In Search of the Golden Bear
Bernie Barringer 06.06.16
I’m not sure when I became fascinated by bears, but it was at a young age. I still have a collection of books about bears, many of which date back to my adolescent years. I took up bowhunting at age 14 and concentrated on whitetails for the first 2 decades, but in the back of my mind I was always intrigued by the challenge of taking a bear with a bow.
In 1999 I pulled the trigger on a bear hunt and booked with Chris Ford of Williams, Minnesota. I figured I would have the satisfaction of shooting a bear with a bow, have a bear rug, and check that off my list then move on to something else. I shot a bear on that hunt, and it was a dark brown bear rather than black. I knew little about black bear color phases at the time, and had no idea that I had just done something considered very difficult because chocolate brown color bears are very rare in that area.
Long story short, I fell in love with bowhunting bears. I started baiting for myself, and within a few years it had blossomed into a full-blown addiction. A dozen years later, I was the managing editor of Bear Hunting Magazine, and I had bagged more than a dozen bears with a bow. While doing research on the various color phases of black bears, I became fascinated with what I found. Here’s a short synopsis.
Colors and Regions
Black bears come in a variety of colors from blonde, to reddish brown, to dark brown, to black. Occasionally bears will come in a mixture of more than one of these colors. Virtually all black bears east of the Mississippi River in the United States and Canada are black. Going west, areas of far western Ontario and western Minnesota have a small number of dark brown or “chocolate” color phases. Heading further west, colors such as blonde and the light reddish brown know as “cinnamon” start to show up in Manitoba. The Duck Mountains and Riding Mountains area of far western Manitoba are home to all four colors in good numbers. Areas of Saskatchewan also offer color phase bears in percentages as high as 30% of the population.
Colors other than black become more prevalent in the Rocky Mountain provinces of Alberta, and British Columbia, and states from Montana to Arizona and New Mexico, colors other than black in some cases make up 50-60% of the population. On the West Coast, color phase bears are somewhat common in California and parts of Oregon, but in coastal rainforest regions of Oregon, Washington, British Columbia parts north, they are all black.
The Grand Slam
This detailed knowledge of colors and their locations led to an idea. In discussions at Bear Hunting Magazine, we thought it would be cool if hunters were recognized for taking various species and colors of bears. Sheep hunters have their slam, turkey hunters have theirs, why not bears? Polar bear, brown bear, black bear and grizzly bear could be one slam. All four major color phases of black bears could be another. When we gave the idea some ink in the magazine, we discovered that several hunters have taken all four colors and all four species with a gun, and a few have taken all four species with a bow, but so far, we have found no one who has taken all four colors with a bow.
For me this was an eye-opener. Heck, I had a chocolate and a bunch of black bears already; I was halfway there! I knew I would need to enlist the help of some outfitters to make it happen, but I was going for it!
Over the next few years, I hunted several places in search of a blonde and a cinnamon. I went to Idaho on a hound hunt and ended up taking a black-colored bear. I went to Saskatchewan and didn’t see either color. Then I went on a spot-and-stalk bear hunt with Eureka Peak Outfitters in the Cariboo Mountains of British Columbia, where color phase bears are present in good numbers. I had a beautiful cinnamon bear in front of me at 60 yards on the very first evening, but a snow-melt swollen creek separated us, so I could get no closer. That bear walked out of my life never knowing he almost became a part of history.
I then hunted with Grandview Outfitters in the Duck Mountains of Manitoba, and had another very close call on a baited hunt. A cinnamon bear came across a beaver dam and came up the slope right below my stand, but it was driven off by another bear before I could get a shot.
Back to Saskatchewan with Thunder Mountain Outfitters in 2014, I found myself looking at scouting camera photos of a cinnamon bear on a bait the third day of the hunt. I went in there and, after several close calls, closed the deal on that bear. I watched my arrow flash across the opening and zip through the bear like it was in slow motion. The moment was surreal as the bear piled up within sight. It was a very emotional moment for me getting the third of the color phases. From that point on, the idea of taking a grand slam of color phase bears looked within reach, but I was just getting started.
The blonde bear is the most elusive of all, not just because they are the rarest of all the colors, but because they just seem to know they can’t blend into the shadows and they are hyper-cautious.
Hunters with Tom Ainsworth at Grandview Outfitters in Manitoba’s Duck Mountains had taken three blonde bears out of 75 bears in the past 3 years, so I decided that is where I would concentrate my efforts. I sent him some Covert scouting cameras to put on the baits and keep me informed of what he was seeing.
By the time I arrived in the spring of 2015, he had knowledge of three baits that had been visited by blonde bears that spring. But the blonde bears were not regulars at the baits at all; in fact, one of them was seen by a hunter who observed the bear circling the bait, but it never came in.
The first night on stand, I was covered up in bears; I saw a total of 13 that evening, including one that was a light brown on its back and had dark brown legs. There were two more that were chocolate, and then there was the “Golden Bear.” Incredibly, a blonde bear walked into the bait only 2 hours into my first night’s hunt. It walked up and started biting at my trail camera, then when it dropped to all fours, it was facing me, offering no ethical shot. Next, it stepped into an area where a branch covered its vitals, then it left. Gone. I never even drew my bow!
I suspected it would be back later in the hunt. Letting that bait rest, we moved and hunted the bait at which the hunter had seen a blonde circling. Nothing but black bears at that bait. The third night I went back in hopes of encountering the blonde again, but saw just browns and blacks. On the fourth night, I think my heart did a cartwheel when the blonde bear appeared. He walked toward the bait a few steps, put his nose into the air and got a snootful of human odor carried on a wayward breeze and then promptly exited the area. Another crushing defeat, and it was obvious my chances of killing that bear had vanished for that trip.
I later screwed up a shot on a giant black bear before leaving for home. The video of that hunt is below. You can see why I have come to call this bear the Golden Bear. It’s not just because he is such a beautiful color, but also because he is as elusive as gold.
Because I had an unfilled tag, I headed back to Manitoba during the fall. The blonde bear didn’t show on my fall hunt, but I did experience the most incredible day surrounded by bears, seeing 20 bears in one evening on that hunt, and I shot a B&C black bear weighing 400 pounds. He was the 18th bear I have shot with a bow.
I sent more Covert scouting cameras to Tom in April 2016, and headed up there with high hopes on May 9. In 3 weeks of putting cameras on various baits, he had not one single photo of a blonde bear. The Golden Bear had disappeared.
My first night, I headed back to the bait where the bear had been seen circling, and encountered the most beautiful cinnamon red sow bear with two red cubs. Three of the most gorgeous bears I have ever seen.
Back at the truck after dark, the other hunter in camp had some incredible news for me. Butch, from Coldwater Michigan, had seen four bears, including a blonde. In a remarkable gesture of grace, he had not shot the bear because he knew how much the bear would mean to me.
I spent the majority of the remainder of the hunt on that bait without ever seeing the blonde bear. The weather was cold, windy, snowing and nasty. Bear sightings were way down for this time of the year. I encountered only 21 bears in five nights of hunting, about half the norm for this place in the spring. It seems like a much longer drive home with empty coolers in the back of the truck.
I now have an unfilled 2016 Manitoba bear tag in my pocket. I left Covert scouting cameras with Tom, and I am trying to make room in late August or early September to escape for a few days. We will see.
As word has gotten out about my quest for the black bear color-phase Grand Slam, I’ve been getting calls from outfitters who believe they have a chance at putting a blonde bear in front of me. They want to capitalize on the publicity that is sure to come when I complete my blonde ambition. Tom Ainsworth has put a huge amount of energy into trying to get me the blonde bear, and it would be a shame if he was not rewarded for it. So for now, my efforts are concentrated in the Duck Mountains of Western Manitoba where the elusive Golden Bear walks the bush in secret.