My Great Grandpa always used to say, "Having my old deer rifle stolen was the best thing that ever happened to me." He spoke of an old .25-20 WCF lever gun he carried for several years.
"At its best," he'd say, "it was no darn good." The story he told was, he came out of a store one day to find his car's trunk sprung open and the rifle gone. Great Grandma always claimed he threw it in the river just so he could buy a new one! At any rate, he needed a new gun and went to the local hardware store to buy one, a Winchester Model 55 .32 Win. Spec. for $35.
That happened many years ago, and ever since, Great Grandpa and the gun have been legends in our small community. For 22 straight years he killed a deer with that rifle, and some of his hunting stories are fascinating. Like the time he stopped hunting to relieve himself. He stood the rifle up against a tree and lowered his pants. Before he finished, a big buck jumped onto the trail. Great Grandpa reached over for his gun, shot the deer and then finished his business. That buck's head still hangs on the wall of my grandfather's living room with a 1934 tag on his antler.
Michigan, and Great Grandpa liked to find a sapling about 4 inches in diameter that leaned on another forked tree. He'd straddle the sapling in an almost standing position so he could pivot around and see in almost any direction. Once, from such a position, a buck appeared in front of him and ran full speed back and forth, and up and down the shooting lanes. Great Grandpa shot at the deer five times. When the buck finally fell, Great Grandpa found that all five shots had passed through the heart/lung area. Each one of them was a kill shot.
The stories go on and on, but one thing my great grandpa never did with that rifle was shoot a black bear. During the bulk of his hunting career, hunters in our area were allowed to kill bears during the regular deer season. In fact, most of the bears shot in any one year were tagged by deer hunters who stumbled onto a bear while hunting deer. Great Grandpa often remarked about how badly he wanted to shoot a black bear, but he never saw one while hunting.
Great Grandpa taught my grandfather to hunt, my grandfather taught my dad to hunt, and now my dad is teaching me. Hunting is more than a sport in our family, it's part of our lifestyle. And it's always been sort of a tradition in our family that when a boy turns 18 years old, he's given a hunting trip for his birthday gift. This was my year, and I wanted to hunt black bears. Arrangements had been made with Conklin's Camps of Patton, Maine, to outfit and guide our hunt. As the hunt drew near, I decided I wanted to try and shoot a bear with Great Grandpa's rifle.
For a while, my dad was concerned whether the .32 Win. Spec. would be enough gun for bears. A check of the latest reloading manuals, however, showed that the muzzle velocity would be close to 2,200 fps with a 170-grain flat-nosed bullet. That would give us approximately 1,900 foot-pounds of energy at the muzzle, and would hold up to approximately 1,400 foot-pounds at 100 yards. We knew any shot would be within 50 yards of the baits, so we figured the old .32 Win. Spec. would do the job.
We arrived at bear camp late on a Sunday afternoon. Our hunt didn't start until Monday afternoon, so we went to the range to make sure nothing had happened to our guns in transit. A few shots showed us we were ready for the woods. I knew I was prepared, and I could hardly wait for the hunt to begin.
When Monday came, guide Jason Conklin drove us to our treestands and gave us last-minute instructions about bullet placement and staying in our stands until he came back to get us. Hope soared as we climbed into our stands and began the long, quiet vigil. Of all the hunters in camp, I saw the only bear that afternoon, but didn't have a shot at it. Evidently, the bear saw or smelled me, and I couldn't get my gun up until it turned. When it did turn, it walked straight away from me without presenting a shot.
As I watched the bear walk away, I noticed it had a tag in each ear, indicating it was a nuisance bear trapped out of Baxter State Park on two occasions. If it found its way back there again, the conservation officers would kill it. The bear only weighed approximately 120 pounds and looked to be less than 2 years old by my estimate. It was interesting to think it had gotten into trouble at the park twice at so young of an age. I was so excited about seeing a bear in the wild that I shook for what seemed like a half-hour. It was all I could talk about that evening, and I kept everyone in our cabin awake well into the night.
When I got out of the truck for the second evening of my hunt, I determined this would be my day to shoot a bear for Great Grandpa. I was going to sit still until a bear was on the ground. Everyone was hoping and praying I could do it because after all, this was my birthday hunt.
Just before sunset, a black bear materialized next to the bait bag. It looked all around and then sniffed the air. Then, just as it was about to start eating the bait, I put the bead of my gun just behind its front shoulder and fired.
As quickly as the bear had appeared, it disappeared. I heard the bear run away, but then the forest became quiet. It seemed like Jason would never get to my stand, but I stayed in my tree like he'd told me. When I saw his truck coming to get me, I yelled to Jason that I'd shot one. He went to the bait and confirmed my hit, but said there was too little blood to make a good track. We'd have to pick up the rest of the hunters and then come back to find the bear. I worried all the way back to camp. Once he'd picked up everyone else, he, my dad and I would go back and look for the bear.
After a hard tracking job, my dad found the dead bear and the celebration began! It was my first big game animal, and everyone in camp helped celebrate the kill. Dad and Grandpa both said I had a right to be both pleased and proud, as I'd made a perfect shot right behind the bear's shoulder. My bear turned out to be the largest one killed by anyone at Conklin's camp that week.
I decided on a half-body mount for my trophy, and Dad said I could hang it in the entryway of our house, on the wall opposite from where Great Grandpa's rifle had always hung. It certainly was a bear for Great Grandpa.