With sunset approaching September 21 and time running out on days he could devote to hunting a giant Waupaca County, Wisconsin black bear, Dennis Arndt decided to try something radical to coax the old boar out of hiding.
Arndt, 35, of rural Manawa, gambled that the bear was holed up in a nearby cornfield, probably within hearing range of his ground blind. Trail-camera photos proved the bear had recently visited the bait site in daylight, so when it didn’t appear by early evening, Arndt assumed the bear knew he was waiting nearby.
Rather than wishing and hoping the bear would risk a late-day visit, Arndt decided to make it think he left the woods. He loudly unzipped the ground blind’s door, stomped out of the woods, climbed into his car about 200 yards away, slammed its door, started it up and pulled ahead a few yards. Then he turned off the engine, quietly left the car, sneaked back to his blind, silently unzipped the door, and sat back down with his 12 gauge shotgun.
The charade took about 15 to 20 minutes. According to his trail-cam photos, that’s about how much time the bear sometimes took to visit the bait site after Arndt replenished it on previous trips.
Minutes later, Arndt heard the snap of a fallen branch and spotted a large black form moving through the cedars behind his bait station. He figured it had to be the big bruin he nicknamed “Sampson,” because it had scared away every other bear since claiming the bait station in August.
Sure enough, when the bear peaked around a tree about 30 yards away, Arndt recognized it and started shaking with excitement. Seconds later, the bear moved over the bait and turned broadside. When the bear stepped forward, exposing its chest at 24 yards, Arndt calmed himself, centered his scope’s crosshairs on the big ribcage, and fired.
The bear roared as it rolled from the slug’s impact, and then righted itself and ran into the cedar swamp. When Arndt and several friends returned about two hours later, they soon found the giant bruin. As they admired the bear in amazement, Arndt shouted, hollered, celebrated, and called anyone who’d answer their phone.
Meanwhile, they discussed how to move nearly 800 pounds of bear. They rolled the brute into a large Otter sled, which bulged on both sides from the bear’s girth and bent along its top beneath the bear’s sprawling legs. With three pullers up front and two pushers behind, they muscled their burden across the cedar swamp and through the hardwoods, and then mushed out to the road about 200 yards from where the chore began.
From there they commandeered a Bobcat skidder to hoist the ungutted bear onto a pickup truck’s bed, and then drove to a certified truck scale for the official weigh-in. The big bear with its massive gut and thick fat from head to lower legs weighed 780 pounds, which ignited another round of breathless phone calls and more hollering and shouting.
It didn’t take long, of course, before everyone started speculating whether the bear could be a state record. Arndt doesn’t believe it will score high enough for that honor, because records are determined by skull size, not body weight. He said his bear had a thick fat layer on its head, which made it look bigger than it will probably score.
He expects to have it “green-scored” soon, and then have it officially scored after the 60-day drying period specified by the Boone and Crockett Club (B&C) and the Wisconsin Buck and Bear Club. The score includes two measurements across the top of the skull: the skull’s length from its backside to its most forward tooth; and from side to side at its widest points, not including the lower jaws.
Wisconsin’s top-scoring bear was found dead in Monroe County in 2010, and had a skull scoring 23-5/16. That bear also ranked number four in B&C’s North American records.
Bucky Ihlenfeldt, Kewaunee, is chairman of the Wisconsin Buck and Bear Club, the state’s official big-game scoring organization. He said that while weights are merely “supplemental” information about record-book bears, Arndt’s bear is one of the largest he’s heard about.
An illegally killed bear in Dunn County in December 2008 weighed 720 pounds, and Ihlenfeldt has heard of others exceeding 700 pounds. Generally, however, 500- to 600-pound bears are considered big, and 650 pounds and heavier are considered huge. Black bears approaching 800 pounds are rare.
According to the North American Bear Center in Ely, Minnesota, the heaviest black bear reliably weighed was an 880-pound, 10-year-old male killed in Craven County, North Carolina, in November 1998. Not far behind was an 876-pound 12-year-old male from St. Louis County, Minnesota, killed in September 1994. Also, an 856.5-pound bear was killed by a car near Winnipeg, Canada, in 2001. The largest recorded in Wisconsin was an 802-pounder killed in 1885.
“(Arndt’s bear is) definitely an older bear and we hope it qualifies for our record book when we measure it,” Ihlenfeldt said. “That is a huge, huge bear.”
If it qualifies for the record books, it would be the second Waupaca County black bear to make the Boone and Crockett Club’s book, and the third to make the state book. Wisconsin leads North America with 579 black bears in the B&C record book, outpacing Pennsylvania, 295, and Alaska, 227. Wisconsin’s top counties in the B&C book are Price with 43 entries, and Bayfield and Sawyer with 38.
Arndt’s taxidermist, Brad Kussman of Marion, is creating a full-body mount, and said it will require the largest form made for black bears. The bear measured six feet, 6.5 inches from nose to tail. They couldn’t measure its girth because it was too heavy to roll over. Kussman said most bears he mounts from his area weigh between 200 and 275 pounds.
David MacFarland, large-carnivore ecologist for Wisconsin’s Department of Natural Resources, said Arndt’s bear was “obviously” a fully mature boar. He, too, wouldn’t be surprised if its skull didn’t match up with its weight.
“There isn’t much correlation between weight and skull measurements,” MacFarland said. “Bears are like people in that their weights vary by individual, and they don’t get bigger and bigger with age. They usually start losing body mass as they get older, so this bear was probably in the prime of its life and had access to unlimited food.”
A tooth pulled from the bear will help determine its age, but MacFarland said test results likely won’t be available for several months.
Arndt said he’s more interested in learning the bear’s age than whether it qualifies as a record. “This is my first bear and it’s a bear of a lifetime, no matter what,” he said. “He was a local legend for many years.”
Arndt became aware of the bear about six years ago, and three friends targeted it in previous seasons without getting a shot. They, too, hunted Arndt’s property near Ogdensburg, but placed their blinds, treestands, and bait sites closer to the surrounding cornfields. Arndt took note and placed his setup in the property’s interior along a cedar swamp.
“I think it felt more secure back in there,” he said. “I knew if I wanted to see it in daylight during hunting hours, I’d have to set up where it felt safe.”
What will Arndt do for an encore? “I’ll probably go bear hunting again, because I’m a hunter,” he said. “I waited four years to draw this tag, and I’ll probably start applying again next year. But when I get drawn again, I know there’s no way I’ll ever top this one for size and excitement.”
Images courtesy Dennis Arndt