By Chris Anderson
Saskatchewan is home to four seasons. Winter can be classified as intense or extreme, often spanning from November into April. Spring and fall could be more accurately described as shoulder seasons… a brief precursor. Summer, while only lasting three months is as equally intense and extreme as winter. When winter is finally over in Saskatchewan and the first warm weather of spring creeps in across the landscape, the change is stark and refreshing. Black bears awaken from hibernation. The streams are full of spawning suckers and walleye. Aspen leaves begin to bud. Whitetail deer shed their winter coats. Springtime in Saskatchewan is a glorious time.
If you like to archery hunt, spring bear hunting gives hunters the coveted opportunity to wait and watch from a tree stand. Besides a mere hunting opportunity that occurs long before traditional fall whitetail and other big game hunting opportunities that typically begin in September, there are more reasons to like spring bear seasons. Hunters typically aren’t competing against blueberry and raspberry crops and bears rut during the spring. This rutting activity can often place some of the biggest boars in the woods in front of a waiting hunter.
My father, Rick, and I had the opportunity to take a road trip to Saskatchewan this past May of 2019. As we traveled through this magnificent province, the southern tier consisted of massive fields of cropland. A landscape that would soon see fields of lentils, peas and wheat. This same agriculture would soon beckon waterfowl hunters in a handful of months. As we continued to drive north, the landscape began to change as we eventually hit the edge of the boreal forest.
We had booked a hunt with the highly recommended Buck Paradise Outfitters near Paradise Hill, Saskatchewan. The lodge sits on the fringe of farmland. A transition between farm fields and dense stands of timber and swamp.
The guides had many impressive trail camera pictures of big bears to help identify specific bears. This spring hunt is primarily an afternoon or evening sit. This outfitter had bait sites spread out across a massive concession to take inventory of several bears. Several bait sites had multiple bears visiting each day. The baiting is grueling back breaking work that occurs over several weeks. High protein bait such as peanuts, oil and beaver are brought in each day on a schedule. The use of trail cameras helps identify patterns, but new bears can arrive at a bait site at any time, especially during the rut.
Hunters only target boars so the trail camera is a useful tool for identifying specific bears that should not be harvested. Because judging a bear can be difficult and because shot placement is crucial for an ethical harvest, baiting is important for getting bears close and presenting a good shot. Black bears have a large shoulder blade that can deflect an arrow. Hunters must be patient enough to wait for the bear to be standing still at the right angle ideally with the front facing leg stretched forward to expose the vitals. In these damp swamps and thick woods, very few bears would ever get harvested without baiting. An extremely hard job that takes a lot of work so that a hunter can enjoy an exciting sit while being close enough to age a bear while identifying the sex.
As a rule of thumb, you see more color phase black bears as you go further west. Saskatchewan is in the heart of a rich variety of color phases that can range from auburn, cinnamon and brown to almost blonde. While color phases are indeed rare in places like Maine, Wisconsin, Minnesota or Ontario, these color phases are common in Saskatchewan. Many chocolate and blonde bears are mixed in with numerous black bears. The low hunting pressure makes the chance at a trophy class bear very realistic on each bait site. In fact, on each stand, we were typically hunting more than one mature bear, whether it was black or color-phase.
Shortly after arrival we shot our bows to make sure we were ready for the hunt. After eating lunch at the lodge, we met our guides, Cole and Jared.
After driving for about an hour, we hopped on an ATV and drove a short distance to the bait site. Bear sign could be seen all over the woods. From the previous day, the bait barrel had been completely cleaned out. We knew that this would be a fun hunt. Our guides filled up the barrel with fresh bait, made sure we were comfortable in the tree stand and left us to enjoy the evening.
As the sun slowly dropped behind the dense forest, we found ourselves sitting quietly and taking in the sights and sounds of the forest. A pond to the east provided entertainment as a flock of wigeon splashed and softly whistled. Pine squirrels hopped from branch to branch as they chattered. Ruffed grouse beat their wings in drumming courtship. Spruce grouse called from nearby treetops. Springtime in Saskatchewan is beautiful.
I was distracted by a flock of grey jays when I spotted my first bear cruising through the woods. A dark jet-black shadow moved through the junipers. Walking a trail that would lead right to the bait, the bear was walking quickly. This was a big bear with a dark muzzle. The bear abruptly stopped about 40 yards away to inspect the area. His nose reached high in the air to scent check the bait site. As quickly as the bear appeared, he proceeded to walk back into a marshy thicket and was gone.
Despite the overall slow night, we decided to hunt the exact same stand the following day. The trail camera pictures reaffirmed the activity at this particular stand. We just hoped that if we put in our time, one of these big boars would eventually make a mistake. There was one big black boar (most likely the one we saw the night before) and a beautiful cinnamon bear that were both spending a lot of time in the area.
When we went back to the stand the following day, the bait barrel had been cleaned out again. Bears were hitting this bait site hard. Much of the activity had been taking place during the night. We didn’t sit for very long before we saw the first bear of the evening. As soon as the sound of the ATV faded in the distance, the first bear showed up behind the stand. A nice black bear to start the night. This first bear was soon joined by a smaller bear. As our nerves began to settle, we were able to sit back and enjoy the show as the bears tussled over the bait site.
The smaller bear suddenly went on full alert. As the bear started to peer into the thicket behind us, I could hear the jaw popping sound from another bear. Soon the unmistakable black shadow began to appear through the thick cover. This bear was much larger and seemed agitated at the sight of the other bears. This was the bear I was after. Slowly and cautiously, this new bear made his way closer to our position. I was ready with my bow in hand. My fingers shook as I clipped the release. The adrenaline caused my knees to gently tremble as I watched this magnificent creature assert his dominance.
Seconds later, this beautiful boar made his way in, walking just below the stand. The size of this bear was unmistakable as he passed by below and made his way to the bait. The crease on the forehead was a telltale sign that his was a big boar. I kept telling myself, “deep breaths… just let him come in and settle down.”
I wanted to wait for the perfect shot. No need to rush any shot, especially on a bear this size. Finally, the bear is broadside, but the front leg is still back a little too much to take the shot. Anticipating that he would move enough to give me the shot I wanted, I drew back. After the front leg stretched forward, I settle the pin behind the shoulder and squeezed. The arrow hit the mark and the bear ran down the trail. The woods were silent until I heard the unmistakable sound of a big bear crashing into dead limbs and branches.
I knew the shot was good and I had control of my nerves but if I wasn’t shaking before, I was shaking now! This was the king of the woods, a giant black bear that will push Boone and Crocket. A beautiful Saskatchewan bear that is not only a trophy book worthy animal but also an excellent eating animal I will enjoy the following months. To make this hunt even more memorable, my dad was running camera and able to be a part of this hunt with me.
The following day, I would trade the Mathews for a Sony and would attempt to film my dad just as he had filmed me during the previous evening. A new day, a new stand, and a lot of bears. My dad, Rick was about to experience the most incredible hunt. Trail camera pictures revealed at least two big boars (a chocolate and a blonde bear) that would both be target bears. The blonde bear was high on the list. To say this bait site was busy is an understatement. Multiple bears were ravaging this site.
The first bear was spotted while we were entering the bait site. The first bear showed up under our stand shortly after the guides left. One of the target bears (a beautiful chocolate color phase) came in and spent some time at the bait. Then another bear joined in, and another. We were literally watching a parade of bears. The third bear was a big boar with a white ‘V’ on his chest which we nicknamed ‘chevron’. There were new bears coming in all through the evening. We watched sows with cubs, a handful of mid-sized black bears, another chocolate bear. The interactions that we witnessed as the bears tussled for position at the bait site were unforgettable. There were bears walking the trail at the base of the tree stand. One bear even decided to stand up and scratch his back on a tree a few feet from the stand before beginning to climb up the ladder.
As the sun began to set, the bear activity slowed until another big boar took over the bait. This was the boss. He was a heavy bear and did not want to share. As different bears approached the bait, this kingpin was not letting any of the other bears get close. At one point a chocolate colored bear walked the trail below the stand and began to close the distance to the bait. The big boar put his ears back and in a split second began to charge the approaching bear. Branches snapped. Leaves and pine needles flew as these two bears fought. Deep guttural growls and groans permeated the still of the evening.
So many encounters with so many trophy bears, this was an incredible evening. As we retold this evening sit the following morning, the other hunters and guides were amazed by the sheer amount of activity. “I had to put down my bow and enjoy the show,” explained Rick when asked why he didn’t shoot one of the better boars that showed up that evening. Indeed, hunting sometimes is not all about harvesting an animal, but rather fleeting memories and experiences. These interactions between several bears are seldom seen by most people. Sometimes you just must take a step back and enjoy these spectacles that nature has created.
The following evening, Rick was back in the same stand knowing full well that the activity couldn’t get any better than the night before. After new bait was put inside the barrel, the woods were again quiet. Rick quietly hoped that passing all the bears the night before wasn’t a big mistake.
An hour passed with no action. Abruptly, the sound of sticks snapping caught our attention. “Blonde,” whispered Rick, as he spotted the blonde bear coming through an opening. Not far behind the incoming blonde bear was another bear… a much bigger black boar. The rut was evident. The blonde was indeed a sow and the big black boar was in pursuit. As the two bears made their way closer to the bait site, the blonde bear hung up about 30 yards away. The boar however decided to move in closer and presented a shot.
This was Rick’s chance. The guides had put a beaver carcass on the tree directly behind the barrel and the boar was soon tearing at the carcass. As Rick began to draw his bow back, the bear hopped down from the beaver carcass and turned away. This big boar started to follow the trail that the blonde sow just used to leave. With a sigh, Rick realized that another opportunity had just walked away.
Minutes passed until Rick caught a glimpse of a bear slowly making way towards the stand. The bear was very cautious but was walking down a trail that came right by the stand. Rick slowly grabbed his bow and stood as still as possible while a big boar walked a mere fifteen feet below the stand. This was a big mature boar. The bear walked towards the bait and then turned broadside. Rick drew back his bow. The bear was quartering away slightly. Rick settled his pin and released the arrow. The bear made a growl when the arrow impacted behind the shoulder. After a flurry where the bear ran into the woods, few seconds passed before the loud telltale sound of a crash signaled that the bear had expired.
After a short tracking job, we found a magnificent black bear no more than fifty yards from where Rick took the shot. This old boar had a beautiful black coat with a white ‘V’ on his chest. This appeared to be one of the bears that he passed up the night before. The bear we had nicknamed “Chevron.” We had another bear down that will push the Boone and Crocket minimum score.
An action-packed conclusion for a memorable father and son road trip that brought us to the forests and swamps of Saskatchewan. Memories we will retell many times. Our stay at Buck Paradise Outfitters was fantastic. Truly an under the radar camp that puts in an incredible amount of work so that hunters can be successful. The quality of animals and the number of color phase bears truly made this hunt memorable. The staff and accommodations were all top notch. We were able to capture some incredible footage from this hunt and we will air this hunt on our Passion for the Hunt television series. Details on airing dates will be available soon. More information on Buck Paradise Outfitters can be found at www.buckparadise.com. A great resource for Saskatchewan bear hunting can be found at www.tourismsaskatchewan.