Sixgun Black Bear
The blasting bellow of the big .44 surprised me when my right index finger instinctively tightened on the trigger; the bear’s violent reaction and subsequent zero to 30 mph rush, while just a blur, clearly indicated I had connected. Straining to hear the tell-tale moan of a dying bear yielded only the cacophony of a yapping pack of distant coyotes. My black bear quest, which had been eight long years in the making, had boiled down to a few surreal seconds.
A Wisconsin black bear license is a tough gig to get and requires many years of applying, that’s the bad news. The good news is that Wisconsin, after years of careful management now provides a success rate higher than 50% for lucky hunters who draw a tag, as well as a shot at record book animals. Our state bear management team, headed by big game ecologist Kevin Wallenfang, is working hard to maintain a high quality hunt while carefully managing and monitoring bear numbers. Other states may offer more frequent hunting opportunities, but few can rival the success rates for Wisconsin hunters.
Handgun hunting may never be as popular as rifle or bowhunting but for a challenge and adrenaline rush it’s second to none, and bear hunting over bait is a great way to get bruins up close and personal. When I finally drew a tag for the September 2012 hunt, I began making plans to hunt on our family property up in Douglas County. I would be packing my Smith and Wesson Model 629 Classic chambered in .44 magnum.
My first task was finding an effective factory load which would pack the necessary punch to power through a bear’s thick fur, fat, muscle and bone. I had used 225- 250 grain ammo to down several Wisconsin whitetails but felt the need to go a bit heavier. After doing some research my choices boiled down to three options, Hornady 300 grain XTPs, Speer 270 grain Gold Dots, and Federal Premium 280 grain Swift A Frames. I decided to go with the Federals, and sighted in for 25 yards which was the self-imposed maximum range that I would attempt a shot.
My next step was to set up a stand, and put into place an effective baiting regimen. To help me with that task I tapped the expertise of Floyd Gasser, owner of Big Woods Bear Baits which is located in Oconto Falls.
Floyd offered up the following advice: in wilderness or remote regions, scents such as anise and bacon are fine, but in more pressured areas where bear have had previous encounters with hunters, they become conditioned and may even associate those smells with danger. Floyd’s advice was to try something different, and his Big Woods Bait Co. offers a smorgasbord of baits and scents which have been used successfully throughout the U.S. and Canada.
Floyd also suggests fall bear hunters start baiting in early spring whenever possible. Male bears may do a lot of traveling during the spring mating season and the odds a big boy may stumble upon your picnic basket are higher at that time. He won’t soon forget a food source, and may claim, stake out, and utilize your buffet throughout the year.
Unfortunately, Floyd’s advice had come to me too late for an early start to baiting and it was late July when I and my father finally loaded up a trailer full of Floyd’s cuisine and made our trek north to set up a stand. The hollowed out log I had purchased from Big Woods served the dual purpose of holding my bait and provided a measuring stick to judge the size of visiting diners. Despite the late start, trail cam pictures soon revealed that a number of customers were regularly visiting my sight including several decent sized ones.
Scent control, or the lack thereof, can either make or break carefully laid plans, and despite my efforts to do so, I failed to remain anonymous when the bear at the beginning of my story came to visit. Circling my stand to come in downwind, the old sow cautiously approached my bait, then laid down like a big Lab at its supper dish and began licking the bottom of the bait log. Seconds later, she abruptly stood up on her hind legs sticking her snout high in the air. I knew I was busted when she immediately dropped to all fours, and turned to stare directly at me despite my concealment perched high amongst the trees.
While walking hurriedly back into the dense foliage from whence she appeared we never broke eye contact; that was when months of mental practice and muscle memory elicited the surprise trigger break, and despite my fears over the lack of a death moan, a 30 minute wait and subsequent fifty yard tracking job ended with one very dead, double lung shot bear. The 280 grain Swift had done its job entering behind the near shoulder and exiting the far, leaving a wake of broken ribs in the process. Though not a monster, field dressed she would tip the scales at 240 pounds and provide plenty of bacon for the freezer.
Making the hunt even more memorable was the fact that it was one of the last hunts with my dad prior to his passing. I haven’t pulled the trigger on my Smith and Wesson since; it’s tucked away safely in my gun safe along with six remaining 280 grain Federals, awaiting my next bear tag, and hopefully another Wisconsin handgun hunt for bear!