By John O' Dell
Hunting these Ozark Mountains is a historic tradition and a privilege to carry on. The wildlife here is plentiful, diverse, and captivating. When I’m blessed with an animal harvest, I always receive it with gratitude as a special gift from the mountains. These gifts come in different shapes, sizes, and colors. On September 17th, 2022, I received my largest gift to date and my first black bear wrapped in brown.
My first bear hunt was in Canada in 2004. It was the secondary species while on a moose hunt with my father. Dad scored on a beautiful moose and we both harvested bears with our rifles.
In my home state of Arkansas, I had always hunted deer and turkey without a thought of hunting bears. I viewed them as a nuisance animal, known only for destroying deer feeders and minimizing deer activity.
It wasn’t until July 2011 that I got excited about hunting bears in my own backyard. This was due in part to a bear hunting seminar presented at my local bow shop by an inspiring woodsman. His name was Clay Newcomb.
He talked about the rich history of Arkansas bear hunting and the reintroduction of bears some 70 years ago, the most successful reintroduction of a large carnivore anywhere in the world. The bear population has soared from an estimated 50 in 1950 to around 6,000 today. Clay also mentioned how there was a time when bear meat was preferred over deer meat. He opened my eyes to how much more of a bear can be utilized such as rendering the fat into valuable bear grease. He taught how to attract and hold bears in archery range and the thrill of these close encounters.
After hunting these majestic animals for several years now, I understand why he was and is so passionate. The black bear is a true wilderness icon. It’s hard to believe that with hundreds of bears living around my hometown, most folks here have never seen one. For many years this included myself, even though I spent a lot of time in the woods hunting or hiking the many popular trails in the area. It wasn’t until I employed bear hunting strategies to draw and hold bears that these encounters became an annual experience. Having bears in archery range is one of the most thrilling wildlife encounters that exists. There is a mystique and magic surrounding these amazing creatures; they are the ghosts of the wilderness that are rarely seen and rarely heard even when walking right beneath you.
The hunt for the big color phase bear started about four years ago, not long after I had lost my previous hunting ground. I met a new friend, Brian Erwin, who generously allowed me to hunt his beautiful property. Just a few months before the 2022 season, he left his earthly mountain and now rests high in his new Heavenly one. He lived a full life of hard work and adventure on the mountain that was part of his family homestead. Most of the time when I would come by or call, he was watching the “Mountain Men” tv series—a show that he very much could relate with. In every sense of the word, he was a mountain man, cowboy, and woodsman. I miss hearing his stories of growing up on the mountain, such as when he participated in the first Arkansas elk hunt or when he had bears relocated that had become too friendly around his house.
I have been fortunate to harvest a bear each year at his place. The past couple of seasons, the big brown bear made regular appearances on the game camera. These were primarily nocturnal visits, especially as the season neared. This is one of the challenges of bear hunting and how the big bears get bigger. Since bears have the best nose on the planet, I knew that this giant would never come in with me sitting on my usual tree stand. I brought in a ventilated shooting house where my scent would be pulled through a corrugated drain pipe and up to the top of a nearby tree.
In 2022, the Arkansas bear season opened a week earlier than in previous years. This was primarily an effort to help meet the harvest quota. The season usually opens when the mast crop begins to hit the ground. This mast crop, better known as acorns (aka “Akerns”), keeps the bears dispersed into the vast wilderness and away from bait sites. This historic early opening worked in my favor as a bear has no reason to frequent a bait site when their favorite food is hitting them on the head and falling in and around their bedroom. Up until opening day, the big brown bear was still only making nocturnal appearances, or so I thought. I had not yet checked the game camera for the last couple of days. As usual on opening day, I went into my setup with plans to take a different bear. I took my laptop with me to check the camera card that would show bait site activity from the previous two days. I put the SD card in my laptop and couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The big bear made an appearance before dark just the afternoon before! Game on!
During the past couple of baiting trips, I added a couple of new small treats to the bait site (bacon and sardines). Maybe he decided to come in earlier to not only smell the new treats that had been there, but also to enjoy some for himself before they were gone.
Now the anticipation for this afternoon hunt could not have been greater. I had a great afternoon watching different bears, and then towards the end of the hunt there was one bear feeding in front of me that suddenly darted up a nearby tree. I knew a bigger bear was near and it was the big brown who took his sweet time sniffing the area before committing to the bait site. Eventually he presented the perfect shot that I excitedly executed. Thankfully, he crashed near the bait site. As you can imagine, walking up to this bruin brought an overwhelming sense of gratitude and gratification that is hard to put into words. This beast that had roamed these mountains for years was now mine to enjoy, share, and savor in my body and memory forever.
With the usual hot temperatures on opening day, I knew that I needed to act fast to get this trophy out of the woods, weighed, and in the cooler. I didn’t want to risk losing the meat, hide, or fat. I called on a good friend to bring up his skid steer to help load out the bruin. I was able to weigh the bear on the way to the cooler. The weight at the scale showed him at 520 pounds and his skull will make the Boone & Crockett record book at over 20 inches.
The stars were aligned over Brian’s Mountain that day. There is no doubt that the early season opener played a part in my success, but I also would like to think that my late friend played a role by pulling some strings from up Above.