Out on a Limb for Black Bear
By Gary Lewis
Out of work for the winter, Donnie Wygle decided to spring for a spring bear tag and a change in his luck. A bear might be hard to find, but it couldn't be any harder than locating a job in a tough economy. In April, the 55-year-old hunter headed south along the Oregon coast in search of his first bear.
Two years before, Wygle had found the tracks of a small bear on a trail that crossed the top of a ridge and a skid road. Nothing had changed except the tracks were bigger now.
He hung his trail camera on a fir tree. When he returned at daylight, there were pictures. Of a black bear, a solitary male with a long-haired black pelt that shined from a long winter in the den and the rich, new grass of April.
Encouraged, Wygle cut a few branches and arranged them to create a sort of ground blind at the base of a tree, surrounded by young firs.
The first afternoon and evening passed without a sign of the animal. The next morning there were more pictures of the bear on the trail camera.
Spring sunshine brought new life to the Coast Range. Indian paintbrush bloomed on south-facing hillsides and fiddleheads curled on the ferns. Wygle took to his stand three hours before dark.
Wygle could hear the leaves rustle as the bear worked through the brush below him, but dusk came and then dark. Too dark, Wygle thought. Time to walk out.
In the next moment, the bear was there without a sound, a shadow against shadows. 20 feet away. Then a puff of wind blew off the Pacific. Wygle felt it against his neck and then the bear woofed and charged into the brush. But it didn’t go far and now it was very dark and quiet.
Wygle turned on his flashlight to push back the night. A long walk to the truck. Shadows seemed to shift in the beam and he kept the rifle ready, taking care to make a little noise, every nerve aware.
There were more pictures on the camera by morning. A bear, curious, suspicious, illuminated by flash against the brushy background.
Wygle, with his face in the wind, found the bear’s tracks at the base of the hill and followed them down a fallen log to a low spot where water bubbled from a spring. There was sign in the trails that tunneled through the underbrush and broken branches where the new growth had been nibbled away.
Wygle knew that the wind was likely to blow off the ocean again that afternoon, but there was no way to put himself on the other side of the bear. Maybe, he mused, he could put his scent stream above the bear.
Out on a Limb
Three hours before dark, he pulled on a gray, hooded sweatshirt, the color of tree bark, and pulled himself up the big fir tree, limb by limb. When he thought he was high enough, he folded a coat beneath him for a seat. He used the branch in front of him, at chest level as a rest for his rifle and hung a shirt over the limb to break up his silhouette.
Shadows lengthened. This was the first hunt that Wygle had carried the Remington 742 Woodsmaster .30-06, but the gun was familiar, its wood worn by the seasons of his father’s hand.
The bear moved in a semi-circle, scent-checking for danger. "I heard him about 45 minutes before he showed himself." 30 feet up, out on a bare limb, rifle propped, without cover of any kind, he tried not to move, other than to shift his position from time to time to keep the blood flowing.
Light began to fade and the sounds of evening drifted out of the canyons. An owl flew to its perch on silent wings, with a snake clutched in its talons.
All was quiet and Wygle wondered if the bear had gone, caught some errant trail of breeze that whispered danger. Had he made the right choice, committing to this trail, this tree, this branch?
Then the bear was there. Cautious. Moving. Close. 20 feet from the base of the tree. Almost too close. The gun came up and the crosshair found the shoulder and Wygle stroked the trigger.
Staggered by 220 grains of lead and copper, the bear rolled and went down. Wygle kept him covered. But there was no need for a follow-up shot, just time to wait till the shakes had passed before he climbed down out of the tree.
The wind blew the salt off the ocean and rustled in the trees. He placed flashlights at several angles and bent to work to turn his prize into the raw materials for pepperoni and sausage.
Five feet, four inches from nose to tail, the pelt would make a nice rug to remind the hunter of a season's tribute to his father and the promise of spring.