October 9, 2002, found me driving into Bella Coola on the central coast of British Columbia, hoping to find a male grizzly feeding on one of the late-fall salmon runs that were still occurring in many of those coastal rivers. The outfitter I had booked my hunt with possessed a reputation for having produced many large grizzlies for his clients over the years, but, unfortunately, at the time of booking, I didn’t pay sufficient attention to the fact that he had never before had a client who was a bowhunter. Rifle hunting was the only game he knew, and the pair of young, earnest, hardworking guides he assigned to help me had had very limited exposure to bowhunting themselves. The hunt, therefore, was probably destined to failure from the outset, but of course you never know that when the adventure first begins.
It is only possible to hunt that remote part of the BC coast by boat, and your only chance of finding a coastal grizzly out in the open that time of year is to walk up or down the first few miles of water above the mouth of any of the salmon-spawning rivers. There the bears tend to congregate for several weeks as they seek to add the final layers of pre-winter fat that will get them through their long hibernation.
Sad to say, however, by the time my hunt began on October 10, 99 percent of the huge chum and sockeye salmon runs had already either finished spawning in the lower stretches of the various Bella Coola-area rivers, or else had traveled too far upstream for us to reach them on foot (or any other way). Only the silvers (called cohos in Canada) remained in the lower sections of some of the rivers in any numbers—tending to hang out almost entirely in the deeper holes, seldom showing themselves, and waiting for the heavy rains of late autumn to arrive and give them access to the upper, smaller tributaries where they prefer to spawn.
My outfitter for this hunt was Leonard Ellis. In early 2006, he sold his large area to an environmental-preservationist-type organization that hopes to eliminate all bear hunting (if not all hunting) from that part of the BC coast. In October 2002, however, Ellis was still involved with his operation—at least up to a point. For the first two days of my hunt, he was skippering his big, converted fishing trawler, the Grizzly King, but on the third day he delivered the crew and me to the mouth of the famous Kwatna River and then took off to play for a week with his new girlfriend.
Philip and Clayton were the two, earnest, hard-working guides he assigned me, and for the next seven days they really busted their fannies trying to get me a shot at a good bear. They built me several treestands, not only on the edge of the river, but also at different places along the logging road that ran up and down the river for many miles. Each morning and evening, at many of the well-used crossings where bear trails came down off the mountainside and crossed the road on the way to the river, they would place loose, slender sticks—suspended horizontally about a foot above the ground—across the narrow openings in the brush. Periodically, we would check our stick placements to determine if a bear had passed along this or that trail in the past 12 to 24 hours. If a passage had occurred along a certain trail, the slant and location of the repositioned stick would always tell us whether the bear was leaving the river, or going to it.
Some days we would float several miles of river in a rubber raft. Other days, we would slowly wade several miles up (and then back down) one of the Kwatna’s tributaries. It didn’t seem to matter what strategy we tried; nothing was working. Unfortunately, the odds arrayed against us were more than we had figured on. Even though mangled fish parts covered the banks up and down nearly every part of the river, nearly all of the chums and sockeyes were dead or gone. The weather was actually much too good! The river was very low, and we didn’t have a single day or night of rain during my entire two-week hunt—unheard of for the BC coast that late in the year!
No doubt by far the biggest negative working against us, however, was the fact that a very noisy, full-scale logging operation was going on right there during our entire week hunting the Kwatna. Logging trucks were running up and down the river road from one landing to the next, as helicopters screamed back and forth over our heads, ferrying logs from the steep hillsides to the waiting trucks. Grizzly bears tend to be mostly nocturnal, anyway, but the carnival we had to put up with that week (until Ellis returned and moved our boat to another river) absolutely guaranteed that no self-respecting boar was going to show himself during shooting hours.
While it is true our first full day in that river valley did produce a momentary sighting of one large male bear, my eager guides were about 15 yards ahead of me as we waded up a densely brushed-in tributary stream, and I never actually saw that bear myself. Aside from that encounter, a few sow-with-cub sightings (at first or last light) were the only other excitement we had during the whole week we spent on the Kwatna.
In the final few days of my hunt, only after we moved our fishing boat to smaller, unharried rivers, did opportunity for a bowhunter finally become recognizable or worthwhile. Upon the outfitter’s return, Philip had to bow out to get to another job, so that left me in the hands of Leonard and his youngest guide, Clayton. Clayton was still in his early-to-mid twenties, but what he lacked in experience he made up for in his zeal for the hunt itself. He was determined to get me a bear!
Behind the wheel once again, the outfitter guided his vessel to the very end of a long, isolated fjord and dropped anchor just off the mouth of a small, gin-clear river he assured me would still contain a few schools of Silvers. At dawn the next day, we went ashore and spotted almost immediately what looked like a small boar heading up-river. He soon disappeared, so we began to wade upstream as well. By 10 a.m., we had probably made about two miles of progress—without, however, any further sightings.
Ellis insisted on leading the way for all of us. He is a big man with very long legs, and I had trouble keeping up with him—especially once we began to “cross-country” over to another branch of the same river. More than once I had to stop him and remind him that, if he jumped a bruin in that rainforest, his hunter (from 20 yards behind) was not likely even to see the animal, much less get any kind of a shot.
Around 10:30 a.m., Ellis suggested we head downstream back to the boat for lunch and a siesta, and pick out a salmon hole along the way that Clayton and I could return to in the late afternoon for an evening stakeout. Before long we came to a long, open gravel bar that led to a shaded hole we had discovered earlier in the morning. It had held at least 50 or more silvers that were not likely to leave it until the next good rain. Clayton was right behind me, and Ellis was his typical 20 to 30 yards out in front of us. As I thought about the possibility of there being a bear in this fishing hole, I instinctively realized that the slight breeze was moving downstream with us—directly from us to the fishing hole.
A few seconds later, right in the middle of the gravel bar, Ellis suddenly dropped to his knees and motioned frantically for me to stay low and scurry up to him. I tried to oblige, of course, but, as I do, I had this sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. As I approached Ellis, I could see the bear swimming in the pool below, but within mere moments I saw the bear stick his nose in the air, then exit the water, disappearing in a flash up the steep bank into the forest.
As I reached the outfitter, he gave me directions in a hoarse whisper: “Put an arrow on your string! There’s a bear down there swimming in the hole right now. Just sneak up behind that big rock at the head of the pool and stick him!” Evidently Ellis had never even thought about checking the wind direction.
“Leonard,” I said, standing up straight, unable to conceal the disgust in my voice, “Your bear left the hole 20 seconds ago and ran up the hill to the left! How could you have missed seeing that? Did you not see his nose pick up our scent? You must have been looking more at me than at him!” I felt like saying a lot more than that, but I simply bit my tongue and began walking toward the river’s mouth and the hot lunch I knew Leonard’s daughter would have waiting for us on board the big boat.
When Clayton and I returned about 3 p.m. to that same location, I had my doubts as to whether the same bear would return again that same day, but we both agreed it was worth a shot. Some other bear might show up, and we were definitely running out of time. Our morning’s fisherman had looked like a young male, so perhaps his inexperience would lead him back to the ambush we planned to set up for him.
The hole was overhung by a huge, moss-covered boulder, maybe 20 feet high, and by a pair of massive, towering spruce trees overhanging the boulder. A well-trodden bear trail emerged from the underbrush on each side of the base of the rock, so by taking up our stand on top of the mossy outcrop we felt pretty confident any ursine visitor to the fishing hole would offer an easy, brush-free shot at no more than 10 or 15 yards directly below us. After using my hand-clippers to improve several shooting lanes to the water’s edge below, we settled in for what we knew might be a long wait.
We actually passed the first couple of hours in exemplary fashion—managing to stifle virtually all muscle movement, save for the occasional swallow. Whenever we turned our heads from side to side, we made certain the slow, 120-degree rotation was not completed in anything less than 30 seconds. Bears don’t have very good eyesight, in terms of picking out a stationary outline or profile, but their ability to perceive motion is uncanny.
Taking me by surprise all of a sudden, Clayton gestured for me to hand him my camo make-up kit so he could do the job he had forgotten to do earlier in the eye/nose-hole area of his camo head-net. The make-up compact had a mirror in the lid, and within mere seconds of my guide turning his back to the river to take advantage of the best light, the bruin we had been waiting for suddenly stuck his head out of the brush directly below us—at most, maybe 11 or 12 yards away. I saw the bear instantly, but Clayton not only didn’t have a clue, his arms and hands were moving constantly as he proceeded to apply the camo paint! At first, the animal was only looking straight ahead toward the salmon hole, but all he needed to do was turn his head 45 degrees to the left, look up a bit, and I knew the game would be all over. I was even afraid Clayton’s motions were likely to be caught by the bear’s peripheral vision!
Desperate to alert him to the situation, I decided I had to gamble. The river rapids tumbling into the deep hole were offering quite a bit of sound-cover, so I decided to try a soft, short, hissing sound. The hope was that my guide, just five feet away, would be able to hear it, but that the bear, much further away, would not! Sadly, just the opposite occurred, and our quarry whirled back into the brush before Clayton ever even got a look at him.
Suddenly, I could hear Murphy’s ghost howling with laughter one more time. Or was that the sound of the rushing river? Had my eyes been playing tricks on me? One thing I knew for sure. My sanity was definitely coming under assault once again, and my mood did not improve one bit when—perhaps all of 30 seconds later—Clayton accidentally dislodged my camcorder from its mossy perch and sent it tumbling down into the river below. It definitely was not one of my better days spent bear hunting!
As for Mister Murphy, his nastiest tricks of all were still to come. Not on this Canadian grizzly hunt, but on an Alaska hunt the following spring, in May 2003. Those incredible examples of Murphy’s Law in action will be the focus of Chronicles 57 and 58. Stay tuned! It only gets better.
Editor’s note: This article is the fifty-sixth 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 the various editions of BAREBOW! available, by clicking here:http://www.barebows.com/. You can also follow BAREBOW! on Facebook here.