A Newfoundland Adventure
By Jake Downs
“I’ve shot a couple bears, so I don’t really need another one...” I’ve heard this phrase muttered many times from fellow hunters and I can’t wrap my head around it. Over the years, I have always taken advantage of adding a bear tag to my pocket whenever possible. So when Barb, my Newfoundland outfitter, asked if I wanted to buy one while I was hunting Woodland Caribou, I jumped at the opportunity!
This hunt started like many other outfitted adventures. I was introduced to my guide, Clarence, a tall seasoned guide who’d lived in Newfoundland his whole life. We quickly became friends and struck out to see what the tundra had to offer. Our first morning was spent traveling via rough two-track roads, as well as stopping and hiking through dense timber and glass “bogs”, which are expanses of open tundra that appeared to be merely floating on water. These bogs were like walking on a big wet sponge with bowling balls, known as tussocks, randomly dispersed throughout. Clarence was very adamant that I do not step in any of the “dark” puddles; he said, “You might go in all the way to your head!” Our first day was slow, with only a few younger bulls and cows spotted, or as the locals referred to them, stags and does. This was a bit of a culture shock. I had been to Canada before, but this remote Island was so culturally different. The locals were extremely friendly, at least I think they were—their dialect was hard to follow. But if they were being rude, they did it with a big smile.
Day two started with an exciting encounter, at least for one of the other caribou hunters from camp. Clarence and I pulled into one of his “go to” glassing spots, only to spot one of the other guide’s pickups parked at the end of the road. We decided to walk out on the point and discuss our plans, so we wouldn’t get in each other’s way the rest of the day. When we got to the glassing perch, we quickly spotted the guide and client sneaking through the tundra towards a herd of caribou. The caribou weren’t paying them any mind, the bull was in full rut mode and the cows appeared to be doing their best to avoid his advances. The two of them made quick work of the stalk and appeared to be extremely close, possibly bow range, even though they were toting a bang stick. They settled in and boom! The bull ran only a few yards and went down with the cows scattering towards the tree line. Watching this gave me a ton of hope for my own quest to put one of these beautiful white-caped caribou on the ground with my recurve. If they could get that close, so could I.
Day two was slow with only a few caribou spotted and a stalk on an immature bull that we elected to pass on. The close encounter got my adrenaline pumping and it was tough to fall asleep that night. The next morning, we set out well before dawn and made a big loop back into the area where one of the moose guides had spotted several large groups of caribou, but as it usually happens, we only found a few cows and immature bulls. We weren’t discouraged, there was a ton of country we hadn’t looked over yet. Clarence decided we should take a drive down the coastline and check some of the large bogs that bordered it, plus this would be a reprieve from the rough roads we had been enduring. We made it to the pavement and I was blown away at how much the country opened up. It seemed like everything along the coast was one giant bog. We stopped often and glassed from the bed of the pickup like good “road hunters” do; the only thing we needed to complete the scene was a truck bed full of empty beer cans! Too bad I don’t drink! Nevertheless, we were able to turn up a mature bull caribou harassing some cows. They were in a pocket of trees in the middle of the tundra. I grabbed my bow, put the tree patch between us, and slowly made my way towards them with the wind in my face.
I made it to the patch of trees without being detected, at least as far as I could tell. I eased my way through the trees until I heard grunting. I stopped immediately, and glanced to my right. A cow was husting my way and I could see a dark brown rack bouncing behind her. I crouched low and eased up to the closest tree in front of me, pulled an arrow from my quiver, and nocked it. The cow crossed in front of me at 20 yards and the bull moved through the same small opening seconds later. I went to draw, but he was moving too fast and was back in the thick brush quickly. I could hear him grunting nonstop and it sounded like he was getting farther and farther away. Then suddenly it sounded like he was coming back my way. This time, his lady friend was leading him down the other side of the trees in front of me. She walked past me with him hot on her trail. He slowed for a second in front of me admiring his girlfriend’s backside and I drew my bow, anchored, and a split second later the arrow was zipping through his hide. He lunged forward and was out of sight in seconds. I knew the shot was good as I fell backwards into the tundra, relief and an indescribable adrenaline dump washing out of me. I walked to the edge of the trees and waved Clarence over. We found my arrow buried in the tundra with perfect lung blood covering the fletchings. A short track job revealed my first Woodland Caribou laying not fifty yards from where I had shot him!
“We have a couple of bear baits that have been getting hit in the evenings,” Clarence said as we skinned and cared for my caribou while back in camp. I love sitting at a bear bait. So it was settled, the next day we would slip in and check which baits had been hit and prepare for the evening hunt.
The morning of day four found us driving from bait to bait, checking which looked best and evaluating the stands. They were mostly permanent ground blinds built from rough cut lumber stashed uphill from the bait. I found two of the stands at a reasonable distance from the barrel that appeared to have been hit recently. The trap was set, now we just needed a bear to cooperate.
There’s just something amazing about sitting at a bear bait. It gets a bad wrap, some say it's cheating, which I can rebuttal with ease. Before I killed my first bear, I had sat on a stand for over 78 hours, and in that time had only laid eyes on two bears, only one of which came to the bait. I know what you’re thinking: I either suck at sitting still or I went to a horrible outfitter. Well, I feel I can sit still very well. As for the outfitter, on my first bear hunt there was a blind hunter in camp and at the end of the week, there were only two folks that hadn’t seen bears, and one of them shot one! That’s right, every client got an opportunity except me. But ultimately, I’m glad that my bear hunting experience started this way. It taught me to love everything about sitting on a bear bait: the silence-shattering squirrel chatter, the scavenger birds flying in and out, and the adrenaline of those bear shaped shadows that pop up at last light. I have been on many successful baited hunts since those early days, and every time I lay in wait over a barrel, I get one of the greatest surges of adrenaline I have ever felt when a bear ambles in or if a bear shaped shadow appears amongst the dimly lit tree line.
This hunt was no different. The first night was met with a few squirrels running in and stealing a chunk of bait, then scurrying up a tree to eat it, then repeating the process. I sat with my back against the backdrop of the blind, my bow leaned against the left wall, arrow ready. But squirrels were my only company before night fell on the trees. As I said before, I am grateful for my struggles early on in bear hunting because I know it’s only a matter of time.
In the early afternoon of the next day, Clarence pulled down the driveway. I threw my gear in and away we went for another bumpy ride to another bait site. Again, we pulled to the head of the trail and I headed off down it, slow and steady, hoping that maybe there would already be a bear on the bait. No such luck, but the mud around the barrel was littered with bear tracks and scat.
It was starting to get late and looked like it might be another no bear night when suddenly I caught movement in the trees on the far side of the bait. I watched intently as a bear stepped from the shadows. He nervously made his way toward the barrel, but kept stopping and looking from side to side. At one point, he walked back into the tree line and disappeared for a few minutes. I thought it was over for sure with the light fading fast. But luck was on my side and he decided that the area looked safe and made his way back out of the trees, this time on the trail that led directly to the barrel. He slowly made his way to the barrel and started nudging it with his nose. His hind end came around as he worked the small hole where the tasty treats fell to the dirt. My bow was already in my hand as he slid over to get a better angle on the barrel. I came to full draw, focused tight on the crease of his shoulder because he was slightly quartered to me, and released. Whack! The bear tumbled backwards then tore off in the opposite direction with orange fletchings hanging out of his right side. I felt good about the shot, but was a little worried I might have hit a little too far forward. I waited about 20 minutes as darkness fully enveloped the area and snuck back down the trail. Clarence and I agreed that we should wait until morning since I wasn’t one hundred percent certain on my shot placement.
When we got to the stand the next morning, I showed everyone what had happened and we found blood about 20 yards from the barrel right at the edge of the trees. Once we were in the tree line, I was blown away by how thick it was. A few bear trails zig-zagged through it and, luckily, my bear had decided to stay on trail at least for a little while. He split from the trail about 50 yards into the trees. Anyone who has trailed bears knows how frustrating it can be finding blood, especially in thick cover, and in this case soft, wet tundra. I stayed on the blood trail while the others grid-searched. “He’s over here!” yelled Clarence. Every hunter knows that feeling of relief; I nearly broke my leg sprinting in his direction through the trees.
A new species in a Woodland Caribou is the icing on the cake, and a beautiful black bear is the ice cream (since I don’t like cherries!). “Every hunt is a predator hunt,” a wise man once said. I think it was probably Hugh Glass. All I know is you should never pass on an opportunity to have a bear tag in your pocket. I know I don’t!