitters. It was during the middle of my 11-year residency in British Columbia, where baiting for bear was not allowed. I had dreamed of a “spot-and-stalk” hunt for a big boar ever since I took my first bear over bait in western Washington some dozen years earlier. That had been its own very different kind of challenge, but spot-and-stalk bear hunting with a bow and arrow produces an adrenaline rush of a type all unto itself. Hunting bears at ground level, pitting your inferior senses against theirs, and getting within close bow range—all of that constitutes one of the more daunting experiences I know of in the world of North American hunting. It almost guarantees giving you as much excitement as you can handle—and occasionally more than you bargain for.
When I hunted with them two springs in a row, the Youngs’ Outfitter Area (before they sold it and relocated to the Yukon) was a large one just east of the southern half of Williston Lake in northern British Columbia. My first week-long hunt gave me a shot opportunity at a couple of rather smallish blackies, but not the kind of bruin I was looking for. The only way to harvest a big one is to pass up all the smaller ones, and of course if nobody passed on the smaller ones, there wouldn’t be many big ones even to talk about—let alone shoot.
One of the things I most enjoyed about my first two hunts with Alan and Mary was just seeing the abundance of different types of big game. You just never knew what you were likely to see over the next rise, or around the next bend. One day I photographed a black bear sow with three newborn cubs (two are common; three not so much). The next morning, I filmed a cow moose with a baby calf, dropped only scant minutes earlier. My guide and I surprised a feeding grizzly at close range on that first hunt, and a few days later we watched a different griz chase a full-grown bull moose all the way across a big clear-cut and half-a-mile down an old logging road before the aggressor finally became too winded to continue.
During the 1995 hunt, on the very last day, my guide and I took a boat up the lake to an old landing and then walked several miles up an abandoned logging road that finally brought us to a little clear-cut Alan had told us about. It was narrow but fairly long, and you entered it from the top, so you had great visibility looking down on the open terrain as it leveled out below, only to rise some at the other end. From the vantage point we set up on by 10 a.m., we were almost certain to spot anything that entered the cut. It was a warm May day, and we knew we would have to be patient until late afternoon or early evening brought us some visitors. Two bears at the far end of the clear-cut had been leaving for their daybeds just as we arrived on the scene.
A nice long nap in the warmth of the midday sun helped the hours pass quickly, and by 5 p.m. I was more than primed to “put the make” on a big old bruin. Well, luck was with us that evening. A very large boar (all black but for a white star on his chest) exited the timber at the far end of the cut and began feeding pretty much out in the open on a little flat. The time was nearly 6 o’clock.
There was a bit of stalking cover near him, but first I needed to hustle some 400 yards down the old roadbed without him picking up my motion. I was fairly exposed, but he seemed rather hungry and would lift his head to look around only every 30 seconds or so. When I neared the end of the cut—perhaps 80 yards from his feeding position—I moved off the road and started down the edge of a fast-moving streamlet that was cascading through a patch of brushy alders. Alas, I was barely three yards off the road when I practically stepped on a smaller bear I hadn’t seen at all! He had not heard me over the noise of the rushing water. The precipitate encounter scared him even more than it did me, and as he fled in the direction of his much bigger relative, my true quarry instantly made a beeline for the cover of the forest he had left behind 15 minutes earlier. He wasn’t even interested in seeing what had spooked the smaller bear. My much-hoped-for stalk had barely had a chance to get underway!
I returned home from that first hunt with the Youngs convinced that a second visit the following spring would be well worth the time, money, and effort. My conviction proved to be well-founded. May of 1996 found me back in their lovely lodge on the shores of Williston Lake. Although I had been assigned a different guide this time, there was no doubt in my mind where I wanted to go looking for bears on that first morning of the hunt. By 9:30 we were looking down on the same long, narrow clear-cut where I had spent the final exciting evening of the previous year’s adventure.
Around 10 a.m., we saw an impressive black bear enter the far-upper-left corner of the cut, which looked especially lush with green grasses and had a sprinkling of new-growth, little fir trees scattered around. The wind was in my face for the moment, and, as the animal began to feed, I started sneaking down the road in his direction. I prayed the wind would not turn fickle on me, but within less than a minute it did. When I suddenly felt the breeze on the back of my neck, I groaned and sat down on a stump to see how long it would take for my scent to travel 400 yards. The watch I dug out of my pocket had ticked off 50 seconds when I saw the big bruin lift his nose in the air and then, five seconds later, bolt for the heavy timber as if he’d been fired out of a cannon. So much for that opportunity! I had just learned an old lesson all over again. Unless the wind is your faithful friend, no hunter ever has a chance with any bear—so exceptionally keen is his nose.
My guide and I saw quite a variety of wildlife in one part or another of the clear-cut that day. A moose, two deer, and three elk, to name the larger species. We knew, however, that we were not likely to spot any more bears until evening. The pleasant day passed quickly, and by 7:30 p.m. a very large and beautiful black bear materialized on the same flat where the little bear had spooked the much bigger one a year earlier. For all I could tell, it might well have been the same bruin I had set my sights on once before. As I studied through my binos the small-looking ears on either side of his big, broad forehead, there was no doubt in my mind that this was a Pope and Young bear. His sleek ebony coat was glistening in the golden sunlight, and the breeze made it fairly shimmer at times.
I knew there was not a moment to waste. As I swiftly closed in on him, I prayed there would be no other bruins in the area this time to scuttle my stalk. The breeze seemed to turn on and off, but at least it was consistently a crosswind, never touching the back of my neck. The final 60 yards between me and my still-unsuspecting quarry offered me almost no for concealment. Although bears are known for having relatively poor eyesight, their eyes are surprisingly good at picking up two things: (1) motion, and (2) objects that offer a sharp contrast of silhouette or color-density with what is directly behind them. Any such object—even though it might be motionless—will catch a bear’s notice, especially if it looks out of place, or wasn’t there the last time he lifted his head to look around! And once you have a bear’s attention, you’re almost never going to lose it. They are curious creatures, up to a point, but they are even more cautious than curious. Unlike cats, they seldom get killed by curiosity.
At 50 yards away, I dropped from a crawling-on-all-fours position to one fully prone. Every time my quarry lifted his head to satisfy his security concerns, I would freeze. When he resumed feeding, I’d scoot forward on my elbows a few more feet, dragging my bow behind me in the soft grass. At 40 yards, something about my immobile outline caught the bear’s notice. After staring at me for 10 seconds, he lowered his head again, but now the rules of the game had changed. Almost immediately he jerked his head up to look in my direction. He knew something didn’t look quite right—even though every part of me was completely covered with camouflage material.
As he put his head back down once again, I decided that, if I wanted a shot at a stationary target, I’d better attempt it without further delay. Since I already had an arrow on the string, I rose to my knees and began my draw. He detected the motion instantly out of the corner of his eye and immediately stood erect on his hind legs to get a better look. Evidently, he didn’t like what he saw, because he was in that position for only a fraction of a second. As I released the arrow, aimed at the middle of his chest, he dropped to the ground, and my shaft passed harmlessly over his shoulder. Ten seconds later, the forest swallowed him up, some 60 yards distant. So close, yet so far, I thought to myself, one more time.
My guide had been watching the drama unfold from the edge of the old road 100 yards away. As I walked slowly back to join him, with disappointment written all over my face, little did we realize that the evening’s drama was far from over. No sooner had I reached him and begun my excuses for missing, than I spotted another nice bear directly behind him. The blackie was feeding up in the far corner of the clear-cut—in the shadows—barely 150 yards away, completely oblivious to our presence. I simply pointed and began my second stalk of the evening.
The first hundred yards I covered quickly, with plenty of small trees and bushes to give me cover. I was climbing steadily toward the highest corner of the cut above me, but at some 50 yards out, I lost sight of the bruin amid all the little firs that were sprouting up on their own in that sheltered part of the clear-cut. I stood stock-still for two minutes, hoping to catch a glimpse of black fur that would lay to rest my mounting fears that, somehow, my new quarry had already slipped back into the timber.
Seeing and hearing nothing, I pressed on. Surely he had to be there somewhere out in front of me, but why couldn’t I see him? The slope I was side-hilling on was getting fairly steep as I drew near the margin up against the brush-line and old-growth forest. With an arrow already nocked, I was ready to shoot at a moment’s notice, but first I had to relocate the intended target. My sixth sense told me he was still close by, but why wasn’t I seeing him?
Suddenly, I happened to glance straight uphill, 90 degrees from where I’d been looking, and there he was, in full view! He was sitting on his haunches, just on the edge of the heavy cover, staring down at me. I averted my eyes instantly, in the hope that he would not realize I had seen him, and—as I continued to walk straight ahead along the side-hill slope—I came to full draw. Next, without breaking my line or rate of travel, I managed to pivot and start walking backwards so that my right shoulder (my bow arm) was pointing uphill. By the time I ceased all motion, so that I could get the shot off, the bear’s curiosity had cost him dearly.
My feint had succeeded. At the sound of the bowstring, he started to wheel into the undergrowth, but my arrow arrived just in time—before his rotating shoulder had moved far enough to interpose itself between the broadhead and his heart. The arrow disappeared right through his chest, and he, too, vanished instantly. Paced off later, the shot had been only 22 yards.
Since I knew the shot would be quickly fatal, I consulted my watch and started counting. Would he expire close enough for me to hear the death rattle for which bears are legendary? Exactly eight seconds later, that eerie, muted bawling sound began. Ironically, it lasted eight seconds, as well! When my guide arrived quite out of breath a few minutes later, we found that the bruin had managed to cover only eight yards in total from where he’d been sitting on his haunches to where he gave up his ghost.
Eight, eight, and eight. What irony! In billiards, the eight-ball is always black, with a small white spot on its “chest.” My bear had precisely the same coloration, but was an eight-bawl of a different kind. A bit too much curiosity had put him behind my eight-ball, which I had managed to sink in his corner pocket!
The big boar had a gorgeous pelt, measuring six feet and six inches from nose to tail. His head was rather small, compared to the sizable rotundity of his body, but the fact that his skull’s measurements didn’t quite meet the Pope and Young minimum score mattered not at all to me. I had finally taken a spot-and-stalk black bear! As we worked quickly to skin him out before dark, the smile on my guide’s face just wouldn’t go away. Never in his life, he insisted, had he witnessed anything quite so exciting. I’m sure my own ear-to-ear grin lasted a long time, as well, and I think back on that hunt as one of the most gratifying I have ever experienced.
Editor’s note: This article is the fourteenth of the BAREBOW! Chronicles, a series of shortened stories from accomplished hunter and author Dennis Dunn’s award-winning book, BAREBOW! An Archer’s Fair-Chase Taking of North America’s Big-Game 29. Dunn was the first to harvest each of the 29 traditionally recognized native North American big game species barebow: using only “a bow, a string, an arrow—no trigger, no peep sights, no pins—just fingers, guts, and instinct.” Each of the narratives will cover the (not always successful, but certainly educational and entertaining) pursuit of one of the 29 animals. One new adventure will be published every two weeks—join us on the hunt! You can learn more about the work and purchase a copy on Dunn’s site here. Read the thirteenth Chronicle here.
Top illustration by Hayden Lambson