Originally Published in Master Baiters of Bruins
It was quiet, a profound kind of quiet I’ve only experienced in Alaska. Maybe it’s the cold and the six months of snow that scrub the memory of sound from the land. Whatever the reason, the quiet makes you believe, that not only is it quiet now, but there has never been a sound before. The kind of quiet that demands your attention. The kind of quiet that makes a person wonder the penalty of breaking it.
There I was, perched in my treestand twenty-five feet off the ground reading Frederick Forsyth’s, The Dogs of War, when I saw the bear. Bears revere the silence and that is why I saw the bear before I heard him. The thing that stood out about the bear was its size. A small bear, pointed nose, and ears, sitting on its haunches five yards from the bait.
Normally I would have sat and watched the bear feed on the bait, but there was a ballot initiative in the next election that if it passed, would end bear baiting in Alaska. Apparently anti-hunters thought using bait to attract bears wasn’t sporting enough. You can’t hunt bears that way because it’s unfair. Oh and by the way you can’t hunt with a bow because too many animals are wounded. But wait doesn’t hunting with a bow make it more, fair, for the animal. Which is it? You don’t like hunting because it’s fair or because it’s unfair? I mean, if you want the animal slaughtered like a beef, wouldn’t putting out bait be the best way to hunt. Is it about fairness or, wait here’s a thought. It’s about not wanting any hunting, no hunting and we’ll keep making shit up as we go until we get our way. It’s about people who think their way of life is best and everyone else should live the same way. So, Muffy, let’s go have a bottle of Penfold’s Cabernet Sauvignon and some veal cutlets and talk about how terribly wonderful we are.
Anyway, because of the intolerance of others, and their lack of respect for my traditions, my ability to hunt bears over bait was in jeopardy. Since this was potentially my last year to bait bears I told myself I would spear the first legal black bear that came into my bait. If the ballot initiative passed, I didn’t want to try to spear a bear by stalking it. I may be crazy but I am not insane.
In the Dogs of War, a hired assassin waited to stick a knife into the book’s hero, Cat Shannon. Maybe the bear would still be there after a couple more pages. Probably, but why take the chance. I sat the book on the footrest. The bear shuffled to the bait below the treestand licking at the bucket of grease. Chinese restaurant grease, all bears love it. It’s the MSG in it that brings them back again and again. I made sure my .357 was free in its holster and tried to slowly stand up so the treestand wouldn’t creak or pop. No luck, the stand creaked and the bear’s head came up, looking down the game trail I walk to the stand. I grabbed the loop of cord at the top of the spear and pinching the cord swung the spear out over the bear. I held still, letting the spear stop swinging and looked at the bear. I thought I was lined up pretty good for the drop. I eased the spear out a few inches and waited for it to stop wiggling. The last thing I needed was for the spear to hit the bear sideways. I wasn’t sure the spear would work if it hit correctly, let alone if I screwed up the drop.
The spear tip stopped wobbling and I let go of the cord. The spear silently fell towards the bear as it took a bite of dog food from the bait bucket.
I spent five years trying to spear a bear. A lady I worked with, her husband told me about spearing bears over bait when he was younger. They had used a ten-foot length of 3/8 inch re-bar with an archery broadhead on the end. They put their treestand seven feet up a tree and stacked the bait around the base of the tree. When the bear came in they rammed the spear into the bear, flung the rebar spear away from them, then jumped out of the stand and ran to another higher treestand placed nearby while the bear bled out.
Despite my reservations about jumping out of a perfectly good treestand to get on the ground with a wounded bear, I purchased a ten foot piece of re-bar. I tried a few experimental thrusts with it on the deck of my house. The results were not good. The spear was long and hard to thrust accurately. Wouldn’t the bear see the spear moving into position for the thrust? Did I have the strength to force the spear into the bear far enough to hit its vitals? What if the spear hit a bone?
I climbed from the porch to the top of my roof and tried dropping the spear straight down over the edge of the roof. I bullseyed my target on the first drop. Hmm. Maybe if I was higher and the spear weighed more, then gravity would be strong enough to do the job for me.
I stopped by Sentry Hardware a few days later and purchased a post hole digger and a steel cutting blade for my skill saw. At home I ordered the cheapest double edge knife blade I could find in the Smokey Mountain Knife Works catalog.
For best results, I knew the spear needed to drop straight down. I needed a way to hold onto the spear before dropping it, that wouldn’t tilt the spear off to the side. This would put the full weight of the spear behind the point of the knife. Archers often use a string loop to pull a bowstring back using a release. I used some parachute cord and wrapped the flared end of the pry bar with the cord leaving a loop on the end to hold onto.
Leaving the lid to a five-gallon bucket under the highest point on my roof, I climbed onto the roof with the pry bar. Holding the bar by the cord loop using my thumb and finger like a bowhunting release, I aimed for the middle of the bucket lid and let go. I hit two inches off the center of the lid. The bar had dropped straight, no wobbling. The string loop worked. A few more trips up and down the roof and my drop technique improved. I never missed the center of the bucket lid by more than three inches.
Usually, to have a perfect hit I needed to move my arm out a little more than I thought I should. The other key to accuracy was waiting for the bar to quit oscillating back and forth before dropping it.
When the knife came in the mail, I cut the blade from the handle using a file. Then I cut a notch in the pointed end of the pry bar using the skill saw with the metal cutting blade. With JB Weld I glued the knife blade into the notch on the pry bar, making sure the knife was in line with the rest of the pry bar.
Now in front of me, instead of alowly post hole digger, stood a seventy-two inch, seventeen pound bear spear. I cannot describe the feeling of carrying the spear through the woods out to my bear bait, but I will anyway. It was like slipping back in time and setting out into the woods to track a wooly mammoth. The only thing missing was a loincloth made from the belly fur of a saber tooth tiger.
I set my treestand in a spruce tree twenty-five feet off the ground. I built a bait cubby underneath the tree to guide the bear under my stand. The spear I hung from a cut off tree branch by the stand. The plan was simple and safe. When the bear came in to eat the bait I would drop the spear on it. No jumping out of my stand. I planned to wait in my stand and watch what happened.
Being somewhat of a reader, I had read John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men.” I liked the book so much that in college I jumped at the chance to see it performed on stage. All I remember of the play, was when Curley’s wife died, the actress ended up lying across the hay bales on her back in such a way that all the audience could see were her breasts. The view was even more spectacular when they dimmed the lights for the end of the scene, the spotlight looked like the sun shining on the Grand Tetons.
The other thing I vaguely remembered, the best laid plans of mice and men can often go wrong. Having no idea what would happen when I let go of the spear I made sure I had my .357 magnum loaded with 180 grain Nosler silhouettes. I wasn’t sure that even with a good hit, the spear would penetrate far enough for a mortal wound. I wanted some method of finishing off the bear if my plan got FUBAR.
I spent four springs trying to kill a bear with a spear without any luck. I had bears come into the bait, but not while I sat in the stand. I did have one bear come in underneath me and I let the young lady I hung out with at the time shoot the bear instead of dropping the spear. If I hadn’t been so interested in getting some fur maybe I would have gotten some fur, so to speak.
I learned older bears didn’t like having the stand above the bait. A bear that might come into the bait when the stand was twenty yards away from the bait wouldn’t come in with the stand positioned directly above. I assumed this was because of the human smell left at and on the bait while sitting in the stand. Each year my efforts to contain my scent became more elaborate.
After four years I was disappointed and almost gave up on spearing a bear, or taking a year off from the spear and whacking a bear with a bow. Unfortunately, that’s when the anti-hunters put the initiative on the ballot to ban baiting of black bears. So I set up in my best bear location, practiced extreme scent control, and told myself to drop the spear on the first legal bear that gave me the opportunity.
So there I was, sitting in the tree twenty-five feet above a small bear right in the middle of an exciting part in the Dogs of War. The spear swung back and forth as I eased it out over the bear. I adjusted my aim, let the spear settle down, then let it go. The spear dropped taking just over a second to fall.
The spear hit the bear in the middle of the back, sliced through the bear and into the ground. The hit was good and the spear penetrated better than I thought possible. The bite of dog food the bear had taken blew out of its mouth as the spear cut through it. The bear grunted and tried to bolt. The point of the spear was stuck in the ground and the bear spun around trying to get free of the spear. Finally, the bear wrenched the spear out of the ground but the weight of the spear flopped the bear on its side.
Snarling and biting at the spear the bear carved an arc around the bottom of the stand tree. It lunged to its feet, each time the weight of the spear unbalance the bear, and it fell on its side. The bear finally sat on its haunches in the middle of the trail with the spear sticking through it. Blood covered the bushes below the stand.
While I have killed many animals, I hate to see an animal suffer, and the sight of this bear with the spear through it was too much. The bear was dead on his feet, it just needed to settle down for a minute and bleed out. The problem, the spear sticking through the bear’s chest constantly reminded it that something was very wrong. The bear knew it was dead and didn’t like it.
My .357 slipped in my hand immediately after dropping the spear, just in case. Without thinking, I lined the sights up on the bear’s head. One shot to its head with the .357 would end it. I touched off the shot. It was the worst thing I could have done. I missed completely, the noise of the gun fired the bear up, and it tried to run away again.
I repeated this mistake until I emptied the Ruger. The bear lunged and flopped to the ground and I would touch off a shot. I tagged it once with a burn along its throat. Then I finally stopped trying to hit the bear in the head and starting shooting for center mass. I landed another shot that ranged from the top of the bear’s neck back along its shoulder and exited alongside the spear entry hole. Nothing but a flesh wound.
The bear rolled over the cut bank of the creek, slid down the bank and caught up in some willows. I frantically searched through my hunting pack for bullets. How in the hell could I have missed so many times at such a close target? The bear groaned, I heard brush crack, silence and then a splash as the bear went into the creek.
I can’t remember what I said at this point but I remember I wasn’t too happy. I scrambled down the tree, forgetting to move my prushkin knot on my safety line. I swung out into space over the bait as the safety rope brought me up short. I grabbed a branch, pulled myself back to the trunk and climb back up to the knot. Knot in hand I worked my way down the tree. Free of the safety rope I pushed through the brush to the edge of the creek. The bear was nowhere. I frantically worked my way downstream along the creek bank for a hundred yards looking for the bear. Nothing. I returned to the stand and followed the blood trail over the bank and down to where the bear rolled into the creek. The creek was silty, looking into it you could only see a few inches.
A long string of expletives rolled out of my mouth at this point and didn’t stop for some time. While occupied with telling myself what I thought of the situation I walked over to another stand I had set up near the bait. I unhooked the stand out of the tree. I tied a rope to the stand and flung it into the creek, trying to use the stand to drag the bottom of the creek. After five tries, I gave up. The stand floated downstream with the current and it wouldn’t sink to the bottom. The cursing continued as I made my way along the creek again, this time going about a half mile down the creek. I watched for signs of the bear getting out of the creek or for the bear hung up in the brush on the edge of the creek. Nothing.
I went back to the treestand and paused to think. First, I knew the bear had to be almost dead at the time it went into the creek. I also knew the spear was still in the bear. The spear must have sunk the bear to the bottom of the creek. But, the question was, how far downstream had the bear floated? Was the current slowly pushing it along the bottom, rolling the bear over and over or had the spear hung up on a snag in the creek stopping the bear. Stumped on what to do next I decided to go to my lifelines and phone a friend.
I climbed to my stand then up another ten feet in order to get a hint of cell signal. Midnight on a Saturday, they should be up, but would they answer their phone. My friend’s daughter answered on the second ring but while I could hear her, she couldn’t hear me. I could hear my friend asking, who is it.
His daughter said, “It’s just somebody breathing hard.”
Shit. I climbed a few feet higher and tried again. This time my friend answered unhappy about the perv calling his daughter. I hung up and decided I would try dredging the creek again, but when I hit the ground, my gut churned.
My friend was no dummy and he would use his caller id and find out it was me trying to call him. He would call my phone number. The problem with this was, since the cell service was so hit or miss at the bear bait I wouldn’t get the call. I knew my friend would think a bear mauled me and would head out to my bait station to find my body.
I took off to my truck a mile and a half away, the cell service was much better there. By the time I arrived at my truck my friend he was already gearing up to come rescue me. I explained the situation and he immediately had the answer. A rake, we find snowmachines that go through the ice on rivers by using a metal rake. The metal rake scraping on the snowmachine makes a vibration in the rake handle. The rake head scraping on the spear should create the same vibration.
In an hour we both were at the bait station with two rakes trying to find the bear. The rake handles proved too short to reach to the bottom of the creek. But we both agreed the spear must have sunk the bear to the bottom of the creek. We guessed the bear hung up on the bottom not far from where it went into the creek. We hiked out to the truck and I went home to for fresh clothes and something to eat. Stomach full and fresh duds on I loaded my Fred Meyer raft, my dip net, backpack, and lots of rope into my truck and headed back out to the bait.
At the creek I inflated the raft and tied it off to the shore then paddled the ten yards across the creek. I ran the rope through the oar locks of the raft and tied it off to the other side of the creek. This way I could keep the raft in one spot while I dredged the bottom. The current pushed the raft into the middle of the stream and I tied the raft off to the line running across the creek in order to search the edges of the creek.
I tied a length of rope to the end of my dip net pole then looped it back up the pole and tied it again to the pole two feet above the end of the pole. A dip net pole for those of you who don’t know is an aluminum pole roughly thirteen feet long with a handle on one end. Normally a large hoop with a net attached to the other end of the pole for netting salmon at personal use fisheries like the one in the Copper River by Chitna.
Starting where the bear entered the water, I worked my way across the stream scraping the bottom with my dip net. I would have said probing the bottom with my pole, but it’s not that kind of story. It was hard work, kneeling on the edge of the raft and pushing the pole against the current twelve feet to the bottom then trying to scrape the end of the pole across the creek bed. The raft wanted to move and I had trouble keeping track of exactly where I had probed before. Again, not that kind of story.
The sun came out and I drank all my water then my calves cramped from kneeling in the raft. I found a lump in the middle of the creek where I thought the bear would be. I dug around the lump and pulled up two large branches with the pole. On the bank, I could see where an old tree had fallen into the creek years ago and by probing, I could feel the log spanning the bottom of the creek. I moved on down the creek and its depth rose from twelve feet to only seven feet before it made a turn to the left. I could feel nothing on the bottom, only mud.
Discouraged, I took a break and decided if the bear could float over the log and out of the deep hole, then there was no telling where it ended up. I decided to have one more look at the deep hole by the underwater log. I repositioned the raft and found the log. This time I started on the upstream side of the log and carefully worked the pole along the log.
I felt the rope loop on the end of the pole catch on something. Slowly I started rotating the dip net pole in my hands keeping the tension on the loop. After several turns I twisted the loop tight against whatever the rope had caught on. I pulled, but nothing moved. I pulled harder almost swamping the raft, then suddenly the mud release whatever I had snared. Hand over hand I pulled the pole up until a black bear surfaced in the water in front of me.
It was facing me and sticking out of its back I could see the flared top of the spear with my loop of cord. The spear hung straight down under the bear. If the spear slid on through the bear and I lost my catch on the bear, it would wash away with the current. I didn’t think the odds were all that good I could find it again if that happened. I reached behind with one hand and grabbed a rope and flipped it around the bear’s head and tied it off to the raft. With the bear secured, I pulled the raft over to the closest shore. It took effort but I managed to pull the small bear up the muddy bank to the grass above the creek. The spear stayed in the bear the entire time.
The rest was easy. I pulled a small bottle of Crown from my pack and said a toast to all the hunters who I had shared hunts with that were no longer with us. I toasted the bear, it may have been small, but it put up a big fight. The little bottle was empty and I made a mental note to buy more and bigger bottles of Crown, then skinned the bear. I packed the hide and meat out to the truck and returned for my other gear, including the raft. My last load was a little too heavy so I left the spear with the bear’s gall bladder tied to it leaning against my stand tree. I planned to come in and retrieve it in a few days, after I caught up on my sleep. It was late in the evening by the time I got home. I had been up for over thirty-six hours. I slept hard that night, I had killed a bear with a spear, a little bear, but it was still a bear and it was still a spear. I had become a legend in my own mind.