A bit of separation anxiety stood between me and the excitement that should be in my heart at this moment. My bear baits in Minnesota were getting hammered and infrared cameras showed bears there during legal shooting hours both morning and evening. A friend was baiting for me in my absence and I was going to miss the Minnesota bear opener for the first time. This was my fourth year bear hunting my own land and I had yet to harvest an animal. A strange thumping sound interrupted these thoughts and snapped me to attention. We were pulling the WildTech show trailer packed with hunting gear on the last leg of an uneventful trip to Russell, Manitoba for a color phase bear hunt. Uneventful until now, that is. Once stopped at the side of the road, the thumping turned out to be a smoking flat tire. Roadside service would take hours, so we call Judy of Big Grass Outfitters for advice. As luck would have it, they were five minutes behind us on the highway and had two mechanically gifted hunters on board who had the tire changed in no time.
This was my first time in Canada and my first outfitted bear hunt. After four years of hunting the wily bruins without success on my own land in Minnesota - I wanted to see how the pros did it. I seemed to have the uncanny ability to either not be on stand when the bears were at my baits during legal shooting hours, or I drove them to be nocturnal. I ran my own baits and logged hundreds of hours on stand. It was time for "bear school." My friend Tammy Koenig from the Adventurebound Outdoors TV show had gotten us a media invitation, in part sponsored by Manitoba Tourism. She was to film her own and possibly my hunts, and we were both to write about our experience.
Canada was bigger than life. I had heard about places like this, but had never been to one. Horizon to horizon, the sky was endless. Round golden bales of wheat shocks glimmered like spun gold and dotted thousands of acres of agricultural land in such perfection that they looked surreal. Just when I thought I understood this vast land, out of nowhere our rig would swoop into yet another colossal wooded abyss, bifurcated by rivers and streams, carved by glaciers millennium ago. We arrived in Russell, Manitoba by suppertime and met for orientation the next day. Russell was deceiving. It was set on the flatlands, but surrounding it were the same enormous wooded crater valleys where most of our hunting would take place.
There were six hunters in all. Four gentlemen from the southern United States and Tammy and I were the Yankees. From Louisiana was Ken who owned a business and Joe was the quintessential gentleman, scholar and world traveler. Carl and Jeff were also business owners from Mississippi and they had a friendly challenge going with Tammy and I over archery equipment. The fact that Tammy and I out shot the guys at the practice range only added to the challenge. It was the boys with their Bowtech bows versus us girls and our Mathews bows. The first day we had a brief orientation, including the encouragement by our hosts to use safety harnesses and haul ropes. After practicing with our guns and bows at a range created by our hosts, we were ready to hunt. I couldn't get into my camo or to my stand fast enough. Oddly, the temp was in the high 80's the first day and I got a case of heat stroke before the day was though. Tammy arrowed her first bear on video late that day, a 205-pound boar. Carl arrowed a bear as well. So it now was a tie, Mathews versus Bowtech. The second day it poured rain with driving winds and was 40 degrees cooler. Again, I saw no bears. Big Grass Outfitters had a 99% success rate in the past, with 75% being color phase, so I had expected to see dancing bears all over the woods. The following two days were hot but perfect hunting conditions, but again, no bears seen by me. I was in e-mail contact with hunting friends and one friend told me he thought I would arrow a bear in the last hour of the last day. This gave me encouragement not to give up.
After a perfect evening the fourth day on stand, Judy picked me up to rendezvous with the other hunters at the intersection of two country roads. Upon arriving, every one hopped out to compare notes. In the dark, Judy's husband Tom came walking up illuminated by the truck headlights with his shirt half gone and the rest in tattered shreds. "What happened to you" I queried. "Jeff shot a monster bear that we had to track and I used pieces of my shirt for a tracking trail". Impressive. Jeff had arrowed a huge sow weighing over 550 pounds from the same stand that Tammy had arrowed her bear from on the first day. However, his shot was such that the animal needed to be tracked, so several of the guys went with firearms to take care of the job. In the tracking process, they were charged by yet another bear that had to be put down. They finally downed the big bear and had to go back and retrieve the animal the following morning. It took five people, a Yamaha Grizzly and a lot of sweat to find the bear and bring it back.
On the last day, I was hunting the same stand where Jeff arrowed his big bear the night before. After all the action in the woods the previous day and that morning, I fully expected to see nothing. In the final 15 minutes I figured the prediction by my Minnesota friend was not to be, so I decided to offer up a desperation prayer to God. I no sooner had done so when out of my left peripheral vision I saw two chocolate colored bears come running into the bait area. Their momma was the bear arrowed the night before from this same stand.
One bear poked around briefly and walked quickly to the periphery of the bait area as if to leave. It looked like my window of opportunity was fading as fast as the daylight and the clock was ticking. The second bear was browsing in some sweets, facing me at 16 yards. He too looked skittish as if preparing to leave. I slowly pulled my bow back to full draw and held tight. 15 second, 20 seconds. He then turned with his backside toward me. 30 seconds. 45 seconds. He turned again, quartering away. I picked a spot, imagining the arrow's exit trajectory. As if on autopilot, I let the arrow fly. The arrow hit the mark and disappeared. The bear did a growl yip, jumped two feet in the air and then just stood there. He hunkered a bit as if he had been sucker punched and then just walked to the edge of the bait clearing and stood still again. I reached to click on the video camera as he left the bait area. I could see my arrow at the bait. Had I missed the shot? No way! He walked quietly into the woods. This was not at all what I expected. I had heard and seen on videos that bears crashed away through the woods like gangbusters once shot. This quiet retreat puzzled me. It was another 60 seconds and then I heard a very loud death moan 20 yards from my stand in the thick brush. Then another. I was shaking like crazy now and getting short of breath. There was another death moan and another, for a total of twelve in all. I radioed Tom that I had a bear down. He knew this was my first bear kill, and responded "Atta Girl! I'll be right there, stay in your stand". I was too anxious to stay in my stand and when I heard Tom coming down the steep hill, I skittered to the ground and was practically jumping up and down. It was getting dark now. There was no blood at the spot where I shot the bear. We went to the edge of the bait clearing and found the first blood... some spatters the size of a pie plate. The bear had circled somewhat back toward the bait and had gone only a few yards, which was why the death moans sounded so near by. We crawled through the thick brush and brambles and found the bear crumpled and lifeless. I was thrilled. I had spent a total of 31 hours on stand, held out till the last 15 minutes of the last day and shot the only bear I had seen all week. He was a beautiful two-year old chocolate color phase with a white "V" on his chest, just like his momma. He is being preserved in a full body mount as write this.
As for the Mathews versus Bowtech competition - I think it was a draw. Tammy and I had perfect kill shots with bears that dropped in a few yards, while the guy's bears had to be tracked and downed with firearms. In terms of sheer weight, the ladies clearly lost. In terms of equipment, we all had excellent set-ups.
I came away from this hunt not only with a new sense of confidence at having harvested my first bear, but also with the reassurance that I had been doing all the right stuff at my own baits back home. I had figured I was doing things wrong, which is why I had only seen two bears from my stands in four years and had not harvested one yet.
I have been on a number of outfitted hunts and Big Grass Outfitters ranks at the very top. Every detail of every minute of the hunt had the personal touch and was marked by professionalism. It was clear that Tom and Judy had a lifetime of experience and sought to provide excellent service to their clients through their combined years of expertise. They run a year round operation, not just seasonal. They feed bears all year, going so far as to boil thousands of gallons of oil mixed with grain to make huge suet barrels for winter and they continue to bait well after their hunters are gone in spring and fall. They keep 60 baits going in various areas, for 18 hunters in the spring and 12 hunters in the fall. They intentionally keep the number of hunters down in order to keep the personal touch in their operation. This is true of their waterfowl and whitetail deer hunts as well. For our bear hunts, each hunter was given the advantage of the two people in/one out approach to the bait sites. Baits and stands we all checked and replenished every day, sometimes twice a day and each bait had game cameras to monitor the bears. Fresh cut up beaver meat was always at the bait sites. All hunters were provided radios while on stand and Big Grass personnel were available at any time to immediately help a hunter with just a call on the radio. There were two stands at each bait, one for archery shooters and one for firearms. Stands were situated for both left and right-handed shooters as well.
I suppose I could wait and check out other outfitters for future Canada bear hunts, but I know better. Having run my own baits on my own land, I know that Big Grass Outfitters runs their hunting operation with an ownership mentality, treating each bait as if they were going to hunt it themselves. The food and accommodations were excellent, as was the overall service and attention to every conceivable detail. I look forward to hunting at Big Grass again next year, and yes, I already have my deposit and reservation in. These guys literally, will give you the shirt off their backs.
Big Grass Outfitters
Tom and Judy Usunier