Two Out of Three Ain’t Bad
By Gary Lewis
"I'm not cutting my hair or shaving a whisker until I get a bear," my cousin Neil told me over the phone. "I'm serious about this."
That was in November of 2005 with the fall bear season all but over and little chance of seeing a bruin until spring. “Well you’re going to look pretty shaggy by April,” I told him.
In September of 2004, Neil Lewis had picked a copy of Oregon Hunter magazine off the newsstand. He’d read a story I’d written about bear hunting and looked up my phone number. He’d had some success hunting deer in the past few years and wanted to try his hand at tagging a bruin. He told me he was moving to Port Orford in southwest Oregon. There isn’t a better place to learn to be a bear hunter.
We decided to keep in touch over the fall and into the spring of 2005. We even hunted together in the spring. But black bears made themselves scarce as far as Neil was concerned. He set his sights on the fall. September and October passed and the days began to grow cold. Neil knew it was time to take desperate measures, time to forego the barber’s chair and the razor.
At that point, Neil had invested every spare minute of the last two years hunting bears. He’d spent countless hours driving to remote locations, walking ridge tops and glassing clear cuts, but his dreams of a bear were unrealized. And, with fuel costs over $3.00 a gallon, his monthly gasoline bill was through the roof. “I’m going broke, and I’m discouraged,” he told me once. “But I’m going to do it.”
Perhaps he drew inspiration from the biblical story of Samson who swore not to touch a razor to his head. Samson’s strength grew and he felled a lion with his bare hands while he prepared for battles to come.
Neil’s aspirations ran more to the use of a bolt-action rifle and a well-constructed bullet than to hand-to-paw combat, but his appearance took on a primitive unkemptness as the months passed.
Neil ran a one-man excavation company, installing drainfields, digging ditches and scraping out driveways. If his beard and sandy blonde hair grew a little long, it probably helped him fit in to the community.
Meanwhile, he took every opportunity to talk to hunters and landowners about bear they had seen. He bought his spring tag and, in April, began driving the roads and glassing clearcuts as the longer days brought new growth to the hillsides. He called me mid-month to say that this season was shaping up like all the rest, but he was going to keep at it.
An Appointment with the Barber
April 19 was his anniversary and he took his wife Angie on a short hunt that evening after work. Neil probably wouldn’t have bagged his first bear if he’d taken Angie out to dinner instead of on a bear hunt. A half an hour before dark they spotted a big black boar on a far hillside. Neil made the stalk and the shot. After two years of single-minded dedication to his goal, now he had bear steaks, bear sausage, and an appointment at the barber.
In August he bought a fall tag. Going up a trail, he surprised a bear in the blackberries. The brown-phase black bear sprinted down the hill, leaped across the creek and turned broadside to look back. Neil anchored him with one round from his .44 Magnum.
First thing he did after rendering the second bear into useable protein was buy a Southwest Oregon Additional Bear tag. He played cat and mouse with another bear in the blackberries, but never saw it and the season ended with the last tag unfilled. But two out of three is not too bad!
His first bear will end up as a rug to go on the floor and the second is being crafted into a life-size mount to remind him of his Oregon black bear odyssey.“It was all I thought about for two years,” Neil said. “I wondered what do they eat? When do they sleep? When do they wake up? I would have dreams at night about sitting next to a bear and smiling, having put my tag on it.”
Neil’s single-minded quest paid off, not only with two bears, but also with a wild turkey, a blacktail deer and a Roosevelt elk he arrowed in his first season bowhunting.
Bear thrive in many parts of the state and spring bear hunting has grown in popularity. Oregon’s bear population is thought to number about 30,000 animals, spread over approximately 40,000 square miles of habitat. Spring hunts are controlled by a lottery that limits the number of hunters. Bag limit is one bear, except that it is unlawful to take cubs less than a year old, or a sow with cubs.
The general season starts August 1 and runs through November 30 in eastern Oregon and through December 31 in western Oregon. For those who bag their bear and want to keep hunting, an additional tag is available in southwest Oregon. It takes a certain amount of dedication.
“Time,” Neil said. “You've got to put your time in. After all the days I spent – hiking, following tracks and trails – I go up and see one in a half-hour.”It’s called being in the right place at the right time. Like Neil says: “You’re not going to do it if you’re sitting on the couch.”
Cousin Neil has his hair trimmed tight, the way he likes it, and keeps his beard neatly cropped. He’s turned his excavation attentions to the sandy soils of Arizona, but he’ll never forget his two-year quest for a bear in southwest Oregon. It all started with an article in Oregon Hunter.