“A big bear is going to come in, and an even bigger one is going to come in after that,” said my guide, Kristen Mack.
I thought that prediction was a bit optimistic considering I had seen zero bears the previous day while hunting in remote northern Alberta, Canada. A few short hours after Kristen’s hopeful declaration, I sat alone in stunned disbelief on a small wooden stand 20 feet up in the trees. I had just shot the biggest black bear of my life, which is saying something considering I already have one bear in the record book. Thirty minutes later, I shot an even bigger one.
We had spotted large tracks on our run into my stand on a quad runner, and Kristen’s intuition was spot on. The hunt would turn into one which I would never forget. It was supposed to have happened three years ago but was canceled two years in a row due to COVID. I was there with five other hunters, including such notable industry figures as fellow writer Craig Boddington and Mossberg’s Linda Powell, to test a variety of Mossberg firearms, Hornady ammunition, and Swarovski optics. As things turned out, the long trip north was more than worth waiting for. It was a hunt of a lifetime.
We each had two bear tags, thanks to the dense bear population in northern Alberta, and we were hunting from tree stands overlooking bait stations, which is a much more sporting proposition than I would have imagined. That’s partly because black bears are one of the most difficult animals in North America to judge accurately. You must first distinguish boar from sow, and once you identify a boar, there’s the difficult challenge of judging size. You may have to cope with multiple bears, or cubs climbing your tree to the irritation of their mamma, or a bear who wants to climb into the stand with you, which is decidedly not a good thing. Linda Powell, who has been putting this hunt on for a couple of decades with W&L Guide Service, has had as many as eight bears milling around her at once, and one of her hunters once had to shoot a bear when it tried to join him in his stand. During our hunt, Kristen’s brother, Shawn, was treed by a big aggressive boar which Linda later shot. The salient point is that these hunts are not risk-free. You are hunting something that’s perfectly capable of killing you.
My first bear came in silently. One moment he wasn’t there, and the next moment he was. I immediately knew he was a good bear. He had all the signs – bulky front quarters, a linebacker neck, ears far apart, and a crease down the middle of his skull. Still, I studied him closely through a pair of Swarovski NL Pure 8×32 binoculars, which are easily the best in this power I’ve ever peered through. I marveled at the strength of the bear as he played with a 55-gallon bait barrel as though it was a toy. I still hadn’t decided to shoot until he walked behind the barrel and I could see his back was above it, indicating he was a seven-foot bear. My mind finally screamed, “Shoot him, you idiot!”
I raised a Mossberg Patriot rifle, chambered in 308 Win., and flicked a small lever to turn on the illuminated reticle of a Swarovski Z8i scope, but the bear would not give me a good angle for a shot. Working over the bait barrel, he slowly shifted position and eventually gave me a slightly quartering-away shot. I took it, driving a Hornady 150-grain Interlock bullet behind the near shoulder and into the far shoulder. The bear ran a half circle behind me, clearly laboring, until he disappeared behind the thick stands of spruce, aspen, and poplar trees that dominate the area. I was confident he was down.
I had just gotten my heartbeat back to normal when something made me look over my shoulder behind me. Call it a sixth sense or hunter’s intuition, but I had a feeling that something was behind me. I was shocked to see an even bigger bear sneaking in cautiously from behind. The bear came in slowly, eyeing me the entire time. He walked by the bait, sniffed it, and walked directly to the bottom of the angled wooden ladder leading to my stand. I stood and slowly aimed the rifle downward, and we stared hard at each other for what seemed an eternity but was probably a few minutes. The bear finally blinked before I did. He urinated on the spot, sending a clear message, and walked off, only to circle and return. He tried to reach a beaver carcass hung eight feet in the air from a ridgepole, and his nose nearly touched it, which told me all I needed to know. He then dropped to all fours and began walking semi-parallel to me, but closing the distance with each step, in a slow, deliberate gait. That was enough for me. I put a shot into his boiler room as his facing leg swung forward. He ran 20 yards and piled up, leaving me struggling to comprehend the fact that I had just taken two bears of a lifetime just 30 minutes apart.
Remarkably, while we were recovering my bears, I had to stand guard against another seven-foot bear that watched us from about 30 yards away and would not be scared off. One of our other hunters shot that bear the next day, and Kristen told me of another seven-footer that came into that stand the following week. No one tagged that one. I have never seen one area produce as many big bears as the 100-square-kilometer area in which W&L Guide Service hunts. In addition to my two enormous bears, which measured 7 ft., 7 in. and 7 ft., 4 in., Linda Powell took two bears measuring 7 ft., 7 in. and 7 ft., 3 in. In total, our six hunters took 11 bears, with six of them measuring seven feet or better.
While we had a variety of Mossberg firearms to choose from for this hunt, I chose a classic-looking rifle, the walnut-stocked Mossberg Patriot. When Patriot rifles were first introduced seven years ago, they made quite a splash because initial offerings included affordable rifles with attractive, classic-profile walnut stocks at a time when the market was being dominated by synthetic stocks. Synthetics have their virtues, but in my eyes, they’ll never match the beauty of blued steel mated with nice walnut. Such rifles often have much higher price tags than synthetic-stocked rifles, but that’s not the case with the affordable Patriot.
With this rifle, Mossberg got a lot of things right – especially the stock contours and dimensions — combining classic styling with features hunters wanted. I was pleased to discover that Mossberg has recently upgraded the quality of the walnut used for the stock over those I’ve seen in the past several years, and the stock on the gun sent to me had more figure and color than I would ever expect of a rifle in this price category. Standard features include a fluted 22-inch sporter-contour barrel with a match crown, a detachable five-round magazine, a spiral-fluted dual-lug bolt, and an adjustable Lightning Bolt Action trigger. As it arrived from the factory, the trigger on my rifle broke crisply at a pull weight of 2 lbs., 1 oz, and I felt no need to adjust it.
I didn’t have time to fully test the rifle before the hunt, but it consistently shot my chosen hunting load into groups slightly smaller than one inch. I consider that fine accuracy considering I was using a bullet designed primarily for reliable terminal performance nearly half a century ago. I was using Hornady’s American Whitetail load with a 150-grain Interlock bullet. This tried-and-trusted bullet is basically a cup-and-core design, but with a difference. It has a ring on the inner jacket that helps lock the jacket to the core while it expands. Impressive terminal performance is the rule, and that proved to be the case with both of my bears. I did not recover the bullet from my biggest bear because it was a complete pass-through, but I did recover the bullet from the off-side shoulder of the other bear. The bullet had a retained weight of 90.1 grains, which isn’t bad considering everything that the bullet smashed through before coming to rest. In this load, the bullet launches at 2,820 fps. Zeroed at 200 yards, it’s only 8.5 inches low at 300 yards with retained energy of more than 1,400 ft. lbs. It is an ideal cartridge for black bears.
My rifle was topped with a Swarovski Z8i 1.7-13.3×42 P scope, which proved ideal for this hunt, nestled in a set of Warne rings. The scope’s illumination feature was especially helpful since a black reticle against a black bear in low light doesn’t equate to the best aiming solution. This lightweight scope has a 30mm-tube, crystal clear glass, good eye relief, and a generous field of view. I had the power set at 2X for the duration, and never needed more than that. The scope is impressive, as are the NL Pure binoculars, which I simply fell in love with. Yes, they’re expensive, but top-quality optics usually are.
If you’re looking for a high-percentage chance to tag a big black bear (or two), I highly recommend W&L Guide Service. It’s a family business, with patriarch Wally Mack running the operation and his wife, Louisa, preparing home-cooked meals that all but guarantee you’ll go home weighing more than you did upon arrival at their comfortable camp near the small town of High Level, Alberta. Sons Kristen and Shawn take care of the bait sites, transporting hunters to and from stands, and recovering downed bears, among other chores. The Macks have been guiding hunters to trophy bears for quite a long time and are among the best in the business.
I only hope I have a chance to go back someday. I just know there’s an eight-foot bear out there with my name on it.
Mossberg Patriot Walnut Rifle 308 Win
Caliber: 308 Win
Action: Push-feed bolt action
Magazine: Detachable box
Barrel: 22-inch, matte blue
Rate of Twist: 1:10
Stock: Satin finish walnut
Trigger: Adjustable LBA trigger
Weight: 7 lbs.
Length: 42.75 in.