Four eager hunters. An unusually warm Canadian spring. Throw in a few Thermacell units, some bruiser bears and a top-secret field test, and you have the makings of some serious northcountry fun.
There’s no denying that the evolution of game cameras has been a world-class game-changer for hunters looking to maximize their precious time afield. And those compact “all-seeing eyes in the field” have also been indispensable for many outfitters as well, especially those concentrating on stand-hunting, for popular targets such as wily whitetails and reclusive bruiser black bears. But experience has shown they rarely tell the whole story, and outdoorsmen everywhere need to be prepared to fill in the blanks with time spent afield.
That fact was hammered home to me yet again this past May in wild and woolly northern Alberta, during a much-anticipated spring bear hunt. This particular adventure held special meaning because I’d be sharing camp with a fellow member of Team HuntStand, Brian Stephens, as well as new friend Dennis Phillips from Burris, and a fourth eager hunter: Caleb Phillips (no relation), the grand prize winner of the recent HuntStand/Thermacell Sweepstakes. Also exciting about this hunt was the prospect of being the very first bowhunter to field-test the new Burris Oracle rangefinding bowsight on a big-game animal in 2018. And better yet, in a long career of bowhunting and field-testing bow gear, my pre-hunt shooting prep revealed exactly what I’d hoped. I’d never been more impressed with a new-product design.The intrigue began as I was being transported to my bear stand on Day 1, by veteran outfitter Ben Cockell, owner of Northern Alberta Outfitters. Rides to bear stands always seem to be long and winding, and this one was no exception. But I used the first leg of the trip, in Cockell’s truck cab, to grill the successful outfitter not only about his operation but also about my stand and setup. It was fairly standard stuff for a bowhunter wondering about things like stand history, shot distance and, yes, some recent local game cam intel. I was told the late spring to date had seen somewhat less-than-stellar bear activity, but Cockell was cautiously optimistic. He acknowledged he’d been keeping tabs on a good-sized boar making semi-regular appearances at my first day’s stand, but then came a kicker: The bruin was the only one he’d captured on camera there.As someone who’d been on several spring hunts and was fortunate to bag a few good bears, I assured Cockell I was in no hurry to score and was content to bide my time and hold out for a trophy. And things were looking promising indeed. First there was the unusually bear-friendly 70- to 80-degree spring temps. Warm spring temps mean active bears. Then came the miles of ideal habitat. As we made our way into my remote stand on the last leg of our journey, a solid 40-minute ATV ride through a vast and scenic network of beaver ponds, swamps and stand after thick stand of spruce and black poplar, I hissed to Cockell that I’d never before seen such prime bear country. “I know, right?” Cockell shot back, smiling proudly as we bounced along the narrow trail. You just can’t beat the feeling that you’re in the right place.The first bear brought into camp was a true Alberta brute; it came courtesy of Caleb Phillips (shown above), who was one excited hunter. Phillips, an Illinois landscaper by trade and an avid whitetailer, had never before hunted bears. His first evening couldn’t have been more exciting; he was virtually covered up by a handful of bears the entire evening. After taking in the spectacle and with evening closing, Phillips decided to shoot the largest bear on the scene, and raised his Scorpyd crossbow. Then things quickly took a turn. “I was getting ready to shoot what I thought was a very good bear when it suddenly just bolted and sprinted away,” Phillips related. “And then I could see why. A much larger bear was coming in, and I didn’t have to think twice about the shot. Everything looked good.”Indeed it was. Early the next morning Cockell and Phillips recovered the large bruin, just over 100 yards from the stand site. “It left a good blood trail for a bear,” Cockell opined, happy for both the sign and accurate advice from the cool-headed, observant Phillips. “It helps a lot when you know which direction a bear runs; that first 30 to 50 yards is no fun when you have nothing to go on.” We estimated Caleb’s bear would stretch 6 ½ to 7 feet nose to tail, with a skull that looked easily in the 18- to 19-inch class. An incredible first-timer trophy.Meanwhile, the other Phillips in camp, Dennis, was also watching his share of bruins. His first evening on stand featured an appearance by a cantankerous old sow and a couple of inquisitive yearlings, but it was on Day 2 when Dennis got the adrenaline rush he was looking for. When the third and fourth bears of the night simultaneously arrived at the bait site, then a few minutes later jerked their heads up in unison and bolted from the scene, Phillips knew something was up. “It turns out the biggest bear of the night had snuck in silently just behind me, and when I looked down he was right at the base of my tree,” Phillips recalled. Dennis watched closely as the large boar cautiously circled the site, finally presenting a solid shot in the fading light. He was happy not only for the stopping power of his 300 Win. Mag but also for his light-gathering scope, a nicely compact 1-8×24 Burris XTR II.“It’s really the perfect scope for bear hunting, and we sell a lot of them to those looking to hunt dangerous game,” Phillips said. “It gathers a lot of light, you can see better out of scope with an illuminated dot in the center of a reticle, and you can shoot with both eyes open, which helps a lot. At the shot I never lost sight of the bear because with both eyes open I could see exactly where he ran.” Given the amount of bear activity and excitement in camp—with HuntStand’s Brian Stephens soon using his Elite compound to add both a beautiful light-brown bear (shown above) as well as a more-commonblack-phase bruin taken on the ground at eye level (see above)—my own hunt was almost anticlimactic. Armed with knowledge of the lone shooter bruin hanging out at my stand site, and thankfully, a freshly loaded Thermacell MR450 unit to ward off the abundant north-country mosquitoes, I settled in for what I hoped would be an eventful evening.
At 8:15 p.m. I glanced up to see a bear creeping cautiously in to the bait site, but soon my Spider Sense was tingling. This wasn’t the large boar Cockell had described. And even several minutes later, when the medium-sized bruin finally spooked and ran off to my left, I was confident I’d made the right decision in passing. But then came more confusion. Maybe three minutes later it seemed the same bear was returning—the approaching bruin was using the same path as the departing bear minutes before—but this bear seemed somehow different. Thankfully, it was. Much different.In the failing light the bear soon looked a good deal larger, but then came the clincher. When the bruin finally turned from his side-profile view to look straight away, my pulse began racing. Now I could see the unmistakable wide-set ears and distinct forehead crease of a mature boar. Soon I was raising my Bowtech compound and leveling my Burris Oracle on the big bear’s vitals. The bright sight readout told me the burly Alberta bruin was precisely 23 yards away. Soon I would be posing much closer to the coal-black brute wearing a wide, satisfied smile. One goal, of course, was to capture evidence of a wildly successful Oracle field test. The other? Catalog another very memorable northcountry spring hunting adventure. Mission accomplished.