In September of 2018 I spent six days on a spot-and-stalk black bear hunt in Canada with my dad and younger brother, Robert, travelling to Grande Prairie, Alberta in time for the opening day of the autumn bear season. We were well looked after at Red Willow Outfitters with hot showers, bunk rooms and cooks who kept us fed and our guide, Taylor, had plenty of experience with bears, in fact if a farmer had a bear damaging crops the guides at Red Willow would be contacted to employ hunters like us.
The first area we explored was a crop of peas which was completely flattened for several metres in from the tree line due to bears rolling around and feeding there, with no shortage of prints in the mud. We were hunting paddocks often no larger than 100 acres which were separated by hills, fences or patches of scrub, meaning we had to carefully plan how to cover such a small space so the bears wouldn’t be pushed out of the area for the next day’s hunt.
Less than five minutes after stepping into the crop field in mid-afternoon we spotted a bear running into the trees and another on the far side of the field, so Taylor and Robert set off to stalk in on it, dad and I hanging back to watch while observing a coyote by the far tree line. Soon after, Robert and Taylor returned having lost track of the bear.
We walked the top boundary again and spied a smaller bear Robert was keen to creep in on, having decided to save his second tag for a trophy animal. Robert set up on the quad shooting sticks and dropped the bear on the spot with dad’s Winchester in .30-06 and while Taylor took the bear back to the truck, we kept glassing the field hoping Robert’s shot hadn’t disturbed the remaining bears.
The coyote reappeared on the far tree line at the edge of the pea crop and while it was occupied, dad and I slipped in to 200m when I placed my shot and dropped it. I was ecstatic to have taken my first Canadian animal - and a beautiful grey coyote skin to take home.
An hour before dusk we walked carefully along the top boundary and spotted a brown-coloured bear feeding in the crop, dad and I moving in slowly to make sure this was definitely the black bear species (Ursus americanus) and not a grizzly (Ursus arctos horribilis), this being especially important as grizzly bears are protected by law in Alberta. I’d read up on black vs grizzly before our trip and knew the key difference was the hump between the shoulders on a grizzly’s back, something absent on a black bear. Furthermore, grizzly bear snouts are concave or dished in shape while black bears have flat, rectangular noses.
We studied the bear in front of us, balancing time pressure of the setting sun with identifying our target and having decided it was definitely a black bear I set up for the shot. I rose slowly and settled the rifle on the quad sticks, giving me elevation above the crop. I favour shooting sticks mainly because they provide more height than a bipod and more stability than shooting off the shoulder.
The bear was standing on all fours about 10m from the tree line and I was aware it could disappear into the woods in a flash and with it my chances, so I moved slowly so as not to startle the animal we were only 70m from. The bear picked us up eventually, rising on its hind legs and staring straight at us. It looked like a giant meercat with front paws framing its chest, a beautiful sight to see such an impressive animal in the setting sun with ears pricked and body tense.
My heart was racing as I could sense the bear assessing the situation as it prepared to seek the safety of the trees and while I’d never hunted bears before I’d seen many deer in a similar state of alertness, moments before darting to safety. I took the shot and watched the bear recoil slightly, confirming I’d hit where I intended, and as it ran into the trees dad motioned me to stand still and wait - he’d heard bears often emit a ‘death moan’ with their final breath. We stood in silence for about 20 seconds then heard a deep groan from beyond the tree line, dad looking at me excitedly, clapping me on the back and congratulating me as a new bear hunter.
The next challenge was to find my bear in the thicket of trees after the sun had set. We searched by torchlight for more than half an hour until we found the blood trail which led us to the bear and lying under a fallen tree was an incredible animal with massive paws and brown-coloured coat. I was especially pleased to have managed a clean kill with one shot to the centre of its chest.
After a sleep and a feed we discussed the plan for the next few days. It was Robert’s turn to target a trophy bear so we set out for an oats field which was being damaged by several of the animals. We spent most of our second day glassing the oats field, every now and then seeing a pair of bear ears poke from the oats then disappearing again, making it incredibly hard to gauge the size of animal you were looking at.
We eventually locked on a large black-coloured bear moving through the oats so we stalked in and set up within range. After close to an hour of squinting into the oats we had to make something happen before we ran out of daylight. Robert set up on the quad sticks as dad let out a small whistle, hoping to encourage the bear to pop out enough to land a shot. Two or three times the bear poked his head up to look around after a whistle only to drop down again so dad and Robert decided on an all-or-nothing move ‑ dad let out a massive roar and the bear stood up on his hind legs, squarely facing us.
Robert was ready, he fired and the bear dropped immediately but to our surprise rose up and ran into a thicket of trees. We waited for a death moan but heard nothing so the next step was to follow the blood trail and wary of spooking a wounded bear we didn’t rush. After an hour of following a trail of tiny drops of blood by torchlight we found Robert’s bear. His bullet hadn’t exited but had lodged under the skin, which explained why the blood trail was so thin and hard to follow. Projectile exit wounds typically lose a lot more blood than entry wounds.
Robert had taken a beautiful big black bear and was as thrilled with his experience as I’d been the night before. Now we had to move the bear from the middle of a tree thicket after dark. My bear had run about 50m into the trees so wasn’t too hard to carry out but this one was in the middle of a small patch of forest with at least 500m of dense undergrowth on all sides. Taylor and another guide soon went to work, bringing the four-wheeler crashing through the small trees and literally trail-blazing to reach the bear.
We went back to hunt the oats field the next day but didn’t see a single bear and tried other fields over the next few days, spotting a few but never being in position for a shot. While glassing for bears we saw all sorts of incredible animals including coyotes, white-tailed does and fawns, cow and calf elks travelling together, squirrels, chipmunks barking at us to leave their territory, beavers and their dams, my favourite watching an owl hunt in the grass at dusk.
Robert and I were keen to try bear meat which is safe for humans so long as it’s well cooked, otherwise you risk catching trichinosis. Robert put his chef skills to work and made a gorgeous bear steak for us to share. It had a gamy and earthy taste and I was glad to have tried it. Even now, with years more experience at home and abroad, our trip to target black bears in Alberta sticks out as arguably my favourite hunting memory.