By: Tom Lounsbury
The older I get, the more choosey I am about who I go on adventures with in the “wild country” because if the chips are ever down, you need to know they will be right in there covering your “six” or enduring matters with you in a skillful manner. That is why when fellow outdoor writer Jay VanHouten of Midland wanted to know if I would be interested in going on a northern Ontario black bear hunt with him, it was a no-brainer for me to come back with an automatic “yes”. I’ve known Jay for some time now and we’ve hunted together on many occasions and he is very woods-wise and has pretty much “been there and done that”, which makes him a good partner to paddle any river with, so to speak.
Carol Caputo, the Executive Director of the Algoma Kinniwabi Travel Association (www.algomacountry.com or call 1-800-263-2546), had made the arrangements for Jay and I to bear hunt with Dick Watson and his son Robert, owners of the Windy Point Lodge (www.windypointlodge.com). Windy Point Lodge is located on Kabinakagami Lake (at over 30,000 acres it is the largest inland lake in Algoma country) which is a 60 mile floatplane ride north of Wawa. It offers nice cabins and with a generator for power, the cabins all have electric lights, running water, flush toilets, hot showers, cooking stove/oven, refrigerators and even a microwave. I must admit that this all works for me in regards to “roughing it out” in the wilderness, because I’ve had my fair share of more primitive digs over the years. Windy Point Lodge also offers a fleet of outboard-powered aluminum boats for fishing and accessing the regularly baited bear hunting sites.
The Watson’s maintain trail cameras at all their bear hunting sites to see what and how many bears are hitting the baits, and at what time they are feeding. They also use only “sweets” for bait (they begin baiting in May) that entails cookies, pies, pie filling, candy, and gallons of frosting. According to Dick Watson, bear meat coming out of Windy Point Lodge is definitely “sweet”. They also only allow 10 bears to be taken out of their hunting area each fall to maintain quality and availability for hunters (I call this Quality Bear Management).
Jay and I would be using crossbows for our bear hunting arms, which made getting across the border a whole lot easier and quicker than if we had firearms instead. Jay was using a new to the market Browning and I was using my ever dependable (Made in Michigan) Darton “Scorpion” that I’ve been hunting deer with for a couple years. Both of us were using arrows tipped with fixed broadheads to readily penetrate heavy bone and muscle, something bears are well known for.
When it comes to getting into and out of the backcountry by floatplane be sure to have a flexible schedule because weather conditions will truly dictate when flying is possible and getting flustered and impatient about any delays is a futile endeavor. If a bush pilot says it is too nasty to fly, that works for me and I’ve learned to simply hunker down and bide my time.
In our case, Jay and I could see we were driving into monsoon-type weather as we approached Wawa, and it would continue for almost 24 hours. We were supposed to fly out the following morning but we are both realists and knew that was very unlikely. When we reported to the floatplane base in the morning sheets of rain and high winds were in full progress, so we went inside the office and got to know folks while waiting for the weather to ebb which was predicted to happen in early afternoon.
A very nice couple we met during the wait was Keith and Joni Singelyn of Port Huron. They were headed to the same place as us and Keith was also using a crossbow for bear hunting while Joni was going to enjoy the atmosphere and do some serious fishing. When early afternoon arrived the “monsoon” suddenly quit and we could hear the Otter (the flying work truck of the wilderness) coming in for a landing to unload passengers who were already a day late in getting out. That afternoon found all of us at Windy Point Lodge and meeting the folks there.
We were aware that six hunters who came in the week before to Windy Point Lodge had all tagged out with bears on their opening day, so we all had high hopes and expectations and weren’t serious about starting until the following afternoon. The first thing on the agenda after getting settled into our cabin was making sure our crossbows were right on and the lodge had a great archery target available to handle matters.
A very important matter all outfitters appreciate is that their clients will be up front and open about any physical limitations and they will go out of their way to make things happen accordingly. I had ankle surgery in late February to repair torn ligaments (thanks to stepping in an unseen woodchuck hole during the October pheasant season) and I didn’t get off crutches until May (just in time for spring turkey hunting). Everything had pretty much healed fine but I didn’t want to press any issues in rough country or to be dealing with climbing in and out of ladder stands as yet. It turns out that Windy Point lodge maintains some bear hunting sites for hunters with any physical issues and Dick Watson had picked the ideal spot for me.
Each site had a name and mine was called “Stephanie” (after Dick’s daughter-in-law who works at the lodge). The location was literally an enormous (about four stories high) tree-topped boulder jutting out into the lake. Once I disembarked the boat I had only about a ten foot walk to a deep split in the rock that had caused a large cedar tree to fall over right next to it with its roots assisting in making a superb and natural ground blind. There was a rock shelf in the split that when covered with a boat cushion, made a comfortable seat and I liked everything about the entire setup as it was obviously well thought out.
While I got situated, Dick went up and added frosting to the bait which was located 16 yards above me and I began my vigil when Dick left with the boat, supposedly letting any bears in earshot believe that everyone had gone. Five hours actually went by rather quickly while fish jumped out of the water near me and loons swam by singing to their hearts’ content. It was just becoming dark when the motion of a pine marten darting away from the bait caught my eye and that is when I saw the bear, standing there looking out over the lake and scanning matters. It is truly amazing how bears can suddenly appear without the slightest sound, and yes folks, my heart began to do some serious pitter-pattering.
I sized the bear right away as being in a bit over the 200 pound range and that was good enough for me. However I had to be sure there weren’t any cubs in tow and also to wait for just the right shot. The bear helped out by suddenly laying down for several minutes while it licked frosting off the end of a fallen log. No cubs made an appearance and by studying the bear’s head profile I was certain it was a boar (male). It suddenly stood up and began walking along the bait log Dick had placed to cause the bear to be in a completely broadside stance.
Up to this point I hadn’t twitched a bit, but when the bear started to move, so did I which required me to stand up in slow motion and place my crossbow on a tree root for a steady brace. When the bear stopped and the lighted dot of my scope settled on the right spot, I touched the Scorpion’s light trigger. The Lumenok arrow tipped with a 100 grain Muzzy 3 broadhead was a complete pass-thru that broke both shoulders (it was comforting to see the lighted cherry-red nock disappear into the perfect spot) causing the bear to fall forward onto his head. However he was right back up snarling and roaring while he whirled in a circle and then he was headed downhill right at my position but at halfway he banked to his left on a ledge and fell over, let out a “death moan” and was dead just a few yards from me (I’m certain the bear had no idea I was there or what was up and his reaction was purely instinctive and all was finished in seconds).
With darkness settling in Dick Watson came motoring up in his boat and let out a whoop when he could see a nice black bear down for the count just above me. He then signaled for guide Alex Frey to come in with an extra boat and to help get the bear loaded up (nothing is harder to move in any fashion than a bear and Alex sure saved the day for a couple of older gents).
With the bear sporting my tag in its nose, Alex then headed his boat back to the lodge with it loaded aboard while Dick and I headed out in his boat to pick up and see how Jay VanHouten and Keith Singelyn had done at their bear hunting sites.
….The bear hunting adventure was just beginning!
Bear hunting truly has its own distinct essence which I dearly love. I had just bagged a nice 250 pound boar (male) black bear at 16 yards uphill with my dependable Darton “Scorpion” crossbow. My Lumenok arrow tipped with a 100 grain Muzzy 3 was a complete pass-thru that took out the lungs and had broken both shoulders, putting the bear right down on its head. It had then gotten up snarling and roaring and spinning in a circle, and came running straight downhill directly at my (very natural) ground blind. It then banked to its left on a cliff, dropped and let out a final “death moan” just a few yards away.
There is no doubt in my mind that the bear had no idea I was even there, and was only following its instincts after suddenly being knocked down, and with two broken shoulders, fleeing downhill instead of uphill was its best option. Everything had happened very quickly and the bear was dead in a matter of seconds, proof that a sharp and well placed broadhead is truly capable of putting notably tough critters down for the count.
I was hunting in northern Ontario with Windy Point Lodge (windypointlodge.com) that is located on Kabinakagami Lake (the largest inland lake in “Algoma Country”). All the bear hunting sites are accessed by boat and are typically near the water, so bear hunters don’t have far to walk to setup (in either ladder-stands or ground blinds) at the regularly baited locations. Trail cameras are used at all the baited sites to allow an idea of the bears coming in to feed and at what time. Windy Point Lodge owner Dick Watson makes a point of reviewing the trail camera data with his hunters beforehand, and that certainly works for me.
With my tagged bear being loaded up and taken to the lodge in a separate boat by guide Alex Frey, Dick Watson and I headed out in his boat to pick up fellow bear hunters Jay VanHouten (also an outdoor writer) and Keith Singelyn of Port Huron, both of whom were also using crossbows (crossbows are very efficient hunting arms which don’t require filling out paperwork and paying a fee such as is the case with firearms, to get them across the border).
It had just become dark when we picked up Jay, who hadn’t seen any bears. Upon picking up Keith, we discovered he had put an arrow through a very large bear that had simply walked off and disappeared into the bush. Keith was concerned the hit had been further back then he intended (he would discover that the “string-keeper” in the rail of his crossbow had moved to the side and affected matters – which happened after he had checked everything at the lodge). Even being only an inch off can spell a tracking job to recover an animal, especially very tough and big bears. Dick Watson, very wisely in my opinion, decided to do the tracking in daylight first thing in the morning, and to give the bear time to succumb, if needed. Keith had recovered his arrow which was fully covered in blood, so the bear was hard hit.
The next morning found Dick Watson, guide Alex Frey, Jay VanHouten, Keith Singelyn and his wife Joni headed out to track down the bear. They took along a .375 Ruger bolt-action rifle in the event the bear hadn’t decided to die yet, and wounded bears can be a bit testy and tenacious. I was left with the task of starting to skin out my bear that had been field dressed the night before and allowed to cool. With warm morning temperatures it needed to be skinned, quartered and put in one of the many freezers at Windy Point Lodge.
A couple hours later Dick Watson had returned to make sure we got my bear finished up and in the freezer. He let me know the tracking party was still hard at work and doing a grid-search with Joni staying at the baited site to act as a locating beacon so the rest could perform a proper search. This was intensely heavy cover laced with bear trails, and bears aren’t know for leaving a lot of blood sign, and in this case only a couple drops, so it was a bear trail by bear trail search.
Jay VanHouten is very woods-wise which includes tracking, and he is a very persistent fellow who hates to give up on any wounded game. The tracking party was pretty sure all was lost except Jay who kept at it and found the bear 500 yards from the bait site, which confirmed waiting overnight had been very wise indeed. This was a 400 lb bear that entailed doing some serious dragging, most of it uphill, with Alex Frey harnessed up and heaving away like a draft horse in a pulling contest while the others assisted in any way they could.
Dick Watson and I had just finished with my bear when the boat pulled in with Keith Singelyn’s bear, and our skinning and quartering chores resumed once again to make sure everything got in the freezer, and it did. The bears we skinned out smelled good (actually sweet) and had clean, white fat which lets you know that using baits with a high sugar content, Windy Point Lodge offers some rather plump bears with glossy coats. Jay and I grilled the tenderloins from my bear and it smelled and tasted identical to tender beef.
Jay would hunt his bait site from a ladder-stand for 3 days without seeing a bear (after all, it is called hunting) but decided to give the ground blind where I had taken my bear a whirl. Trail camera data said bears were still coming in, including a couple big boars, and some were showing up even in the morning. Jay decided to make a full day of it at the site and was setup shortly after daybreak to begin his vigil. I made a point of taking him water, sandwiches and snacks while I assisted Dick Watson in baiting the bear hunting sites, something I rather enjoyed (and I even licked the spatula a couple times, as it was covered with frosting). We would continue to check on Jay throughout the day, waiting for his signal that he had a bear down.
It was on our final check in the evening that we realized he had a bear down, as well as quite a story. His over 300 pound bear appeared by the bait at 6:30 PM (Jay had been patiently holding tight for nearly 12 hours) and the wind decided to switch right then blowing Jay’s scent directly up to the bear, and it took immediate notice. The bear ambled directly downhill to the ground blind and poked its head through the two small spruces right next to it and gave Jay a good sniffing over. Jay up to this point was never offered a good shot, and arrows aren’t known for going through the brush well, not to mention crossbows are a one shot option. It is very wise to choose your shot well.
Jay’s main concern was in not spooking the bear as it sniffed him from a few feet away, and it didn’t like what it smelled. It “whoofed”, and began popping its jaws (I’ve heard this a couple times myself, and it means the bear is a bit agitated). The bear then turned and walked back up to the bait 16 yards away while continuing to pop its jaws and glare in Jay’s direction. It then turned broadside and Jay saw his moment, locked on and touched the trigger of his Browning crossbow. The arrow was a complete pass-thru just behind the shoulders and the bear simply turned its head and looked at where the arrow had struck him. He then turned and walked away into the dense brush and disappeared.
Jay would bide his time while he readied his crossbow for another shot. After a lengthy wait he would then cautiously begin his search in the dense cover laced with bear trails and found his bear dead about 30 yards from the bait. After we arrived and checked matters out and congratulated Jay, guides Alex Frey and Kodey Ferrigan loaded the big bear into a boat and we were soon headed back to care for the bear and celebrate. Out of the nine hunters who had hunted at Windy Point Lodge up until then, all nine had bagged a bear and some really nice bears too.
With our bear hunting done, Jay and I would then sample the walleye, northern pike and jumbo perch fishing Windy Point is well known for. The fact is Keith and Joni Singelyn had come there fishing in late spring and said it was fantastic (that is when Keith booked his bear hunt). Keith and Joni had plenty of time to thoroughly enjoy more fishing after Keith had bagged a dandy 400 lb bear on the first day.
Jay and I would go out with guide Kodey Ferrigan who knew all the best haunts for big fish, and we caught fish. I will always remember thinking I had snagged a rock on the bottom and then suddenly realized I had a big fish on, but it got away. Kodey would cook a shore lunch for us entailing that morning’s catch that was out of this world. I ate until I was stuffed and knew I was in heaven when a golden eagle soared overhead.
It is truly amazing how quickly eight days pass by when you are having a good time in a wilderness environment. We suddenly found ourselves waiting for the floatplane that had been delayed by fog. I felt a slight pang of homesickness in leaving, as Windy Point Lodge (along with its hard working crew) had become a second home, if only for a short while. It is a well run and topnotch place, and I no doubt will be returning.
The floatplane ride was an adventure all of its own, being mostly just above treetop level to stay below the dense fog. Having once owned an airplane (in my youth and I even considered becoming a bush pilot), I admired the bush pilot’s skill at the controls of the “Otter” and thoroughly enjoyed the ride, and could even see beavers swimming in various ponds just below us.
Jay and I would later find out a hunter who came in right after us would bag the tenth and final bear (an over 300 pounder) out of the ten bears Windy Point Lodge allows to be harvested from of its hunting area, meaning a 100% success rate. I believe that speaks for itself.
To learn more information about Algoma Country and all it has to offer, go to www.algomacountry.com or call 1-800-263-2546. It is a great place to visit.