Although the Great White North would not qualify as a traditional western black bear destination, it certainly should be on any serious black bear hunter’s shortlist come spring. And as I begin planning for yet another adventure, it’s hard not to look back at the numerous other hunts I’ve enjoyed in the north country over the years. Manitoba, Quebec, British Columbia, and Alberta were all adventures highlighted with exceptional encounters and even better experiences overall, but it was the sheer number of bears I witnessed that made Saskatchewan a top-tier destination—and an affordable one as well.
Just getting there is an adventure in and of itself, and after nearly 17 hours behind the glass and well-over a 1,000 miles drained from the life of my truck, bear camp was a treasured sight that first afternoon. As I stretched my legs and began stretching the string on my longbow, I couldn’t think of a better place to have a new experience than the Duck Mountains of eastern Saskatchewan.
I am obsessed with spring black bear hunting. Not only do they offer an iconic value to me as a hunter, but I often find them extremely challenging to hunt. Regardless, if it involves guarding well-placed bait, a stalk along a remote greenway, or a long shot in more mountainous terrain, each experience brings a different set of challenges. Their numbers are expanding across the West where I often find myself hunting bears. The bears’ solitary nature coupled with the wild country they roam always calls me back for more.
Having never been to Saskatchewan before, I knew the fresh experience would be an adventure all its own. However, after talking with Rich Geres, the owner of Eastern Sky Guiding Service (www.easternskyguiding.com) several times before making this maiden voyage, I knew it would far exceed my expectations. As Rich explained it, bears were not in short supply and having a 400 to 500-pound boar visiting the bait was a real possibility in this wild country. Needless to say, as we eased down a long two-track that led to my stand on the first afternoon, I couldn’t wait to see what was in store.
There’s always a surreal feeling when you see your outfitter slip out of view after dropping you off and you realize that you’re all alone in bear country. It’s more of an anticipation than fear as your eyes scan and ears listen for your first visitor to appear. I rarely see one approaching from a distance and seem to never hear one coming in, but as if on cue—not 30 minutes after settling in—the first bear suddenly appeared below my stand. His chocolate-colored hide stood in stark contrast to the aspen, birch, and pine timber around me; although he was a young bear by Saskatchewan standards, he was a good ice-breaker to start the hunt.
For over 30 minutes he fed at the barrel, rarely turning his attention away from the woods around him. His demeanor told me he wasn’t the only one around, and when his head swiftly jerked up and looked past my stand, I knew we weren’t alone. As he took off in the opposite direction another bear strolled in to control his time at the barrel. Slightly bigger, but still too young, I watched him intently as he came in and out of view throughout the afternoon. But with a slight mist beginning and temperatures falling, activity came to a halt as the afternoon light faded into darkness.
With the sun bright, wind calmer, and temperatures much warmer the following afternoon, I knew bear activity would significantly improve. There’s just something about those conditions that bring bears to their feet. I no sooner climbed into my stand and nocked an arrow when the parade of bears began. It truly was like a zoo, as one bear after another slipped into view. Some would chase the other bears off while others tolerated each other. And at one point, four bears were at various locations around me. Just like the previous afternoon, younger bears first padded onto the scene but as the afternoon wore on bigger bears appeared, each having the desire for one thing—the chunks of meat scraps covered in oats and a sweet syrup.
Like a magnet, bears would reach their paw through the small hole in the barrel in search of what they knew was there, and when they exerted enough effort they would be rewarded. Everything was going as planned until bear number seven showed up that afternoon, and then it got a little western.
Like many bears in this part of Canada, they are rarely hunted so they aren’t very timid. In their minds, they are at the top of the food chain. Virtually every bear that slipped in knew I was there but showed little concern. Just like people, bears have their own personality and when the seventh bear of the afternoon came in, he seemed to show more interest in me than the bait at first.
With more curiosity than aggression, he came toward me and paused at the base of my ladder stand. He was an average bear by Saskatchewan standards, maybe 200 pounds, but his size quickly increased when he put his paws on the third rung on my ladder stand and began to climb. I quickly stood up hoping to squash any intentions he had of joining me in the stand, and, when I did, he jumped down and quickly assumed a position on the side of my tree and started climbing instead. Although I have witnessed bears climbing trees with hunters in them before and thought it quite humorous, it now seemed that joke was about to be played on me. He seemed determined to figure out what I was, but when I grabbed for my bear spray and waved my arms in haste, he quickly made other plans and scampered off towards the bait in a huff.
As I watched him feed for the next several minutes, I couldn’t help but replay every second of our eye-to-eye encounter. I knew there were more mature bears hitting this bait, but the longer I watched the bigger the encounter became in my heart and mind, and that’s ultimately what I’m after on a hunt. Like the average buck you rattle in or see making a scrape below your stand in November, I find it hard to leave the arrow on the string. Sometimes it’s not the size of the game that matters but the size of the adventure, so needless to say I was well-pleased with the outcome of this Saskatchewan adventure.