The bear entered the clearing in front of me in a tentative way. In what seemed like slow motion, it moved toward the barrel. I sat perfectly still, not moving a muscle, waiting for the bear to get to the barrel before I moved. When it reached the barrel and stood on its back legs to reach bait in a pail attached to the tree, I made my move.
Slowly and carefully, I raised the Savage rifle to my shoulder. I depended on the silent material of my Redhead coat to stay silent. The bear that came in so tentatively ran out of the clearing at high speed before I could get the scope to my eye.
Stepping back in time, this bear hunt was on the tail end of a moose hunt with Where-Ya-Wannabee Outfitters near Corner Brook. My intention was to take a bear with the Savage in 6.5 Creedmoor to test the new caliber’s effectiveness on Ursus Americanus.
With our group’s moose tags all filled by Wednesday night, guides Bernie Staples and Barry Sweetland took me to the bear bait Thursday. We had a portable stand with us. After removing some limbs with a handsaw, we set it up in a tree about 20 yards from the bait.
Where-Ya-Wannabee Co-Owner Terry Smith wasn’t in camp, but the experienced bear guide had set up a bait station a week earlier. The area in front of me was a small clearing. It was about 35 yards across and had various baits in it.
The first night, I didn’t see any bears and took the trail camera’s card back to camp that evening. The 600-plus photos it had taken in less than a week showed there were several bears of varying sizes using the bait, but the only consistent daytime activity in the last couple of days came from a two-year-old. I decided that with only one night left, I was going to take the young bear if it came in again.
I believed it was that bear that had just visited the bait. Playing back in my mind what just happened, I tried to figure out what caused the bear to bolt. Since it was facing directly away from me, I was positive that it couldn’t have seen any movement. I asked myself if I made any noise. I was sure my cover scent should have blocked my own scent. I concluded that the almost-imperceptible sound of my movement must have been what sent the bear scurrying. I decided I would have to hold the gun at the ready, shift in the stand, and raise my knee so I could rest my elbow on it to keep the gun ready to go. Comfortable this position was not—but I hoped it would lead to success.
The bear initially came in with about 50 minutes of shooting time left, and I could now see the light fading. Then, I saw movement on the edge of the clearing. First, it was just the bear’s head. It paused, even more tentatively, then moved into the clearing. It stopped every few feet to cover the 20 feet to the bait. It made its way to the bait, but then stopped and turned to leave. Moving slowly, it paused at the edge of the tree cover. This wasn’t the ideal broadside shot I wanted, but I thought it might be my last opportunity. When it quartered away, I imagined the angle needed to hit the vitals and gently squeezed the trigger. The bear ran off and I relaxed from my uncomfortable position. I felt confident I had made a good hit.
My heart was still racing from the excitement of what just happened when I saw movement from the opposite side of the small clearing. I was astounded when, so soon after my shot, a larger bear walked towards the barrel. Feeling relaxed now and not having my gun up, I decided to wait until the bear had its head in the barrel before moving. I figured a larger bear would be even more wary. Although it moved slowly, it never stopped. I let it walk out, hoping it would come back. I later learned that my decision was a mistake. However, with the assistance of Sweetland and fellow hunter Bryan Steele, we found the bear that I shot about 25 yards from the bait.
Baiting is Best
When I told Smith this story later, he shed some light on what had occurred during my hunt and offered some suggestions for future outings. He started the conservation by saying that the best way to hunt Newfoundland bears is with baiting. “It’s a lot of cutovers, a lot of undergrowth, so the ideal way to hunt them is baiting them.” Smith also believes this is a conservation issue. As he says, “You go out to shoot a bear you spot and stock, and it might have cubs with it that you don’t see.”
Getting to the facts of my hunt, Smith explained that the lack of action the first night was probably due to the noise we made when we put up the stand. That’s because bears actively using a bait site stay within 100 to 150 yards of it, even when bedding down. Smith also said he doesn’t like to rely on the trail camera too much since if there are several bears using an area, the camera doesn’t always pick them all up. For this reason, Smith doesn’t always hunt just at the times when bears show up on camera. He believes morning is also a good time that many hunters ignore. “They can change at any time, or you can have a new bear come in at any time when you’re hunting,” Smith says.
Speaking more specifically to morning hunts, Smith says that when the hunter comes in with the guide, bears can often be spooked off the bait. Instead, with the hunter quietly getting into the stand, the guide replenishes the bait, then leaves with the hope that the bears will return to continue feeding.
Regarding my experience and the first bear being spooky, Smith said people often think that bears have poor eyesight, but this isn’t true. They can detect movement and he often hunts them like he hunts turkeys, keeping movement to a minimum. He advised me not to stand up or to move my head. I made the same analogy, deciding I would go into turkey-hunting mode after the first bear spooked.
They’re Watching You
Smith notes, “A lot of times bears will see you move when you don’t know they’re there. You’ll move and you will just hear a whoosh sound, and then they will be gone. They were sitting behind a tree, just outside of sight, watching.” The hunter also needs to be alert at all times, he adds. “They’re very silent coming in. You’ve got to be on the outlook all the time.”
My biggest mistake was not attempting to take the larger bear—one I estimated to be north of 250 pounds—by moving slowly. As Smith contends, “You can’t fool a bear’s nose, he knows you’re there 90% of the time.” He says that the more a bait site is hunted, the more action it gets as the bears get used to human scent. His advice for judging the size of a bear is that if its body is higher than the 50-gallon barrel, it is a large one. His partners, Dave Butts and Tony Smith, have killed some bears weighing up to 500 pounds.
Smith also shared some advice for baiting and cover scents. Northwoods Gold Rush bear scent is used as an attractant and a cover scent. He puts cracked corn or grain in two 50-gallon drums and adds dry molasses and the Gold Rush. One of these drums has a hole in the bottom for bears to access the food, and the other has eight to 10 two-inch holes in it. “They knock it around and bits of food come out,” Smith said. “If the other barrel is empty, that will keep them around for a couple of weeks.”
A Bait Pail
He also uses the grain mixture or grease in a five-gallon pail fastened to the tree. One vital part, which is put in a smaller pail fastened 10 to 12 feet in the air, helps to better disperse the scent. This is what Smith calls “stink bait.” It can be fish, rotten meat or a piece of beaver. Fryer grease is put in the barrel with the grain mixture, then poured all around the site. The concept is that the grease will be tracked by bears using the site. “If another bear comes across that bear’s trail, he’ll follow the scent back to the bait,” Smith says. “That’s how you end up with more and more bears at the site.” A variable in the whole bait equation is sweets, which can be added to barrels depending on availability. Sweets can include old donuts or whatever else is available.
When my conversation with Smith ended, I was better educated for my next bear-hunting adventure. I was also convinced that going with an outfitter was the best way to learn about bear hunting over bait.
As for the 6.5mm Creedmoor experiment, the bullet went through the heart but didn’t cause substantial trauma. I was using ammunition meant for deer as I was still in the process of developing a load for the ideal bullet.
Since that hunt, my daughter has killed two bears with the same gun, but she was using my Hornady ELD-X reloads. There is substantially more trauma and the caliber proved itself effective for bears.