The early spring of 2023 found me once again in the Duck Mountains of Manitoba, one of my favorite places for a spring bear hunt. That time I hunted with Scott Smith of Canadian Wilderness Outfitters. I have hunted with Scott previously and killed a big bear there in the Spring of 2018.  

I went North with no expectations and no pressure on me to get a big bear, or a color phase bear, or anything specific. I really just wanted to enjoy my first spring bear hunt since Canada's response to COVID created a nightmare for both outfitters and hunters alike. When asked what I was hoping to shoot, my response was simple, “I’ll know it when I see it.” My only real plan was to spend some time in the stand enjoying the spring season—breathing the fresh air—and hopefully watching a few bears with some interaction, one of my favorite things to do. 

I arrived at Scott’s place in early May and settled into the wall tent I would be staying in. The leaves were just beginning to turn green and the ice had just gone out of most of the local Duck Mountain lakes within the past few days. Spring was in the air and nice weather greeted me as I climbed into the stand that first afternoon.  

A few hours of watching birds and squirrels felt really good after a long winter and after a drought of several years since my last Canadian spring bear hunt. It was still a couple hours until dark when I saw a tell-tale patch of what appeared to be black fur in the brush behind the bait. A moment later it disappeared, and I slowly reached up to turn on my video camera since I was filming the hunt for my YouTube channel. Cautiously, the bear made his appearance, and he was a big one. I honestly did not want to shoot a bear in my first hours on stand, but it became obvious as soon as I saw it that this one was going to test my restraint. Now if you have followed my hunts for any length of time, you know that I have a history of resolving not to shoot a bear on the first day and then going back on that discretion by arrowing a giant and ending my hunt in the first few hours.  

Here I was again. This bear had a big, wide head, a swagger like he owned the place, and the overall look of a large mature male. He eventually made his way to the 55-gallon bait barrel and started eating from the top of it with all four feet still on the ground. Yeah, he was huge—clearly well north of 300 pounds, which for a spring bear is… well, if you’re reading Bear Hunting Magazine, you’re a serious bear hunter and I don’t need to tell you any more 

I took lots of video as he fed. Several times, a puff of wind hit me on the back of my neck and his head would come up and he would put his nose in the air. I got some good video of him pulling the air across the roof of his mouth as he sorted out what he was smelling. In case you have not heard of it, bears have an olfactory organ towards the back of the roof of their mouth called the Jacobson’s organ. Some other animals have it as well, including you, but it is very well developed in black bears. They can open their lips slightly then sip the air, which draws the molecules across the olfactory receptors of this organ. Not many people have observed this behavior and most wouldn’t recognize it for what it was if they did see it. I was very excited that I got it on video. 

After about 15 minutes and three of those episodes where my wind slapped him in the face, he’d had enough and just walked off. Just like that, gone. I had to ask myself if I was going to regret passing up that bear, and I didn’t have an answer to that question.  

Day two was a hot one. The unusually warm weather did not slow down bear activity much. I hunted a different bait and sat for six hours. I had several bears come and go, saw some interaction, and even thought about shooting one male that came to the bait twice, but both times didn’t stay long. He was very cautious in every way.  

Day three was quite an experience. The temperature had moderated quite a bit and I took a heavier jacket to the stand with me rather than just the hoodie I normally strap to my backpack. I hunted yet another bait in a really cool spot. I found some brown hairs on tree bark near the bait so I knew there was a light brown bear using it.  

The temperature plummeted while I was on stand. I am certain it dropped 5-10 degrees an hour and by the time the first bear came to the bait just a half hour before dark, I was battling bouts of uncontrollable shivering. The bear was about a 200-pound male and I had no interest in trying to shoot him when I was so cold. At dark, I had a 4-wheeler ride back to the truck for a few miles and I turned up the heat in the pickup for the long ride home, marveling at the fact that I had been hot on the stand the previous day. 

The following morning, I got a good fire going in the wall tent then stepped out to a light snow on the ground with more coming down. I have the most bizarre things happen to me on bears hunts; at times I ask myself, “Does this stuff happen to everyone, or just to me?” But the temperature moderated during the day, the snow melted, and by the time I headed to the stand for day four, it was fairly comfortable again, even though I was wearing more clothes than the first two days of the hunt. I have learned to bring clothing for any weather on these spring hunts. I just have to learn not to leave it in camp like I did on day three! 

I was given a choice to go back to the day one stand where I saw the big one or the bait I hunted on day two and saw more bears. I chose quantity over quality I guess you could say. I settled in on day four, back in the stand I had hunted and seen several bears on day two. The action started up early with a couple small bears coming and going. Then a couple hours before dark, I saw a black spot in the swamp about 75 yards on the other side of the bait. I focused on it intently, trying to sort out what I was looking at. I do not take binoculars when hunting over bait, but this was one of the rare times I wish I had them. After a while I became convinced that I was looking at a bear that was staring right at me. 20 minutes later, he disappeared.  

In a few minutes, the small bear that was at the bait became edgy, his body language showed he was nervous and he often looked off to his left, so I knew another bear was coming. Sure enough, the small one walked off just as the bigger one appeared in the brush. The bigger bear cautiously approached the bait area but would not commit. He laid down and watched the bait area for 15 minutes without moving. This was probably a 4-5-year-old, 200 to 225-pound male, but he was showing the caution of a much more mature bear.  

When he finally committed to the bait area, I could tell he wasn’t going to settle in and relax. He was just too nervous and he kept looking at me in the stand. He definitely knew how to play the game. He took a couple bites of bait with his head facing away from me, which gave me time to draw my bow. He just couldn’t relax and turned to leave, taking a few steps towards the safety of the bush before stopping to look back at me, standing broadside. That was his fatal mistake.  

He was a nice male bear, but not nearly as big as the one I passed the first day. Do I have regrets? I would say no, because bear hunting to me has become much more than just trying to shoot a bear, or a big bear, or a color phase bear. I am at a point in my life where I am more about the experience than the kill, and this hunt fits that expectation perfectly.