Stalking Bears in Caribou Country

Head to the tundra for a shot at a big bruin.

Field & Stream Online Editors

There's no better place to collect a trophy black bear than here on the caribou hunting grounds along the northern limit of trees," declares George River Lodge owner Pierre Paquet. "We stalk them on open ground. It's you against the bear-one on one. It's the most challenging black bear hunt there is."

Trophy-size black bears, some exceeding 500 pounds, are so numerous in Quebec's caribou country now that outfitters are encouraging hunters to plan combination caribou-bear hunts. Bear numbers balloon near many caribou camps each autumn when large roaming males gather in areas where caribou are being killed, in order to feed on carcasses that hunters leave behind. Black bears are normally nocturnal denizens of dark forest habitats, but these northern bears commonly roam the open tundra in broad daylight, searching for meat.

"Tabernac! He's a big one!" whispered Denis Auger from behind the lichen-covered rock that had been our lookout since early morning. The bear was half a mile below us, just inside the treeline. He left the ragged spruce forest and broke onto the clear open tundra, taking long, purposeful strides with his head held high. Using glacier-scattered boulders for cover, Denis and I scurried downhill across the tundra until we dropped into a valley that screened us from the bear's sight. Then we moved quickly across the gusty wind to reach the site where we had killed three caribou the day before.

"He's coming to the carcasses," Denis said softly. Sheets of cold rain swept over us as we picked our way down a long glacial boulder field. When we reached a spot straight downwind from the bear, we turned into the wind and began advancing across the shoulder of the hill. We stopped at a point just below the hilltop and peeked over through our binoculars.

The bear had reached the caribou remains and was pulling one carcass away from us, toward the treeline. Through the binoculars he looked huge.

"He's a good one," Denis whispered, "350, anyway."

A thin strip of small tamarack trees tossed in the wind. "Put a tamarack between you and the bear, so he can't see you, and sneak toward him," said my guide. "I'll be right behind you." The wind blew directly from the bear to us. There was no way he could catch our scent. "Move in as close as you can," he cautioned. "In this wind, you'll have to be very close to shoot accurately."

I crawled on my belly until I had a tamarack the size of a Christmas tree between myself and the bear. Then I rose to my feet, bent low, and began my advance. If the bear moved left, I moved right, always keeping the distant tree between us. When I reached the tree, the bear was just 70 yards away.

I popped the protective covers off my wet scope and stuffed them into my pocket. Then I tried leaning against the trunk of the tamarack to steady my rifle in the wind. I screwed the Leupold variable scope up to 8X in order to place my shot with the utmost accuracy, but the tossing tree made the bear bounce around in the scope, and I couldn't settle the crosshairs.

"Get low," Denis instructed. "Lean on the root." I crouched lower and rested the bolt-action Browning .30/06 on a thick protruding root. At 8X, the bear filled the scope.

At that moment the bear turned broadside, with the caribou held fast in his teeth. I snugged the crosshairs behind his shoulder, thumbed the safety off, and squeezed the trigger. The bear burst over the bulge of the hill and disappeared, giving no indication that he was hit. When we topped the hill in pursuit, he was gone, having plunged into a thick tangle of head-high willows that grew along the bed of a rocky wash.

"You shoot close behind the shoulder, for sure?" Denis demanded. I could still see the sight picture in my mind. "Right here," I said, putting my hand on the side of my chest. "Then he is dead," Denis replied, crossing himself. "But we haave to go into a bad place to find him. It's better to shoot a bear in the shoulder, not behind the shoulder. That way you anchor him with your first shot, then kill him with your second. We wait here half an hour, then go after him."

Sure as I was that my shot had been true, and that the bear was already dead, it was still daunting to enter the thick, tangled brush to look for him.

We found the bear dead less than 200 yards from where he had been hit. There was no blood or disturbed ground, just a large black form stretched out in a running position on the ground. "He never knew what hit him," Denis said with relief.

This took place last September in the sublime black bear country that surrounds George River Lodge in Quebec, 1,000 miles north of Montreal, where we saw at least one large male bear every day for a week. Many adult males leave their protective forests after the breeding season ends in June and wander out onto the open tundra to feed. The tundra hills are carpeted with low-growing species of blueberries, cranberries, and an alpine type of blackberry-all of which are available in time for bears to develop their winter fat. When caribou hunters arrive in late summer, they litter the country near the camps with the abandoned rib cages of the caribou they shoot. At the end of September, the hunting camps shut down. The bears are drawn by the smell of blood from the meat houses and leftover cooking smells from the kitchen and begin their raids. Owner Pierre Paquet had seven out of eight camps broken into and badly damaged by bears last year.

These seasonal events offer unusual opportunities for hunters to stalk large black bears in caribou country, yielding high success rates. While I was at George River Lodge, for example, five European hunters staying at High Cliff camp, just 15 miles upriver from us, killed five big male black bears in as many days. Each bear weighed more than 350 pounds.