Spot & Stalk
Jun 03 2022
Stalking Boreal Bruins
By John Schneider
He was the most significant black bear I had seen in 10 years, and he was only 100 yards across the legume-rich meadow from where I lay. I was surprisingly calm, however, as I could only see the top of his back in the high foliage. His female companion was even less visible. I was downwind of the bears, and a stalk to get closer was unthinkable in the dry, late-May weather. The stalky clover, dead from last season, was crunchy. It was like walking on a large packing bubble sheet. My mind was busy trying to figure out what to do. I think that helped with the nerves. I didn't know it at the time, but my adrenalin would be flowing hard within minutes of this particular moment.
Bear hunting in Alberta is especially enjoyable. There are giant bears here, and we have options. We are allowed to bait in the province. Not in all jurisdictions, and not where this particular hunt takes place. I could, if I wanted, go to more eastern boreal forest environments and throw out some barrels of meat scraps and oats. I have done just that in years past. It is an entirely successful way to hunt bears. It is also a lot of work and time, and commitment. But frankly, I am just not too excited about sitting in a tree on long late-spring evenings waiting for bears to come to me. I'll do the same thing every fall when I bowhunt whitetails. Bear hunting is different for me, though. I prefer the spot and stalk hunting style necessary for the wildlife management units where Grizzlies are present, and baiting is not permitted. Alberta has such varied terrain, and black bears are everywhere! I've stalked them in the towering river bluffs of the Peace River, the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, and here in the relatively flat expanse of boreal forest, crisscrossed with oil and lumber leases and unmaintained roads and cutlines.
This region is the most difficult to hunt, challenging to see the bears in the flat, heavily forested terrain. I should qualify that statement. It is easy to drive the roads and spot bears in the ditches as they feed on clover. But that is just not how I want to spend my hunting trips. Riding in the vehicle for hours is effective but hardly satisfying. So on this particular trip, we had decided to put the miles on our boots instead of the tires.
Over the years of "trunting" this area and filming episodes for the web series From The Wild, we had discovered several different likely-looking bear hot spots. I found myself in one of these areas on this particular spring evening, May 24th. The dry Spring meant that I could indeed drive the Suzuki down the overgrown cutline for a few miles and then hike in the rest of the way, perhaps another mile or so to the meadow. Oil and gas lease sites, once abandoned, are seeded in legumes by the businesses that have leased the public land. Of course, this makes prime habitat for both spring and fall hunting of bears and ungulates. The meadow was perhaps 4 acres, surrounded by mixed woods of dark spruce and aspen parkland. A drained beaver marsh, lush with dark green grass, sits immediately adjacent to the meadow. Each Spring, frogs call excitedly along the stream and moist soil of the beaver flats and field. The spot I overlooked was immediately identified as a prime location to spend more than one evening looking for bears.
I had already spent a few nights at the meadow and had seen nothing before the fateful night in late May. I was disappointed in the results, but hunting bears in this manner is difficult. It was simply a matter of putting in the time before an encounter would happen. Walking past the meadow earlier in the evening and seeing nothing, I continued to the cutline crossing and turned to sneak along its length towards the beaver flats. I couldn't accept previous failures and had to retry. I spent several hours glassing the flats. The breeze was gentle, and the bugs were few—a glorious way to spend an evening. With the sun setting, I decided to work my way back towards the meadow. It would take me an hour or so if I went slowly. That was the plan.
On my way back across the green flats and up the steep slope towards the cutline path that would take me where I wanted to be, I suddenly felt an unusual sensation and looked up. A brown muzzle, black ears, and small, glassy eyes stared back at me through the sparse undergrowth of the spruce thicket. The bear was perhaps 10 yards from me, and I am reasonably sure that neither of us was more startled than the other. We stared at each other for a few seconds. Then, with a swing of its head, the bear disappeared, back towards the direction of the meadow. Game on.
The bear was spooked but wouldn't feel that way forever. I suspected that a calm approach would be better than running towards where I had just seen it. The stalk began, and I crept up the hill towards the cutline. In the distance, the bear left the trail and went into the forest, perhaps 100 yards away when I reached that vantage point. I noticed no panic in the bruin. If I didn't chase it, I might have another chance. I slowly stalked through the tall grass and saplings, all the while staying vigilant and wanting to avoid another surprise encounter. I was confident that I would see the bear for our subsequent meeting first, and the advantage would be mine.
For the following hour, slowly, methodically, I moved along. My eyes were constantly scanning the undergrowth for movement or black fur. Eventually, though, I found myself at the crossroads of the two cutlines. Turning left, I would very quickly be back within view of the meadow. That was the direction the bear meandered, so the decision was simple. Within seconds of scanning the large field, there was a bear! The dark blob in the distance was unmistakeably alive, even without moving. The snap to attention was immediate and startling. And now, I did indeed have the advantage.
The wind now became my main concern. I knew where the bear was. I knew it felt unpursued. All I had to do was slowly walk the lease road to the upwind edge of the meadow. A small berm made a perfect rest to lay prone and steady the 7mm mag for a shot. And then suddenly I realized there were two bears in the meadow. The bear I pursued became a non-concern as her companion, a giant boar, dwarfed her. Nothing was visible but the top third of his body. As the big bear buried his head in the green lushness of clover, there was nothing I could do but wait. I was in a good spot. Trying to force a better encounter would most certainly backfire, I convinced myself. I needed patience.
The bears fed side by side on the far edge of the meadow for perhaps thirty minutes. During that time, I was constantly scanning for alternative options to get closer. Unfortunately, the stalky, dried clover wouldn't allow it. And then suddenly, the pair split and the boar started across the meadow on a slow walk. He had lost interest in the sow and had evidently come up with a better plan in his mind. The crunchy grass that was a disadvantage only a few seconds ago now became my greatest asset. His noise would allow me to get ahead of him towards a pipe stub sticking up out of the ground, a leftover from past gas extraction practices. He would be walking directly towards me, closing the gap and hopefully emerging from the tall foliage to expose himself for a shot. I would also be able to use the pipe as a rest.
The plan worked to perfection. As the bear walked, so did I. When he stopped, I stopped. I got to the capped-off stub of pipe and readied for the impending encounter. By now, the boar was about seventy yards and moving at an angle across my view. Suddenly, the grass was shorter, and at fifty yards, I had my scope filled with black fur and the crosshairs centered in a spot just behind his massive shoulder.
The shot echoed across the meadow. The sound reverberated off the trees and hills, and the bear hunched and ran. Years of experience told me to get another shot away as bears are notoriously rugged animals. Now freehand with the old Remington and the bear running, I squeezed the trigger, and the butt of the rifle slammed into my shoulder. The bear fell and slid across the wet grass. And then he was still.
This big boar was the largest bear that any of us had seen in our ten years of hunting in this area of Alberta. The choice to hunt with a more enjoyable process had paid off. Even if the story had ended differently, and I hadn't killed a monstrous bear, the lesson was the same: hunt the most enjoyable way and keep pride in the process. Pursuing bears on foot led me to more inaccessible areas no doubt impacted how this story unfolded.