The berry patch I was prowling had more bear scat in just 10 square feet than I had seen in the prior several years combined. It was unreal in both quantity and structure – “berries in, berries out” is an apt description of the type and consistency. The scrub brush I was in, aptly named “bear berries,” was flush with fruit. I began to feel nervous – my single-shot .410 I was carrying for grouse was not going to be enough for whatever was leaving behind this much scat.
Seeking a better vantage, I crawled to the top of a granite boulder. As I glassed the berry patch, looking for trouble and hoping not to find any, I caught a black blob in the distance.
“Bear!” I called to my buddy Matt. “Bear, bear, bear!” I exclaimed, repeating myself like an idiot and like Matt hadn’t heard me the first time.
Like most of my encounters with the species, the next thing I saw was an ass in the distance running directly away from me. But as the bear ran, I noticed two things. First was the speed – I expected that. I have heard for years that bears are fast. But second was the lack of grace, which surprised me. The bear reminded me of a fat pug running a 100-meter dash. Give that a moment in your mind’s eye. The fat rolled up and down his sides in a fluid motion, almost seeming to propel him forward in one instance, then
stretch his skin in another. It was the epitome of a fat fall bear.
Thrilled to have even seen a bear, I was soon thinking about all that meat “on the paw,” and the fact that I also had a bear tag in my pocket. (It was left over from a spring bear hunt that amounted to nothing more than a camping trip in the rain.) A plan was hatched – back out slow and quiet, then come back in a few days and kill this bear. He would be here, as the food, the cover and the lack of access nearly guaranteed it.
TWO DAYS LATER, a foursome of folks – Matt, his daughter Brooklyn and my son Noah and I – made our way up to the berry patch. Matt and Brooklyn would approach from the east; Noah and I would come from the west. The plan was to glass the patch, find the bear and see if we could shoot it.
I could tell my son was a little nervous. He would not admit it, but I think he was a little scared of the idea of bear. I told him
a story about the first time I encountered one. I was 15 years old and walking a canyon floor with a buddy during deer season. We rounded a corner and heard the “woof” sound that bears make when they’re threatened. On our left was a bear standing on her hind legs and looking at us. To our right was a trio of cubs. My heart raced and I nearly needed a change of underpants. We were, essentially, a meat sandwich at that point. We slowly nocked arrows and even more slowly backed out.
The story did not alleviate his fears.
Eventually Noah and I found a vantage point for glassing the berry patch. After a few moments of glassing, I could see movement in the berry patch that was not being caused by wind. I focused in on it, waiting for a sign of life. Eventually, I caught a glimpse of black moving in the underbrush. Then I saw a black paw grab a branch full of berries and bring it down. Then an ear and a paw came into view. We had found the bear – now what?
Desperation often causes inspiration. I told my son to whistle. He looked at
me with his head cocked to the side; “Whistle what?” he said.
“I am not sure that it matters,” I said.
Next thing I knew, the creepy fournote
tune from the Hunger Games was being belted out from next to me. I put my scope on the last patch of black I had seen. Sure enough, the bear’s head appeared, then his neck. He was only 70 yards out. I took the shot and the bear disappeared back into the scrub.
I waited a solid five minutes before going into the brush after the bear. As I trudged forward, Noah kept falling behind. Before I knew it, I was separated from him by 30 yards.
“You need to get out of this brush,
bud,” I told him.
“Why?” he asked.
“Because if this bear ain’t dead and it so much as scratches your leg on the way by, I will never live it down with your mother. Just do me a favor and wait until I find him?”
“’Kay,” he said, suddenly even more nervous.
EVENTUALLY I FOUND the bear. Berries falling out of its mouth, it had died gorging itself. That’s how I want to go. He was roughly a 6-footer, a nice size for Idaho. The main issue was just how much he weighed. I eviscerated the bear, making sure to take a look at his liver (spots can be a sign of infection) and hoping to shed a few pounds of the carcass. It was all Matt and I could do to drag the bear out to a road. Eventually we loaded him up in the quad and made our way back to Matt’s cabin.
When I broke the bear down and started skinning it I noticed just how much fat this bear had on him. On his back rump the fat was over 3 inches thick. He had been building a layer for the winter. Fat in wild game is uncommon, so I was going to make the best of it.
I rendered the bear fat, like the old timers used to do. I also made bear bacon, I made roasts, I slow cooked the shoulders in barbecue sauce for sandwiches.
But the highlight – the reason I go back into the woods each fall and spring with a bear tag and my longbow – is bear ham. I use the big muscle groups out of the hindquarters and brine them for a week, smoke them over apple and then eat grilled cheese and bear ham sandwiches all winter long. They are flatout
HOW TO MAKE A BEAR HAM
The elephant in the room with bear meat is trichinosis. Bear meat causes 90 percent of the trichinosis cases in the country, simply because it is not cooked enough. Cook your bear past 145 degrees Fahrenheit and you are good. Any lower than that and you run the risk of a food-borne illness. Not a fun one either.
Popular outdoor writer and TV host Steven Rinella contracted it off an Alaskan black bear last year. Trichinosis does not fool around; neither should you or I.
4 quarts hot water, divided
1.5 cups salt
1 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar (or honey)
1.5 ounces Instacure No. 1
½ cup pickling spice
20 crushed garlic cloves
10 to 15 pounds of bear hindquarter
meat, 3- to 4-pound muscles each
Trim the hind loins of as much fat and connective tissue as possible before attempting the recipe. The cleaner the meat going in, the better it will be coming out. Also, the recipe can be used on other game animals as well; I do a variation on this recipe for wild turkey breasts and for venison.
Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil in a 4-quart sauce pot. Next, stir in the salt, sugar, brown sugar and Instacure No. 1. All the solid particles should diffuse into the water. Next, add the pickling spice and the garlic cloves.
Add the remaining 2 quarts of water, cold, to the hot water. This will drop the temperature of the brine. Transfer the mix, now called a brine, to a large plastic container or nonreactive pot. Add the meat to the brine. Let the meat soak for a week in the refrigerator. Make sure that all the meat is submerged. (I often use a plate and a few cans of beans for weight.)
Next, remove the bear meat from the brine. Pat it dry and let rest on the counter until it comes to room temperature. Then smoke the bear for about four hours or until it reaches 145 degrees. If you are not a smoked ham fan, simply bake the ham at 375 degrees until it reaches 145 degrees. Reaching this temperature is critical with bear meat since it will kill trichinosis. When cooked, let the ham rest until cool before cutting into it. This will help retain the moisture. It will last in the fridge up to a week thawed, and for over a year in the freezer. Slice it thin like deli ham or roast whole for a special occasion. RK