The berry patch I was walking in had more bear scat in ten square feet than I had seen in the prior several years combined. It was unreal in both quantity and structure – “berries in and berries out” give 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 had for the grouse opener 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 he hadn’t heard me the first time.
Like most of my encounters with bear my vision was that of 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, it was the lack of grace that surprised me; the bear reminded me of a fat pug running a 100 meter dash. Give that a moment for the 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 that I had a bear tag in my pocket. (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 quite, then come back in a few days and kill this bear. He would be here, the food, the cover and the lack of access nearly guaranteed it.
Two days later a foursome of folks – Matt, my son Noah, Matts daughter Brooklyn 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.
Out hunting for bear 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, not a real bear. I related to him a story about the first time I encountered a bear. I was fifteen years old walking a canyon floor with a buddy during deer season. We rounded a corner and heard the “woof” sound threatened bears make. On our left was a bear standing on her hind legs looking at us. To our right was a trio of cubs. My heart raced and I nearly needed a change of undershorts. We were, essentially, a meat sandwich at that point. We slowly knocked arrows and even more slowly backed out.
The story did not alleviate his fears. Eventually we found a vantage point for glassing the berry patch.
After a few moments of glassing I could see movement in the berry patch 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, a paw, came into view. But never a shot. 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 four note 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 bears 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 scrub brush after the bear. As I trudged forward Noah kept falling behind. Before I knew it I was separated from him by a solid 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 scratched 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 six foot bear – 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 for a run I noticed just how much fat this bear had on him. On his back rump the fat was over three inches thick. He was building a layer for the winter. Fat in wild game is uncommon – I was going to make the best of it.
I rendered the bear fat, like the old timers uses to do. I made bear bacon, I made roasts, I slow cooked the shoulders in BBQ sauce for sandwiches. 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 hind quarters – I brine them for a week, smoke them over apple and then eat grilled cheese and bear ham sandwiches all winter long. They are flat out delicious.
Bear Meat –
The elephant in the room with bear meat is that they almost certainly carry trichinosis. Bear meat causes 90% of the trichinosis cases in the country, simply because it is not cooked enough. Cook your bear past 145 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 even 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 oz. insta-cure #1
1/2 cup pickling spice
20 crushed garlic cloves
10-15 pounds of bear hind quarter meat, 3-4 pound muscles each
Note: 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 water to a boil in a 4 quart sauce pot. Next stir in the salt, sugar, brown sugar and insta-cure #1. All the solid particles should diffuse into the water. Next add the pickling spice and the garlic cloves.
Add the remaining 2 quarts 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 non-reactive 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)
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 4 hours or until it reaches 145 degrees. If you are not a smoked ham fan simply bake the ham at 375 degrees until 145 degrees.
Reaching this temp 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 fridge up to a week thawed. It will last for over a year in the freezer. Slice it thin like deli ham, roast whole for a special occasion…basically just eat and enjoy.