A large bear appeared on the ridge above us and checked the wind, no doubt picking up the scent of dead carp. We’d supplemented our bait site with fish and stuffed them inside burlap bags that we hung from the trees. The boar then stepped through a tangle of downed spruce and into our bait site, a narrow sun-lit clearing on this Idaho mountainside. The boar’s chocolate hide shimmered in the evening light. Mike Romans was ready, his rifle shouldered—but he didn’t shoot.
Mike’s son, Ben, leaned in and said, “Whenever you’re ready.” Mike was silent. Ben leaned in again, figuring maybe his dad hadn’t heard him. “You can take him,” he said louder. More silence. Ben and I looked at each other, and he shrugged his shoulders.
A sapling stood between us and the back half of the bear. Maybe Mike didn’t have a shot. The bow-legged boar moved toward a barrel where we had planted more fish, plus a few gallons of dog food and a sickeningly sweet mix of syrup and marshmallows. The bear was quartering toward us now, less than 40 yards away, and the hairs on his sagging belly grazed the dirt. Behind me, Ben’s friend Rocky Fennessy, who had set the bait and tended it for weeks, glassed the bear. “OK,” he said. “Shoot him, Mike.” I looked at Ben, then we both turned to Mike. I leaned forward in my chair, trying to gauge what Mike was thinking. His face was white.
“Shoot him,” Fennessy said.
I turned to Fennessy: “No shot.”
Fennessy came out of his chair, walking toward us on his knees, his own rifle in hand. He’d be damned if a bear this good got away. “No shot,” I said again.
“Tell him to shoot, Ben,” Fennessy said. “That’s a real good bear.”
The bear turned toward us. It was over now, I was sure. All this talking. All this commotion. We were busted.
That’s when I heard the safety click off.
Around a campfire after a successful mule deer hunt in Idaho’s Sawtooth Range, Ben and I had hatched an idea for our next hunting adventure together—a cast and blast of sorts. We’d begin by bowfishing for common carp in Lake Lowell and the lower Snake River, and then use those fish as bait for black bears. As Ben, the online editor for Field & Stream and Outdoor Life, explained, nonnative carp spawn in huge numbers around the start of spring bear season, rooting up river and lake bottoms in search of food the way pigs root up seed. The silt cloud they throw muddies the water, affecting light penetration and, inevitably, subaquatic vegetation, which sets off a domino effect through the food chain that impacts bass, trout, and other gamefish. So, we thought: Why not take some of these invasive fish out of the water and put them to work in the mountains?
In the weeks before I arrived, Ben bowfished Lake Lowell and the Snake, stacking carp like cordwood in his chest freezer. Then, on the weekends, he drove the fish up to Fennessy, who baited three sites. (Bear season opens on April 15 in Idaho, and in some units the state allows you to set up and stock bait sites seven days before the opener.) Baiting is not without controversy, but it is without question the best way to manage bear numbers. In 2017, 47 percent of the roughly 2,500 bears killed in Idaho were taken over bait. Spot-and-stalk was a distant second at 26 percent, followed by hunting with hounds at 16 percent. Idaho is also the best state in the country for targeting color-phase bears. According to the state’s records, more than 45 percent of all the black bears taken in Idaho, as far back as records go, were brown, blond, or a mix of both. Our plan was color-phase bears—taken over a bowfished bait-set—or bust.
When I arrived in Idaho, however, our plan wasn’t looking so smart. Needing extra carp to restock the bait sites before our hunt, Ben and I motored along the shoreline of Lake Lowell. “This isn’t good,” Ben said. The high, clear water ran well into the brush line on shore. “The fish are in there,” Ben said, pointing to a thicket of shrubs and trees that aren’t normally underwater. He nosed the boat into a knot of briars.
“Fish!” I said.
I drew, shot—and missed. The arrow got buried in the weeds and mud. The fluorescent nylon braid was caught in branches and tangled. After 10 minutes of wrestling, the arrow gave, and I hauled in an anchor of mud, weeds, and briars the size of a car tire.
“This isn’t going to work,” Ben said. We decided to try the lower Snake and trailered the boat. But when we arrived, the river was high and murky and didn’t look any more promising than the lake. “I don’t know,” Ben said, disappointed. “I guess we can give it a try.” Then he spotted some splashing in the water a couple hundred yards away, near the opposite shore. “I think those are schooling smallies,” he said. He pulled up his binoculars for a closer look. “Those are carp tails!”
Big spawning carp were splashing in a weedline just off the shore. Beside the boat, love-drunk males darted everywhere. I took the trolling-motor tiller, and Ben grabbed his bow. Smack. He walloped a big spawning female and tossed her in a plastic tub we had brought to hold fish. Smack. He drilled another, then another. He couldn’t miss. “Your turn,” he said. “I can do this anytime.”
The spawning females were in the weedline, and their backs and dorsal fins were out of the water. The fish that weren’t protecting their eggs were cruising just under the surface of the muddy water, clear as day. I shot and missed. The line came in easy. I shot again—and missed again. “Take this bow from me,” I said.
“Nah,” Ben said, “you’ll get it.”
After yet another miss, I flung my fourth arrow. Smack. “There you go!” Ben hollered.
“Look at that!” I said, pulling in the biggest carp I’d ever shot.
The shots came easy now. Smack. Smack. Smack. Somewhere around the 30-fish mark, we figured we had enough.
Back in Ben’s garage, I grabbed a 5-gallon pail and a boat brush to help clean up the mess from the slaughter. “Don’t worry about it,” Ben said. “We have bears to hunt.”
On our first night in the mountains, Ben, Mike, and I cut sticks to build a natural hide. Fennessy, meanwhile, tied shut a burlap sack full of carp with a length of parachute cord. Then he tied an 8-inch stick to the end of the p-cord and tossed it 20 yards up, over a pine branch above the bait barrel. He pulled the line tight and let out a groan. “Pretty heavy,” he said. I helped by lifting the sack, and he took up the line. Before long, our sack of bear bait was dangling in place. But we weren’t finished with the site just yet.
Fennessy set up a single-burner propane stove on the 55-gallon drum he had chained to the tree two weeks earlier. In an old Teflon pot, he heated maple syrup, then stirred in some old marshmallows and sprinkled Western States raspberry gelatin mix over the top. The sugar burned and released a sickly sweet scent. “Bear smoke,” he said. Next, he dumped a gallon of dog food in the drum, then poured the cooked sugar mix over the kibble and all over the ground around the barrel. “The bears will walk through it,” he said, “and track it back to the woods.” He’s gone through this routine every day at 12:30 p.m. for the last two weeks, conditioning the bears like Pavlov’s dogs to a reliable meal of fish and sugar.
The last ingredient for the bait site was the rest of the carp that we’d hauled in. Ben buried it under some logs near the barrel. When he was finished, he wiped his fish-scale-covered hands onto his pants. “Part of me wonders if it’s really worth it,” he said.
“Because it’s so much work?” I asked.
“Because I’m sick of cleaning up carp slime.”
We settled into camp chairs behind the blind, 20 yards downwind from the barrel. I had my bow at the ready. The first few hours were quiet. Squirrels moved in to investigate the buffet. Chipmunks ran along the tops of logs, then saw us and scurried away, chirping an alarm. Noisy blue jays flew in too, but there was no sign of bears.
“We have other sites,” Ben said. His dad sat next to him, chin to chest, dozing off.
“The wind is good,” I replied.
Just before last light, Fennessy tapped my shoulder and pointed. A pair of black ears stuck out over the top of some bushes. Minutes went by, and the bear didn’t move. Then he slowly stepped into view—a large bear, though not a color-phase, with a white diamond on his chest and a notch in his right ear. “That’s a good bear,” Fennessy whispered to me. I picked up my bow and clipped the release. Cautiously, the bear approached the barrel. His back reached the top of the 55-gallon drum—a great way to field-judge a shooter, especially in Idaho, where bears tend to run small. The bear kept moving, past the barrel, and went right for the pile of logs. Ben and I looked at each other, smiling. The bear dug out the planted carp, then ran off, fish in maw, back behind the bush where we first spotted him. After a few seconds, we could hear him chomping away. I leaned into Ben and whispered, “I think it’s worth it.” We bumped fists.
“All he wanted was that carp,” Ben said.
“Stay on it,” Fennessy said. “You might still get a shot.”
“I’m going to hold off,” I said. “Wrong color.”
On the second night, we arrived to find the burlap sack ripped down and the carp gone. We hung another bag, then a few hours later spotted the likely culprit. A cub wandered in, stood on its hind legs under the carp tree, and stretched its nose up to scent the bag. He circled the tree and started to climb. As we sat back and watched the show, a bigger black appeared. The cub scuttled down the tree and ran for the timber. The bear came in on our right and circled downwind of the barrel, less than 10 yards from the front of our blind, before it walked off, never approaching the bait.
“What a show,” Mike said, back at the truck.
“Have you ever seen that much bear activity?” I asked.
“Not without shooting,” Fennessy said.
For three evenings, our hunts played out like that—a steady parade of black bears stealing our fish. Despite all the action, we never saw the bears we were after. I passed on a half-dozen bears, holding firm, as hard as it was, to the pact: color-phase or bust. On the final night of the trip, it was Mike’s turn. We decided to rest the barrel where we’d had the most action and try another spot on a steep ridgeline up the mountain. Little did we know that’s where we’d finally see the color-phase bear that we were after.
The Perfect Shot
I could only guess that Fennessy, who’d put so much work into the bait sites, and who counts bear meat among his favorite to eat, was getting impatient—first by my three days of passing on black bears, and now with Mike’s hesitation to kill this big chocolate bear. When he clicked off his safety, I figured he’d had enough and was ready to shoot Mike’s bear.
But the chocolate had us pegged. None of us moved. As a cold west wind ripped down off the mountain, through our little clearing, I could see the air ripple his fur. I thought for certain he had scented us. He snapped his jaws and huffed up the mountain. I looked to Ben and then at Mike, who was snugged down on his rifle. The color had returned to his face. Meanwhile, the bear remained on high alert. He barked, and then, in a burst of speed, spun 180 degrees where he stood, squaring up to protect his barrel. He was perfectly broadside.
Crack. Mike shot.
The bullet caught the bear midline, just behind the shoulder, in the third or fourth rib, then threw up a cloud of dirt on the hillside behind him. The bruin exploded down a trail, into the spruce and out of view from our blind. The sound of crashing stopped. Silence. Ten seconds passed—then 20… 30… 40… Finally, we heard it. The bear’s last gasp, a death moan ringing through the pines.
Fennessy leaned back off his knees, Ben looked at his dad, and Mike slowly opened the bolt of his rifle. “Nice shot, Dad,” Ben said.
“I wanted it to be perfect,” Mike said. “Perfectly broadside.”
“That’s a nice bear,” Fennessy said.
The blood trail was short. The bear died less than 20 yards from the site. Mike knelt down, put his hands on the beautiful old bear, and closed his eyes. After a few moments, he stood up. “Thank you, boys.”