The BAREBOW! Chronicles: With Malice Aforethought
Dennis Dunn 01.09.14
Because I had somewhat involved my older son in the process of baiting up my first black bear in 1983, it just so happened (though I didn’t realize it then) that he became quite fascinated by the whole challenge and started planning on trying the same thing once he turned 16 and could provide himself with transportation. Thus, when late June of 1986 arrived, Bryant started asking me for all kinds of advice on how to “do it,” and I had the pleasure of mentoring him through the process.
Doing all his own scouting in the Knob Hill area of east Redmond, Washington, northeast of Lake Sammamish, Bryant discovered a heavily-used bear area in between housing developments, no more than 300 yards away from a paved road. Just as I had done, Bryant worked out a deal with the local pastry shop. By the first week of July, he had bears hitting his bait regularly, and he started telling me about one large set of tracks he had found in the mud near his bait-tree. For the remainder of the month, he continued to service the bait-site with day-old crullers, frosted doughnuts, and the like. As the season-opener approached, his sense of excitement was building day-by-day, and—because of his summer job as a box-boy at the neighborhood supermarket—he even talked me into hauling fresh bear-goodies into his stand location on a few late-July afternoons and evenings.
I seem to recall that the season opened on a Sunday. The preceding Friday night, right after I returned home from replenishing his bait-site, Bryant called me up with total disgust in his voice. Lightning had struck! He had just been promoted to head box-boy, and his new job would be full-time, starting Sunday! There was no way out of it. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry on his behalf; I don’t think he did, either.
Bryant had so looked forward to being in his treestand on opening morning! The day dawned calm and sunny. I rose early and found myself wondering if my son’s carefully-laid strategy would produce an ursine visitor to his bait-tree before the morning was out. The more I thought about it, the more my curiosity mounted, and finally, around 8 a.m., I decided to go sit in his stand. I had no desire to hunt out of Bryant’s stand, but my curiosity was killing me! At about 8:45, I climbed up into his tree.
The sunny forest was alive with birdsong. It was a perfect summer morning, and I resolved to stay there till noon. If nothing showed up by then, I would quietly climb down and sneak back out to my Blazer. Frankly, with the late start, I didn’t figure my odds of seeing a bear were very good, yet somehow I felt I owed it to my son to be there in his place on opening morning.
My reward arrived at 11:30. At first, all I saw was a paw. One big, black, front bear-paw. From my perch in the tree, I was looking down at the bait roughly 10 yards away across a grassy-mossy trail that continued on past the bait and under some nearby overhanging branches. I had come up the trail from behind me. This bear was coming from the direction neither Bryant nor I had ever been. He had not made a sound. Then suddenly his paw was there, less than 20 yards away—all the rest of him blocked out by the summer foliage. The paw didn’t move for five minutes.
Did he suspect I was there? Or did he know I was there, and just not care? Finally a black leg appeared, then two legs, and then the head. A good head, I thought. A good bear, indeed! Probably the male whose track Bryant had been seeing. I was wearing camo head-to-toe, so when this bruin stood under my tree and looked up directly at me, I didn’t blink or move a muscle. To this day, I don’t know whether he saw me and decided to ignore me before he ate, or whether he couldn’t make me out and therefore decided it was safe to dine.
In either case, he proceeded to indulge his taste for sweets in a most wary, skittish fashion. Using his front claws to snag the fishnet, he dumped his pirate’s plunder on the ground, immediately grabbed a few doughnuts, and raced about 10 yards back into the forest. As he lay on the ground enjoying his first pieces-of-eight (ate?), I could just make out a piece of his ebony rump. Two minutes later, he was back for more, but this time he retreated only five yards into cover. The next time he didn’t bother to withdraw at all. He simply lay down under the bait-tree, quartering away from me, and dedicated himself to pure gluttony. Had I been hunting him, this would have been the moment I was waiting for. At least I’d be able to tell Bryant that all his hard work had paid off.
Some 15 minutes later, with nothing left to consume, Bryant’s bear slowly departed the scene via the same route by which he’d arrived. When I related the story to my son on the phone that evening, I think it gave him almost as much personal satisfaction as he would have experienced had he been there himself and actually taken the bear with his bow. I assured him the shot would have been an easy one, and I think that’s all Bryant needed to know. As things turned out, his new job and his mounting social life combined to keep him from ever visiting that treestand again.
* * *
Eleven years later, I decided to get serious about taking a Pope and Young trophy black bear myself, so I flew up into Saskatchewan for five days of hunting from a treestand over bait, and I invited Bryant to come hunt with me. By then, he was well beyond college and had been living for several years in the Ketchum/Sun Valley area of Idaho, where he still makes his living as a professional outfitter for both hunting and fishing. As far as I was concerned, he had a bear coming, given everything he’d put into his baiting effort back in 1986. I was tickled pink that we could share another hunting adventure in the field.
Our destination was Kane Lake, which doubles as a bear camp in the late spring and a fishing camp in the summer and fall. The outfitter had established half-a-dozen bait-sites during the previous three weeks, and by the time we arrived in camp, several big boars had already bitten the dust. By removing two more males from the environs, we were definitely determined to do our part in helping increase the surviving, newborn spring-cub population.
Mornings were used by the camp staff to check and replenish the bait-sites; evenings were for the hunt. My first evening stand was uneventful—perhaps because my guide had taken me in more than halfway on a four-wheeler, just to show me where to find my tree. The next evening, however, I made a point of walking in all the way from the road. I had been told there was likely only one bear hitting this particular bait, but that he was possibly a brute.
By 5 p.m., I was settled into my tree. The sky was clear, the air was still—it was a perfect evening for bear hunting. At first, I sat there musing about Bryant’s experience of the night before. He’d had dreams of taking a color-phase black bear, meaning any color other than black. During the first evening’s “sit,” Bryant had had a shot opportunity at a blond bear that visited his bait, but he decided to pass him up, since it was just day one of our hunt. Two nights later, however, when the same bear came in again, my son decided to take him for his color alone. It was the only color-phase bear either of us saw that week.
My own treestand had been purposely set up for a lefty. Well off to my right was the bait-barrel, maybe 17 yards distant. Straight ahead of me, meandering down the hill through the forest, was a freshly-made bear trail that had each paw-print stamped crisply in the carpet of deep moss that covered the sylvan floor. The prints were large, and it was obvious that the bear frequenting this bait was maximizing his stealth factor by placing each step in precisely the same location on every visit. I knew I would never hear him coming. He would simply materialize—one paw at a time.
About an hour before sundown, that was exactly how it happened. Suddenly, there he was, 30 yards below, coming my way, one cautious step at a time. At 20 yards out, he stopped and stared up at me. I wondered if he was actually seeing me; he certainly seemed to know that the treestand was there. Before long, however, he continued making his way to the bait, and—once there—proceeded to pilfer a chunk of beef fat, carrying it off into the brush with him. As his salivary glands gradually shifted into overdrive, he decided to do the rest of his dining right there below me. It was now time for me to “shoot or cut bait.”
Since I wanted my arrow to cut him and not the bait, I took my time in drawing and aiming. I was high above the level of his dinner table. His head was down, and his body was quartering away. I tried to imagine just what straight line would lead to his heart, and then just where my shaft needed to enter in order to reach that target. The shot, as it turned out, was perfect. The razor-sharp broadhead disappeared between the last two ribs, angling forward, just a few inches down from the left side of his spine. His roar of surprise reverberated off a small cliff across the draw from me, and his short death-run took him in a semicircle to a point 40 yards behind the tree I was in. I actually saw him go down, and about 40 seconds after my shot I heard the unearthly sound of his death-rattle. It is not a common thing with other big game species, but it happens often with bears.
After saying a prayer of thanks to my Maker for allowing me to harvest one of his beautiful creatures, I approached the beast on the ground to satisfy myself that he was truly as big as I had thought he was. My eyes had not played tricks on me. I then hiked out to the road about a mile away to wait for my guide and his four-wheeler. I knew we would need it, if we were to have any chance of getting my bear out of the woods. When he arrived just at dusk, I told him of my good fortune. He congratulated me, and we headed in on the beaten-down four-wheeler track that led to the treestand. The bear probably weighed close to 400 pounds, so suffice it to say that it was all the two of us could do to get him loaded on the back of the four-wheeler! My guide used a few tricks I’d never seen or heard of before, and after a good half-hour of struggling with him, we managed to accomplish the feat.
* * *
Yet, as if that second evening of the hunt hadn’t contained enough drama to keep me happy for a while, the third one really took the cake—and very nearly my life! I had no interest in trying to take another bear with my bow on that particular hunt, but I did want to see if I could shoot some more with my cameras. The outfitter obliged by dropping me off with his pickup at a bear-trail that crossed the dirt road and headed into the timber. One hundred yards into the forest, I encountered a very active bait-site. Sure enough, his description was accurate, because there were bear tracks everywhere! My climbing tree stood 15 yards away in the form of a large pine with a ladder going 20-plus feet up it to the stand.
Once I’d ascended, I made myself comfortable and prepared to spend what I hoped would be several delightful hours filming a succession of bruins as they came in to feed. I hung my rucksack, camcorder, and still camera from three different broken-branch stubs that were all within easy arm’s reach. As the forest resumed its peaceful cacophony of little sounds following my alien insertion, I began to look around me, identifying those places where I might spot a patch of moving color as a noiseless visitor drew close to the bait.
As it often does, my imagination was starting to work overtime, when suddenly the realization struck me that a breeze had come up, and that all the trees around me were beginning to sway back and forth. As the wind continued to strengthen, all at once I heard a very loud crack, or popping sound. I hardly had time to wonder if a gun had gone off nearby before I realized that the tree I was in was falling! In fact, its path was going to take it exactly in the direction I was facing, and—unless I bailed out quickly—I was about to be turned into either a tent-peg or a pancake! With all the strength I could muster, I jumped as far as I could away from the trunk of the plummeting tree. I just prayed I would escape being clobbered by one of the larger limbs.
Well, I was one very lucky fellow! The treestand itself became the tent-peg—as it was driven right into the ground. Thank God I had not strapped myself in with the safety harness that had been provided! I could never have gotten out of it in time. My only minor injury was a set of bruised heels from the hard landing. In total disbelief, I picked myself up off the ground and went back to the base of the pine. As I walked around behind it, the mystery became crystal-clear in a flash. Somebody had just tried to murder me!
The tall clump of bushes surrounding the base of the tree, around on the front side where the climbing ladder was, had completely obscured any view of the many wood chips that lay on the ground behind the tree! Some rabid animal-rights activist—with malice aforethought—had used a sharp ax to cut away 80 percent of the tree-trunk! Whoever it was had left the tree standing on just a slender stem, knowing that the additional weight of a hunter high off the ground would bring the tree down once a good breeze came up. This had been no mere attempt to discourage bear hunting in the area. Had that been the objective, the cowardly miscreant would have simply felled the tree altogether! This was a case of intended homicide, without conscience. By the time the outfitter arrived at dusk to pick me up, a seething anger had risen within me. It had been a very successful bear hunt for father and son, yet it had certainly produced more excitement for me than I had ever bargained for! I had been prepared to deal with bears on my terms, but not with crazed eco-terrorists on their terms!
Editor’s note: This article is the fifteenth 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 fourteenth Chronicle here.