I mentioned in the preface at the front of this book, that a serious health issue has basically ended a major part of my bowhunting. I may be able to sit in ground blinds for deer or antelope, or ladder stands for black bear and deer, but anything that requires much walking is over.
In the fall of 2007, before a surgery that went awry, I began a quest for a grizzly bear with the bow. I have hunted black bears forever, and just enjoy bears. When I was 23 years old and fresh out of college, I spent a summer working on a brown bear research project for the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Ever since that time, I’ve admired the big bears. Once retired, and with the economic security necessary to do this, my plan was to bowhunt for grizzlies as many times as it took to be successful. With the bad surgery, my future for big bears has gone by the boards. But I did get in one great, albeit unsuccessful bowhunt for grizzlies a few months before that surgery, and what follows is the story of my first, and only, grizzly bear hunt.
For the fourth day in a row, guide Jeff Lander of Primitive Outfitting, Fred Pape and I hiked one mile up a mountain that Jeff’s little do-dad devise showed an average slope of 41 percent. It was a steep climb, but in one hour we were up to a burned area where the berries and bears were. We split up to glass the hillsides, Fred lower, Jeff and I climbed higher. No sooner did we get up there than the light rain turned to a heavy snow. We hunkered down under some pines and waited it out. One-half hour later, Jeff and I moved higher, finding fresh bear scat here and there but no sightings. Jeff picked enough berries for a pie, we glassed for bears for two hours and the hunt was over. As we walked off the mountain the last evening of our grizzly bear hunt in British Columbia, I had no idea that it would be my last tough bowhunt.
Prior to this September 2007 hunt I’d had some problems with a rapid heartbeat but it pumped just fine on this trip. Upon returning home, things went sour as my heart would go crazy at unpredictable times. In early November, on a deer hunt to my Ohio lease, I had to lay down the last morning as I hiked to my tree stand. My medication just wasn’t working and on December 3, 2007, I had a “mini maze” procedure to correct the problem. That surgery went bad and you’ve already read enough about the results in previous chapters.
I first met Jeff Landers at his booth at a Professional Bowhunter Society convention and was impressed with his knowledge and demeanor. He just seemed like a good guy to me, and he is. Our grizzly bowhunt was going to be a bit of a gamble. Jeff had a new hunting area near Prince George, and his first year there, on a float trip for moose, Jeff had seen lots of grizzly sign. They were feeding on the run of king salmon. The question was, would the salmon be there when the 2007 grizzly season opened. We were going to find out.
My partner on this hunt was Fred Pape of Pape’s Archery in Louisville. Fred and I had previously hunted Namibia together on what proved to be a great trip, and I’d followed that with several deer hunts on Fred’s fantastic Kentucky property. He is a great person to share a camp with and since he had never been on a float trip, he was anxious to give it a try. He also got a moose tag on the chance that one of those big guys might walk by.
The float trip was everything one would have wanted; beautiful mountains, clear water, quiet solitude, good friends. But there was one thing missing. The salmon run was over and there was no fresh bear sign. Once we put in the river, there was no turning back for three days. We put in up river and floated a good 50 miles or more to the Frasure River, with no take out points available. We knew by the evening of day one that no salmon were in the river so our hope was that the second run was located further down and when we hit that, the bears would also be there.
We floated in two boats with Fred and Jeff taking the lead about an hour before my boat. This was because Fred had a moose tag and there was a chance that they might encounter a moose on the river. The scenery, mountains, water, were fantastic and Fred thoroughly enjoyed his first raft trip on a remote river. We did see a few moose and a black bear but no grizzlies, so on day four of our ten-day hunt, after getting off the river, we decided to hit the high mountain burns where the berry crop would hold bears.
At age 67 I wasn’t overly excited about hiking up those steep mountains. The previous September, I’d done a mountain goat hunt in Northern BC, and although successful (see Chapter 17), it was really hard on my body. I found it difficult to get into high mountain shape living in West Virginia, even though I’d been walking and jogging every day. But, since the grizzlies were not on the river, hiking to the berries in the burns was our best option.
On day four, Fred went with our second guide to hunt moose, while Jeff and I hiked up a very steep climb to check out the blue berries found in a huge burn. Some crazy person had taken a four-wheeler straight up this mountain, cutting through the three-four foot high brush, making a bit of a trail for us to follow. Three-fourths of the way up the mountain and a good hour and a half hike, found us at the beginning of berries. Sure enough, bear scat started appearing along the trail. I was hurting a bit so I told Jeff to go ahead and I’d meet him further up the trail. He went up the mountain a bit to glass.
As I slowly climbed the trail, I glanced up and there was a grizzly. He appeared like a mirage, a nice grizzly feeding on blueberries at 30 yards. The wind was blowing hard as a rain storm approached but my scent carried off to the right, away from the bear. I knelt behind the brush on the burn and quickly shed my pack and nocked an arrow. The bear now turned and angled down the trail from my left to my right, quartering toward me.
There was no shot but I knew that if he kept coming, he’d walk out around ten yards above where the trail dog-legged straight down toward me. I came to full draw just as his head appeared and he stopped, quartering to me with just the head, neck and a bit of shoulder showing. No vitals.
It was a stare down for thirty seconds and then he came. It wasn’t the best shot, quartering hard toward me but I had no choice. I tried to sneak the arrow to his vitals, just to the left and under his chin. The arrow struck and he swung left into the brush.
I could only see his back as he ran but the sight of the arrow sticking high out of the neck gave me a bad feeling. At forty yards he stumbled over a log and appeared hurt. With the high winds there was no way to hear him crash off and as soon as he crossed that log he was out of sight. I waited five minutes then moved up the trail and caught up to Jeff. We returned and walked to the log. His claw marks were evident and there was just a small smudge of blood. It was the last we would find. The arrow was on the other side of the log, broadhead missing, and no blood at all. None. I knew then that this bear was smarter, wiser and fine. We followed his trail, where he broke brush for another 60 yards, and searched all trails for an hour to no avail. No blood, no bear. In hindsight I now believe that the arrow struck the top of the neck vertebrae, in one of those spinal processes that stick up an inch or so.
The storm approached and the winds roared. Dead trees started falling all around us and it became unsafe to be in the burn. We dodged falling trees (literally) as we moved off the mountain and reached the truck at dark.
For the next four days we hiked up the burn, saw lots of fresh sign and on one afternoon, Fred spotted a sow and cub followed closely by a big boar over a mile away on a ridge. That boar was after the cub for sure and for all we know he did the deed. That brings us to the last day as we hiked off the mountain. Hunt over, no grizzly and there was some disappointment. But the memories were wonderful, the hunt had been great, my guide outstanding.
I now know that hunts that involve hiking or sitting in a tree stand are over. I will be able to sit in blinds or ladder stands. That big moose hunt in the Yukon I had booked is out. Those great trips to Africa are no more. As I reedit this chapter I’ve had 60 years of bowhunting adventures to look back on and the possibility of some easier hunts in the future. As you approach your hunting, remember what a dear friend recently told me . . . “Every day is a gift from God.” Don’t waste them. I won’t.
There is something magical about grizzly bears, and of course, there is a tinge of danger in doing so with a bow. No question, that bit of danger was part of the reason I wanted to hunt grizzlies. Now it’s over and I’m extremely disappointed, because I really believe that with some persistence, I could have been successful. As I reflect back on this one grizzly bowhunt, more than ever it reinforces the thought that shooting an animal is not the defining prerequisite for a bowhunting adventure. This was one of the best times I’ve ever spent, for several reasons. First, I was with great people. Second, the hunt was challenging. Third, hard as it was, the hunt was in some fantastic wilderness.
Lest you feel sorry for me, don’t. Though this was my last “tough” bowhunt, I didn’t quit bowhunting. Read the next chapter and you will see that my quiver isn’t quite empty.
For more also go to: Straight Talk Interview: Dr. Dave Samuel