When you’re in a tree stand hunting bears over bait, you gotta watch out for two things: peeing and sleeping. Three things, really, counting the bears.
Peeing marks the area with your scent, which you don’t want. Some guys use special sprays that supposably eliminate human odor and whiz-bang fabrics that block whatever the spray didn’t get. I figure if I fill the bait barrel with dog food and top it with popcorn and day-old donuts, ol’ Brother Bear’s gonna come nibble at a Bavarian Creme or a jelly roll even if he catches a whiff of me.
It’s not like this is pristine forest. Native folks’ve been here for thousands of years, and for the last couple centuries, Anglos like me’ve been coming around with four wheelers and rifles and handles of booze. These bears have seen a thing or two.
Obviously, falling asleep in a tree stand thirty yards from a purpose-built bear buffet ain’t the best idea. But I tend to do just that. All those hours sitting, not moving, just listening to the wind in the trees. Maybe the tree rocking a bit if it’s a little one or the stand’s a bit high up.
One year, I was dead to the world when Chad blasted a big ol’ black bear. I damn near had a heart attack. Woulda fallen out of the stand if I hadn’t been belted in. Of course I didn’t tell Lacie, even though she was the one kept insisting I rig up the belt. Chad, the bastard, said if I’d kicked the bucket that day he woulda asked the taxidermist for a two-for-one.
The night before the day I’m talking about now, Chad got a little too friendly with his friend Jack Daniels. I didn’t want to miss the morning, so I left him snoring in camp and hiked out along the wheeler trail. I didn’t want to fall asleep flying solo, so I brought me a thermos full of strong, black coffee. Knowing full well the problem with coffee was peeing, but trying to balance that against sleeping. This being the sort of thing I don’t tell Lacie on account of she wouldn’t understand my logic.
I get out there, climb up, and belt in. I’ve got my rifle propped in the corner of the stand, tied off, just in case, and I’m pouring the coffee into that little cup that screws off when I hear leaves crunch behind me.
I freeze. There’s a pause. The crunching starts again.
I go stock-still. Body frozen and mind on red alert. I feel every particle of air hitting my face. I smell the trees, the dirt, my sweat. I see every curlicue in the steam coming up offa the coffee. And I smell that coffee, let me tell you. I smell that coffee and I wonder what bears like more, coffee or donuts.
I hope like hell the answer is donuts.
Leaves crunch behind my left shoulder. I twist around. The forest goes silent. I freeze again, twisted like that. Still got the coffee cup in one hand, the thermos in the other, like a complete fool. I look at the coffee and swear to God I thought, if this was McDonalds coffee, maybe I could scald the bear to death with it.
I wait a couple breaths then untwist and set the cup and the thermos on the floor of the stand and gather up my rifle. Trying not to think about how easy a bear can climb this tree and come up behind me, how hard it’d be to get the rifle around with all these branches.
The crunching starts again. Getting closer. It stops for a minute then starts again. Still coming. I’m thinking stupid thoughts, like I’m not gonna look because then it might not see me.
It’s right behind me. Slow, steady steps.
I pull the rifle up to my shoulder—ol’ Brother Bear is too close for the scope, even with the magnification set at minimum—and twist around.
The biggest raccoon I’ve ever seen looks up at me, his eyes bright in his bandit mask, and sort of cocks his head, like a dog might.
I about piss myself with relief.
Ol’ Ricky Raccoon sits up on his haunches and scratches his face with his bony-fingered hands. He looks at me, and I look at him, not sure which one of us is more curious. He drops onto all fours and keeps on the same way he was going.
He never even looks at the bait barrel. Like he knows. And maybe he does. Smart little guys those raccoons.
After a few minutes of silence, I drink the coffee even though I’m wide awake. If that raccoon walked right by, then I’m not too obvious. I’m blending in.
Just as I finish the cup and get it screwed on the thermos and my rifle set again, I hear one twig snap. It snaps kinda slow, like whatever snapped it was moving slow and cautious. Then nothing. I’ve got my mouth open and I’m breathing as quietly as I can. I’m back to feeling every particle of air. It’s hitting the right side of my face. I’m downwind of whatever’s coming.
One of the shadows off to the right, over toward the tree Chad would be in if he wasn’t sleeping it off, one of those shadows is all of a sudden a little darker, a little bigger, a little blacker than it was before.
I move my fingers, nice and slow, to make sure they’re loose. I’m breathing slow, trying to stay calm. There’s not much wind, I’ve got a clear shot, all I’ve got to do is not blow it. I can hear my heart beating nice and slow—the coffee hasn’t kicked in quite yet.
One second there’s no bear and the next second there’s a bear. Good size, not huge, the one we’ve seen on the game cam with the patch of white on his chest.
Now he’s in the clearing heading toward the barrel. Toward the popcorn and donuts and dog food. I put the cross-hairs on him. The shot’s not perfect. He’s moving and quartering away a little. I breathe slow and hope.
He takes another two steps and squares up just perfect. He’s got a chocolate old-fashioned in his mouth when I pull the trigger. He takes a step and falls over. I rack another round. The chocolate old fashioned falls out of his mouth. His back feet twitch and he’s still.
I keep the crosshairs on him and count to three hundred Mississippi. Making sure.
He’s got a nice coat. Not all rubbed off like some get this time of year. Can’t see the entry wound through the thick, black fur.
No movement. No breathing.
I tuck the Thermos into my pack, sling the rifle over my shoulder, and start the climb down the ladder, my eyes on the bear as much as the rungs.
I walk up on him slow.
Hold the rifle on him, give him a nudge.
I’m figuring I’ll get him gutted then hike back to camp, get the wheeler, and wake Chad.
Ol’ Brother Bear is lying on his side, the chocolate old fashioned in the dirt next to his mouth. It’s right side up, somehow, looking good enough to eat. Maybe I should eat it. Some sort of communion with the dead bear.
That’s when it hits me. The trickery of using bait.
I know the arguments: humans use brains over brawn, we’ve got to manage the wild populations. Stewardship, husbandry, and so on. But the donut cancels all that out. It’s not fair chase, at least not in my book.
I’ll still bait a hook to catch a fish, and no, I can’t tell you how that’s different, but I can tell you standing there in the forest looking at that donut with coffee on my breath, that was the moment I stopped shooting bears over bait.
Prompted by Nikki Kallio (raccoon, donut, forest)
Leave me a prompt (a living thing, an inanimate object, and a location) and I will write a story and tag you when it’s published.
Jim’s Taco Fund
Buy me some tacos so I don’t have to scrounge day-old donuts. Even a quesadilla would do.
Photo courtesy of Jim Latham