Thursday, June 11, 2009

Recalling Some Bear Hunts

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About six weeks ago there was some eye surgery. It was fairly serious and kept me indoors for several days, and that gave me too much time to brood and think.

The spring months seemed the best time to have the operation even though I’d miss some of the spring steelhead season. So, while my darling wife was tending to household chores, I took time to reminisced.

I was looking through an old pile of Outdoor Life magazines from the decade that I regularly wrote stories for them. One article was about a grizzly bear attack that I’d covered for the magazine, and it brought back some vivid and tragic memories.

That particular subject was about a biologist who had most of his face chewed or ripped off by a grizzly bear, and he lived to tell me the sad story… in fits and starts amid his crying spells. The magazine flew me to Salt Lake City where the interview took place.

He lost one eye, his nose and one ear, part of another ear, and the bear literally ripped his face off. He was bitten on the hands, arms and legs. He’d had over 1,000 stitches when I conducted this troubling interview, and he had more plastic surgeries scheduled.

That got me to thinking about the number of black bears I’ve killed while mopping up a messy job of shooting by other people. Years ago, when bear hunting meant going into a hardware or sporting goods store and buying a license. No need for a lottery draw in those days.

One dream was about a bruin that had been shot in a hip with a .44 Magnum, breaking the leg bone. The hunter was frightened and asked if I’d help. I said I would if he agreed to stay behind so I didn’t have to listed to his nervous jabbering.

He agreed, and I went after the bear with a 3-inch magnum 12 gauge shotgun stoked with five No. 4 buckshot. I saw the bear at 40 yards, and hit him. He went down, got up, came running at me, and four more shots were taken with the last one at six feet. It finally killed the pain-crazed animal almost on my boot-tops.

I’d read stories as a kid about African hunters shooting a leopard or lion, and then having to dig them out of thick cover and kill them at close range. This was pretty heady business for me at the time, knowing full well I’d never visit The Dark Continent. I’d have to settle for killing wounded bears that other people had severely injured.

Another bear led me on a two-day hunt that covered a small swamp bordered on one side by a tiny creek. I had lost all sign of blood but had found where the bear had bedded down three times. Finally a drop of blood was found near the creek. I followed it slowly up a steep hill, one step at a time and plenty of listening and looking around between those steps.

The shotgun preceded me, and bent blades of grass pointed out the path taken by the bruin. I’d just topped the hill when the bear was spotted three feet away. It moved and I shot, and this sorry mess was over. It wasn’t a really big bear, but at such close range, it could have given me far more problems than I wanted.

Bears have provided me with some hair-raising thrills. People talk about brown bears, grizzlies and polar bear attacks, but more people are attacked by black bears each year than most people believe. Black bears are most common, and I’ve had some close encounters when armed and unarmed, and it’s a thrill most people would prefer to live without.

Only once did I go after a wounded bear with another person, and it was a friend whose skills were legendary and his courage was never in question. We got that bear, but every other time I’ve done it was alone and that was how I wanted it.

Frightened people talk, ask questions, make too much noise, and generally get in other people’s way when some serious work needs to be done. Wounded bears often are shot at close range in thick cover, and I never wanted anyone nearby for fear they would create a greater hazard than already existed.

I’d move slowly if the going was tough, stopping often and looking around. Of the six wounded bears I’ve dispatched for other folks, none had injuries that would have been immediately fatal. All were moving, and often the dirty work was done within an hour of sundown. It meant moving fast and quiet, getting close enough to the animal for a deadly shot. Of those six, only the one required more than one shot.

It isn’t something I’d do now because my vision is so poor. Back then I could see well, hear well, and there is a major adrenalin rush when the wounded animal is first spotted. Then it means staying downwind and trying to get close to the animal without spooking it.

Doing this nasty business was not fun but whenever I went after a bear it was because the hunter couldn’t or wouldn’t finish a job he started. It meant putting an animal out of its misery as quickly as possible. I never advertised my services, never went looking for this kind of work, but for many years I always seemed to be in the area where bears were being hunted. These opportunities simply fell into my lap, unannounced and unwanted.

I did it because someone had to. Otherwise, a frightened hunter may walk away from the problem or wait until the next day and not be able to find the bear. Or even worse, an innocent individual could stumble on the hurting bear, and get mauled or killed by the enraged animal,

This string of memories came back to me like a recurring bad dream. This wasn’t Africa and it wasn’t a wounded leopard or lion at the end of a blood trail, but the bears were seriously wounded. They were dangerous animals that had to be put down before they were lost or lived long enought to become a danger to someone else.

It wasn’t fun but it offered some hair-raising adventures. And trust me, they were adventures I’ll never forget.

Posted by Dave Richey on 06/11 at 06:51 PM
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