Hunters by nature are collectors. Perhaps it goes back to our hunter-gatherer days. We like to put mementos of hunts on our walls and relive the experiences. We also like to set goals and achieve difficult objectives—there’s the grand slam of all four subspecies of turkeys, the grand slam of the four wild sheep, and the super slam of all 29 species of North America big game animals, for example.
There are four species of bears in North America: coastal brown bears, grizzlies, black bears, and polar bears. A handful of people have shot all four of these, and some have even done with with a bow. That’s an expensive endeavor, with brown and polar bear hunts running $15,000 to $25,000 (editor’s note: OutdoorHub’s Dennis Dunn harvested a polar bear on an epic hunt, chronicled in two parts here and here).
A few years ago I came up with the idea of shooting one of each of the four major color phases of black bears—a grand slam that would be more realistic for a guy like me with a limited budget. But it would be extremely difficult to accomplish. Black bears are easy, and chocolate bears make up about 15 percent of the population across North America. But cinnamons (often referred to as “red bears”) run between five and 10 percent and estimates on blondes run from two to four percent. There are pockets across western North America with higher percentages of bears in colors other than black.
A little research by Bear Hunting Magazine turned up a small number of people who have shot all four with a gun, but there seems to be no record of anyone having done it with a bow. I had shot many black bears and a couple chocolates with a bow when I became interested in this idea. I began a quest to get one of each. It would take five more hunts before I got the third color: I shot a cinnamon bear in Saskatchewan in 2014.
The Duck Mountains of western Manitoba are known as an area with a high percentage of color-phase black bears. I booked a hunt with Grandview Outfitters for June of 2015 in hopes of finding an elusive blonde bear to complete my grand slam.
I knew it was a real longshot, but to my utter shock I had a blonde bear in front of me within the first few hours of my first day on-stand. I had a steady stream of bear sightings from the moment I got settled into the treestand. At 8:00 p.m., a medium-sized blonde bear cautiously approached the bait. It was the eighth bear I saw that evening. My trail camera caught the bear on video as it approached, but the bear became focused on the camera itself.
I watched as the bear bit at the camera, trying to pull it off the tree. The bear offered no shot as its attention was focused on the camera. It tried to pull the camera off the tree, then dropped to all fours, but a branch was in the way. It turned toward me, then away from me, then stood up and bit at the camera again. Finally I whistled at it in the hopes of drawing its attention away from the camera. I reasoned that if it would forget about the camera, it might present me with a shot.
But the bear simply turned and left, leaving me with an exciting encounter but no ethical shot opportunity. I could have shot the bear a dozen times if I had a gun in my hand instead of a bow. I was crushed, and I wondered if I had missed my only opportunity.
I went back to the stand on day three, and saw more bears, but the blonde did not show. I was concerned that it may have moved out of the area. Day four found me back in the same stand, still with a flicker of hope that the blonde was still in the area and might come back to the bait.
There are five main trails leading from the surrounding bush into the bait like the spokes of a wheel. The wind was blowing toward the bait that afternoon and I didn’t like it at all. I decided to sit it out and hope that any bears coming in would use one of the four trails that were not in my scent stream. Only the one directly beyond the bait would be a problem.
After about four hours of watching young bears come and go, my adrenaline glands dumped their magic potion into my system as the blonde bear appeared directly opposite the bait. It was an emotionally-charged moment as he came into view, but he was directly downwind and the encounter did not last long. He had chosen the one trail that would take him right into my scent stream. He vanished as quickly as he had appeared.
It’s a tall order to shoot something that elusive and uncommon with archery equipment. The grand slam of color phase bears is a daunting task. And having it within my grasp only to have it slip away is heartbreaking, but the experience only intensifies my desire to complete my goal. My quest continues.
Follow Bernie’s bowhunting adventures on his blog, bowhuntingroad.com.
Images by Bernie Barringer