Courtesy Dean Weingarten

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.

Approaching the pack as it barks “treed”

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 silver item protruding from the mouth is a metal tag required by Wisconsin law
The silver item protruding from the mouth is a metal tag required by Wisconsin law. Courtesy Dean Weingarten

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.
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44 Responses to Dean Weingarten’s Wisconsin Bear Hunt

  1. It really ain’t about the actual kill. Tho that makes it better. But the men, some of whom are family, and dogs working together to make it a successful hunt is the real story.

    Hunters help one another. Ever been on a remote road and find someone else with a hung up vehicle? Total Strangers? You stop and help. As they do if the positions are reversed.

    Sounds corny, but the camradery is the important thing.

    • Doesn’t sound corny to me. It’s the same way with backpacking, which is my thing; that guy you meet on the trail could be a PhD or a fry cook, doesn’t matter, they’ve got a busted bootlace and you’ve got a spare.

      Nature is the great equalizer.

  2. I don’t know. Dean, I respect you, and I’m not anti hunting, but… I think the world was a better place with that bear than it is without it.

    • Yeah, 6 shots over a long period of time seems kind of cruel. Not as cruel as the old bear trap but that was a morbid story to a non hunter. But if that is what it takes then, good hunt.

    • There’s something tremendously sad to me about bringing down a big predator, especially a bear that’s not being culled because it’s become a problem bear that’s not afraid of humans. I saw pictures of the bear and my heart fell a little, even though I have the pretty irrational desire for a bear skin rug and the meat is supposedly very good eating, so I’d never let it go to waste if I were the one that brought it down. Just keep in mind that the state wildlife management authorities usually have good reasons for doing what they do and, when properly managed, hunting permits allow for proper population management and help to ensure that there is enough food for the stable population, and that ought to help prevent problem bears scavenging from dumpsters and cabins.

      It is sad about the initial shot and the chase. Missing a proper shot last deer season is what inspired me to go to an appleseed shoot and increase my marksmanship skills. Hopefully the boy here will see the need and do his best to refine his skills as well. A quick and ethical kill is desirable all around.

    • Hunting should always be respectful of the animal and the life we take. It’s a reflection of our humanity. Taking an animal to feed one’s family is part of the cycle of life. Bears are close to my heart but I also recognize the need for managing their populations just like deer. Both species have their place in the web of life. So do we as predators and participants in the world.

    • Bear do not live forever. There are plenty of bear in Northern Wisconsin, and they cause plenty of problems as their population increases. Proper management of the population is our responsibility.

      Bear, especially big boars, are cannibals. They kill and eat any cubs that they come across. I think it is better for the big bear to be harvested, and for more bear to survive to adulthood. If every shot was absolutely certain, I would not call it hunting, either. The previous bear that I have knowledge of was harvested by my niece. It was at bay by the dogs, a running battle. She had to crawl within 30 feet of it, on her belly, then wait until she could get a clear shot. It went over 500 pounds. Maybe I will be able to dig up some photographs and write that story. It was a few years ago.

  3. Not so much hunting bear as it is just following your dogs. And as a wisconsin bear hunter, nothing aggravates me more than lazy people who just walk up to a tree and shoot a bear sitting in it. Woohoo, I got one.

    • Yep, fellow ‘sconnie here as well. Bear hunting with dogs is not hunting. I like to hunt. Unfortunately I don’t see much of any hunting going on in WI for whitetail or bear. Sitting over a bait pile or siting in a tree stand waiting for something to come by is not hunting, it’s “waiting.”

      Want to go hunting, get your stalk on…

      • I hear Ya brother. Honestly deer hunting in WI should be cancelled for a year or two to let them grow a little. I worked part time for a sporting goods store that was a registration station, and God only knows how many 80lb deer I had to tag. But hey, it’s WI. IF ITS BROWN, ITS DOWN! Jesus there is so many stupid people here that “deer hunt”

  4. A couple points I’d like to make. First, I find it interesting you’re allowed to set loose more dogs after the hunt has began. In my native country of West “by God” Virginia that is illegal and considered very unsportsman like. Second, it took a considerable amount of shots to put her down for good. Not criticizing you, but I find it funny that not long ago a very large amount of people was talking about how guns were better protection than actual bear spray. 350 is a fair size black bear, but so small compared to all the other species. Finally, I prefer to buy my meat from the store where it is made(jk).

      • Who wants to eat a deer than been run for miles while scared as hell? What a waste of an animal to hunt like that! It’s one thing if you’re starving, but another entirely if you want meat you’ll enjoy.

        • I never understood running deer with dogs. Bear are sometimes quite crafty and can fool the hunters and dogs, but deer just run until they can’t anymore. I think the “old tradition” that tdi pointed out really was from people who were starving more than actual hunters. Native Americans would build fences and drive deer into ambushes. They would also set fire to the tree a bear was hiding in. People would freak out if we still honored those hunting traditions.

      • I hear the faint echos of anti-hunting gun grabber sentiment. Hunting all sorts of game with dogs is a long standing tradition. There is entire canine culture associated with it that doesn’t even involve the intentional death of single game animal. Most states have a “chase” season where you can let your dogs go hunt without killing an animal. Some of it is about training for hunting but a good deal of it is done to let the hunting breeds do what comes natural to them. Most deer running now occurs during chase season and not hunting season.

        You know what should be banned? Stand hunting with modern firearms. Nothing says unfair chase then sitting up in a tree or tower with a 30-06 and shooting deer that have undoubtedly been baited pre-season with corn at 50 yards. Man made cover should be limited to bow and muzzleloaders. If you want to use a modern firearm get off you @$$ and hunt like a man [or woman].

        • tdiinva,

          Many people hunt on small properties (less than 10 acres). Their only realistic option of harvesting a deer is to sit in a tree stand or blind and hope that a deer wanders by.

          Even if a hunter has a lot of land available, it is next to impossible to sneak up on a deer. Their hearing is super sensitive and their vision is incredibly good at picking up movement. If you snap a twig, every deer within 50 yards will hear it and split. Break a stick that is larger than a pencil and every deer within 150 yards will be looking your way. As soon as you move, they are gone. And if you have a forest full of dry leaves … you will never get close enough to get a shot. Unless you are hunting on sand dunes or one foot of powder snow, deer will hear and skedaddle every time.

          Oh, and I didn’t even bring scent into the equation. If you can somehow manage to walk through a forest without making any noise (which is impossible), if deer catch a whiff of you they will beat feet as well. Keep in mind that deer can easily smell you 100 yards away with a breeze.

    • Guilty as charged, but I’m going to be getting some UDAP bear spray for an upcoming Alaska trip. I’ve never had much of an issue with black bear in the woods.

      • UDAP is great stuff. It comes with a decent strap to position it on your chest, that way it’s always ready and wont interfere with gear you may have on your belt, like a backup gun. Black bear are more foragers than predators. They’ve become so naturalized to humans I’m not even sure if they know they can eat us. Good luck on your trip, ya lucky son of a gun.

  5. Glad the author was a skilled enough hunter to choose the right doughnuts for bait (tough choice between jellies and glazed) and made sure to let the dogs do the tough part. But hey, he gets to wax lyrical about being a bear hunter. I hunt and this to me is a travesty.

  6. I think the failure here is the nephew’s choice of caliber and bullet. Bear are tough, dense, very fat creatures with huge bones. That means a .30 caliber bullet at just over 2000 fps doesn’t have the terminal ballistics necessary to quickly kill such an animal.

    If I were on that hunt, I would use a .44 Magnum shooting hot loads with at least 300 grain hardcast lead bullets, a rifle in .45-70 Government shooting 350+ grain hardcast lead bullets, or a 12 gauge shotgun with rifled barrel shooting Hornady SST slugs (.50 caliber, 300 grain bullet with a muzzle velocity of 2000 fps). Any of those choices, especially the .45-70 Government or 12 gauge SST rounds will humanely kill a large black bear in short order. The key to the effectiveness of those rounds: they are huge (.43 inch diameter minimum) and very heavy which means they will plow through that tough dense animal.

    • I don’t know guys, black bear aren’t that tough. I know plenty of people who have taken clean one shot kills on black bear using .30 caliber rifles. Not to mention all the people who do the exact same with archery equipment. I think this was more of an example of poor shot placement.

    • The O3 was a .30-06. More than enough rifle for black bear, moose, etc. Anything on this continent with the possible exception of the really big bears in Alaska and Canada.

      In my modest opinion the trouble lies in the handloads and marksmansship. A 220 grain round nose bullet at 2300 fps will have practically no expansion in the lighter body of a black bear. That bullet probably drilled a nice .30 call hole clean thru the bear. It likely would have acted like an fmj.

      Under those condition bullet placement has to be absolutely perfect. Obviously, it wasn’t.

      • Round nose does not mean full metal jacketed. I do not know what happened with the shot. Stuff does happen. A small branch that was blurred out by the scope might have been nicked with the bullet. From the photo of them nearing the treed bear, the ground cover was thick.

        I do not know for sure.

        A 30-06 with 220 grain bullets at 2300 fps is a great black bear load, unless shooting over 200 yards away. You almost never get that kind of a shot in Northern Wisconsin.

        The hunt occurs because they have too many bear. It is a sustainable harvest. As they have harvested more bear in Wisconsin, the population has increased.

        In Northern Wisconsin, the only reasonable methods of hunting bear are with dogs or bait.

        • I have no objection to the method of take, Dean, or the needs for bear seasons. I was just opining about a possible cause of the first shot not taking the bear.

  7. I I’ve hunted all of my 27 years of life. Over that time I’ve formed and refined my take on hunting by killing things and observing how I feel about it the 5 minutes after pulling the trigger.

    My dad and most any men I’ve hunted with are pretty rough and do some questionable things. So I’ve done some questionable things and felt badly about it.

    I shot a squirrel that got caught in a pecan tree. No other trees close enough to jump. No leaves. And it wasn’t near a big enough tree for him to hide in any way. I walked up with a 12 gauge and shot him. He didn’t even budge before I shot. He fell out and landed nearby. I picked him up and he died as I carried him. I felt like a monster. I don’t even hunt squirrel with a shotgun. I believe in squirrel hunting with a .22 but we were actually out crow shooting that day.

    From that experience I never want to take a shot like that again. And from your story I wouldn’t have taken that shot. I can’t respect that shot and it doesn’t sound sportsman like, humane, or respectful of the animal. I’m no hippie but shooting a stationary animal trapped in a tree isn’t ideal.

    I enjoy hog hunting and crow shooting the most. Both are pests and offer some challenging shooting. I’ll gladly pile them up with little regard. I’ve never enjoyed deer hunting. Sitting in a box over a food plot isn’t fun. We should be adjusting our hunting habits to compliment the technology and knowledge we have. Unless you actually rely on hunting to eat. Then the calculus would change drastically.

  8. I’m glad to see a fair number of TTAG readers were repelled by this story.
    I love to shoot, and I understand hunting to control certain animal populations.
    But taking pleasure in shooting a treed bear?
    A bear that had caused no problems for anyone.
    For me there could never be any pleasure in that.

    I live on six acres in Northern New England and I regularly feed birds & squirrels on my front lawn.
    I’m happy I’ve have enough resources to be able to share my little bit of bounty with them.
    During the day I can take a break from the computer screen in my office and watch the morning doves and cardinals, squirrels & chipmunks all happily munching on peanuts and sunflower seeds.
    At night the coons, opossums, and grey foxes come by, and eat together – only a few feet apart.
    It’s really quite remarkable.

    Occasionally, I’m lucky enough to see our local bear.
    When he stops by I’ll usually wake my wife so she can watch him too. Wonderful creatures.

    Frankly, we both feel blessed to be able to live in the country and enjoy the wildlife everyday.
    Killing these visitors is the last thing that would ever occur to me.

    Plenty of locally grown and humanely slaughtered beef and chicken available up here.
    I understand if a person needs to hunt to eat, but we’re not talking about that here.
    New England winters are tough enough without my adding to the animal’s woes.

    • @Nedd, to each his own but you should really reconsider feeding wild animals in your front yard. Certainly you love animals and the Disney scenario you have created sounds wonderful. However, consider that it can lead to serious issues for you, your neighbors and the animals.

      I live on 6+ acres in a ‘neighborhood’ that is connected to hundreds (or thousands?) of very wild acres here in NH. I have multiple neighbors that put out seed, corn and cat food for the various rodents, turkey, deer, and bears so that they can watch them. They think it is great when the bears come and knock down the feeders or the coyotes come through for a snack of leftovers at twilight. Let me ask you this, what happens when you go on vacation? Or suddenly don’t have the resources to feed the animals. Or it gets cold and you don’t get out as much with food.

      What happens is that your neighbor who doesn’t feed the animals has to deal with the sow and two cubs that destroyed a chicken coop looking for a free meal. That’s me by the way, and we lost 3 young chickens that day. Two days later, the same bear was back with her cubs in broad daylight. My daughter was out back bouncing on the trampoline with a friend 100 yards away. They ran into the house to warn me. The SOW was with 2 cubs and had ZERO fear of the kids on the trampoline. She basically ignored me at 50 yards while attempting to get another chicken dinner. This is NOT natural bear behavior. I only had my nine on me at the time. If she hadn’t responded to my verbal warnings and physical chase of her after my son got my shotgun she would eaten a some buckshot and slugs at 25 yards. Finally, what about your neighbor whose pets disappear regularly because you are training wild animals that snacks hang around houses? Cats and dogs are on the menu when fox and coyotes are around.

      You are responsible for the behaviors that turn wild animals into pests. Pests (especially coyotes) get shot on sight by guys like me. Don’t feed wild animals- you aren’t helping them.

      As for the story, I am a hunter but don’t see the sport in baited ambush hunting for any animal. Unless it is a matter of eating to survive it should be fair chase all the way. Mixed feelings on using dogs for hunting because it has a long tradition. However, I chose not to do it.

  9. Dean,

    I see you mentioned the Namekagon, my family has a cabin and some land near Grindstone since the late 60’s, and I’ve floated and fished that river many times (along with most all other lakes/rivers) in Sawyer co. When we are up there in Sept musky fishing, I always get a kick out of talking with the bear hunters in the bars after our fishing days. Seeing them zip around the area with the dogs in tow is a thing for sure. As a die hard pheasant hunter, I can appreciate good dog work.

    Thanks for sharing.

  10. This is the kind of article that originally got me reading TTAG.

    An interesting story for someone who’s never experienced a bear hunt, and even more interesting were the comments, in both sides. Thanks.

  11. Interesting post all around. My dad hunted deer but gave it up before I was old enough to go with him. I have to admit that I didn’t realize that for the most part, “deer hunting” means sitting somewhere and waiting for a deer to come close enough to shoot ; didn’t find out until I was grown up and prosecuting a deer hunter for DWI. And I was a bit shocked, certainly right at that moment I didn’t see it as very “sporting”. But I’m not going to judge either stand hunting for deer or shooting treed bears, I have come to realize that there is a lot more to things than usually meets the eye so I reserve judgment until I know more about it. I will say I’m a bit nonplussed by the number of folks who see the need to control deer populations but don’t seem to think that can apply to bears.

  12. So let me get this right. The dogs chased the bear until it climbed up a tree, you simply followed the dogs, and then you shot it from 30 feet while it was sitting still, but you fouled it up and had to shoot it at least twice more?
    And that is called hunting? Oh, never mind, I noticed you also had to get wet towards the end. Utterly pathetic.

    • Your comment is rather like saying to someone who won a prize at an auto race, “all you had to do was to drive that car around the track a few times, and you get a prize?”

      The hardest part of most hunting is finding the game. Bear hunters do not get all the bear that they hunt. The success rate is about 50% for all people who draw tags over the whole season, and it takes quite a bit of preparation. There are more bear in Wisconsin than have probably ever been since the glaciers.

  13. I have to say I’m a little shocked by all the anti-hunting sentiment being expressed on this thread. For all those saying hunting with dogs takes no skill….have you considered what it takes in time and money to train and keep a pack of hounds hunt ready. Its a year round commitment, not just seasonal. I would say the negative comments most likely stem from folks who are not dogmen or hunters, and have never owned a hunting dog. Like the antis comments they stem from ignorance.

    • Raising dogs isn’t hunting, neither is shooting at a stationary target from 30 feet after the dogs did all the work. If he had tracked the bear himself, on foot, different story. That would have taken some skill and actual effort.

      • My point is that training dogs to track and hunt IS hunting…and has been for the several thousand years that dogs have been domesticated. Not to mention that a treed animal is rarely “stationary” or unobstructed, or that in my area (upstate SC) 99% of dog hunting takes place at night.

        • Yes and several thousands of years ago they used slings with rocks and spears, not a firearm. Also back then, there was no such thing as a grocery store and you used every single advantage you could. These days, if you’re going to hunt a bear, at least make it sporting and challenge yourself. Dogs for birds, fine. Dogs to tree an animal and then wait for a clear shot- not hunting, just shooting.

  14. You seem to be discounting the 5+ century history of firearms, the whole of which they’ve been used to hunt with dogs. Also, not everyone has the money or desire to purchase their protein retail at the grocery store. As far as the primitive weapons you mentioned, I and many others still use them to lawfully take game, both with and without the use of dogs. Though I think considering the subject matter of this post its a bit off topic.

    • You really use those old, primitive weapons? I’ll give you a spear for hogs or sturgeon, but not large game. And certainly not a sling and a rock. And yes I understand the grocery store aspect. If you’re poor as dirt and live in the abandoned wilderness, by all means, hunt and kill food by whatever means you can. However I highly doubt the author of this was in that situation

      • Yes actually, spears or knives for hogs (which are not considered small game in my neck of the woods) gigs ( small fishing spear) for frogs, gar, and carp. Slings are more for rabbit, squirrel, and quail, though admittedly I use cast lead shot. I believe those roman folks invented it. I also hunt with black powder firearms when in season, as well as with more modern weapons when appropriate. Wild harvested meat is an essensial part of my food budget, and hunting my favorite pastime. I find talk of banning specific harvesting techniques as futile and silly as banning cosmetic features on a rifle.

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