By Brian Strickland
As seen in the Jan/Feb 2018 Issue of Bear Hunting Magazine!
I really didn’t know what to expect when the wheels touched down at Montreal’s international airport. First off, whenever you travel to another country, even though it’s just across our northern border, it’s an adventure in and of itself. Preparing just for the initial journey seems to take on a whole new meaning, let alone the worries of luggage arriving when you do, delays, layovers and making sure you bring everything you need to help make the hunt successful. Furthermore, when I invited the fetching Mrs. Strickland to accompany me on this North Wood’s adventure, you want the whole affair to go as planned.
Prior to this, I had traveled to Canada several times to hunt bears and whitetails, and on all but one of those I made the long drive from my Colorado home. The one time I decided to fly I ended up waiting nearly two days for my bow to arrive behind me. Needless to say, when our feet touched the sweet Canadian soil on this trip, we were more than happy to see that all our luggage had arrived as planned. It was now time to jump into the rental car and start the eight hour journey north into the Canadian Boreal forest.
When I was invited by Quebec Outfitters (www.pourvoiries.com/en-us/) to hunt with Serge Dapra of Lake Suzie Outfitter (www.pourvoirielacsuzie.com), I was more than eager to accept. Not only do I love hunting the most overlooked big game animal in North America, the Ursus Americanus, but I also truly love my hunting brethren north of the border. Every time I have ventured Canada, the hunting experience has been exceptional, and the people even better. After talking with Serge several times over the phone, I knew that this experience would be as good as all the rest.
Quebec is the largest province in Canada and is over 600,000 square miles. Its Boreal forest provides ideal bear habitat and is known for providing high success rates on black bears. An added bonus is Quebec’s 500,000-plus lakes with the vast majority of them brimming with lake trout, walleye and northern pike, just to name a few. Although Quebec is often overlooked as a trophy bear destination, a 250 to 300-plus pound bruin is a real possibility.
Witnessing the changing topography as we drove north was stunning and the planned eight hour drive ended up taking us ten as we took in every ounce of the scenery. The farther north we drove the more remote it became as the paved roads turned into two-track logging roads in some cases. When we saw a moose lazily feeding in some un-named lake and a black flash of bear hide dart across the road, I knew that bear camp was just around the corner. After getting settled into our comfortable cabin, slinging a few arrows and enjoying an evening meal, we dozed off eager to get started the following day.
One of the best things about bear camps are the people you come into contact with, and this one was no different. I’ll admit, when I first started hunting over three decades ago I was more of a solitary hunter and frankly preferred it. However, as my hair has slowly grayed and face began to wrinkle, so has my outlook of a hunt. Sure, my ultimate goal is to punch a tag, but making new friends and seeing the expressions on their face as they relive the excitement of a hunt has become just as important.
A Camp Full of Firsts
It wasn’t long before I learned that camp was full of first-time bear hunters, and when Tennessee hunter Torey Helton pulled into camp with his first bear, I knew he had a story to share. Like many, a Canadian bear hunt had been on Torey’s bucket list for a long time, and when he gifted his dad Elbert a bear hunt for his 70th birthday, Torey decided it was a good time to check off the hunt as well.
Torey had never seen a bear in the wild before and was eager to get started on his first hunt. Needless to say, he was a little disappointed when nothing slipped into the bait that first evening. When he arrived to hunt the same stand the following afternoon, he could tell nothing had hit the bait since he had left previously. Admittedly, he was a little disappointed.
Torey hunted hard for several hours, scanning the woods for any hint of movement but after sitting like a statute for several hours he had to stand and stretch. Feeling that the coast was clear, he began to stand and as soon as he did he noticed a pair of black eyes staring at him from 30 yards away. Because this was the first bear he had ever seen, he really didn’t have a baseline on which to judge his size, but his big head and plump body told him that he was big enough. As the bear eased towards the bait and Torey thought about grabbing his .270, but every time he tried the bear would stop and stare up at him. This cat and mouse game went on several times, preventing Torey from grabbing his rifle before the bruin slipped out of sight.
Hunting is about highs and lows, and this encounter was definitely a low point for Torey. But like any season hunted, he knew another opportunity would come and a couple hours later it did. When Torey saw black hide coming up the same trail the first bear left on, he initially thought it was the same bruin and this time he was ready! As the bear stepped into the open the sling on Torey’s gun made a “ping” when it hit the stand. The bear immediately looked up and Torey could tell he was about to leave.
Upon squeezing the trigger the bear flipped on his back to Torey’s relief, but seconds later jumped back on his feet and bounded away. Concerned at first that he might have muffed a second opportunity with a poor shot, but was quickly relieved when he heard the distinct death moan seconds later.
Remembering a Friend
When I arrived back at camp on the third evening of my hunt, I was greeted by yet another first bear event, and this one was special. Serge Lestage calls northern Quebec home, and he first met Gilles Taillefer while on his family’s annual summer fishing trip. Serge was only 14 years old when they first met and in his young eyes Gilles was a giant of a man. Standing some 6-foot 2-inches tall, and pushing 200-plus pounds, Gilles was the iconic sportsman who hunted and hooked virtually every game animal or fish that Canada had to offer.
Every summer he spent time with Gilles during the family vacation, and over the years they became great friends despite their 24 year age difference. Although they never hunted big game together, they started to plan a trip to the Quebec bush when Gilles was diagnosed with cancer. After a tough three-year battle, Gilles passed away.
Surge had never hunted big game before, but like any good friend he wanted to finish what he and Gilles had started. With a rare .303 1941 Lee Enfield rifle that Gilles had left him, Surge found himself in a treestand hoping for a successful finish. On the second night of the hunt, Surge had a good bear show up, but having never hunted bears before he let him walk not knowing what a “good” bear really was. He later learned it as a great bear after showing the video of the bear to the outfitter.
A couple days later Surge had another opportunity at a good bear at a different bait site but this time he didn’t hold back. When he let the World War I British .303 bark, the bear flipped on its side and died just five steps from the bait. Like Gilles always said, “aim small miss small.” Surge did just that.
A Second Chance
I was down to the last days of my hunt when Pennsylvania Bowhunter Andy Granger rolled into camp. Like many of the others, this was also his first bear hunt, as well as his first time to Canada’s Boreal forest, and he was taking in every inch of it. After serving as a combat engineer is Iraq, whose job was to locate and destroy Improvised Explosive Devises, he had seen and heard things that put life into perspective. While he enjoys every aspect of the hunt, as a recent Sitka film so eloquently put it, the woods have become Andy’s “Place of Peace.” A place where he can forget about some of the awful things he experienced, if only for a little while.
Andy’s first night on stand was action packed. He saw a total of five bears, one of which he knew at first sight was the kind he was after. He caught the bear’s pumpkin-sized head staring at him just a few yards away as he stood on his hind-legs resting his paws on a tree. As much as Andy would have loved to end his hunt on the first night, it just wasn't meant to be. The heavy coal-black body never paused at the bait like Andy expected, so all he could do was watch him fade into the bush.
Needless to say, Andy’s anticipation was high the following days but he never saw another bear. Rainy weather seemed to be the biggest culprit for the lack of bear activity, and when he climbed into his stand that final day, it was much the same. For five hours he sat in a bone-soaking, cold, steady rain and was seriously considering throwing in the towel when a flash of black hide appeared in the bush. As the bear stood on his hind-legs once again, Andy could tell it was the same bear from the first day. It was obvious that the bear knew something wasn’t right, so with a hairraising grunt the walked away.
The next couple of minutes the bear would enter the bait site and then walk away, leaving Andy without a shot. The once mentally draining hunt had completely flipped upside down, and all Andy could do was hope his determination would be rewarded.
When the bear came in the third time he made a critical mistake when reaching his paw forward to move a log that was covering the bait. Fully exposed Andy pressed his Matthews bow into service and touched his release, putting an end to his Quebec adventure.
I would love to end my recount of Quebec’s Boreal Bruins with another bear hide collected, meat in the freezer and the excitement of a hard-earned prize, but sometimes it’s just not meant to be. Surge and his guide Mario worked exceptionally hard to pull a mature bruin into range by keeping the baits full, as well as fresh, but with only a couple bears seen the first six days, I was down to my last.
Like magic his black hide appeared from the bush with just minutes to spare, and as I watched him ease into range I couldn’t help but think how this was the perfect ending to my Quebec odyssey. When the string touched my nose I released, and in a flash the arrow was gone. I told myself it was a good release, but the low impact of my arrow told me otherwise. The blood trail eventually ran out, as well as my time in the Quebec bush, but with a camp full of bear hunting firsts, and new friends, I was still pleased with the outcome.