Black Bear Camp 2001

By: Steve Brandle

black bear huntRight from the very beginning, the odds of taking a Michigan black bear are stacked against the hunter. Being selected to receive a license in itself is a tough thing to do and hunters can wait years for a tag. The bear hunting guide lists results from the past few years of application and harvest success. A hunter has a 3.4-45.8% chance to get a license depending on the area and hunt time chosen. Once drawn to receive a tag, only 23-30% of them will connect and take a bear.

After finally being drawn for a license for the first time, I found myself having the odds piled just a little higher. A co-worker convinced me to apply for the Carney area because he knew of some private property there that he bow hunted which had several bear hanging around last fall. No one bothered hunting them and the owner decided to let someone try to harvest one after seeing five different bear. So, we both applied for the third hunt to better our chance of pulling a tag. The hunting guide showed the odds of a successful drawing increased to 35.6% from 15.6% for the first hunt period. We reasoned that the bear in the area weren’t hunted hard and a later hunt date shouldn’t affect much.

The thrill of finding a green successful drawing card for a license in my mailbox lasted only until the next morning at work. To make a long story short, I found out the private property wouldn’t be an option for me and I was without a plan or place to hunt four weeks before the hunt started. This was going to be a major problem for me. I hunt deer in the UP and know of many likely places to try for bear, but all of these spots were in the Newberry Unit and I had a tag for Carney. I only applied for that unit because of the access to the private land and it sounded like a very good place to hunt, too good to be true I guess.

The Carney bear management unit covers all Menominee county and parts of Dickinson, Marquette and Delta counties. Since I didn’t know a soul there, public hunting land was going to be my only hope. To help narrow down the square miles of land to scout, I called one of the local DNR field offices to try and find out were I might find higher bear concentrations. I was told to call another field office that had a biologist working there that would be able to help me. (I’m being vague with names and towns here on purpose. I don’t usually mention to people that I write a little and to use their names without asking isn’t right. Any names used are fictional and for identification only.) When I called the biologist and told him my sad story he was eager to help. After giving me some places to start looking he also told me to check back before I started hunting because he may get a bear complaint. If he does, he asks the farmer or landowner if they’d be willing to allow a hunter on the property to try to get the bear. He also told me if all else failed he knew of a man, that for a small fee, might let me hunt one of his bait stations. This person didn’t really guide much and the biologist wasn’t sure if he’d even be interested, but he looked up his phone number and gave it to me.

Well, at least I have a starting point, I thought, but the task of finding a spot and then trying to bait a bear seemed unlikely. I had one week of vacation time to use for bear hunting, but I would need that time to actually hunt. The five or six hour drive to the western UP from my home wouldn’t allow me to keep up a bait station. I decided to call the phone number given to me by the biologist to see if it was an option.

I left a message on Jack’s phone machine and hoped he’d at least call me back, one way or the other. In my message I mentioned the biologist that referred me to him and briefly described my problem. (After hunting with him for the week, I asked him what had convinced him to help me and let me hunt at his camp. He told me that before he returned my first call, he spoke to the biologist to verify my story and only then decided to talk to me. He also told me that he’d been in a few jambs himself and was happy to be able to help.)

Jack called me the following day and explained what he could offer to me. His hunting camp consisted of 320 acres, which he shared with five other hunters for deer hunting. Some public land bordered theirs and three of his four bait stations were actually on this public land. Michigan rules permit up to three bait stations per hunter. He told me that three other hunters would be there for the first hunt before I would have a chance. They included his daughter, another member of the camp and a hunter which had paid him to hunt in the past. Hunting almost two weeks after all of these people had tried their luck made my chances seem unlikely, but it was the best thing I could come up with.

In our first phone conversation, Jack told me he only had two rules in bear camp. First, “bears and booze don’t mix”. I agreed with this. Secondly, “I only track one bear for you. If you draw blood and we don’t find the bear, you killed one as far as I’m concerned.” Not knowing who I was or what shooting experience I had, this was a reasonable rule to me. In total agreement with each other, Jack told me to call back the week before I was coming to get the report on how the hunting was going and to make our final plans. He gave me the name of a motel to stay at and I made reservations right after I hung up with him.

At least I have a chance to hunt. It would have been a shame to draw a license and not even try. The two weeks of waiting finally passed and I gave Jack a call. He told me that his daughter had taken a nice 260# bear and the hunter from down state had taken a smaller boar, but he shot it with his bow and was thrilled. The other member from camp had seen two bear opening evening, but choose to pass on the biggest one because of poor light conditions. Nobody wants to track a wounded bear in the thick stuff and although he made the right choice, he hadn’t seen another bear since and was hunting some evenings after work. So, I would have three places to sit and the other member would be hunting occasionally, too.

My hunt period began on Tuesday the 25th of September. I planned to take the entire week off from work and use Tuesday as my traveling day because Jack needed to work that day, but had taken the rest of the week off to be in camp. Monday morning came and I started getting my gear together. As I loaded it into my truck I wished I could leave right away. Why not go? I could stay in Naubinway over night and shorten my drive the next day. The sportsman’s club I belong to has small cabins on Millecoquins Lake to stay in and it would put me in the U.P. that night. The rifle and ammo went into the truck last and I scribbled a quick note for my wife telling her I just couldn’t stand it and had to head for the woods. After being married to me for 25 years, this last minute change in plans wouldn’t surprise her. I pointed the truck north and left.

Jack and I planned to meet Tuesday night at my motel room to make the last minute plans to hunt in the morning. I made it to Naubinway just before dark Monday evening. The anticipation of my hunt was just the topping to the pleasure of being “back where I belong”, as Ted’s song says. With one of the cabin’s windows opened, I sat at the table soaking in the night sounds and crisp September air; very contented in doing nothing else. It was inspiring.

Creative writing is a strange passion for me and I never know when the urge to try to put something down in words will strike me. I can sit and write an article or story almost at will, but the results sometimes appear almost “diagram-like” to me with nothing more than information being passed. But, then there are times when I experience a wisp of something that I want to capture and “paint” with words. It always comes to me in a rush and I struggle like a stuttering child to put it down on paper fast enough to seize it. This is what I scribbled down that night:

“I revel in my solitude and yet, crave a kindred soul that hears what I hear and feels the same as I. Why does a loon cry out from the lake at 10:15, when all is dark? A coyote sings and geese harr-onk under a star filled sky and a three quarter moon. We all should be sleeping, but do not. Winter’s cold edge lightly brushes the back of our necks and killing frost will soon dampen summer’s green to brown, sage and gray. I think autumn has arrived tonight.”

The next morning, I shot my rifle at our club’s range just to check the scope one more time. I’d shot it just a few days before, but if you have the time it can’t hurt. Jack had told me the bait stations were about 60-70 yards from the blinds. I set up targets at 50 and 100 yards. I was using my 7mm Remington Mag. for this hunt. Ammunition was Federal Premiums in 165 gr. boat tail soft points. This is the round my Browning A-Bolt seems to shoot the best and I use them for deer. The rifle proved to be shooting right on and I packed it up and drove west, headed for bear camp.

black bear MichiganTraveling on two lane roads in the U.P. is never a speedy endeavor, but I had plenty of time to reach my destination. The plan was for me to stay at a motel because Jack thought I would be more comfortable. He told me he was going to sleep at camp, which was warm and dry, but there was no running water for a shower. On my arrival Tuesday afternoon, I was to call him and we’d make our final plans to hunt the following morning. Even though my hunt period began Tuesday, Jack was going to work that day and then take the rest of the week off to hunt with me.

I was surprised by a knock on the door and when I answered, the fellow said, “Steve?” I nodded and he stuck out his hand, “I’m Jack”. I let him in and after the usual conversation of my trip up and if I liked the room; Jack said, “Your license is good today, right?” When I told him it was, he asked, “Do you want to hunt tonight?” “Sure,” I said, “That’s what I’m here for”. So, in a hurry I gathered up my jacket and rifle; into his truck it went and we were off to the woods.

On the way, I learned that his camp was almost fifteen miles away. Driving down county roads, which eventually turned into gravel, the land changed from semi-open to increasingly wooded ground. We passed a two-track fork in the road and Jack noted that it lead to his camp. About a mile from this fork he slowed the truck and pointed to some swampy land to his left and told me that Matt, another member of the camp, had a bear license and was hunting a small, tree-covered ridge in the middle of the swamp. He had seen two bear the evening of opening day there, but he chose not to shoot because of the low light conditions. After hunting two weeks, off and on, the bears had not returned.

Three miles and two turns later, we were driving up a steep inclined two-track. “We call this the bus ridge,” Jack told me, “because every year there’s a group of deer hunters that drive a large motor home up here and camp for the first week of rifle season.” We were now on land that was open to public hunting. Reaching the top of the ridge we drove a short way and parked the truck just off the trail.

The blind Jack had built overlooking his bait station was a simple plywood box. Inside were two plastic chairs that sat on the dirt floor. The back of the box was covered with burlap to darken the inside of the blind and cut the wind. It was a bit tight with both of us in there, but we managed and I leaned my rifle in the corner. The bait station was approximately 60-70 yards away downhill from the blind positioned on the edge of a dense cedar swamp. In hushed tones Jack pointed out that the station had not been disturbed today because the logs covering the bait were stacked neatly as he had left them. He told me that if a bear had been there, the logs would have been scattered to allow the bear to eat the bait.

By the time darkness forced us to abandon our post, the only thing we saw that evening was a big porcupine that tried to get some of the bait. He finally gave up and wandered over to a wind fallen tree that leaned against another at a forty-five degree angle. In almost slow motion, the “porkie” scaled the angled tree and disappeared into the cedar boughs above.

I was up and ready long before our scheduled meeting time of 5am. I’ve always enjoyed hunting in the morning and I sat on my truck’s tailgate sipping coffee in the predawn darkness. Jack’s one ton Dodge turned up the motel’s U-shaped drive and he slowed down long enough for me to hop off and close the tailgate; fire up my truck and fall in behind him as he went out the other side of the drive.

This morning’s plan was to drive in to the camp and leave my truck there. We’d go to the blind in his. Taking the fork to the right, we came to a locked gate that Jack opened and we continued up a winding two-track that brought us to an opening with an old house trailer. I parked and transferred my things to Jack’s truck and we left for the bus ridge.

Bouncing down the gravel roads and two-tracks in the dark, Jack explained that usually they hunted in the morning until 9:30 or 10:00. In the afternoon it was from 3:30 or 4:00 until sunset. But, he also mentioned that bear can be seen anytime during the day and I could stay in the woods as long as I wanted. “Do you think you can find your way in to this blind now?” he asked. I told him I thought so and started paying serious attention to the turns he made driving in. Once we parked and started out on foot, he let me lead. I’m sure it was to see if I could find the blind by myself. Jack was allowing me to become more independent of him.

Slowly hiking through the trees just as the day was breaking, we stopped short of the blind. Jack inched over the last rise just enough to see if a bear was at the station. He motioned for me to move up and shook his head to let me know that nothing was out there. Once in the blind, I could see something was different about the pilled logs. “We got hit last night,” he said, “Maybe it’ll be back this morning.” This sure made sitting in the blind a lot more interesting; in more ways than one.

It was encouraging to know that a bear had been to the station. Once the logs were moved to expose the remaining bait, it also attracted other wildlife to watch as we waited for the bear to return. The porcupine from the night before returned for a snack. Some ravens dropped in to explore the area and many Canada jays filled the small bushes. Around 9:00, Jack whispered that he was going to slip back to the truck and bring back some bait to replenish the station.

When he returned, I climbed out of the blind, shouldered my rifle and followed him down the ridge to the station. We carefully walked up to it and began looking in the soft mud for bear sign. The size of a bear can be estimated by the tracks it makes. “There’s a rear footprint,” he said, and reached down with his hand to measure it with the span of his open hand. (I’ve used that method myself to measure trout. The distance between the tip of my thumb and the tip of my little finger is about nine inches when my hand is totally spread.) “A decent bear, over 200 pounds, anyway” he decided. The round front paw prints with claw marks could be seen, too. Jack started to reset the bait station as I watched. I’d never seen how this was done and wanted to learn for myself.

black bear campA hole had been dug into the ground next to a couple of old hollow stumps. The bait mixture was placed in the hole and then covered with good-sized logs to prevent the smaller animals and birds from eating it. Only a bear would have the strength to push the logs aside. The mixture consisted of a combination of pie fillings, meat scraps, and broken ice cream cones. The pie fillings and ice cream cones can be bought as discards from companies making them. Other things that can be used for bait include fish products, bread, and the old favorite; doughnuts. Corn and other grains can be used too, but according to the rules; only after October 1st.

The next step was to smear grease up the side of a tree next to the pile of logs to put some attractive scent in the air. The bark on the cedar tree Jack was using for this purpose was marked with claw cuts as high as I could reach. The final touch was a dab of caramel ice cream topping spread over the top log on the pile. The smell was quite strong down here and in the warm temperatures of late September the flies and yellow jackets just swarmed over it.

After breakfast, we left camp to check another standby station to see if it had been hit. The standby was much different than the other spot. Instead of the plywood blind there was a portable tent sitting atop of a tall ridge and most of the ground below was open. The bait station was in a big clearing and some distance away from the cedars. This place wasn’t near any trails to speak of. Jack had told me on our trip over, that the tent blind had taken some abuse from the bears. For some reason they liked to shred the fabric and one time even flattened it to the ground. This was some information I could have done without.

With my rifle in hand, we crested the tall ridge behind the tent blind to find no bear, but the logs were scattered. Another hit. I was starting to get excited because it seemed promising I’d see a bear soon if I just put enough time in the woods. The station was reset and we returned to camp early in the afternoon.

We hunted the bus ridge that afternoon without seeing a thing. Back at camp, Jack cooked a fine supper of venison for us. I finally sank into bed back at the motel around ten that night. I’d driven back on my own and felt confident I’d have no trouble getting back in the morning.

Jack and I fell into the same routine for the next couple of days, except now I was baiting and hunting alone. I finally could find both of the blinds by myself. Matt was hunting in the evening after work, but neither of us had seen a bear all week. The bait stations were being hit off and on, but they were coming in during the night or when we weren’t at the blind. I decided to switch to the standby blind Friday afternoon for a change.

The long days of getting up at 4am and not going to bed until after ten were starting to catch up with me. Friday afternoon I drove Jack’s quad runner out near the standby blind and walked the rest of the way in. The bait hadn’t been hit in the morning, but I took a small pail of the caramel to replace what the birds and squirrels had eaten. After spreading it on the top log of the station I carried the pail back to the tent with me and left it about eight feet away and next to the exit route I would take at dark.

The inside of the tent blind was very hot from the sun beating on it. All of the small flaps to see out were open, but the sun was shining through the flap on my left and it blinded me. I tied it shut and noticed that the inside of the tent was still bright and tied the other flap to my right. I sat back in my seat and instantly fell asleep. An hour later I awoke and glanced down at the bait station through the only open flap, the one in front of me. The station was intact so I knew I hadn’t missed much.

The wind was perfect this afternoon, blowing straight towards the blind. I was still trying to wake up a little when I heard the clattering of hooves behind me in the gravely washed out part of the ridge. I almost knew what was going to happen next, and dreaded the uproar to follow. The unseen deer froze the second it winded me and I hoped it would just turn and leave. No such luck. It blew like a steam whistle and continued to blow all the way, back down the ridge and into what seemed like the next county. Great, I thought. If there was a bear within a mile of here, it’s heading in the opposite direction now. Another hour passed and it was now a little after six. Soon it would be time to go back to camp for supper and I started to wonder what Jack was cooking tonight.

Something was moving to my right. There was definitely an animal walking around and it was close. With the flap tied up I was guessing another deer until I heard snuffling and instantly got the mental picture of the caramel pail. Oh no, I thought. I moved the tent flap just enough to look through and yup, it’s a bear. Not just a bear, two bears! Eight feet and a cloth tent with a bad bear shredding history separated me from the sow and her cub. I let the flap close. They were both looking at and sniffing the pail when I looked out again. In an instant though, the sow raised her nose into the air and started to grunt. The cub turned and shot down the top of the ridge away from me with the sow right behind, grunting the alarm all the way. I was amazed at how gracefully they moved and how the sun made their coats look like shaggy black velvet. I had the best story to tell at camp that night of what I had learned about leaving a caramel pail too close to the blind.

I decided that night that the sow and cub were responsible for hitting the standby station. Matt had hunted the bus ridge blind the evening before without seeing anything, but I felt that spot was my best chance for the following morning. I didn’t want to think about it much, but my time was running out. I had to leave Sunday for home.

When I got to the blind that morning, the logs seemed untouched. The sun was breaking through the trees and the air was already warming to unseasonably warm temperatures. At 8:15 I saw a brown muzzle and then the black head of a bear appear from the thicket to the right of the bait station. It stopped for a moment and then proceeded to walk behind some trees.

In one continuous motion I reached for my rifle leaning in the corner and brought it to my shoulder, never taking my eyes off the bear. I had it in my scope as it moved closer to the bait. It reached the pile of logs and stood broadside long enough for me to crank the scope up to 7 power and fill my view with the bear. I had an eternity to squeeze off my shot as I held the crosshairs just behind it’s shoulder.

The shot echoed through the woods and a small puff of smoke rose from the muzzle of my 7mm. I heard the hollow “thump” of the bullet hitting the bear and watched as the impact lifted it off it’s front paws and almost tipped it over. With a great lunge, the bear sprang over the hollow stumps of the bait station and disappeared into the thick brush to the left. I listened as it crashed through the undergrowth for just a short time and then all was quiet.

I kept the rifle to my shoulder for a few minutes, but tipped it to the side to look past my scope. There was no time to chamber a second cartridge, but I didn’t think it was needed. I brought the butt of the stock to my hip and chambered another round. The safety went on and I propped the rifle back in the corner. I picked up the empty brass from the dirt floor and slipped it into the pocket of my flannel shirt. I was almost certain I’d killed my first black bear.

Until a hunter actually sees the game down, there’s an anxious time after the shot. I took this time to pour myself a cup of coffee and smoke a cigarette. A smoke in the blind was taboo, but I hoped Jack would understand. As with deer hunting, the hours or days of waiting for a bear, often climax in a few intense moments. I’m sure this whole event only took a few minutes, but what a rush it was.

After five minutes or so, I crawled out of the blind and checked the chamber of my rifle for a live round. I slowly went down the slope listening and watching for anything that would indicate a wounded bear. To my great distress, the bright sunlight was hitting me square in the face, which hampered my view into the cedar swamp. I didn’t like it, but I kept on going. I had to know that the bear was down for good.

black bear michigan u.p.When I reached the hollow stumps of the bait station, I began searching for signs of a hit. One of the stumps had drops of blood sprayed up it’s side and I felt the tension easing. Now, I had to make a decision. Do I follow the blood trail into the cedar swamp or do I turn back and get help from Jack? I really needed to know that the bear was down for good, so I started to track it into the cedars. I reached a point where I didn’t know where the blood trail was and stopped dead in my tracks. The possibility of messing up the blood trail and the need of help getting the bear out of the woods, forced me to turn back. I hated to leave, but knew it was the right choice.

My truck flew down the two-track and I never remembered the trip to take so long. I was never going to have peace this day until I had laid eyes on my bear. Finally, I reached the camp and tried to walk nonchalantly up to the trailer. I went through the door and asked Jack if he was ready to go to work. “I thought you were driving a little fast into camp”, he said with a grin, and started to round up his gear.

We hooked up the small trailer to the quad runner and Jack drove it, following me in my truck back up the road. When we reached the bus ridge, we parked the vehicles and went in on foot. I was carrying my rifle and Jack had his .380 handgun on his side.

We reached the point where I had stopped tracking and Jack knew we needed to look further into the thick cover to find the blood trail. Without speaking, I stayed out in the open for a clear shot while Jack started to press into the brush. We moved in tandem along the edge of the cedars and after 25 yards or so Jack called to me to look at the sign he had found. I worked my way through some low bushes and stopped to look at what he had found. On a rise in the swamp’s floor there was a puddle of blood almost two inches across. The bear was hit well, and I stood up tall to see into the tangle for sign and looked in the direction the bear had been running. “There it is!” I said, seeing the pile of black fur laying 15 yards ahead. I’d bet money Jack had seen it laying there, but he gave me the thrill and honor of finding my bear.

Sunday morning Jack and I had coffee at camp a little later than usual. We found little ways to stall my leaving. Jack had to show me how he boiled bear skulls to preserve them and we talked of a snowshoe hare hunt this winter by my neck of the U.P. Finally, I told him, “the road is calling, I have to go.” We shook hands and I think what I saw reflected in his face was the sadness I felt. Bear camp was over for this year.

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