Hunting black bears can be dangerous. And for four very good reasons: They are intelligent, they are agile, they are powerful and they have no soul. Fortunately for us, most bruins avoid man at all costs which is one reason why pursuing them with a bow and arrow, a muzzleloader or even a modern firearm can be so challenging.
Over the past thirty years or so I've had hundreds of close encounters with black bears. I've had bears walk within inches of my head while I lay awake in my cot, and pay me no heed. I've had bears pad up behind me as I was exiting a tree stand, and then run like hell when my foot slipped. And I've had bears sneak to within ten yards of me and stand on their hind legs, look me straight in the eye — and then disappear into the darkness with a loud "woof." I even inadvertently stepped between a Pennsylvania sow and her two cubs one morning, and she was not pleased with me! These bears all left me with a racing heart and a story to tell back at camp, but the Swamp Bear and the Cliff Bear really scared the pudding out of me — and left me questioning my sanity.
The Swamp Bear
I think what scared me the most about the Swamp Bear was his incredible strength. I poured a half-gallon of honey over a dead stump one morning and returned two days later to find the stump ripped out of the ground, roots and all, by some terrible force, and all the honey gone. It was obvious this bear took what he wanted, when he wanted it.
I immediately replenished the bait site and over the next several days the Swamp Bear returned every other evening to chow down on the honey and other sweets I piled next to the stump. On my last trip to the bait site I found a 51⁄2-inch front pad track and several piles of 2-inch diameter dung placed strategically around the stump. I replenished the site with honey and assorted sweets, and then hung a small portable tree stand downwind and 15 yards from the pile of pastries. I let the Swamp Bear have his night off, and then sneaked into that tree stand the following evening.
Ten minutes before dark a small boar nervously worked his way towards the bait site, stopping often to listen and to test the wind. He was very cautious, and it is a good thing because the Swamp Bear was on the prowl that evening, and he wanted his honey — all of it.
Just as the small boar was about to lick the stump, he turned around and stood up to face the bush. He seemed to be having an anxiety attack for all he could do was hiss and back up, hiss and back up. He dropped to all fours, turned his back on the bait, and then walked briskly into the bush for a few yards. There he stayed, looking over his rump on occasion, hissing and shaking like a leaf in a windstorm.
I suddenly realized the cause for his concern. The Swamp Bear was nearby. I could not see him, but I could hear him breathing, and the air was alive with his presence. The Swamp Bear did not show himself, however, electing to stay near the bait but in the shadows until it got too dark to see.
Now I was stuck. I was hunting alone, so no one was going to come in and shoo the bear away, at least not this bear. If I made too much noise getting out of my stand I could spook the Swamp Bear away, and I would never get a shot. However, if I managed to crawl out of my stand quietly, I might get a second chance, but I sure as hell didn’t want to bump into him as I made my exit, either. The Swamp Bear was just too big to fool with.
I elected to descend quietly, and then tip toe back to my 4X4 with all the caution I could muster. I could feel the hair on my neck stand straight up as I eased away from the stump a few inches at a time. I was terrified, and the sounds of the bear breathing nearby were almost too much for me to bear. By the time I got back to my cabin I was soaked with sweat. Was the Swamp Bear lying next to the bait, or was I imagining everything?
I slept uneasily for a few hours, but at first light I got up and dressed. I had to find out if the Swamp Bear was at the stump that evening. I grabbed an axe, (today I would take my .450 Marlin), and sneaked back towards the stump. To my horror, the bait was untouched, but the spot where I thought the Swamp Bear was hiding was all matted down. He had been there all right, and I had tip toed within a few yards of him as I made my exit!
Why he didn’t bolt then I don’t know. Nerves of steel I guess, but I never hunted near that stump again. Never.
The Cliff Bear
It is one thing to hunt black bears from a tree stand, it is quite another to ambush one near a bait site from ground level. In this case the bait had been stashed at the base of a cliff about a half-mile from an old logging road, and was being hit regularly by several bears including one with 5-inch front pads. I took my bow and crawled up the cliff to a small shelf where I had an easy shot straight down at the bait barrel and waited. Although I was cornered up there as there was no exit other than the entrance trail I used to climb the cliff, it seemed like an ideal setup.
The first time you sit over bait is often the most exciting, and my first stay on the cliff was no exception. As soon as it settled down I heard a twig snap behind the bait, and then another. A moment later a young boar, probably 125 pounds, emerged from the undergrowth and began feeding on the discarded bones and meat scraps.
All of a sudden he looked straight up at me, his beady little eyes burning holes through me like laser beams, and began popping his jaws. He was obviously angry over something; maybe he thought I was another bear. Whatever was going through his head, the young boar clawed his way up a nearby tree for a better look at me, and then slid back down to the ground.
What happened next left my palms sweaty for days. The young boar, "woofing" in a staccato-like fashion, charged up the cliff at me, stopping only a few yards from my crouched position, and began swaying his head back and forth in front of me.
I picked up a small stick to defend myself, as if that would help, turned sideways and averted my eyes from those of the bear. I hoped my body language and look of deference would have a positive effect on the bruin’s attitude. It actually seemed to work, too, for the bear soon stopping hissing, and slid back a few yards.
Then inexplicably the young boar lunged at me, paws outstretched, stopping this time only a few feet away. I was sure now he was going to bite me, or worse, but then he backed down the cliff a few yards.
A few minutes passed and I thought his antics were over, but they were not. He lowered his face, saliva dripping to the ground, and began inching his way towards me, one outstretched paw after the other, like he was stalking his next meal.
I held my ground, gripping my club with determination while fearing all the while he would lunge if I moved one inch. I wasn’t about to become bowhunter burger, yet I only had a head shot, which is really no shot at all.
Just then a twig snapped behind the bait. The young boar quickly took notice, and much to my relief disappeared down the cliff and into the brush. What scared him away? A 300-pound sow with five, that’s right, five cubs coming into the bait! After my encounter with the young boar, I decided retreat was the better part of valor, and vacated the cliff bait, but not before avowing never to sit on the ground next to a bait pile again without a gun, a big gun, for backup. It is just too risky otherwise.
As you can see, bear hunting can have its exciting moments. It's hard to believe how big a bear can get until you see one up close and personal. Nonetheless, black bear attacks are few and far between — they are generally more afraid of you than you are of them. Besides, more humans are bitten by cur dogs than black bears — aren’t they?
A Book to Get
Successful Black Bear Hunting by Bill Vaznis now available in bookstores nationwide. Oversized soft cover, 144 pages, 150 color photographs — all by the author. Cover price $24.99. Order through Eder’s at 1-877-656-0808 or eders.com. For autographed copies, add $4.99 S&H and send to Successful Black Bear Hunting, P.O. Box 131, Conesus, NY 14435. New York residents add sales tax: $32.25 total. Allow 2-4 weeks for delivery.