The big black bear came in under the shade of pines. He didn’t make a sound my ears caught over the raucous singing of red-winged blackbirds. I was in a stand 15 feet up a poplar tree and only knew the bear was coming because a little bear on the bait picked up his head and his body grew rigid.
I didn’t know if I would shoot, as it is not easy to shoot a bear. They are animated and powerful. They are kind and playful, and mean and brutal. A boar will kill and eat a sow’s cubs, if he can, and then the boar will breed with the sow to pass on his genes and she will let him. Bears are cruel and real, compassionate and mean. The males are violently hierarchical and will bully and fight each other and even kill for their place in the order they establish.
Watching them as you hunt them forces you to ask questions of yourself. First, you must concede that anthropomorphizing animals is filled with contradictions and dilemmas. The natural world does not abide by human-found morality. It also is not the fantasyland envisioned by people who grew up away from farms and the realities of the natural world with Disney movies shaping their views. Hunters are hardly immoral beasts entering the wild as destroyers, as happened in “Bambi.” Hunters also can’t impose morality on animals. Hunters only can treat themselves and wildlife morally, which is what modern game management is predicated upon.
The little bear ran like its life depended on speed. It did—a bigger bear might eat him.
When the little bear ran, it was as if this bigger bear’s shadow had chased it off the bait deep in the Saskatchewan bush. Before this the smaller bear had been laying, scooping oats into its mouth with one paw and then the other. He rolled on his back and ate some and then sat on his butt and ate. It was marvelous to watch. This bear was ignoring me. When he first came in, the little bear walked up to my stand, put his front paws on the lowest step and shook the stand as he looked up at me. I was smiling behind my facemask until he shook the stand. But he was only letting me know he knew I was there. After that he pretended I didn’t exist.
Still, the bear was always looking for another bear coming. His nose was up often and he pulled his head up to look all around a few times a minute. I didn’t know how he could hear over the cacophony of the hundred red-winged blackbirds waiting their turn at the oats.
After the bear ran, this other bear stalked in with that careful, quiet loaf a bear has that is stealthy but somehow also rippling with the power of all its muscle and omnivorous capacity. I marveled at his awareness. An intensity and curiosity radiates from bears seen close. They are so alive, so perfect.
On the way in I’d seen bear sign everywhere in the forest. They bite into tree trunks as high as they can and stretch their front paws as high as possible to rake their claws into trees to show other bears how big they are. They rub their backs on the trees to leave scent and hair, all to avoid violent confrontations.
This bear was on to me as the other had been and his emotion was so much more than a dog’s. His face had expressions and his eyes stories. His manner was stiff. His nose went up. I was downwind, but still he looked at me from behind a screen of small poplars.
This bear was big, round with shoulders that looked like they could lift a refrigerator and toss it at me. His eyes were dark brown and looking right into me. He was dynamic and powerful.
I’d killed bears before, but never over bait. I wasn’t against this kind of hunting, of course. This is a very scientific method of hunting. A hunter can carefully select the right bear. The shots are almost all at 18 yards. Ethical kills are easy to make. Hunters can take out the biggest boars that will come to bait. Wildlife biologists easily can manage a bear population this way.
The only other effective way to hunt bears in these thick northern forests is with dogs. I’ve done that. Bear hunting with dogs has been chased out of much of North America, as it is very misunderstood. I found it to be invigorating and hard, as miles need to be traversed over rugged ground. When you get to where the dogs have a bear, if a bear trees or bays up, it is also very controlled, as you get in close to the bear and so can decide whether the bear is big enough and you can see if it is a male or female.
This bear was watching me. His ears were small on his head. He was all black and heavy, even in the spring, and his hair was shiny and shag-carpet thick. This bear would look like a barrel in the fall. This bear wasn’t there to eat. He was cruising, looking for sows to breed. The bigger bears are killed this way. They don’t come to bait, at least in daylight. But this bait station was placed in an isthmus of land between swamps. It was a natural place for boars to cruise through in late spring. He walked into me and should have shied away, but his desire to breed overcame his desire to live.
Then he went fast and I shot, swinging my rifle, too fast for the moment to be more than a flash of a memory. He rocked and lifted his right front leg and then was down and I felt conflicted for having done to him what he would have done to that smaller bear. The bear was still. Just a bear-fur rug and meat waiting. Its life was gone and I knew the only dignity left to him was what I would give him.
But later, and not much later, came something else. And how to describe? A feeling of gratitude mixed with grace and an ease, a calmness. A deep contentment came over me and I don’t know precisely why, though I had felt it many times. Is this a validation of the basic need to bring home meat? Is this a primal emotion? Did hunters before recorded time feel this regret or did they only experience satisfaction with obtaining meat? Is this guilt a modern thing born from our soft lives spent going to supermarkets and restaurants where we can pretend so easily that meat is grown lifeless?
After that time alone came time with the other bear hunters and guides in the cleaning shed in camp. This was a celebration of the hunt and of success. It’s a humbling thing as men josh men. No one can be melancholy as the other men would rip another apart for showing such an emotion or they would move away, as if we’re supposed to feel those things but only privately and away from the group. Those melancholy and personal feelings are supposed to be experienced alone, or maybe quickly with another at the kill site. We must walk away from death before a part of us dies with the kill. But we needn’t walk away from understanding our honest part in the natural cycle.
I have the rug now. The bear’s meat was incredible. It’s yellow fat can look awful, but bear meat is some of the finest I’ve ever eaten.
If we go in consciously, with respect and wonder, we’ll feel all of these emotions that are so hard to articulate to someone who chooses not to hunt. In the end, we’re left with something more, with a love for what we hunt.
Such is a lesson for hunters and anyone who takes their need for sustenance into their own brutal hands.
About the Author:Frank Miniter has been writing about hunting issues, gun rights and more for the NRA, NRAHLF.org and for Fox News, Forbes and more for over two decades. His books include “The Ultimate Man’s Survival Guide,” a New York Times’ bestseller, “The Future of the Gun” and “Kill Big Brother.” His latest book, out the summer of 2019, is “The Ultimate Man’s Survival Guide to the Workplace.” Miniter is a frequent guest on national radio and cable news shows. His website is FrankMiniter.com. (Read about other NRA Hunters' Leadership Forum writers and photographers on our Contributors page.)