I remember seeing the bear from a distance and how it looked like a large dog. I remember the commotion it made, like it didn’t give a damn who heard it. I remember the way my heart thumped in my chest and the way my hair stood on end when I realized what it was. I also remember falling out of my hammock seat and sliding down the ravine earlier that morning, but wish I didn’t.
It was early September 2013. Thom and I were in Georgia, hunting with Steve for the very first time. Steve, being the host he was, carried us out to one of his most fruitful spots on Dawson Forest WMA, with the hopes one of us might get lucky, on what had proved to be, the elusive Georgia whitetail. Something Thom and I had yet to see since our arrival the day before.
We walked in with high hopes beneath the moonlight. Thom would be the first to peel off, taking a stand Steve installed in the bowels of a tall pine overlooking a funnel. It was a beautiful stand, but Steve had used a little too much rebel ingenuity in its hanging. The means of ascension implored a combination of climbings sticks and pine limbs, which caused Thom a great deal of noticeable aggravation. Ever the by-the-book bowhunter with regards to safety, Thom refused to take a step without securing his lineman belt, which was not cooperating with the knobby trunk. He would climb, the belt would snag, and he would thrash helplessly trying to free it, as if trapped within the web of a large spider.
Meanwhile, the peanut gallery below was having a hard time keeping its composure. We did our best to stifle our snickers and spare our friend his pride, but the task proved too tough to tackle. Finally, around the midway point of his climb, frustration won. Thom, who was normally unshakable, dropped his hands to his side, let his head sag, and breathed the longest sigh in the history of sighs.
Steve and I collapsed into a state of silent hysteria. Both sets of shoulders and the small torch Steve was holding for assistance, shook violently. Our lips and sides ached from choking back the laughter. Still, Thom didn’t quit. It took him 20-30 minutes to get up the tree, but he made it. He hoisted his bow, gave us a wave, and settled into his hunt.
Steve was all business now. Thom’s adventure had placed us close to first light and we needed to hustle. We would all be hunting the same ridge. Thom and I approximately 200 yards apart on the front side and Steve stalking the back side. My ground blind was the next stop and I’d be lying if I said I was confident with the setup. Steve had found neighboring red pines overlooking a saddle and wove brush between them to make a wall. My hammock seat would hang in front it – strapped to one of the pines.
“You’ll be fine right here man.” He said, stuffing a few more pine boughs into the wall. “The deer will cross on that trail in front of you. Now, I’m gonna tell ya, you’re gonna have to sit real still up here. You’re kinda exposed, but the wind is good. If it stays that way, you’ll probably see something. Thom might even kick something to ya.”
It was clear Steve had worked all this out in his head. It was also clear he’d intended this setup for someone like him – a native of the Georgia bush with the ability to sit still and focus for very long periods of time without so much as a scratch of the nose. I was neither of those things. With nothing in front of me but a few shoots of grass, I was as exposed as a “naked on the first day of work” dream. Still, I wasn’t about to argue with the elder statesman of the group. He’d killed more deer with a longbow in one year than Thom and I combined.
My trip down the ravine occurred shortly after he left. I’d just purchased the hammock seat and hadn’t used it yet. For those unfamiliar with this particular type of seat, they are fairly simple in their construction: a piece of camouflage tarp with a strap on one end and an adjustable pole on the other. To install, one simply strapped one end to the tree and stuck the pole end in the ground between the feet. Set it too high – you’ll fall asleep from the waist down. Set it too low – you’ll fall asleep period. I fell into the “too” high camp and when I turned to flop into the hammock, dislodged the pole with my foot and promptly luged 10 yards down the leafy underbrush on ass and back. Thankfully, unlike Thom, no one had been there to see it save for every deer and squirrel within a radius of 200 yards.
Things went quiet for several hours after that. I was about to call it a morning, in fact, when the greatest bowhunting event of my amateur career occurred. It began with a WOOF and an explosion of leaves on my two o’clock. A ball of furry black was lumbering into the saddle from a draw approximately 100 yards away. Now, at that particular time and distance I assumed it was a dog and began to look for its owner. At the 50 yard mark, I realized it was a bear cub and began looking for Mama. All was revealed at 40 and I assumed new base layers would be needed by morning’s end.
The closest I’d ever been to a wild bear was an encounter in Sault St. Marie, Michigan, on my way to a hockey tournament. And it was crossing the highway. I never learned to identify the difference between a yearling cub and adult bear, but assumed the latter weighed at least 300 pounds. Steve mentioned a legal weight was 75 pounds and this particular bear was every bit of that, but that still seemed light to me. I’d always had a weird fascination with bears and wasn’t sure I wanted to cause the death of one. Still, circumstances in the wild have a way of forcing the bowhunter’s hand and the impulses of the heart often outweigh the reasoning of the head. I had a longbow in my hand, a bear down wind, and I was going to give shooting him serious consideration.
The beast continued until he reached the remains of an old hardwood stump. We would’ve been eye-to-eye had it not grabbed his attention. He licked his nose, checked the wind, and circled for several minutes until satisfied. Then he stood up, put both paws on the stump, and went to work. The stump exploded in a terrifying display of muscle, claw, and fur. Splintered wood flew in every direction. When he finished, there was nothing left but a mushy core surrounded by a ring of white and brown sawdust. And there I sat, too absorbed by the chaos to reach for my camera.
After defeating the stump, he shambled behind a tangle to my left and disappeared for several minutes. I didn’t see him again until a change in the wind popped his head above the brush to investigate the curious odor he’d detected. It was as if God had pulled back the curtain between man and beast just to see how both parties would react. In this particular case, beast decided he wanted more information and rose on hind legs to get it. This should have been a terrifying moment for man, but it wasn’t. I was fortunate to have seen such a thing happenstance – absent guide or bait. At that moment, I realized there was no way I could shoot this bear. The story had already been told. My arrow would have served only as an exclamation point. There was no need to shoot live bear or beat dead horse.
Then, as if on queue, God returned the curtain to its resting place. The wind resumed its original direction; man remained invisible; beast returned to the brush. The hunt continued. He was now out of site but emitted the occasional grunt to show he was there. I remained on the edge of my seat and perfectly still – not that there was any other way to act with a wild bear in the vicinity and a stick and string on my lap.
He reappeared ten minutes later. And to press the matter further, did so broadside and close enough to bop him on the nose with a short longbow toss. The urge to shoot him gnawed at my insides yet again. I was sure any bowhunter in their right mind would gladly take this opportunity nine-and-a-half times out of an even ten. And hadn’t I come all the way from Michigan and paid good money for such an opportunity? I picked my spot, raised my bow, drew to anchor, and prepared to shatter all previous resolutions. He continued to walk and my arrow followed – still on my bow and aimed with deadly intent. It stayed there until he crossed the threshold of opportunity and loped off to the ridge behind me. Like my arrow, my resolve had held firm.
I lowered my bow and looked for my phone. I’d just let the greatest hunting opportunity of my life slip through my fingers and all I could think about was telling Steve and Thom what had happened. Shaky thumbs had just managed to punch “BEAR” onto the screen when a “WOOF!” and several crashes erupted behind me, causing me to toss it into the brush. I knew exactly what was happening. He was now upwind, had my scent, and wasn’t happy about it. The tantrum continued for some time, but I wasn’t about to crest the ridge and watch it happen. I decided it best to gather my gear and wait it out.
When the dust settled, I grabbed my bow and carefully made my way towards Steve to survey the damage. I was surprised to find Steve doing the same on his side. I could barely contain myself. “Dude, I just had a damn bear dead-to-rights at about 10 yards!”
“Yeah I know. He just about ran me over!” He laughed. “I could’ve smacked him on the ass with my longbow as he ran by. He was that close! Did you shoot him? I didn’t see any blood.”
“Nope. He looked a little small to me. Kinda like Boo Boo from Yogi Bear.”
He furrowed his brow and shot me a “crazy yankee” look. “Oh that was a legal bear. He was a little on the small side, but you definitely could’ve shot ‘em. He was probably around 125 pounds. You could tell by his stomach.”
He continued, sensing my confusion. “If a bear looks long in the leg, its a young ’un. The girth hasn’t developed yet. Same goes for the ears. If they are sticking out the top of the head, it’s a young ‘un. If they are sticking out the side, it’s an older one. Make sense?”
“Clear as mud.” I chuckled. “So you would’ve shot him, huh?”
Steve paused a moment to think, which meant he was fixing to blow smoke up my ass. We both knew he’d made it a personal goal to shoot a bear with a longbow. It had been the topic of conversation several times before. But he was a good man and a great friend, so I would accept the candy-coated version.
“Ya know Nick, to be honest, I don’t think I would have. I was just tickled to see one out here. And so close!”
“Yeah. I knew I should have shot him.”
We laughed. “No. I really think you made the right decision. You would’ve regretted it. Besides, he really did look like Boo Boo.”
Thom arrived several minutes later to find both of us leaning on our longbows and laughing like idiots. He was completely oblivious to what had transpired and most likely thankful he’d made it out of the tree. “Okay, what’d I miss?” He asked.
Thus, the legend of the “Happenstance Bear” was born and shared around numerous campfires since.
Nick Viau lives in Rockford, Michigan and is an active participant of the Simply Traditional Field Staff team. He owns and maintains the traditional archery blog Life and Longbows and is currently the president of the Michigan Longbow Association.