On a muddy Saturday morning, third generation bear hunter Braden Burkhart, 11, of Antigo, Wisconsin headed out with his grandfather, Ken Rine, his father Larry Burkhart, his younger brother Mason, their dogs and a group of friends, never imagining that he'd be the one, out of a bear hunting freaternity with more than 100 years of combined experience, to come home with a record-setting trophy. The bear season in Wisconsin alternates each year, allowing hunters with dogs and bait hunters to take turns for the first crack at the state's black bear population.
The state also allows those who are successful in drawing a bear tag to transfer it to someone else in an effort to keep young hunters interested and give them an opportunity to get a kill. Some hunters in the state can wait up to a decade to draw a tag under the current quota and preference point system. Braden’s uncle transferred his tag to the 11-year-old this season, giving him the opportunity to bag this monster on September 25 near Lawrence Lake in northeastern Langlade County.
The Bryant, WI area, where Rine and his son, Dan Rine, run dogs has produced a fair share of trophy bears in the past. Braden and his grandfather had been told a large bear was recently spotted in the area by local hunters and potato farmers.
On the morning of September 25, the conversation in the truck among Braden, his grandfather and younger brother, Mason, explored the possibility of an encounter with the sighted bruin. Ken enjoyed their excitement, but tried to keep them grounded by telling them, “I’d be happy if we treed a 200-pound bear today.” The trio drove to one of the many bait sites the group maintains to check for recent activity and listened to their two-way radios, waiting for an alert about some good tracks from the others in their group.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the county, a member of the hunting party, Trevor Gray, was walking from the road to one of the bait sites when he saw the flash of a trail camera less than 30 feet ahead.
He froze and listened to an animal retreat into the woods and knew from all the noise it was a good-sized bear.
When Trevor approached the site, he saw the tracks and wasted no time returning to the truck to radio the others to meet him there with the hounds. The radio chatter raised the boys’ excitement and when Ken asked Trevor what the track looked like, Trevor replied, “We may need bigger dogs!”
The whole group assembled at the site of the tracks and released the dogs, with the first two having no trouble picking up the trail. The group tracked their progress from a dirt road. When the bear brought things close to a fire lane, Dan Rine and Shawn Pennington added two more dogs to the chase. Ken and the boys watched and listened from the road as the bear headed toward a thin strip of woods on the edge of a corn field. After moving the truck off the road, they watched from atop the dog box to get a better idea of where the bear was headed.
“You could see the corn moving where he was running and hear the dogs behind him,” Ken said. When it appeared the bear wasn’t going to leave the corn field without a fight, Ken led Braden off the truck to set up for a shot and instructed Mason to stay on his side and to “watch what Braden does so you know what to do when it’s your turn to hunt in a couple of years.” The radios where buzzing with the progress of the bear’s path through the corn field and to establish the position of the hunters so a safe shot could be taken. Dan asked, “Is Braden somewhere he can shoot if the bear comes out?” Ken replied, “We can see him coming from the west and I’m going to set Braden up to shoot north. If he comes out of the corn he’ll want to try and get into the woods.”
Braden was set to shoot, Mason was at his grandfather’s side and the dogs were closing on their position when the bear broke from the corn and proceeded to test the open ground of a grass field. That’s when Braden took his shot. He hit the bear squarely from 25 yards with his 12-guage Remington before it retreated into the corn with four dogs at its heels and 20 inches of mud underfoot. Five inches of recent rainfall and the resulting loose ground and standing water slowed the entire chase as the hunters followed the dogs into the corn. The bear was still running when Braden dropped him in the mud with a final shot from about 27 yards with the dogs arriving shortly after to claim their trophy and praise.
The group was a tangle of congratulations to Braden for getting the kill and admiration of the bear’s size. They took turns guessing his weight, which they estimated anywhere from 550 to 800 pounds.
Everyone agreed that this bear had to be officially weighed, a task that would prove a much more difficult than they had anticipated.
After some sweat, 50 feet of winch cable, and a lot of mud, the group got the beast out of the standing corn and back to the road in the trailer of an ATV where a tractor was waiting on the blacktop.
Ken and Braden’s father, Larry, felt it was best to wash the mud off the bear’s fur before taking it to be weighed at the Cousineau Auto salvage yard in Antigo, which had a certified scale used for scrap that had just been calibrated the week before.
Friends and family gathered at the salvage yard to greet the group when they arrived with the bear and to congratulate Braden on his trophy.
The bruin was carefully lowered onto the scale and cheers rose at the display reading 737. Ken Rine and Trevor Gray both knew the biggest bear ever taken by a hunter in the state of Wisconsin was 736 pounds, which made Braden’s bear a new state record for weight by one pound.
The bear was registered at Marathon Express Mart and by the time the bear made it’s way to Fittante’s Taxidermy in Antigo, there were vehicles lining the highway to view the 11-year-old’s bear and glimpse a bit of local history.
Joe Fittante took the official measurements of Braden’s trophy. The hide measured seven feet even from nose to tail. The bear had a girth of 68 inches and a green skull measurement of 22-5/8″.
Braden’s father told the group they would have a full-body mount done on his son’s trophy bear, but wasn’t yet sure how the animal would be posed.
Four days later the group treed and killed another bear weighing in at 440 pounds, a baby compared to Braden’s monster.
Every year it seems someone bags a large black bear in Wisconsin, so it’s hard to say how long Braden’s record will stand, but it will most likely always be the largest bear shot by an 11-year-old from Antigo…at least until younger brother Mason gets a chance at the title.
The Wisconsin black bear season yielded a massive 737-pound black bear last month, harvested by a group of hunters and their hounds in a wet and muddy corn field. Braden Burkhart, one of the youngest of the hunting fraternity at 11, was guided by his grandfather and took the shot that felled the beast. Eugene Mancl got the story from the folks who were on the hunt.