The gun culture permeated the part of Wisconsin where I grew up. In that area and time, we didn’t think of it as a separate culture. The gun culture and the culture were one and the same. Guns and hunting were simply integral parts of everyday life. If a boy was not a hunter, he aspired to be one. There was considerable game, ruffed grouse, woodcock, rabbits, squirrel, ducks, geese, deer, mink, muskrats, raccoon, fox . . .
But there weren’t very many bear. In my first 18 years, with nearly a decade spent wandering the woods and a good portion of that time spent hunting, trapping, canoeing, fishing, mountain biking (we didn’t know that riding 3-speed bikes around logging roads was “mountain biking” back then) and berry picking, I recall seeing only one or two bears – other than those encountered at the county dump/landfill. Those dumps have since changed enormously; bears no longer congregate there.
Because of a confluence of several reasons, black bears have since become common in Northern Wisconsin. I’ve seen as many as 10 in a two-week visit. Bear hunting is by permit only, but otherwise is far more liberal than it was five decades ago, when I was a boy.
The picture above is from a game camera, taken the first of September. The nearest bear is a big sow, probably in the 300 to 400 lb. range. The other two are nearly adult cubs. A third grown cub is outside the frame.
My brother and his son both managed to obtain permits this year. It now takes about seven to eight years to get one, which are drawn by lottery. Previous unsuccessful entries increase your chances of a draw.
Part of Wisconsin’s success with their bear hunts has been because they allow both dog and bait hunting for bears. They alternate years to allow both types of hunting. This year was a ‘bait’ year, with no dogs used during the first week of the season. Next year will be a ‘dog’ year where bait hunting will not be allowed the first week. Both methods can be very exciting and success is far from assured. In Wisconsin the success rate has been about 50%.
On this year’s hunt, my brother had been contacted by a friend who runs a pack of bear dogs. Capable hunters who have a bear permit are sometimes sought after by dog hunters to allow the pack owners to participate in the season that they’ve been preparing for all year.
On the first day, the hunters were up at 5 a.m. A bear had been into one of the baits only an hour earlier. The tracks looked big. Two dogs were released. They found a hot scent and the dogs followed it. They jumped the bear, and three more dogs were released. The bear immediately crossed the Namekagon river, where I grew up. Bridges were a half mile north and south.
The hunters were able to make a crossing 40 minutes later. They heard the dogs baying “treed”, and found logging roads to approach within a quarter mile of the ruckus. My brother and his son carefully approached the location of the barking dogs, with the pack owner close behind. The bear was treed in a large white pine.
On seeing it, my brother immediately knew that it was a bear worth shooting. He advised his son to shoot it. The rifle that my nephew was carrying was a customized Springfield ’03-A3, crafted by my brother into a “scout rifle” configuration. It has an 18-inch barrel and a long eye relief Leuopold scope. It was charged with 220 grain roundnose handloads at 2300 feet per second.
Military issue ’03-A3 Springfields are hard to come by now because so many have been sporterized. I remember when they were for sale in barrels, at $29.95, your choice, cash and carry. This rifle had been one of those.
My nephew took the shot from about 30 feet from the tree and he’s an excellent shot. The bear collapsed and dropped limply out of the tree. My brother glanced to the owner of the dog pack, as the owner looked at him. They simultaneously said “dead bear” before the bear hit the ground.
Then my brother started toward the bear. As he closed to within 20 feet, the bear jumped up and ran off!
My nephew couldn’t shoot because of the position of my brother. Three shots from a .44 magnum were fired at the escaping, wounded bear. It’s uncertain if any of the rounds connected.
There was a good blood trail, though, and the dogs were set back on the track. A quarter of a mile away from the first tree, the bear was held at bay in the middle of an ash swamp. Visibility was extremely limited.
My brother and my nephew waded through as much as two feet of water and muck, for a hundred yards, attempting to approach the bear without causing it to run again. The dogs made a continual racket. Finally, they saw the bear from 30 feet away. It was backed up against the upended root system of a downed tree.
It must have seen them at about the same time, for it broke from the dogs. My nephew knocked it down with a snap shot from the scout rifle. It started to get up as a pistol shot delivered the coup de grace to the brain, from two feet away.
The next four hours were spent dragging the bear back to a logging road where a 4X4 truck could get at it. Fortunately, one hunter had a plastic deer sled that made hauling the beast easier. Bear are much harder to get out of the woods than deer. Not only are they generally bigger, but there’s no easy way to put a rope on them to haul with. The head tends to be too heavy and to drag too much if the rope is put around the neck. It’s nearly impossible for a lone hunter to drag a good sized bear. A plastic deer sled and a four-wheeler can shine in this situation.
Bear season seldom has the snow that makes tracking and dragging deer so much easier in Northern Wisconsin, because the bear tend to be denned by that time. Three hunters helped to drag this bear out of the swamp. If you’ve ever tried to drag a very large unconscious man through water and muck, the task is similar.
The bear dressed out at 295 pounds, likely over 350 pounds live weight, a large black bear sow.
The next day the hunters were out again, but didn’t see a single bear.
People often ask me if the bears are eaten. Most definitely, they are. My brother says that bears weighing 250 pounds or under make better eating. Bears under 100 pounds are considered cubs, and are protected. I’ve had bear, generally prepared as a roast. To me it tasted much like roast beef. I prefer bear to venison, and I like venison.
My brother is retired, but my nephew is at the beginning of his career. He will be hunting on his own this week. He has already shot several bear in his life, but another good sized bear has been hitting one of his baits.
©2014 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice is included.