I dream of cold, windy and rainy winters when waterfowl flocks migrate along the Pacific Flyway to the Sacramento Valley. I long for the exhaustive 3 a.m. wake up calls to make the drive to the marsh lands while constantly strategizing about decoy spreads that work with that day’s weather. I obsess over my calling skills. Waterfowl hunting is my love, my meditation and my escape from the responsibilities of the world. It’s a recreation that I truly enjoy.
I consider myself a duck hunter, not a big game hunter. I’ve hunted deer and pig several times, but the sense of confidence and strategy that comes to me naturally when hunting waterfowl is missing when pursuing larger quarry. I have missed two deer over my lifetime, rushing both shots. I have overly aggressively stalked game, scaring them out of the bush before having an opportunity to shoot. I have foolishly passed on animals because I thought there were bigger options around. I have spent countless hours hiking through the forest with my 30.06, aimlessly following tracks, scat, and game trails to no avail. Whether it is me or just bad luck, the bottom line is that I have never harvested a big game animal.
I laugh to myself now when looking at that picture now with my pensive look, but trust me, the last thing I was thinking about was the possibility that in May 2015, I’d have two bear hides in my possession that I’d shot with a bow. Shoot, I didn’t even own a bow at that time. And I certainly had no idea that my passion for hunting would take me 2000 miles to Alberta, Canada on a trip where, for the very first time in my big game hunting career, everything that could go right for me, finally did.
My work colleague and accomplished bow hunter, Gord Nuttall, and I quickly became friends through our mutual passion for hunting. Our “business meetings” typically start out with 15 minutes of sharing war stories of me chasing ducks and geese, and he chasing the abundance of game animals available in Alberta, including moose, elk, deer and black bears. In 2013 he invited me to come hunt with him for black bear, but his invitation was clear:
“Whenever you want, you’re always welcome to come hunt with me in Canada. Spring bear season would be perfect. But, if you think I’m letting a Yank from California into my great country with a rifle, you’re crazy. If you want to come, get a bow.”
I was off the charts excited, but also intimidated. I’d never shot a bow or hunted bears. And I’d never left California, let alone the country, to hunt anything. It would be a lot of firsts, especially for a guy who hadn’t harvested any big game to date. Life got in the way for a year before the trip North of the border was possible, but eventually I made it a priority and bought a bow and began practicing. Two months later, I was more than ready.
The trip was nothing short of the complete experience of bear hunting, with the first night presenting to three opportunities to draw on bears. Coming into this journey, I prepared myself mentally for the emotions of the shot. I visualized calming my nerves, taking my time, concentrating on my anchor points, and softly releasing the arrow. What I did not anticipate was how intimately close the encounters with these beasts would be prior to my first shot. The first morning, Gord and I checked the trail camera and stocked up the food barrels at several bait stations. The first bait we visited had a sow circling us about 30 yards away, inching closer and closer to within 15 yards. We tried yelling but she ignored us. She grunted in disapproval of our presence and we instantly realized why. We looked up to find her two cubs in trees directly above the bait barrels. I wanted to get the hell out of there, but Gord insisted on doing the work. “Keep an eye on that bear,” he said. My knuckles turned white as I gripped the bear spray, realizing why bears are considered dangerous game and will investigate anything abnormal or threatening their territory of property.
This lesson was reinforced later that evening, when Gord and I had just began our evening sit in the ground blind 25 yards from the bait. We heard a twig snap behind us and turned around to watch the shadow of a bear brushing alongside the backside of our blind. The bear touches her snout to the blind and slowly presses in, sniffing loudly. Still curious, it makes her way around the left side of the blind, turns the corner, and I kid you not, sticks her entire head in the shooting window!
Yes, I had prepared myself mentally for the kill shot, but did not realize the other emotions I’d have to deal with during these close encounters. That bear had two cubs in two, so I did not shoot her. Later that same evening, a bear gave me a broadside view and with my emotions and nerves flowing at an all-time high I arrowed a bear. My shot was low, so we decided to leave it overnight to be safe.
The next morning, after tracking a blood trail for an hour, we found my bear expired about 150 yards from the bait. I can only count on one hand the number of times in my life I’ve been so thrilled and proud. My first bear. My first kill with a bow. My first hunt in Canada. All culminated in an animal that I could call mine forever. I told Gord that, “It feels like I just earned a billion dollars.”
At that point I could have left for home an elated man. I couldn’t have imagined anything better. But the funny thing is, there was something better than earning one billion dollars, two billion dollars! And that’s just what I earned on the last night of the hunt.
Same site, at 8:57 pm when a beautiful cinnamon colored bear waltzed into the bait like he owned the place. Same nervousness, but with a slightly better shot, the bear dashed away from us. A few seconds later we heard what’s commonly known as the death moan – no need to wait and track this bear. We quickly took up the obvious blood trail and discovered him less than 40 yards away from where I shot him.
We had the bear back at camp by 10:30 pm and we grabbed the new HFT Forging A Legacy Behring Made Knife to dress the bear. We spent the better part of the next two hours skinning out my second bruin around the camp fire, using the knife whose sharpness can only be compared to a Hattori Hanzo sword from Kill Bill. The full gravity of my experience over the last five days really hit me during those hours spent fireside. Beyond my wildest dreams, I never even considered the possibility of notching two bear. I couldn’t have imagined how close and personal I’d come to these dangerous animals. I couldn’t foresee the anxiety and sleepless hours that follow an ill-placed shot. In contrast, I had no idea just how amazing a quick clean ethical kill can make you feel. And I certainly couldn’t forecast the pride of bringing extra luggage of bear hide and meat. But for the first time with big game hunting, it all worked out for me, thanks largely in part to my guide, bowhunting mentor and friend, Gord. And from the culmination of all those emotions, the beginning of a new man was born. I’ll always be a duck hunter, but from here on, I will continuously pursue the art of becoming a bowhunter as well.