Tommy Dale Lane | @tommydlane
It was opening day of the 2009 Arkansas bear season and our area had not yet been hit with the typical early fall rain and windstorms that usually blanketed the forest floors of the Ouachitas with acorns. I had several good, consistent bears using the baits (and by good, I mean bears that I would be proud and satisfied to hang my tag on).
I got to my stand around 2:30 pm, about three hours before my game cameras told me would be the most advantageous time to be there. Upon arrival, I saw my bait had been hit hard the night before and the evidence of feedings from the past twenty-four hours were obvious. I walked towards my bait, three hours early mind you, and when I got even with the tree my climber was attached to, I sat down my bow and removed my backpack to be as efficient as possible. I opened my backpack and removed two cans of sardines to spread over the area for a scent booster—a ritual I go through almost every hunt. I cracked one can open and began walking towards my bait barrel, concentrating on not spilling any of the delightful smelling fish flavored soybean oil on my hands. I take two steps and look over next to a huge pine tree where I had placed a five-gallon bucket full of homemade “Bear Crack”. I remember thinking that a twenty-four hour clean up on that amount was impressive. I took one more step and heard a shuffling in the brush just to my immediate left. I turned and was within fifteen feet of one of the biggest bears that had been using my bait. He just froze in place looking at me because he hadn’t initially seen me as he rushed into the bait to get an early jump on the buffet I had set out. I looked at him motionless for about ten seconds, then slowly looked over my shoulder at my bow sitting on the ground just a few feet away. In that moment I remember that I never felt fear, not saying I’ve never been scared of a situation with bears I’ve been in, but at that time I just remember thinking, “I wonder if I can make it to my bow?” Well, the short answer to that inquiry would be, not even!
I watched the bear swiftly disappear, knocking over small saplings as he retreated. As all bear hunters know, to see a bear is a successful hunt, so I was already ahead of the game in my book. I then proceeded the short distance to my bow, wiped the sardine juice off that was now covering my left forearm, and regretfully picked up my bow. I turned and hurriedly made it to my barrel, emptied the cans (bow now in hand), and retrieved the card from my game camera. After completing my “starting rituals” and climbing the tree, I began looking at the pictures on the card with my 35mm camera. I discovered I had bumped the same bear while approaching the bait and he had not retreated far before he decided to return. Well, that built my confidence in my stealthiness but bottomed out my opinion of my awareness.
I sat for five hours without a single hint of a bear’s presence and decided to make the long trek back down the mountain with what little daylight I had left—there were only fifteen minutes or so left of legal light and it was deafeningly quiet. So, I climbed down and began tidying up before leaving. Remember before when I mentioned regretfully having to pick up my bow? Well, I didn’t learn a thing! I sat my bow down, again, and turned to put my card back in my camera, all the while faintly but not all the way consciously hearing a steady, heavy breathing. Now, you bear hunters know exactly what I’m talking about here. Prime bear hunting can occur in some of the most horrible early fall heat waves we have, and bears are huge, black, and furry—not a good combination to make a consistent living in. So, I was hearing a bear dealing with his internal cooling mechanisms and did not realize it at first. After it finally dawned on me, I turned and to my utter dismay there was another one of my bigger bears standing broadside looking at my bow, about eight feet away from it.
Well after my first encounter, I figured it would never happen again. Fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice, well, I’m still an idiot! He quickly sees me and shows me his spot-on impression of a bulldozer as he leaves. I wiped the disgusted grin off my face in the remaining legal minutes of the day, regained myself, and once again wrote it off as a victory for simply getting a glimpse of my foe, my obsession.
I packed away my things, reloaded the card in my trail camera, picked up my bow, and began my descent down the long, dark, and overgrown trail. I hadn’t gone one hundred yards down the path when I felt a very close presence in the small, matted pine saplings along the side of my walkway. At first I knew something was there and then in a millisecond my mind had now concurred with the rest of my fleeing body that something was, in fact, there! Not only there, but within two feet of where I was standing gazing into the black shadowed underbrush. I had walked up (or down I should say) within inches of a satellite bear that wasn’t sure what I was either till we met. We both quickly made a joint decision not to remain in each other’s company any longer and parted ways. I was like a toddling schoolgirl screaming some words that I believe I had made up in that moment at the top of my lungs and the bear huffing something about, “I thought you were one of us!”
From that day on, I always carry many important lessons under my now informed hat that I will never lay down again. First, get a blow sling if you don’t have one. Bears do not own a watch. Second, bears are one of the most thrilling things to encounter that exists. And finally, I now know I can run twenty-five miles an hour in very low light conditions, downhill, through moderate to heavy obstacles, leaving a faint screaming trail through the woods. I’m incredibly fast…when I need to be!