Updated: May 29
My story of the big bear appeared in the Mar/Apr 2022 edition of Bear Hunting Magazine. Here it is, re-printed for your enjoyment!
Stalking Boreal Bruins by John Schneider
He was the most significant black bear I had seen in 10 years, and he was only 100 yards across the legume-rich meadow from where I lay. I was surprisingly calm, however, as I could only see the top of his back in the high foliage. His female companion was even less visible. I was downwind of the two of them, and a stalk to get closer was unthinkable in the dry, late-May weather. The stalky clover, dead from last season, was crunchy. It was like walking on a large sheet of packing bubbles. My mind was busy trying to figure out what to do. I think that helped with the nerves. I didn't know it at the time, but my adrenalin would be flowing hard within minutes of this particular moment.
"I was in a good spot, and trying to force a better encounter would most certainly backfire..."
Hunting black bear in Alberta is especially enjoyable. There are giant bears here, and we have options. We are allowed to bait in the province. Not in all jurisdictions, and not where this particular hunt takes place. I could, if I wanted, go to more eastern boreal forest environments and throw out some barrels of meat scraps and oats. I have done just that in years past. It is an entirely successful way to hunt bears. It is also a lot of work and time, and commitment. But frankly, I am just not too excited about sitting in a tree on long late-spring evenings waiting for bears to come to me. I do this very thing every fall when I bowhunt whitetails. Bear hunting is different for me and I prefer the spot and stalk hunting style that is necessary for the wildlife management units where Grizzlies are present. Baiting bears is not permitted in these wmu's.
Alberta has such varied terrain, and black bears are everywhere! I've stalked them in the towering river bluffs of the Peace River, the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and here in the relatively flat expanse of boreal forest, crisscrossed with oil and lumber leases and unmaintained roads and cutlines. This region is the most difficult to hunt, it is challenging to see the bears in the flat, heavily forested terrain. I should qualify that statement. It is easy to drive the roads and spot bears in the ditches as they feed on clover. But that is just not how I want to spend my hunting trips. Riding in the vehicle for hours is effective but hardly satisfying. So on this particular trip, we decided to put the miles on our boots instead of the tires.
Over the years of "trunting" this area and filming episodes for the web series From The Wild, we've discovered several different bear hot spots. I found myself in one of these areas on this particular spring evening, May 24th. The dry Spring meant that I could indeed drive the Suzuki down the overgrown cutline for a few miles and then hike the rest of the way, perhaps another mile or so to the meadow. Oil and gas lease sites, once abandoned, are seeded in legumes by the businesses that have leased the public land. Of course, this makes prime habitat for both spring and fall hunting of bears and ungulates. The meadow was perhaps 4 acres, surrounded by mixed woods of dark spruce and aspen parkland. A drained beaver marsh, lush with dark green grass, sits immediately adjacent to the meadow. Each Spring, frogs call excitedly along the stream and moist soil of the beaver flats and field. The spot I overlooked was immediately identified as a prime location to spend more than one evening looking for bears.
I had already spent a few nights at the meadow and had seen nothing before the fateful night in late May. I was disappointed in the results, but hunting bears in this manner is difficult. It was simply a matter of putting in the time before an encounter would happen. Walking past the meadow earlier in the evening and seeing nothing, I continued to the cutline crossing and turned to sneak along its length toward the beaver flats. I couldn't accept previous failures and had to retry. I spent several hours glassing the flats. The breeze was gentle, and the bugs were few—a glorious way to spend an evening. With the sun setting, I decided to work my way back toward the meadow. It would take me an hour or so if I went slowly. That was the plan.
On my way back across the green flats and up the steep slope towards the cutline path that would take me where I wanted to be, I suddenly felt an unusual sensation and looked up. A brown muzzle, black ears, and small, glassy eyes stared back at me through the sparse undergrowth of the spruce thicket. The bear was perhaps 10 yards from me, and I am reasonably sure that neither of us was more startled than the other. We stared at each other for a few seconds. Then, with a swing of its head, the bear disappeared, back in the direction of the meadow. Game on!
The bear was spooked but wouldn't feel that way forever. I suspected that a calm approach would be better than running toward where I had just seen it. The stalk began, and I crept up the hill, making my way to the cutline. In the distance though, I saw the bear leave the trail and disappear into the forest, perhaps 100 yards away. I noticed no panic in the bruin though. It's movement was calm. If I didn't chase, I might have another chance. I slowly stalked through the tall grass and saplings, all the while staying vigilant and wanting to avoid another surprise encounter. I was confident that I would see the bear again, first this time, and the advantage would be mine.
For the following hour, slowly, methodically, I moved along. My eyes were constantly scanning the undergrowth for movement or black fur. Eventually, though, I found myself at the crossroads of the two cutlines. Turning left, I would very quickly be back within view of the meadow. That was the direction the bear meandered, so the decision was simple. Soon, I was at the edge of the field and within seconds of scanning, there was a bear! The dark blob in the distance was unmistakably alive, even without moving. My brain's snap to attention was immediate and startling. And now, I did indeed have the advantage.
The wind now became my main concern. I knew where the bear was. I knew it felt unpursued. All I had to do was slowly walk the lease road to the upwind edge of the meadow. A small berm made a perfect rest to lay prone and steady the 7mm mag for a shot.
Before I could get myself settled, though, I came to realize there were now two bears in the meadow! The bear I pursued earlier immediately became a non-concern as her companion, a giant boar, dwarfed her. Nothing was visible but the top third of his body. As the big bear buried his head in the green lushness of clover, there was nothing I could do but wait. I was in a good spot, and trying to force a better encounter would most certainly backfire, I had been in this situation many times over the years. I convinced myself that I needed to be patient.
The bears fed side by side on the far edge of the meadow for perhaps thirty minutes. During that time, I was constantly scanning for alternative options to get closer. Unfortunately, the stalky, dried clover wouldn't allow it. And then suddenly, the pair split, and the boar started across the meadow on a slow walk. He had lost interest in the sow and had evidently come up with a better plan in his mind. The crunchy grass that was a disadvantage only a few seconds ago now became my greatest asset. The noise of his own bullish walk through the dried clover stalks would provide me some cover to try to get ahead of him. A gas pipe stub sticking up out of the ground, a leftover from past gas extraction practices, was not far away. Once I got to that point I felt that he would be walking directly towards me, closing the gap and hopefully emerging from the tall foliage to expose himself for a shot. I would also be able to use the pipe as a rest to steady my shot.
The plan was working to perfection. As the bear walked, so did I. When he stopped, I stopped. I got to the capped-off stub of pipe and readied for the impending encounter. By now, the boar was about seventy yards and moving at a slight angle across my view. He walked with a bullish saunter. Unafraid and defiant. His size and age had made him invincible and lurking danger was not his concern. As he shifted through the tall, brown foliage, his body was mostly concealed. His shape and dark form were just there, appearing and disappearing as he moved. How could something that big, and unnaturally dark, be so fleeting? He was a phantom in plain sight.
Suddenly though, the grass in his path became shorter, and at fifty yards, I had my scope filled with black fur. The crosshairs were centered in a spot just behind his massive shoulder.
The shot echoed across the meadow. The sound reverberated off the trees and hills, and the bear hunched and ran. Years of experience told me to get another shot away as bears are notoriously rugged animals. Now freehand with the old Remington, and the bear running, I found him in the cross-hairs once more and squeezed the trigger. The butt of the rifle slammed violently into my shoulder. I felt its jarring sting, the sound pounded deep into my head. Almost simultaneously, the huge bear fell and slid across the wet grass. And then he was still.
This big boar was the largest bear that any of us had seen in our ten years of hunting in this area of Alberta. The choice to hunt with a more enjoyable process of hiking the backcountry had paid off. Even if the story had ended differently, and I hadn't killed a monstrous bear, the lesson was the same: hunt the most enjoyable way and keep pride in the process. Pursuing bears on foot led me to more inaccessible areas, and undoubtedly impacted how this story unfolded.