By: Tom Lounsbury.
The May application period will be here before we know it with a deadline for applying for a Michigan black bear license (and elk license) being June 1st and I’m working on building up my points. I’m not expecting any miracles in getting an elk license but it is my goal is to harvest a Michigan black bear with a handgun, and I’m hoping I have enough points now. It has been a while since I’ve hunted bears in Michigan, although I’ve frequently bear hunted in Ontario, and I am looking into doing a future spring bear hunt (which will go as late as well into June) in some of the other Canadian Provinces. The fact is, I dearly love black bear hunting.
If I get drawn for Michigan black bear, it is my goal to try this avenue with hounds, as I’ve never bear hunted in this time-steeped fashion before. A beauty of bear hunting with hounds is that it can be a catch and release affair, and if the bear that is treed doesn’t meet the requirements, it is allowed to escape. This pastime isn’t as easy as some folks think, and I’m looking forward to it, and know some dedicated houndsmen.
My first black bear hunting experience occurred more than 30 years ago in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Having no access to a baiting plan, I did what I knew best, which was still-hunting and hoping for a spot and stalk encounter. At likely locations, I sat on the ground (hunting from elevated stands wasn’t allowed back then) and blew on my “dying rabbit” varmint call. Whether or not I saw any bears, spending time in the mid-September woods in the U.P. was plenty fulfilling for me, especially with a map and compass in hand. I was literally in Heaven.
The first critter I called in was a lanky-looking coyote that I passed on. The next critter was a sow bear with two cubs in tow. She was obviously responding to my varmint call, but came in amazingly quiet, and then began to circle my position about 40 yards away, to my downwind side. Upon her picking up my scent the sow immediately woofed and whirled and quickly vacated the area with her cubs sticking right to her heels. Needless to say, I was thrilled to the core during this sudden encounter and don’t even remember if I breathed any during it. I know my pulse rate was still up for awhile afterwards.
With her small cubs near her, that female black bear looked plenty big to me, but I doubt if she even reached the 200 lb mark. I still-hunted some more, and began squealing away on my call at another likely spot. However, I was about to discover “likely spots” should offer a tad more visibility and elbowroom when it comes to calling in black bears while seated on the ground against a tree trunk. Directly to my front and only a few yards away was a tall, large clump of ferns.
Having a black bear suddenly part those ferns like Moses parted the Red Sea and start closing the distance toward me at a gallop is an absolutely thrilling moment I can assure you. The adrenaline kicking in creates a sudden rush that becomes an out of body experience, almost like you are just a witness standing off to the side watching the exciting show, but another part of your mind holds you into reality and instinct and reflex step in and take over.
I do believe the first thing I did was swallow my chewing tobacco (I haven’t liked that particular brand ever since), and then my pump-action rifle popped, seemingly of its own accord, and the bear rolled in a somersault, sat up, and my rifle popped again in two rapid follow up shots with the bear dropping from sight. It took only 10 steps to move slowly and very cautiously from my empty shell casings lying on the ground to the first blood spots on the ferns, with the bear lying finished not far from there.
The bear that came rushing out at me in search of an easy meal of rabbit looked as big as a VW. The one lying in the ferns turned out to be in the 200 lb class. Not a bad size either, but certainly not even close to a VW. I could tell right away that ground shrinkage could be a problem when field-sizing black bears, especially to the untrained eye (they all look big when they come flying out of the cover right at you, trust me).
The rifle I was using is a vintage Remington Model 141 in .35 Remington, and it remains a favorite black bear rifle of mine to this day. On many black bear hunts since, I’ve used a Savage “99” lever-action in .308 (using 180 grain Winchester Silver-tip ammunition), a Marlin 12ga pump shotgun (smoothbore – using one ounce slugs – and my preferred firearm for following up wounded bears)), a Marlin lever-action in .30-30 (using 170 grain Winchester Silvertips), and a T/C G2 Contender Rifle in .375 JDJ. My newest “bear gun” (for Michigan black bears) is a Mag-Na-Port customized (2X Leupold scoped) Freedom Arms .454 Casull revolver featuring a 10 inch barrel.
It was when I was going on my first Canadian (Ontario) bear hunt that I thought it wise to contact an expert on sizing black bears, which was fellow Michigan outdoor writer Richard P. Smith, and get some important tips. With more than 40 years of bear hunting experience, he has a wealth of knowledge to share.
Richard made it quite simple by giving me several facts, such as using some sort of “ruler”, such a 5 ft long stick on the ground placed in a location the bear is most likely to stand, and be of white birch or peeled bark that can be readily seen in low-light (a common atmosphere for bear encounters). Any bear longer than the stick is almost always a male, and a fair-sized bear to take. Also if an upright 50 gallon bait barrel is being used, any bear standing on all fours that is as tall as the barrel is a definite trophy (and male), and three-fourths the barrel height is better than average. Half the barrel height is an average size bear, and anything under that is a young bear.
Fortunately Richard also explained the “triangle method” using between the bear’s ears as the top of the triangle. When all sides are equal, you have a nice mature male. The ears will also be farther apart and appear shorter due to the size of the large head. When the sides of the triangle are longer than the width of the top, than the bear is in all likelihood a female or young male.
While on that Ontario bear hunt, I made sure to have a small tape measure in my pocket, and I measured a couple birch branches, cut them to length and laid them on the ground on each side of the bait, which was in a standing 50 gallon barrel.
During my afternoon vigil, my attention was focused on a small bird that was obviously curious about my presence in the wooden tree-stand, and I didn’t see the bear come in quiet as a ghost. Hearing the steel barrel that came crashing down on a rocky surface beats any alarm clock, hands down. When bear hunting, this sound alone gets the pulse going, and actually seeing the bear really accelerates it further, a beautiful part of this unique pastime.
With the barrel lying on its side, it wasn’t the best size indicator, but one of the birch “rulers” was. The bear came just shy of being 5 ft long. I also noticed the top of the triangle of its head was shorter than the sides, and determined that I was looking at a large sow (female) without cubs. Certainly a legal and nice trophy, but I was after a larger, boar (male) bear. I spent a wonderful time observing this bear until dark (there is nothing boring at all about firsthand bear watching).
Richard Smith has written a book (and has a dandy video as well) succinctly titled “Black Bear Hunting” that covers every aspect of bear hunting (including using hounds). This hardcover, 384-page book features 200 color photographs and in my opinion is the ultimate reference for black bear hunters. To purchase a copy or for more information (he has many other books such as the Michigan Deer Tales series available) go to www.RichardPSmith.com.
Although “Black Bear Hunting” is an informative work, it is also a very smooth and enjoyable read. Once I started reading it, I couldn’t put it down.
I’m hoping right now that I finally get an opportunity to purchase a Michigan bear license for this fall. We’ll see how the draw goes.