Evening’s light was grudgingly waning and there were no more shadows. The afternoon vigil had been a long one, starting shortly after three o’clock. I had asked to be taken to the bear bait early. My outfitter and guide had seen a super-sized cinnamon brown boar in the area. His visiting time to the bait was reputedly erratic. Sometimes he arrived mid-afternoon and sometimes, just before dark. I truly wanted to take a large color-phase bear. In many years hunting black bears, I had taken numerous big, totally-black bears, and now I was looking for something different.
With the cooling of late evening, mosquitoes settled down and became less ravenous. It was then that I felt a slight nudge against my arm. Looking to my left, I glanced at my widely opened cameraman’s eyes. There was a pained expression on his face as he cast his eyes and quickly looked back at me. He repeated the same quick look to his left several times, then mouthed the word, “Bear!”
With minimal movement, I eased back slowly so I could see past him and out our cloth ground-blind’s window. A gorgeous cinnamon coat bear stared at me less than six feet away. I picked up my still camera and slowly raised it to shoot photos. As I did, the cameraman, who was on his first-ever black bear hunt, looked at me as if I were totally crazy!
I took several photos before the color-phase black bear walked toward the bait barrel and started feeding.
“You’re absolutely crazy!” whispered the cameraman. “I thought we were going to be eaten by that bear!” I just smiled. The bear had simply been curious. Young bear, especially a boar weighing a hundred pounds, can be aggressive. But this one had shown only curiosity. Had he appeared otherwise, I had my.375 Ruger loaded with Hornady’s 300-grain DGX ready for action.
No Other Sighting
Afternoon passed to darkness without another bear appearing. The young bear had a beautiful coat and it was the color phase I had hoped for, but on a much older and bigger bear.
Back at camp, my cameraman told of our afternoon encounter, which almost immediately lead to a discussion about black bear and caliber/rounds to use for bear.
There were two other hunters in our Manitoba, Canada spring bear camp. One had hunted black bear before and had previously taken four bears. The other was a “newbie” on his first bear hunt.
All of us were hunting with firearms. At that point, I had taken a double handful of black bears with a variety of firearms including muzzleloaders, shotguns with slugs, handguns, and rifles, including single-shots, lever actions and bolt actions. I do not hunt with archery equipment or crossbows, but I appreciate those who do.
Sightings for All
That first afternoon hunting from ground blinds, we had all seen bear during our afternoon sit. They included young boars or sows with small cubs. Both other hunters had close encounters, too: bears at less than 10 yards, just as we had experienced.
The day before our hunt, all hunters shot their rifles, sighted in at 50 yards, as the outfitter had suggested. No baits were farther than 50 yards from the blinds. The hunter who had previously taken four bear was hunting with a scoped bolt-action .300 Win Mag. The first-time bear hunter had brought a bolt action .30-06, topped with a variable scope, one he had long used for deer. I was shooting a .375 Ruger, topped with a variable scope. Interestingly, all of us were shooting appropriate Hornady loads.
Around the late-night campfire, the discussion drifted to what constitutes a good black bear caliber/round. I looked toward our outfitter and guide, wanting their response. The guide soon said, “We usually suggest hunters bringing at least a 7mm, although we do have hunters show up with their .270’s and do very well with them. Some hunters bring really big magnums, which is fine as far as we’re concerned, as long as they can accurately shoot them without fearing recoil.” I nodded.
“What do you guys carry as backup if you need to go after a wounded bear,” I asked the guide. He and I had met in the past on another bear hunt. I knew he had been in on a considerable number of black bear kills, in Alaska, Canada and the lower 48.
He told us: “For years I have carried two rifles, both lever actions. Initially I carried a Winchester Model 1895 in .405 Winchester, Teddy Roosevelt’s Big Stick, shooting Hornady’s 300-grain Soft Point loads. It was really a thumper! With it I shot four bears that charged, stopping them at barrel-length distance! Pretty western!” He continued: “A few years ago I switched to Marlin’s Guide Rifle in .45-70. I like the short barrel. It’s easy handling and quick to point, even in really tight cover. Using Hornady’s ammo, that rifle is extremely accurate!” He added this: “In the past, I used either peep sights or shot it with the open sights that came on the rifle!”
Allow me to jump forward several years. I recently contacted the same guide. He is still shooting his Marlin Guide Rifle in .45-70. But these days it is topped with a Trijicon SRO red-dot sight. And, these days he’s shooting Hornady’s 325-grain FTX Leverevolution ammo. According to him, it is every bit as accurate and deadly as his original Hornady soft-point ammo. He also told me when personally hunting bear, he reverts to his Model 1895 Winchester .405 Winchester and shooting 300-grain Interlock Hornady Custom ammo. My personal .405 Win is a Ruger No. 1, which I dearly love. It shoots 300-grain Hornady Custom ammo extremely accurately. I have used that combination on several “sizeable” black bear and other big game species.
Back to the Campfire
I was truly interested in the first-time bear hunter and why he chose a .30-06, a Remington Model 700 BDL. Several years ago, while on staff with Shooting Times, I had used a Winchester Model 70 chambered in .30-06. I was shooting Hornady’s then-180-grain soft point loads to take several black bear the same year while hunting in Alaska, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba and New Mexico. Doing so was part of an assignment to hunt numerous big-game species across North America with a .30-06 for a series of magazine articles.
At my question, the first-time bear hunter replied, “I always wanted to hunt bear. I bought this hunt at DSC’s annual convention. I’ve hunted Whitetails all my life. I started out with a .300 Savage Model 99 Savage lever action that belonged to my dad and I still have it. I switched to the .30-06 for two reasons, well maybe three. My granddad shot a .30-06. He was my hero and mentor. I wanted something that I could reach out a bit farther with than the .300 Savage, and I wanted to someday hunt elk and possibly moose, as well as bear. With the .30-06 there are a variety of bullets in terms of weights and style that are appropriate for different-sized game. I handload using a Hornady press, brass and bullets.”
He continued. “When Hornady first came out with the SST bullet I played with in various loads. Doing so, I found a load using the 180-grain SST that my rifle absolutely loves in terms of accuracy. I’ve used the SST on mule deer and elk, as well as of course Whitetails. It has never let me down. I feel very comfortable shooting it at a black bear, including a really big-bodied one!”
I had noticed the .300 Win Mag shooter was anxious to respond as well. No sooner did I look his way than he began. “I’ve been fortunate to have hunted numerous big game species here in North America and also have hunted plains game in South Africa and Namibia, using the same rifle I have with me here. I replaced the stock a few years ago with a synthetic, and if you saw me with it earlier, you’ll notice some of the exterior paint has worn off, and there are some dings in the stock as well. As to bullets, I too load my own using a Hornady press, and for years I have loaded their 180-grain Soft Point. My rifle shoots those bullets extremely accurately and I dearly love the terminal performance I get out of them. Shot my previous four black bear with them. The biggest animal I’ve shot with my handloads was a monstrous Eland bull in Namibia.”
Then the camp cook explained, “Good thing is we don’t have to be in a hurry to get up in the morning. We’ll plan on having a late breakfast, probably doing a little fishing before we head out for the evening’s hunt. Or, you can get up early to fish. The lake behind camp is filled with northern pike. The creek running into it usually has pretty good walleye this time of the year.”
One of the hunters then asked this: “Larry, I know you’re shooting a short-barreled .375 Ruger. What are you using for ammo?”
I responded. “I’ve hunted black bear a long time. Shot my first in New Mexico at a waterhole with a .270 Win, used it on several bear hunts with great success. Over the years I’ve shot them with 12-gauge slugs, several .50 caliber muzzleloaders using Hornady 250-grain SST bullets, then also with a wide variety of guns including .257 Roberts, 7×57, .308 Win, .30-06, .300 H&H Mag, .300 Win Mag, .375 H&H Mag, .375 Ruger, .375 JDJ, .405 Win, .44 Mag, .45-70, .450 Marlin, and .450-400 NE. This trip, I chose the .375 Ruger using Hornady’s 300-grain DGX.” (which then had only recently been introduced).
I added: “I really like my short-barreled .375 Ruger Guide Rifle. It handles really well and shoots like a dream. Being ported, I can actually see the bullet strike the target. I’ve used the .375 Ruger on several different animals here in North America including a 10’6” squared Alaskan brown bear. I like Hornady’s 300-grain DGX loads because my particular rifle absolutely loves that round in terms of accuracy. I know we’ll likely not be shooting beyond 50 yards, but at the FTW Ranch I’ve shot out to 700 yards with that combination, topped with a Trijicon AccuPoint scope, and even at that distance it groups very nicely.”
“Use Enough Gun” was the title of a Robert Ruark book that was published after his death. But those words sum up my thoughts about bear hunting as well. I have never seen a bear that was killed too dead,” I added.
Then I told my campmates, “Gentlemen, I’m headed to bed to dream about a 400+ pound color-phase bear and I will be getting up pretty early to catch a mess of walleye for breakfast.”
Comfortably secreted in my sleeping bag, I recalled previous bear-hunting adventures. My last thoughts were “Tomorrow will be…”