Saturday, September 22, 2007

Missing My Bear Hunts

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It was a yearly ritual that lasted nearly four decades. I’d spend time sitting in the bracken ferns of a dense Upper Peninsula swamp while waiting for a black bear to walk past.

I had a special hunting area near Marquette where I’d return year after year. Mind you, this was in the days before the lottery draw. All a hunter needed was a bear license, and to hunt in a county that was open to hunting bruins. My bear hunts were special because it was always a close-up, on-the-ground, in-your-face outing where the animal would be within 20 feet of me.

Twenty feet. Not quite seven yards away. It was hunting at a can’t-miss distance and I never did. My first bruin was just six feet away when I took it with a bow, and over many years, I also shot black bears with a muzzleloader, revolver and rifle.

The trick was to know where the bears would travel to the bait site, and be just downwind of the critter when it wandered by. It wasn’t a time to fall asleep while sitting on the ground, but that’s exactly what happened with my first bear. My back was to a log on Sept. 10 when the U.P. season opened, and it was warm that day and I soon nodded off.

Some faint sound woke me, and as my eyes eased open, a black bear walked past within six feet. It was a bit difficult getting my bow back to full draw, but I managed it and shot the animal. It took off through the ferns as the arrow was buried just behind the front shoulder, and I took off after it. I had no clue what I was doing but followed the wounded animal into tall marsh grass, and my right foot came down next to the bear’s head as it gave a rattling death moan, and I swear that all broad jump records were broken that day.

My heart was pounding, my chest was heaving, and a bit of hyperventilation was going on. Adrenaline was surging through my body, and I was pumped. I eased back, another arrow nocked, and moved in on the bear. The animal died just as I went sailing over it.

Bears have provided me with many thrills over many years, but my bear-hunting days may be over. I could hunt in places that I know intimately, and know how to get around, but my vision loss is such that wending my way a half-mile through a swamp in the dark is a thing of the past. I’ve been turned around a time or two, but have never been totally lost. Chances are good I wouldn’t be lost if I chose to hunt bruins again, but there is a crazy thing about my eyes.

I’ve had glaucoma in both eyes for well over 20 years. It has robbed me of my left-eye vision, and has weakened my right eye vision. I don’t trust myself not to trip, go crashing into a cedar or pine tree or the ground, and seriously damage my right eye. As much as bear hunting is in my blood, and as much as I respect the animals, I no longer feel the driving need to hunt them, which may be good for me and the bears.

Most of the bruins I’ve taken have been in Michigan although I’ve shot two or three in Ontario, one in Quebec, one in British Columbia, and the rest here in my home state. Six of the bears I’ve killed were those that had been wounded by another hunter who was too frightened to go after the animals. I went, and went alone, and never failed to find and finish off the wounded animal.

It led to several hair-raising moments. Having said that, it also should be mentioned that I never felt in imminent danger from these animals. That even includes one that I had to shoot five times as it ran directly at me. It died within six feet of my boots. Was the animal charging or was I simply in the way?

There was no time to think on the subject. The bear had been wounded by the other hunter, and it was running directly at me. Once it got inside of 40 yards, I started shooting. Even at that, there was no fear of being attacked although after the fourth shot was fired and the animal was still coming, I wondered briefly if this would be the day a bear punched my ticket.

Bear season is open now, and a string of hot days and swirling winds, hasn’t been very good for some hunters. None of the people I know who have a bear license have had any success. Eighty to 90-degree days are not conducive to bears getting up to move. It’s better for them to lay up in a dense swamp or thicket, in the shade, and stay as cool as possible.

One exceptional day back in the late 1970s, while hunting in Marquette County, I saw nine different bears in one day. There was a 350-pound boar coming to that bait site, and the others all came in to feed while looking over their shoulder. The bears I saw ranged from 125 to 225 pounds, but that big boar never showed up. I believe dog hunters picked up his track early that morning and were probably still chasing him when I walked in to my ground stand.

The others paid no attention to me. None circled behind me to get my scent, and in two cases the bears walked within 10 feet of me. None bothered to look my way or stand up for the sniff test. They came and went, and two yearlings came in together. I suspect it was a boar and sow, and they could have been a brother and sister that was still hanging together. The boar looked too young to be breeding a female, which usually takes place during the summer months.

Bears have been a big part of my adult life for almost 40 years. The animals need to be hunted to help control their growing numbers in this state, but I’m concerned that my days of hunting these animals is over. The last time I hunted bears was three years ago, and I saw one animal after shooting time had ended. Two bears were killed within a mile of my hunting spot, and the larger of the two weighed almost 400 pounds.

Do I miss bear hunting? Of course. Anything that has been a major part in my life for many years will be missed. But, the memories of all my bear hunts live on in my mind, and I often find myself reflecting on those hunts with great pleasure. It’s something I’ll never forget

Posted by Dave Richey on 09/22 at 04:26 PM
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