By Richard P. Smith
Richard P. Smith, author of Black Bear Hunting, Understanding Michigan Black Bear, and Animal Tracks and Signs of North America, among others, offers a story of what not to do to avoid getting lost in the black bear woods at night.
There’s a world of difference between night and day when it comes to doing many things in the outdoors. One of those things is tracking a wounded bear in a thick UP cedar swamp, especially if you make a mistake like I did last fall.
I was hunting with Ralph Pisani from Rochester Hills. He had bagged an average size bear on a previous hunt years earlier. When he obtained a bear license for the first hunt in the UP during 2015, he was interested in shooting a larger bruin while hunting over bait, preferably an adult male. He was hunting out of Lac La Belle Lodge in Keweenaw County, which is in the Baraga Bear Management Unit. I agreed to video tape Ralph’s hunt and help him judge the size and sex of bears that he saw to increase the chances he would get one the size he wanted.
Bear season began on September 10, but Ralph’s first day of hunting was the 14th. Unfortunately, the weather was warm, with temperatures in the 70s, which tends to reduce daytime activity of bears. We were still optimistic about seeing some bears. Photos from a trail camera at the bait indicated as many as a dozen different bears were visiting the site, with some of them stopping by every day.
In spite of the optimistic outlook, we failed to see a single bear on the first day of hunting. We were hunting from an enclosed blind and took precautions to reduce our scent, but bears have an excellent sense of smell. The fact that there was thick cover all around the bait site reduced the chances of seeing a bruin until it was almost at the bait. Bears that smelled us would not have to expose themselves before leaving.
We hunted the next morning, when temperatures were cooler, in an effort to change our luck. The fact that the bait had not been hit since we left the evening before was not a good sign, however. When we hadn’t seen any bears by 11:00 a.m., we headed back to the lodge for lunch.
The fact that such a hot spot can go cold when it’s hunted frustrates many bear hunters who use bait especially those with little to no experience hunting bear over bait who might think it’s easy. Besides less than ideal weather conditions, the keen senses of black bears simply enable them to determine when there’s something different at a bait site such as the presence of a hunter or hunters. With plenty of experience at this type of bear hunting, I knew patience was the key to success.
Even though temperatures reached the 80s during the 15th, we managed to see a female with three cubs that afternoon. We got in position about 4:00 p.m. and they showed up a half hour later. It was a relief to finally see some bears and they put on a great show.
On day three, we saw a yearling male that came and went four different times over a period of four hours. We also saw a young female. There was even more action on day four. An adult female weighing about 175 pounds arrived at 5:00 p.m. She was followed by a pair of fishers, one of which was almost blond in color. Then an adult male bear that I estimated would weigh between 275 and 300 pounds made an appearance about 15 minutes before the end of shooting time.
That’s the bear we were waiting for. I gave Ralph the green light and told him to take a shot when he had a good one and he was ready. We had discussed shot placement previously. Ralph was hunting with a .35 caliber rifle and 200-grain bullets. He tried to break the bear’s shoulder to drop it quickly, but when the bullet hit, the bear jumped in the air and was gone before Ralph could take a followup shot.
I was confident Ralph made a good shot and the bear probably wouldn’t go far before dropping. I also knew it would be dark soon, so I wanted to try to find the bear as quickly as possible. Ralph was supposed to head for home in the morning. A quick recovery would make it possible to process the bear that evening, so the hunter could take it home with him.
We grabbed flashlights and a roll of orange flagging to mark the blood trail with and hustled to where the bear entered the thick swamp. The flagging would make it easy to find our way out of the swamp after we found the bear. Before we entered the swamp, as a precaution, I also took a compass reading to determine which way we were heading. All we would have to do when exiting the swamp is reverse directions.
I’ve had plenty of experience following wounded bears in swamps after dark, so I wasn’t concerned. I’ve also done my share of raccoon hunting in the dark, but this time things were different. This was my first time hunting that particular spot and I wasn’t as familiar with the surroundings as I should have been.
I was focused on trying to find what I thought was a dead bear as quickly as possible. Even though it was still light enough to see by the bait, it was dark in the swamp, so the flashlights we brought with us proved to be necessary to look for blood. We hadn’t gone far when I found first blood and I had Ralph mark it with flagging. He did the same thing to mark additional blood sign. We hadn’t gone far when we came to some blowdowns along a creek with undependable footing. At different times, we both stepped in holes and fell.
Rather than risk injuring ourselves, I decided it would be best to back out of there and return in the morning to recover the bear. So we backtracked, following the orange flagging that Ralph hung from branches as we followed the blood trail. We backtracked ourselves so far and then could not find any more ribbons. I tried circling ahead a number of times to look for another ribbon or the bait, and I found neither.
I knew we had to be close to the bait at that point, but the cover was so thick that flashlight beams couldn’t penetrate the darkness very far. Certainly, not far enough. I even tried following bear trails, knowing at least one of them came out at the bait, and that didn’t work either. I’m sure I came within a matter of feet of the bait, a distance that I would have seen it during hours of daylight, but, in the dark, the bait remained out of sight.
Being in a swamp occupied by bears in the dark was a situation Ralph was not too happy with. It was a foreign experience to him, filled with imagined fears, and he didn’t want me to stray too far from him. We eventually decided the best thing to do was to stay where we were and wait for someone to rescue us.
I was obviously responsible for getting us in that predicament and I apologized to Ralph a number of times for the situation we found ourselves in. Although I’m comfortable in the woods after dark and knew there was nothing to worry about, that did nothing to ease the stress Ralph felt.
Troy Westcott and his wife Cathy own Lac La Belle Lodge. Troy knew where we were and I was confident he would come looking for us when we didn’t return. Troy was anxious to hear how the bear hunting was going each evening when we got back to the lodge. When we didn’t return, he would know something was wrong.
I knew we weren’t in any danger from bears. All of the noise we had made and the scent we left following the bear Ralph shot would have cleared any bruins out of the area. Any bears that got near us in the dark would smell us and leave. I conveyed that information to Ralph to help ease his mind, but I’m not sure how much it helped.
Time moves slowly when sitting in a UP swamp in the dark. It’s tough to sit and wait. Only about a half hour had gone by when we decided to follow a compass reading toward the road. We headed north into the swamp, so I figured if we went to the south, we would have to hit the road by the bait. By then, we agreed it would be much better to find our way out of the swamp on our own rather than wait for Troy.
At least that plan gave us something to do while we waited for rescue. With compass in hand, I plotted a course to the south. Ralph marked our course of travel with orange flagging to make sure we could find our way back to the point where we first knew that we were lost. We plodded along until we ran out of orange flagging. Once the flagging was gone, we decided, once again, to wait for Troy to come to the rescue.
Ralph was convinced we were going to spend the night in the woods when I heard a horn honk, and it wasn’t far away. I hollered and Troy responded. We homed in on the sound of his voice and we were on the road in a matter of minutes.
If I had taken a compass reading from the blind instead of before entering the swamp, I would have saved us from the extended nocturnal visit to the swamp. The road was to the west instead of the south. We were paralleling the road by going to the south. That’s a mistake I won’t repeat.
When returning to the bait the following morning in the daylight, I walked right to the ribbon marking first blood and easily found where we left the blood trail. What a major difference daylight makes. Unfortunately, we did not recover Ralph’s bear. He made a nonfatal hit. We followed the blood trail until it petered out.
As luck would have it, I saw the bear Ralph shot during November while deer hunting and it was doing fine. Something I didn’t find out until Ralph went home is that one of his biggest fears was becoming lost in the woods. He got more of an adventure than he was expecting, and so did I!