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Wednesday, March 21, 2007

BEAR HUNTING: Sometimes the Bear Wins

I've read somewhere that Bear Hunting is the only magazine in its field. If so, it disproves the notion that monopolies lose enthusiasm and grow careless. This well-done bimonthly, published in Clear Lake, Minnesota, does a good job for its small but ardent readership.

The March/April issue, like all hunting magazines, is filled with accounts of hunting trips. But bears are special: they're big, they're most abundant in remote places, they're smart, and there are serious restrictions on hunting them―when they can be taken at all. So going on a bear hunt is a big and expensive deal, and it's the lucky bear hunter who can afford the money and time to hunt even once a year, usually at a hunting lodge specializing in the animal.

I learned a lot about the sport from this one issue. Bears are hunted in one of three ways: with hounds that sniff out and hopefully tree a bear; "spot and stalk," where the hunter uses field glasses to spot a bear from afar and then stalks his prey; and―most popular, from the reports in Bear Hunting―using bait to attract the bear and waiting in an elevated stand for it to approach.

The weapons of choice are a rifle, shotgun or bow. The hunters who write in these pages stress how important it is to fire only when the bear is close enough and at a proper angle to provide the best chance of a fatal shot. A lot of these hunt stories are about the agony of waiting, often fruitlessly, for the bear to turn in the right direction for that shot.

One hunter uses bait consisting of licorice, doughnuts, sunflower seeds, dog food and meat scraps, all soaked in used cooking oil. This mixture is placed in five-gallon buckets. The oil serves the purpose of soaking a bear's paws and fur, so that when it departs the area it will leave a trail that will attract other bears to the site. I was surprised at the number of bears viewed from hunting stands that were allowed to go in peace, either because they were sows with cubs or not big enough for the hunter's ambitions. Since you're permitted only one kill if you have a legal "tag" or license, the hunter has to wonder whether a bigger bear will come along later. In bear hunting, size is everything.

Bear hunting has gone high-tech. Hunters use special suits that mask their scent from the bears. Hounds carry radio transmitters so the guide can track them after they disappear over a hill and into the woods. You can screw a camera that senses movement and body heat to a tree over your hunting stand, and get photos of visitors to your bait area for a week or two before you commit to putting yourself into the stand to wait like a statue for hours. Just be careful to use an infrared flash on the camera, for a bright flash will scare bears away from the baited trail for a long time into the future. You can even buy a rifle with a video camera attached, so you can record your hunt.

But experience counts for more than technology. Bears may not have electronics, but they do have good noses. Bill Vaznis writes of how morning hunters learn that air rises, so that "if you want to stalk a morning bear in mountainous regions, you must start out above the bruin." The opposite is true in the evening, when you must stay below your prey.

My favorite story in the issue is by Larry Lightner, a 61-year-old field editor for Bear Hunting. Despite a couple of heart attacks and surgery just two and a half months earlier, he went on an early morning hunt with a guide and hounds in the wilds of New Mexico. Within an hour he finds that "the two bony points at the base of my butt-cheeks are screaming in pain every time they come in contact with the saddle."

By noon two of the hounds tree a bobcat, but the other dogs have scented a bear. The guide tells the suffering Lightner what he doesn't need to hear: that it's probably a juniper berry-eating bear, which are leaner than nut and acorn-eaters and "tend to run farther, faster and harder."

It's now late afternoon, and the pair have been leading their horses up and down steep hillsides, aware of how close they are to the baying hounds and the bear. Lightner reports that "for the last 20 minutes my heart has felt like it is being squeezed into a huge vice but I do not take my nitro pills for fear that I will be too dizzy to continue." The guide sees his plight and orders him to rest. The hounds themselves give up the chase, and the day is over.

He closes the report with the old adage, "Some days you eat the bear and other days the bear eats you."

An annual subscription to Bear Hunting (six issues) is $20.00 from the publisher; we'll send you a sample copy for $2.59.

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