By Jason Mitchell/ Passion for the Hunt Television
For many bow hunters in the Midwest and eastern half of the United States, much of our past experience archery hunting involves whitetail deer. Other species or opportunities often require a road trip. Canadian spring bear hunting is attractive to many archery hunters because this type of hunt is often affordable and easy to accomplish. For hunters who have never been close to a bear, these hunts can also seem quite exotic. Black bears are reclusive, but their strength and agility inspire awe. Many a bow hunter has completely lost their nerves when a large boar walks to the bottom of the ladder stand. Bears can give even the most experienced archery hunters the shakes. No shame. Battling composure during a massive infusion of adrenaline is why we bow hunt and exactly why so many hunters love to hunt bears in particular.
For many U.S. residents, Canadian bear hunting trips are turnkey. Licenses can typically be bought through an outfitter without the hassle of draws or deadlines. Most of the human population in Canada lives within fifty miles of the U.S./Canadian border. Much of the rest of the country to the north can be considered sparsely populated and remote, particularly in the Canadian Shield where the only industry is some logging, mining and tourism. Much of this land is what is referred to as Crown Land which is usually provincially owned land where individual outfitters have license allotments for specific regions. As you can probably surmise, there is no shortage of black bears.
We hunted spring bears this 2018 season in northern Manitoba near the community of Snow Lake with Wekusko Falls Lodge. Manitoba is a province that has a spring and fall season and is home to numerous really good bear hunting outfitters. Manitoba is also crawling with bears. We personally prefer the spring bear seasons and the spring season occurs in May or June. By hunting bears in the spring, the season doesn’t conflict with other fall hunting opportunities and spring hunts are typically more successful year in and year out because fall berry crops like blueberries can make the bait sites much less appealing to bears. The other advantage of many Manitoba spring bear hunts is the close proximity to incredible fishing depending on your location.
Much of northern Manitoba consist of extremely dense forests broken up with muskeg swamps, rivers and lakes. You typically can’t see more than twenty yards when you are in the bush. Because of the topography, spot and stalk is not a realistic option. Most hunts are done over bait either out of a ladder or tree stand or at times, a ground blind. Every outfitter has their own concoction of what they believe to be the best bear bait. Simply put, the very best outfitters work hard at baiting and monitor several sights attempting to place hunters on active bait sites.
There are many misconceptions about baiting. In this terrain, you would seldom see a bear that wasn’t running without the use of bait. Baiting is also a tremendous amount of work where outfitters have to transport heavy containers either by ATV or boat into remote areas for several weeks. The mosquitoes and black flies make this miserable work. Even the best bait is far from a guarantee. When the sows go in heat during the spring bear season, boars become more preoccupied with mating than eating. If you think bear hunting is as simple as putting a couple of jelly doughnuts on a stump and waiting for a bear to come running in, you are sadly mistaken or perhaps mislead.
What makes bear hunting fascinating is that each bear will have a very specific personality and in some cases… a very specific menu preference. Black bears can also live to be quite old and some bears learn to avoid bait sites or stand locations. If you have never hunted black bears over bait and think this hunting method is too easy without any strategy or skill, you need to get over yourself. The strategies are remarkably similar to hunting whitetail bucks over a food plot. Black bears also have a heavy bone structure with a large shoulder blade. Archery shots need to be close and surgical where ideally the bear is slightly quartered away with the front leg stretched forward to better expose the vitals. A bear’s hide and hair also does a tremendous job of absorbing blood and bears are notoriously difficult to track. When the stars do align over a bait site, a hunter can wait for a good shot where they have time to judge the bear often within twenty yards.
Because of the heavy bone structure, many archery hunters tend to shoot fixed blade broad heads but more important than cutting diameter or bone penetration is simply accuracy. We personally shoot expandable broad heads with a Mathews Halon because we personally shoot tighter groups with expandable broad heads. Our own opinion is this, if you take a poor angle or make a bad shot, it simply doesn’t matter what type of broad head you prefer. If a bear doesn’t die within a hundred yards after the shot, you are going to have a tremendously difficult time recovering that bear. The kinetic energy of a fixed blade is not typically going to put a bear down if your shot is too far forward or back. Broad head selection of course is personal preference so shoot whatever broad head and arrow that gives you the best accuracy and most confidence. Primary concern however is simply hitting the vitals right behind the front leg. Also familiarize yourself with the skeletal structure and anatomy of a bear so you have the correct shot placement. What all bear hunters can agree upon is the importance of a Thermacell. The mosquitoes and black flies can be incredible at times and the Canadians don’t put them on any of their brochures.
Manitoba is far enough west where there are good percentages of color phase bears and there are literally good opportunities for Pope and Young class bears all over the province. What separates the best outfitters is simply how hard they prepare. A good outfitter simply works hard at running baits. Bryan Bogdan of Wekusko Falls Lodge is a very reputable outfitter and one of Manitoba’s best. Red eyed during the spring bear season, Bogdan’s day typically starts at 6:00 am and doesn’t get over until after midnight. During the heart of the season, the typical baiting and hunter logistics is interrupted with skinning and quartering bears and late-night track jobs. Bryan is the prototypical tough Canadian who will simply outwork you, but he also has a great team of guides who work just as hard as he does. Together, they run over forty bait sights and only hunt a fraction of them. This crew puts the odds in your favor of seeing a bear by sheer determination and sweat.
We had an opportunity to hunt bears this 2018 spring out of Wekusko Falls Lodge and harvested a magnificent boar that should qualify for Pope and Young, filming the entire hunt along with an insane amount of walleye catches for our Passion for the Hunt TV series that will air on Fox Sports North this upcoming summer. What I enjoyed about this particular camp was the sheer number of active baits and the attention to detail. The bait sight locations were very strategic and spread out. The ladder stands were safe with shooting lanes prepared. The camp really does cater to archery hunts but there were other hunters in camp hunting with rifles and muzzleloaders.
The night I harvested my 2018 Manitoba black bear was memorable in part because of the sheer amount of bear activity. We came into the bait site by boat and walked an old mining road for about half a mile to sneak back into the stand. We saw two bears at the bait site as we approached the stand. As we approached, the bears stiffened and then disappeared in a blur. We hadn’t been situated in the stand for half an hour when we saw a bear (which we assumed to be one of the bears we startled on our entry) circling us. Walking the perimeter about twenty yards into the woods, we watched the jet black body of what turned out to be a large sow with a white crescent on her chest. As the evening progressed, we watched a literal parade of bears inspect the bait site. A moderately sized boar soon joined the sow and we watched these two bears for perhaps an hour.
A short time later, I got a glimpse of another bear. A larger boar moved silently through the woods to our right. The bear than approached directly towards the tree stand. At about ten yards behind us, the bear stopped and focused up into the tree where we were sitting. The bear than stood up on its hind legs. The boar had a dark face with cinnamon brown eyes that looked through us like lasers. We didn’t even dare move the camera to try and film. After what felt like five minutes, the bear stood down and circled up and around before finally coming into the bait site. As the larger boar approached, the other two bears stiffened and moved back into the woods. This particular boar was almost as tall as the barrel that was placed at the site.
About five minutes later, this mature dark faced boar jerked his head to the right and stood perfectly still. We initially couldn’t see what the bear could see but soon, the glimpse of another jet-black bear could be seen moving through the woods. This bear walked in a straight line towards the black faced boar and as the boar closed the distance, the black faced boar turned to leave.
I clipped the release onto the arrow and waited for an opportunity to draw. This new bear was also dark faced and the largest of the four bears we had now seen. His shoulders were broad. A mature boar with a wide head and a dark face. The sight of the other lesser boar seemed to irritate this new bear. As this large boar walked and stood broad side at seventeen yards, I shot the bear right behind the shoulder and the bear took off on a sprint that broke branches loudly for thirty yards before we heard a louder crash in the woods to our left. My hands shook as I waited for the videographer to rewind the footage to confirm the shot placement.
Byan Bogdan’s policy at Wekusko Falls Lodge is to use a provided two-way radio to call back to the lodge and notify staff when a bear is hit and to wait in the stand until help arrives. I called back to the lodge and at that point had nothing but time. Time to reflect on a memorable evening amongst conifers and bog swamps after a successful hunt.
Another sidebar of Wekusko Falls Lodge is the incredible fishing. Located between Wekusko Lake and Tramping Lake, these two lakes offer some of the best walleye fishing in Manitoba. Both are tremendous fisheries but Tramping in particular has a reputation for producing a surprising number of thirty-inch plus walleye. Boats are available at the lodge or you can tow your own on black top the entire distance. Many bear hunters will kill a handful of hours in the morning fishing for walleye and pike. Simple and easy fishing exists a short distance from the lodge. There are also tremendous lake trout opportunities in the area. Most of the walleyes seem to be longer than twenty inches and you will typically catch a lot of fish with just a ¼ ounce jig and three to four-inch soft plastic although some anglers use frozen salted shiners.
Because of the diameter of trees in northern Canada and the importance of a double lung pass through shot, most outfitters seldom place ladder stands higher than twelve feet. Most bait sights are simply small clearings where you might have thirty yards of visibility at the most amongst extremely dense woods. A bear might give you a glimpse of black or brown resembling a shadow moving through the woods but what is so amazing is how often an animal as large as a bear completely sneaks up on you. Without making a sound, bears can move through the woods and completely startle you. You can stare and listen all around you only to glance down and get startled by a bear walking directly below your ladder stand. Bear hunting can be highly addicting and there are many hunters who make the trek each season.
Bear hunting also gives hunters an opportunity to get back into the woods before traditional fall seasons begin. An excuse to pick up a bow and shoot during the spring. Another chance to sit in a tree stand to wonder and wait. An opportunity to again listen and watch. The encounters are up close and personal, often enhanced with a good dose of adrenaline. An incredibly fascinating and beautiful animal to hunt that is also excellent table fare. For many hunters, bear hunting offers an additional and alternative hunting opportunity that compliments other bow hunting passions closer to home. Economically, bear hunting is an affordable destination hunt for many hunters.