Northern Alberta is where hunters go to kill the black bear of a lifetime.By NAH Online Editor Josh Dahlke
We hastily rode atop miles of train tracks into the swampy Canadian wilderness. Beyond the bucking bounce of each railroad tie was a feeling of anxious desperation. Behind the monotonous roar of the ATV, a silent voice urged me to keep my head in the game. This is it. My guide hung a fresh beaver carcass and spread sweet pink frosting on the trees surrounding the bait site, inviting every bear in the neighborhood to breakfast. He left me with a subtle “good luck” nod and disappeared. It was my last stand.
A Trip To Bearadise
Typical protocol at Wally Mack’s W&L Guide Service doesn’t involve going home empty handed. Hunters who travel to his turf in High Level, Alberta, arrive with the reasonable expectation of shooting a giant black bear—6-footers don’t raise an eyebrow, 7-footers frequently hit the skinning table. With two tags, it’s not unrealistic to kill a double of behemoth bruins. Color-phase bears aren’t rare, either. Months before my trip to W&L, I began envisioning a full-fang rug on the floor of my humble urban abode.
Wally’s bear camp is tucked within a small aspen clear-cut, not prohibitively far from the modern conveniences found in High Level. But other than the small, surprisingly booming oil town, your compass will generally point somewhere between Nowhere City and Lostville. It doesn’t take much of an imagination to understand why Mr. Mack’s operation is smack-dab in the center of bear country.
Wally Mack’s W&L Guide Service provides
comfortable rustic accommodations in northern Alberta.
You’ll sleep with your gear in one of the many two-man wall tents, heated by the comforting fire of a wood-burning furnace. A drumming ruffed grouse might taunt your camera lens during the day, the Northern Lights at night. The dining bell will ring like clockwork, training your body to prepare for meal upon home-cooked meal. Still hungry? The never-ending supply of baked goods will make you wonder if you’ve turned part bear.
Wally’s crew is topnotch from top to bottom. His guides are hardworking and, most importantly, dedicated to slapping tags on bears. They’ll go the extra mile—or tens of miles … through muddy hell—to get their hunters on active bait. When the deal is sealed, sit back with a cold beverage and watch the bear surgeons conduct their operation. Blink a few times and you’ll be holding a tape measure to your trophy bear hide.
I shared camp with a bunch of hunting journalists and industry experts who know a thing or 20 about killing big game. And there wasn’t a hunter in camp who lacked precision bear-taming tools.
Any ballistics expert—including my tentmate, Ron Spomer—will tell you that modern bullets have revolutionized “lighter” calibers. This can be said with Hornady’s Monoflex bullet. As the name suggests, it’s a monolithic (solid) bullet designed for unruly expansion, ruthless penetration and maximum weight retention. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Spomer and others paired Hornady’s .30-30 Win. LEVERevolution ammo with a Mossberg 464 lever-action rifle to finish some bears with a classic touch.
I joined the heavy artillery team and shouldered a Mossberg 835 Ulti-Mag Combo slug gun; others chose the versatile FLEX shotgun system. To heat up our barrels on bears, we used Hornady’s latest offering: the Superformance slug. With a bone-crushing 300-grain Monoflex bullet delivered out the muzzle at 1,950 fps, this new thumper will undoubtedly lead generations of bear hunters down short blood trails.
Could you top your bear gun with low-end optics and get the job done? Absolutely. Could you do it consistently in low-light conditions, such as those often found in bear woods? Maybe. But I’ll tell you, looking through crystal-clear Swarovski optics during my 3-day adventure was a sobering optical experience. Even after sunset beneath the shadowy spruce canopy, when I fixed my Z6i 1-6X24mm riflescope on a jet-black bruin, I could’ve confidently squeezed the trigger. With Swarovski’s CD-I illuminated reticle added to the equation, it felt like I might have finally gained the upper hand on the unpredictable beasts—even after my dilating pupils struggled to compensate for evening inferiority.
Holding Out For ‘Him’
Time and time again I was reassured by veterans of the W&L experience that, of all places, High Level is where I’d kill “Him.” Not just a bear, but THE ONE—a big, burly boar. Considering Wally’s track record, it’s a totally reasonable goal. Even with one failed attempt at killing a baited Maine black bear under my belt from the year prior, I rode nothing but a wave of optimism into this High Level “bearadise.”
The first evening on stand was intense. I sat on a rock-solid wooden bench seat nailed between two trees, nervously awaiting any flash of black amidst the thick surrounding forest. Suddenly, two bears strolled in and my heart went on overdrive. I could hear a third bear bedding down in a thicket behind me. I’m not a great judge of bear size, but I had enough sense to realize that the two bears—now feeding at the bait—were kids, and mom was hiding in the brush. I watched an entertaining balancing act as one of the bears clung to a horizontal 2×4 8 feet in the air, feeding on a suspended beaver carcass. After the short snack, they silently wandered off.
Less than 3 hours later, two bears quietly approached from behind my stand and cautiously headed for the bait barrel. I knew they weren’t giants, but one of the bears tempted my trigger finger because of a beautiful white chevron on its chest. I observed the bear closely as it stood by the bait barrel, and it appeared to be as tall as the middle ring. Is it a shooter? Do I want this bear? It definitely wasn’t The One, but the two tags in my pocket meant I could shoot my first-ever black bear—right now.
I leaned on Swarovski’s Rob Lancellotti for advice with a short text message describing the bear. His response: “Shoot!” I flicked the safety off my Mossberg, fixed the brightly lit reticle on the bear as it changed its focus to the beaver carcass, and … not tonight. In hindsight—and after reviewing some video footage—I’m happy with my decision. I’m almost certain the second pair of bears were the young duo that had visited earlier. Adrenaline can make a rookie bear hunter’s eyes big.
For the second evening, my guide wanted me to try another hot bait site called “Tracks 1.” We tore through miles of mud on an ATV to get there, but my hopes were high as I situated myself in the stand overlooking an eerie aspen forest. I figured it was only a matter of time until a shy bruin slinked into the bait. Soon I’d be celebrating with the other successful hunters back at camp, and the pressure would be off. But I saw no black, other than the subtle flickers of wise old ravens quietly creeping in and out of the trees.
Our crew sipped Canadian whisky and enjoyed another home-cooked meal while the Northern Lights danced in the sky. A few of my campmates told tales about their freshly tagged bears. The One was out there waiting for me—somewhere. My patience would pay off. I would get him during my next sit.
The following afternoon, after watching the guides go to work at the skinning table, my fellow hunters and I relaxed and shared company while sipping hot coffee and nibbling on fresh-baked cookies. In the midst of our conversation, it was brought to my attention that my flight was departing the next morning … a day earlier than I anticipated. The magic needs to happen tonight, I thought.
I returned to the stand where I had seen the bears the first evening. If the young bear with the white chevron returned, I would gladly take it as my first. As dusk unfolded, a pair of pine martens squabbled, each one trying to stake its claim over the easy pickin’s. I read an entire book about a father and son’s fruitless journey to survive in a post-apocalyptic world—not the greatest literary choice to heighten my hopes. The 5-hours sit came to an abrupt ending as pitch black engulfed my stand without any sign of a bear … let alone The One.
After breakfast the next morning I wasn’t ready to call it quits. I couldn’t let The One win this game. It’s not customary for Wally’s hunters to sit during the a.m. hours, but my flight didn’t leave until 1 p.m. I would sit at another active bait site with fingers crossed that a restless boar was starving nearby. It was my last stand. The sound of my guide’s ATV fainted into the distance as I stared at the newly spread pink frosting and the dangling dead beaver.
I cursed the clock when I heard my guide returning to rush me out of High Level. My report was blank when he pulled up, other than another nimble pine marten that had visited for a free meal, complete with desert. “I can’t believe you didn’t see a bear; this bait’s been getting hit good,” he uttered with obvious disappointment. “That’s hunting, man,” I candidly responded. He informed me that he planned to return to the bait in the afternoon, just to sit and watch. We exchanged phone numbers before saying our farewells.
Just hours after my departure I sat in a hotel room, staring at the TV, wishing I was staring at another stinky bait barrel instead. My phone vibrated with a text message that stung a bit: “A decent bear came in a few minutes ago.” At least it was just another “decent bear”—not The One.
Author’s Extras: See the hunt unfold on camera—including bonus kill footage from Swarovski’s Rob Lancellotti—by watching the video below.