“Let’s stop! I have to enjoy this for a while!” Those words burst out of my mouth as our truck made a final ascent, and we crested a rock-strewn mountain ridge. We were parked on top of the world at the extreme northern tip of Vancouver Island. There was no more “up” on the two-track logging road—we were there. An incredible panorama unfolded below us, one that will always remain in my memory. For the moment the last thing on my mind was hunting. I felt blessed to experience the incredible mountain and ocean vistas.
Superb calendar-quality images presented themselves in every direction. Far below us a freighter began its journey to somewhere. Beyond the freighter the ocean blended into the sky. My binocs captured a bald eagle circling an inlet hunting for fish. Two others flew high through a gap in the nearest mountains, tiny white pinheads on dark bodies. The tops of nearby mountains were at eye-level, and the view down their slopes was incredible. We grabbed sodas and sandwiches and found some “comfortable” rocks. The scenery and lighting were so spectacular we needed to let it soak in for a spell.
“See that logging trail across to the east, on that ridge about halfway up that round-top mountain?” one of the guides inquired. “There’s a bear feeding over toward the big rock where the trail disappears.” I quickly located the black dot and watched as it leisurely moved along the trail.
Since I had three relatively new laser rangefinders with me, I went back to the truck and dug them out of a tote-bag. Resting my arms on the hood of the truck, I began to take readings from the far-off blackie. All three lasers, the Leica, Swarovski and new Bushnell Elite 1500, gave similar readings. That bear was 917 yards away—plus or minus a yard or two—as a crow flies, but by truck it was probably a good 30- or 40-minute ride on the twisting Vancouver Island logging roads.
Our last cookie eaten, we climbed into the big 4x4 and found a spot to turn around. During the descent we spotted two more far-off grazing bears. But as the sun heated up the mountains, the bears bedded down and we didn’t see any more for several hours.
My Vancouver Island adventure began when Safari Club International’s Public Relations Manager Mike Schwiebert invited me on this hunt with Jim Shockey’s Pacific Rim Outfitters. I jumped at the opportunity and wasn’t disappointed. It would prove to be a special blend of interesting people, incredible scenery and black bears—lots of hungry black bears that had recently emerged from hibernation!
Black bears are a special creature for me. While working for the Saskatchewan game agency, I conducted field research on the critters and trained our field staff in bear handling techniques. I also fielded a wide variety of nuisance complaints, ranging from too many bears in campgrounds to cattle killers and bee-yard wreckers. I’ve shaken hands with a lot of tranquilized bruins and dispatched many nuisance bears.
I met Mike in Vancouver and, along with golf pro Frank Lickliter and fellow writer Brandon Ray, boarded a small turbo-prop plane and flew to Port Hardy. Jim Shockey’s dad met us there and took us to our cabins to get settled in.
After checking our rifles, the hunting began. I had the good fortune of pairing up with guide George Addlington and truly enjoyed his company. George shared his vast knowledge of the wildlife on the island and black bear hunting, as well as the details of his incredible occupation as a tree-faller in the logging industry. He knows every trail, nook ’n’ cranny and clear-cut where the bears are most likely to hang out. I believe he also remembers every black bear he’s seen during his entire lifetime!
As mentioned, I’ve hunted black bears for sport and professionally for many years. Whether I was sitting on a bait, spot-and-stalking or waiting in my government truck for a night-time marauder, I learned the primary attribute for success: patience. This served me well on this hunt, where you’re hunting what seems like a bazillion square miles of mountain habitat with limited access.
We drove to proven vantage points and methodically glassed tiny chunks of vegetation. If there was no bear activity, we moved to another spot and repeated the process. If we located a bear, we’d sneak closer to size it up. Sometimes a bear wasn’t that far away as a crow flies, but by the time we got within a mile or so, it had wandered into heavy cover. One afternoon we spotted a couple of bears eating clover on a trail across a steep valley. We left the truck and walked to a high vantage point almost directly across from the munching bruins. I wasn’t experienced at estimating distance in the mountains and would have thought the shot to be at least 400 yards, but my trusty rangefinder indicated it was exactly 283 yards.
I laid prone and took my time setting up for the shot. I was confident my custom-built Winchester Model 70 in .325 WSM would do the job. My friend George Gardner of GA Precision in Kansas City, Missouri, had built this rifle for one purpose—accuracy at very long distances. The rifle sports a Mike Rock 25-inch barrel on a trued Winchester WSM action. The barreled-action is bedded into a super-strong Desert Camo McMillan HTG stock. All metal parts have been coated in off-yellow Cerakote, a ceramic-based spray coating that provides total protection to metal.
I mounted a Nightforce 3.5-15X NXS scope in Badger Ordnance mounts, and then installed a Pathfinder ballistics chart to the tube of the NXS so I had immediate access to bullet distance/drop data. I also mounted a Harris bipod, sling and Eagle stock pack in preparation for this hunt. This rifle was literally loaded for bear!
A third bear suddenly walked into the clearing, and George studied all three intently to determine if any was a shooter. “One of them looks pretty good,” he said as I settled in for the shot. I agreed, so I made the necessary adjustments to the scope and placed the crosshairs high on the largest bear’s shoulder. I intended to break the scapula and drop the animal in its tracks. At the shot the 200-grain Accubond bullet hit the bear a bit back of where I intended. It leaped off the trail and into some heavy brush. As I cranked another round into the chamber, a long death moan echoed across the valley and George slapped me on the back. “That’s a guide’s favorite sound, Ian. Great shot!”
We located the bear seconds after arriving at the patch of greenery. After some photos, George field dressed the fine blackie and we hauled it up to the truck. I was pleased with the performance of the .325 WSM. The 200-grain bullet had hit just in front of the diaphragm and angled through the liver and out the other side, hard enough at nearly 300 yards to put the bear down after only a half-dozen steps.
There are many locations in North America where truly outsized bears are regularly taken. Alaska, Newfoundland and South Carolina come to mind. I’ve also killed several big bears in Saskatchewan and have seen photos of huge ones taken in Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario. Several Northern states also produce good-sized black bears. But I believe Vancouver Island, with its spectaculars vistas, ranks near the top as an exceptional hunting experience.