I’ve hunted black bears across the Western United States for many years, but I’ve always been alluded by that trophy-sized behemoth that fills childhood dreams with awe and terror. From Washington’s timber country to Idaho’s Frank Church Wilderness, the common denominator is that bears are hard to find, and record-book bears— those over 7 feet in length —are a truly rare encounter. Spot-and-stalk bear hunts in the thickly forested West make for difficult expeditions, with relatively few sightings and dozens of treacherous miles in between. In my opinion, that’s one of the main advantages of hunting with our younger brother to the North. Alberta offers baited bear hunts, which typically produce opportunities to kill bears in excess of 7 feet, many of them approaching 30 years of age. Not sure if reality would live up to my wildest dreams, this past spring I made my first trek up to Canada to hunt Alberta’s massive black bears.
In Search of a Giant
While you’ll certainly find detractors of baited bear hunting, it’s a remarkable way to see a lot of animals, and it allows you the necessary time to identify boars from sows and, especially, to avoid shooting a sow with cubs. At Wally Mack’s W&L Guide Services, near High Level, Alberta, there’s a unique opportunity to see bears in number and in substantial size, something I and the group of hunters in my party soon came to realize.
The other main advantage of successfully operated baited hunts is they facilitate quality management of the bear population: the more boars that are killed, the more cubs survive, and the greater the population becomes. Without hunters, boars kill cubs to breed again, thinning out numbers.
The other mistaken notion is that hunting bears over bait is somehow a boring or effortless experience; in fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Before our first evening in the treestand, Wally gave us the protocol for bears that like to climb into the treestand and, of special concern, cubs that want to have a seat next to you. The problem with the cubs is that, once above you in the tree, they serve as an emergency homing beacon for mama.
I had hoped Wally was joking about all this, but my first evening sit proved him right: several bears climbed multiple steps up the rungs of my ladder, and I was a brief moment away from having to shoot, had a stern voice command not turned the bear away. On the less nerve-wracking end of the spectrum, the bears provide constant entertainment, toppling grain-laden barrels in comic fashion, swinging from the lodgepole between trees as they devoured the rotten beaver bait—intestinal spaghetti and all—and sparring with one another over territorial disputes.
All Hands on Deck
The other false assumption is that baited hunting is somehow easy. As we found out, it takes a ridiculous amount of time and effort to set baits, build treestands, and continue to check them for activity throughout the season. On one afternoon, we joined our guide, Kory, in setting up a new bait location and building a treestand.
With the four-wheeler loaded down with wood, chainsaw, and tools, we set to work constructing a perch some 20 feet off the ground. We filled and chained barrels, then had the unfortunate task of hanging a rotting beaver carcass from a lodgepole lashed between two trees. How bad is the smell? Even our guide, Kory, was gagging, and the fragrance was obvious from the truck, parked through the forest some 300 yards away.
Loaded for Bear
As it always does, hunting tests your patience. The first couple of evenings produced some tremendously sized bears for the other hunters, ranging from 6½ to 7 feet in overall length, some with unbelievable girth to accompany them. Happy as I was for the others, it was a real test to keep passing average bears, knowing the days were counting down.
On the second to last day, I spotted a good-sized but not overwhelming bear, and when he turned toward me I noticed an impressive white chevron on his chest. That’s what ultimately sealed the deal that night.
I waited as he rounded the knoll that led to the bait, switching on my Swarovski Z8i 1-8×24 to the low-light illumination setting. Once he cleared the brush, I eased the safety to the off position, settling my Patriot Synthetic Cerakote in 6.5 Creedmoor against the front of the treestand rail. With the crosshairs just behind his left shoulder, I pulled the trigger, sending a roar into the woods. At 25 yards, the bear ran about 15 more before he piled over.
I’d sighted the Patriot in at 100 yards, and it proved well better than MOA at that distance, so I had total confidence in the rifle on these much shorter shooting lanes. What I wondered about—and one of the things the hunt was designed to test—was the efficiency of Hornady’s new ELD-X Precision Hunter bullets at close ranges.
As any bullet manufacturer will tell you, designing a bullet to work at close or long-range isn’t as hard as designing one that will perform equally well at either distance. As my first bear kill demonstrated, however, the 600-yard capable ELD-X was also highly lethal at 25 yards. There was an entrance and exit, with full penetration and two sizeable holes.
It’s also a strong argument for the 6.5 Creedmoor as a more-than-viable option for bears and larger bodied big game. The Patriot Synthetic Cerakote version is ideal for Western hunting because it is light (6.5 pounds, unscoped, with a 22-inch barrel), extremely accurate, and capable of conquering the vast weather conditions of the mountains. It’s easy to carry all day, and when your shot comes, the Lightning Bolt-Action (LBA) trigger breaks clean and crisp.
Our hunt camp was an interesting one because it featured several different types of firearms, from Mossberg’s 590M Mag-Fed pump-action to the 464 Lever-Action in .30-30 Win, as well as the Patriot Synthetic Cerakote in 6.5 Creedmoor and Patriot Revere in .30-06. The 590M with slugs is ideal for stopping and dropping bears, especially for shotgun lovers, while the 464 is a throwback to older times. Paired with Hornady’s LeveRevolution loads in .30-30, it’s an incredibly effective choice, especially at distances closer than 100 yards.
Song & Dance
As it is with any hunt camp, the best part was the interaction between friends, cooks, and guides. Not only was the food copious and delicious, we spent long nights singing karaoke to Neal and Jeff’s guitar-led songs, until at last the nights—shortened by our far northern location—turned into morning.
When the sun came up, we’d find our hunting cabins and Jeff would put away his harmonica (or “misery whistle,” as he calls it) until the next evening. I had plenty to sing about, too, as the last afternoon of hunting brought the exact thing I’d come looking for: a 7½-foot black bear that was the biggest taken that week. Talk about saving the best for last.
The guides and veteran black bear hunters told me, “When you see that giant, you’ll know.” I didn’t know what that meant until that last evening. About 75 yards behind the beaver bait, I spotted a large-humped creature lurking toward my stand. He crept through several bushes, only partly visible.
Finally, he stuck his head into an opening and walked through, and it was at that point I knew, without a doubt, he was a giant. His shoulders were bulking and his head was unmistakably larger than any bear I’d seen that week.
Oddly enough, it was the trophy that almost didn’t happen. When he first got to the bait, he grabbed part of the beaver with lightning speed and ran into the woods. My heart sank. Had I just missed a shot at the bear of a lifetime? All I could do was wait, and then, after about an hour, he returned. I didn’t miss my chance: the 6.5 Creedmoor and Patriot combo struck gold again at 8 yards, and the biggest bear I’ve ever seen in the woods was on the ground.