Golf fans and sports writers love to debate who’s the best pro golfer currently on tour to have never won a “major.” For many years this dubious title fell to Phil Mickelson, but today, names such as Sergio top the list.
So what does this have to do with hunting? Nothing really, except I want you to know that coming into 2006, I was the best hunter to have never killed a black bear.
It’s true. My black bear jinx began in northern Minnesota some 20 years ago on a do-it-yourself hunt on land littered with bruins. OK, “littered” might be too strong a word, but suffice it to say the land supports a very healthy bear population. During three weekends of hard hunting, I saw only one pastry-loving bear that weighed no more than 75 pounds. A decade after that bust, I again hunted alone in a different, but supposedly just as good area of north-central Minnesota and didn’t see a bear after 12 evenings of sitting on stand. To try and change my luck in the following years, I booked a guided black bear hunt to southern Quebec—zip!—followed by one to far northwest Manitoba—zilch!
I know what you’re thinking: I was too selective on these two Canadian guided trips and could have shot a decent bear, probably several on both hunts, but went home empty-handed because I was looking for a record-book bruin. Wrong. In total, I’d spent 2 weeks in a treestand on these pay-to-play hunts waiting for a mature bear—any mature bear—to lumber in to a bait site and give me a good shot during legal hunting hours . . . and the clock was still ticking—loud enough that I swear I could hear it from my bear stand this past spring.
River of Dreams
The last outfitter who agreed to challenge my bear jinx was Vance Hrechkosy, owner of Trail End Camp & Outfitters, which is located in southeast Manitoba, approximately 90 miles northeast of Winnipeg. Vance’s exclusive hunting territory runs some 30 miles along the scenic and wild Winnipeg River and contains some of the province’s finest black bear habitat.
With 15 seasons of outfitting under his belt—a lot for a man who hasn’t yet reached 40 years of age—Vance has learned how to provide hunters with shot opportunities at mature bears during legal hunting hours. “The key is to have at least three bait sites per guy, and each site has to draw its own bears so hunters aren’t competing against each other,” he said. “That way, you don’t have to sit at the same stand 2 days in a row if you don’t want to, and you never have to hunt a spot when the wind isn’t right. Typically I’ll have five or six hunters in camp at one time and 20-24 active bait sites spread over more than 60 square miles. And by ‘active,’ I mean sites that are being pounded by bears day after day.”
As the winter of 2005-’06 released its grip on southern Manitoba, I’d been in regular contact with Vance and he told me the river bears were eating him out of house and home. “On a daily basis my guides and I have been running bait with the boats,” he said. “And almost without exception, the barrels are being cleaned out every night. Dave, I need your group to get up here and kill some bears!”
I was confident this trip would be a jinx-breaker for me as I packed for the 6-day adventure. And not only was I happy to be hunting the massive forests bordering the Winnipeg River, but I was traveling with five of my favorite hunting partners: my dad, brother and three close friends.
As we’d soon discover, however, this bear hunt wouldn’t necessarily be a slam dunk. Due to an unusually warm spring in southern Manitoba, an abundance of lush natural foods had become available to the river bears just before our mid-May arrival. Because the bears could find desirable plants throughout the big woods, their arrival to Vance’s bait barrels might be delayed until after dark.
“I can’t believe how the leaves and other green growth have just exploded onto the scene,” Vance confessed during dinner on the afternoon of our arrival. “I can show you tapes from many of our previous opening-week hunters, and there are no buds on the trees and the forest floor is brown. With all of the new green growth the bears are going to have a lot to eat in addition to our baits, so we’re probably going to have to work harder than normal to fill your tags.”
Unfortunately, Vance’s prediction was correct, and only one member of our hunting party had a close encounter with a mature bear during the first 4 days of our hunt. My friend Bill, who was hunting bears for the first time, drew his bow on a big bruin at a range of only 15 yards, but his sight pin disappeared on the animal’s black hide in the dimming light, so he did the right thing and passed. Small bears were regular visitors at many of our bait sites, but huge tracks dotting the river’s shoreline gave us incentive to hold out for bigger boars. The biggest problem, of course, was we were running out of days.
Breaking The Ice
“When I talked to Vance at the Minneapolis Sportsmen’s Show,” said Scott, a longtime hunting partner of mine, “he told me all of his bait barrels are set up within 20 yards of the treestands, and many times the bait will be only 10-15 yards away. For me, that sealed the deal—I’d leave my rifle at home and carry a bow.”
Scott shot our group’s first bear on the fifth day of our hunt, just before the guide was scheduled to pick him up at 1 p.m. and take him to meet everyone else for shore lunch. “As I waited for the bear to approach the barrel,” Scott said, “I was praying I wouldn’t hear the guide’s boat approaching. Thankfully, the bear stopped broadside only seconds after reaching the bait, and it ran only 15 yards after the shot. My heart was still pounding in my chest when the guide arrived 10 minutes later!”
After Scott drew first blood, other hunters in our group started filling their tags, too. My dad, Frank, pulled the trigger on his .30-06 and dropped a bear that looked like a twin to the one Scott had shot earlier the same day. And on the afternoon/evening of our last day in camp, two more bears were harvested and one was missed. (Bill immediately booked a fall hunting trip to make amends for his whiff.) My brother, Steve, made an excellent shot on a medium-sized boar with his bow, and the last member of our hunting party, Paul, used his .300 Win. Mag. to down a massive boar that weighed approximately 450 pounds and measured 7 feet from nose to tail. Paul was so pumped following his encounter that he used his nervous energy to compose and memorize a “hunter’s rap” (read "Bust a Bear") while waiting in his treestand for his guide to arrive for the after-dark pick-up.
Too Close For Comfort
With my heart pounding wildly and sweat dripping into my eyes, I watched the massive boar reach into the barrel and then turn to look toward my pop-up ground blind as he chewed. From only 25 yards he looked like a black Volkswagen Bug, and I could hear his teeth crush the beaver carcass that had been placed in the barrel. I had a death grip on my .30-06 and thumb on the safety—silently praying the boar wouldn’t walk any closer to check out the granola bar wrapper smells coming from my backpack. But as luck—bad luck—would have it, thick clouds and a light rain filtering through the dense low-growth pines robbed me of the last few minutes of legal shooting time. With the aid of my 2-7X scope, I certainly could’ve shot the black blob in the chest, but exactly where is anyone’s guess. I do know this: I didn’t want anything to do with tracking this beast after dark, in the rain.
The bruin gorged himself for 15 minutes and then in an instant turned from the barrel and fled full-speed without breaking the forest silence. For a moment I thought the faint wind had shifted, allowing him to catch my scent, but 5 seconds later I heard the hum of Vance’s outboard coming in the distance—big bears don’t get big by being stupid.
The memory of that Manitoba monster will lead me back to Trail End Camp for a hunt in front of the “North American Hunter-TV” cameras in the spring of 2008. Jinx or no jinx, for me black bear hunting is every bit as exciting as deer hunting, with an added “fear factor” that surfaces when the daylight fades and you hear a twig snap right behind you.