Muzzleloading for Minnesota Black Bear


The shoreline of Lake Superior, a short distance from our motel, with no "golden arches" in sight.

Minnesota's black bear population is considered quite healthy. The exact population has been reported with wide variances: in 2001, one estimate placed their numbers at 31,300. The 2002 DNR study produced an estimate of 20,000 to 30,000 bears. Dave Garshelis, lead bear biologist with the Department of Natural Resources, has put the number right in the middle between the two extremes at 25,000. According to Mr. Garshelis the bear population has probably about tripled since the DNR reclassified bears as a big-game animal in 1971. Prior to that, they were considered varmints, and could be shot on sight without a permit.

In 2008, 17,362 applicants applied for 11,850 permits. Hunters harvested a total of 2,135 bears for a success rate of about 18%. For 2009, the number of permits was reduced to 10,000 reflecting the DNR's interest in moderately increasing the black bear population. My 81 years young father and I applied as a party for this year's hunt and we were pleasantly surprised at being drawn. Naturally, Dad and I wanted to do a bit better than an eighteen percent probability of bagging quality bears, and we were very fortunate to be able to hunt with master bear hunter and guide Terry Bode of Chisholm, Minnesota.

Terry has an intense passion for bear hunting: he's been at it for some eighteen years by now. Terry Bode is outstandingly good at setting up bear hunts. Terry has worked long and hard at it and his experience shines through. Opening day of bear season is September 1st, but Terry has already been up at his camp scouting and preparing for three weeks or so by then. There's a lot of land to cover north of Grand Marias, Minnesota, and Terry does just that. After scouting, identifying, and plotting game trails and bear activity, Terry begins setting up his bait sites as soon as allowed by the DNR, on August 14th.

Terry starts out with twenty-four or so potential hot sites, evaluates their activity, size of the bears hitting the site, and whittles it down from there. This is all extremely thick, dense timber and the sites have to be replenished and evaluated every day. Only organic, biodegradeable materials can be used in accordance with Minnesota regulations. That means no automatic feeders are allowed nor any large plastic drums. This also means that site upkeep is even more critical, as there is nothing preventing the bait from getting wet and washed out. Terry has his own set of tricks he has developed over the years to avoid site burnout, and keep the bears continuously interested. There is a great deal of juicy, easily digestible berries and nuts that bears love-- and Terry's sites have to compete with that on a daily basis. If all this sounds like a tremendous amount of work and effort to maximize the hunting opportunities, it is only because it is. But, all this hard work can pay big dividends.

While Terry was busy at camp toiling away, Dad and I got our acts together as best we could. We chose muzzleloaders, though the bear season is not restricted to muzzleloaders only. My Dad loves his Savage 10ML-II laminate; I guess because every time he has ever pulled the trigger in the field on it he has ended up with a one-shot big game clean kill. I was busy evaluating the Cabela's exclusive Savage 10ML-BP, and getting such great accuracy out of it that it made the trip. Though Dad normally uses Accurate Arms 5744 in his Savage, the 10ML-BP is designed for black powder substitutes so I went with what is easily the best "blackpowder sub" available, Western Powders' Blackhorn 209. To simplify things, we both used Blackhorn 209 on this hunt.

Three shots from the Savage 10ML-BP with Blackhorn 209 and Barnes T-EZ 290 grain saboted bullets. Groups like these convinced us the Savage would place bullets on our prospective bears with extreme precision.

Blowing clean though a black bear at close range, meaning relatively high impact velocity is no application for a wimpy bullet. Dad likes a bullet that is on the easy to load side, and we found that his Savage drilled the same hole over and over again with Barnes T-EZ 290 grain flat base saboted bullets just as supplied from Barnes. With 100 grains by volume of Blackhorn 209, that equates to a muzzle velocity of just under 1900 fps. We sighted in at 25 yards, giving us residual velocity of over 1800 fps coupled with over 2100 fpe at that range, more than ample for even the biggest black bear especially considering the almost perfect weight retention of the tough, heat-treated copper Barnes bullets. Once launched, the ETA of our Barnes 290 grainers on bear is under four hundredths of one second. At the critical time, the last thing we wanted was pulling a hammer back with a loud metallic click with a nice bear just a few yards away. The silent, intuitive safeties of our Savages with the ultra-fast Savage short-action locktime made our 10ML's the ideal choice for this precise, up close and personal work as well as the long range accuracy Savages are known for. Terry Bode hunts with a Savage 10ML-II himself, so it seems there is more than just a little trend going on in bear country.

My Savage 10ML-BP had a slightly looser bore than Dad's and I like a nice and snug sabot fit regardless. So, I replaced the supplied Barnes sabot with MMP HPH-12 sabots to better match the bore of my individual rifle, still using the 290 grain flat-based Barnes. It gets dark in a hurry deep in the Minnesota timber, so I topped off my rig with my personal favorite scope-a Sightron Big Sky. For the record, Dad used the same W209 Winchester shotshell primers as always, and I opted for the tad hotter Federal 209A's.

The Superior National Forest, established in 1909, comprises over 3,900,000 acres. We have President Theodore Roosevelt to thank for this. In the minds of many, President Roosevelt will always remain America's greatest conservationist. It is hard not to agree. It should be obvious that healthy, vibrant game populations are important to serious hunters more than any other group. President (and hunter) Teddy Roosevelt demonstrated that so very well. In fact, it was the story of Teddy Roosevelt and a Mississippi bear that spawned the "Teddy Bear" phenomenon itself.

In any case, the Minnesota DNR has done a good job. MN black bear populations are strong right now, spectacularly fabulous compared to 35 years ago, and not only is the hunting good if you work at it is just going to just get better as we collectively learn more about the generally secretive, magnificent black bear. Black bears have been clocked at 35 miles an hour, they have demonstrated good long term memory, they are more capable at navigating than humans, have a greater hearing frequency range with guesstimates at twice the sensitivity, they can swim a mile and a half with little trouble, and their noses have a "nasal mucosa" one hundred times larger than humans. The limits of their great sense of smell remains untested and unknown. Bears can also see in color and have good close-up vision, with their vision prowess past 200 yards another unknown. Among the many mysteries of the black bear is how they can regenerate bone during hibernation, increase their cholesterol by twice their summer levels with no ill effects, and lose no muscle mass or tone during their dormancy period. There is still a lot to learn about the American black bear.

The sleepy town of Grand Marias, Minnesota, sits on the shore of Lake Superior. It is clean, a bit quaint, with friendly people and numerous little shops and restaurants around the "downtown" and harbor areas all of which seem to quickly close down right after sunset. I can't tell you how nice it is to walk the shore with no golden arches in sight, an increasingly rare event. It is good for the soul. It is beautiful country, and as you might imagine offers great appeal for photography, fishing, hiking, biking, boating, as well as pursuit of the American black bear during the season.

From Northern Illinois, the trip turned out to be a roughly eleven hour drive, though a pleasant one. Our route brought us through Cumberland, Wisconsin, where we successfully resisted the temptation to stop and enjoy the Rutabaga Festival that was still in progress. The rutabaga is billed as the "world's most neglected vegetable," and we did our part to ensure it stays that way.

Preparing for a hunt like this includes assembling a collection of gear that you might consider standard fare for a big game hunt. Camouflage hunting clothes that you can easily layer, rubber boots that carry little scent, 30% DEET bug spray, rain gear just in case, tarps, knives, saws, rope, salt, and several large coolers to prepare and transport the meat and hide, and so forth. Hunting is from tree stand or ground blind, so you'll want a small backpack where you can carry all you need for five hours or so up your tree. Though bears are generally most active very early morning and late evening, you never really know. The woods are so dense that binoculars are generally worthless on the hunt, as you can see only a few feet in front of your face on the ground in the hunting areas. I did pack along the light, handy Leupold RX-1000 rangefinder I recently fell in love with, though.

Typically, we would congregate in early afternoon and head out for the day's hunt at around 2 o'clock or so. It is fair to say that bear hunting would not be a great thing for the hyperactive, as you'll climb up into your tree at 2:30 pm or so, and essentially remain silent and motionless for the next five hours or so unless you connect with the bear you are looking for. Along with your rifle, it is good to pack along all the patience you have been saving up as well. Conventional wisdom hold that smaller, younger bears are more likely to hit bait sites first while the older, larger, more experienced bears tend to hang back until later on. Once another bear has made it clear that the coast is clear, older bears are all too happy to knock their younger brethren off a feeding area-apparently happy to kill them as well. If, for example, you have a mid-sized bear hitting a site that seems fidgety and nervous, it is not unusual that it is due to awareness of another bear in the area that might be ready to strike.

The subject matter of Randy's extensive first full-evening log study.

The first evening I had what seemed to be a prime spot deep in the timber near an active site. What it turned out to be was over five hours of intensely studying a pile of logs, with nothing seen aside from birds, squirrels, and so forth. Dad was in another area in his ground blind and had a lot more action a lot earlier. I heard a muffled shot from my stand at 4:20 pm, coming from the general direction of my Dad's hunting area. It sounded like a muzzleloader, so I wondered if Dad bagged his bear or not. Since I wouldn't be meeting up with Dad for another five hours or so, it offered only a brief respite from my intensive log and squirrel studies.

As it happens, Dad did indeed fire a shot. A bear silently glided over to his bait site and started tossing the logs around like matchsticks. Though the bear initially stared right at Dad before his final approach, he apparently found nothing to dissuade him from continuing his early evening foraging. The gun came up slowly, the safety silently knocked off, and presented with a broadside shot Dad's Savage 10ML-II let loose with its formidable bark.

The bear took off like a rocket, instantly disappearing into the thick cover. This left Dad a bit puzzled, wondering if had hit the thing or what. To get a sense of just how fast a bear can go, I guess you have to throw a bullet into one. They can be black rockets when they want to be.

The Barnes T-EZ 290 grain entered the bear right behind and slightly below the shoulder, just as desired. It blew clean through the bear, generating a huge exit wound. The bear was dead instantly, he just wasn't aware of yet. I'm not sure how quickly a bear can run the 25 yard dash, but it doesn't take much more than the blink of an eye. That's how far the bear made it, then it crashed for good. After locating the bear, Dad went back to his ground blind to enjoy a victory cigar. Rifle, bullet, and father all did their respective jobs superbly well. The action wasn't over with quite yet.

A little over two hours later, another bear stealthed out of the woods, nervously coming into the side. Maybe you've already guessed it, but the next bear was twice the size of the bear already in the sack. Area 31 is a one-bear permit area, though, so Dad's hunt was over whether he liked it or not. It presented a moral dilemma for Dad, though. I've reminded him that it wasn't me that had reloaded that Savage for him, reprimed it, nor was it me that made Dad drop his cigar (a very rare occurrence). Nor was it me that knocked off the safety of his 10ML-II a second time. Yes, my generally innocent father was forming a devious, sinister plan. The big bear was well down in the hole, suddenly jerking his head out every few moments to check for competitors, perhaps another bear in the area looking for a scuffle. As Dad's second bear was busy going though this cycle, a dark cloud of evil thoughts began to fog his mind. All he had to do was wait for the next heads up sequence, plant another Barnes in the bear's neck, and drop him on the spot-well away from bear number one, that could be written off as forgotten about perhaps due to Dad's longstanding claim of being a senior citizen. But, no, Dad's more honorable sensibilities took hold and he ended up watching the bear for another five minutes or so. Finally, the bear strolled off into the woods as silently as he appeared, just as healthy as ever. I'm not sure if Dad ever recovered his cigar or not.

Back at Terry's base camp late that night, we had a surprise feast awaiting us. All the walleye we could eat, fresh out of the small lake right behind it. Things don't get better than that. Dad's bear was around 5-1/2 feet long, perhaps 3-1/2 years old or so. The tooth is on its was to the Minnesota DNR, so we will have a more precise age estimate in a month or so. He was a fat one, with two to three inches of white lard covering his body. It went a long way towards filling up a bucket, to be sure. With so much of the bear being useful, it isn't hard to understand why native Americans revered the bear as they did the buffalo. Even today, some Grand Marias residents make their own soap and grease from rendered bear fat. With bears packing on the weight for the winter, you can understand how important it is to get the hide right off and cool the meat down promptly if you want great-tasting bear meat. It was a long night, as five of Terry Bode's hunting group all connected on opening day-- leaving only Terry and myself with open tags.

Dad on the left with our hunting buddy Chuck Omen and their respective opening day bears.

The next afternoon we hit it again. Terry Bode, convinced that there was a monster bear near the stand that I hunted, headed there. I decided to attempt to relieve my Dad's frustration by going to his ground blind, and see if the big one that got away might make a return visit. Well, we both came up empty. I saw nothing; Terry could smell a bear at the stand that I had hunted the day before but nothing revealed itself.

The third day I hunted very deep into the woods, four miles or so in from the nearest dirt road. A bit earlier than the previous nights, I climbed up into my tree and "assumed the position." After a couple of hours, I hear one then two cracking sounds from the woods. A short while later, through a small hole in the cover on the off side of the site, I saw a big black head silently moving through the woods. Quickly using my razor-sharp mind, I reasoned that it was either Bigfoot I had just seen-- or, a bear. My guess was that a black bear was a bit more likely than Sasquatch. Two small to medium sided bears eventually moved onto the site, then back into the woods. At least things were starting to get a bit interesting.

Later, a goodly sized bear moved cautiously near the logs. It isn't all that easy to accurately judge a bear, at least for me, as you are essentially looking a a black blob. It doesn't take that many years for a bear to get past five and a half feet long, but length along doesn't begin to tell the complete story. Heavier, more massive bears get tall and wide, even though the length alone may be in the six foot area.

From one side of the pile of logs, the bear started to slowly take a step with its left front leg. Its leg completely reached across the site area, its paw touching down on the other side. There was no question. I don't intimately recall the Savage flowing to my shoulder, the safety silently coming off, the crosshairs of the Sightron placed on the bear. It happened instantly, and instictively. The Savage roared, and the bear disappeared into the woods at what seemed like a hundred miles an hour. I heard the bear crash and expire a moment later.

So, it was down out of the tree and off to find my trophy in the super-thick foilage. Although it was so thick and dark I couild see only a few feet in fron of my face, it was likely the easiest blood trail I've ever followed. A bright red spackled road led me right to the bear. Amazingly, the bear made it every bit of thirty-five yards with no heart and no lungs, the chest cavity turned into jelly. The entrance wound was nearly fist-sized and it was a complete pass-through. Maybe you've heard of a bear "not bleeding," as the fat quickly plugs the wound? Well, maybe sometimes, but not with a Barnes 290 grainer blowing clean through a big bear like it was butter.

I don't get very emotional after a kill; no whoops or war dances for me. It is a serious moment, a very serious moment. There is a great deal of satisfaction in a super-clean, super-quick one-shot kill, though. That's what I was left with, an immensely satisfying harvest of a big bear, a feeling of gratefulness to to big fella upstairs, and even a touch of sadness that the hunt was now over. It is a great moment, though, all in all.

So, after notching my tag, it was back up into my tree to relax and enjoy the woods a bit longer, and watch a few bears that decided to come in a bit later. Still relatively early, I had at least three or four hours in which to entertain myself way back at the end of the trail and to reflect on the day's events.

It was well after dark when Terry arrived on his ATV. We did manage to get the bear out of the thick stuff and close to the stand. Terry's a big boy, to be sure, at 275 pounds or so. But no way could the two of us begin to swing that bear onto the ATV. Not a chance. So, it was lay down the tarp, set up the Coleman's, and quarter him in the field. I can't tell you exactly what the full weight of the bear was, but over three hundred and twenty-five pounds-- somewhere between three and a quarter and three hundred sixty pounds. The bear, surpisingly, wasn't that fat compared to some of the others. So, right in pre-dormancy condition, we guessed this bear would pass four hundred pounds with no trouble. The bear was perhaps 8-1/2 to 10-1/2 years old, but again we will wait on the tooth results to get a more accurate idea. (Note: The report came back from the Minnesota DNR. According to the annuli or growth rings in the root of the submitted tooth, this bear was ten years old.)

Terry Bode and Randy back at camp with the caped-out bear.

The hide and quarters alone were still a lot of weight. It took some doing to get it all out of the woods, but the ATV was only stuck a couple times and almost tipped over twice. It was three in the morning by the time the hide and meat were at Terry's camp on ice, and we made it back to the motel. After a few hours, it was off to the station to register the bear, back to Terry's camp to gather the meat, off to Silver Bay, Minnesota to get our meat dropped off for processing, then back to Grand Marais to enjoy the remains of the day.

The next morning, it was pack it all up and hit the road for some eighteen hours straight, picking up our processed meat, off to the taxidermist way over in New Ulm, Minnesota, then back though Iowa on our return trek to Illinois. I think Dad and I just about ran out of stories to tell each other. Not quite, but almost. It was a close call.

All in all, it was a wonderful hunt. If you haven't been up close and personal with a black bear lately, you've really been missing something. Those familiar with my writings will realize I rarely recommend a guide: a personal recommendation that you put your name on is a sometimes precarious thing to do. In this case, though, I'm more than happy to make an exception. You can't do any better than going hunting with Terry Bode-here's a fellow that knows all the in and outs of Minnesota black bear hunting, and is well deserving of my highest recommendation. All of Terry's experience and all of his hard work prior to the hunt makes him a standout.

As this area, Area 31, is by lottery only you won't know for sure if you have drawn a tag until June. Applications are generally available in late March from the Minnesota DNR, the deadline is the first Friday in May with results listed in early June on the DNR website though winning applicates are supposed to be notified by mail in the second or third week of June. Exact dates and number of permits available can change from year to year, of course.

As for what works best on black bear there will always be varying opinions. I can tell you nothing works better than a Savage 10ML-II. After our hunt was over, Terry continued hunting. As a matter of fact, he went back to that same stand I hunted the first day and Terry had hunted the second day without any luck.

For the grand finale, Mr. Big that Terry had been searching for finally made a mistake and revealed himself. A 300 grain Barnes Original out of Terry's Savage 10ML-II rewarded him with a record-book, 600 pound plus bear. I congratulated Terry on hearing the news, and his reply was, "Don't worry-- there's bigger ones than that in those woods." I think Terry's probably right.

Savage 10ML-BP, Blackhorn 209, and a Barnes T-EZ 290 grain vs. black bear: Savage wins again.


Legendary Whitetails

Copyright 2011 by Randy Wakeman. All Rights Reserved.

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