Thomas family bag bears in Minnesota
by Bonnie Kay Baldwin
Lake Mills Graphic
Dawn Thomas, Lake Mills, is an avid outdoorswoman. Already an avid fisherwoman, she has now become an avid hunter as well.
“The kids shamed me into hunting,” the mother of their two adult children, said. “Well, it started with archery. Everybody shot bows and Dave has taken the kids hunting, ever since they were little. They said to me, ‘Mom, you’re the only one in the family who doesn’t hunt.’ Well, I don’t like being cold, and I’m a scaredy-cat,” answered Dawn.
Since she began hunting in 2006, she has hunted turkey, deer, and wild boar. She said she learned how to layer and how to dress appropriately, to combat the rain and the cold.
Her most thrilling hunting experience though, took place in Northern Minnesota, late August and early September this year.
Last spring, Dave, and son, Brad, went up to the land they had chosen, and scouted out where it would be best to bear hunt. Then, later on in the summer, Dawn and Dave checked those same spots, making four-wheeler trails to follow. Then, on Aug. 17, they headed up north again, to place bait boxes (or ‘cribs’), to draw the bears out.
Deep in the woods, they found places to make cribs out of fallen and dead trees. They set up the cribs and filled them with bait. All five stations were within a nine-mile wide area.
“We went up two weeks before opening day. In Minnesota, some have a bait barrel, where you chain it to a tree; but on public land, you can’t do that. Instead, you make a box out of logs, using fallen trees or cutting some old, dead trees down, and then you put your stuff in it. We used a couple different baits; some with molasses and oats, popcorn and dog food. Sometimes we made bear crack—a slurry of syrup, sugar, marshmallows, and dry Jello flavoring and dog food, similar to a popcorn ball. After placing the bear crack into the bait crib, we put logs back on top. You want heavy logs so other critters don’t come and eat the bear’s food,” said Dawn.
After spending a couple days baiting their cribs, Dave and Dawn left for home until the 24th of August. This time, the two made the trip back up and stayed two weeks—their camper acting as home base. The job this time, was to run baits every day—taking the four-wheeler, driving out to the bait sites, checking the wildlife cameras to see what bear had been photographed, and refilling the baits. The bears will take and throw the logs off to get at the bait, so they have to be reassembled.
“In the beginning, it would take us a good half day or four to six hours just to run baits. It was just the two of us, but the more we did it the easier it got. It’s hard work. We had a base where we would come back to fill up our buckets. We would place them on the four-wheeler. Then as time went on, we’d put less and less out so the bears would come back more often to check. Otherwise, they would eat and not come back, because they would have full tummies.”
Their first day of hunting was Sunday, Sept. 1, opening day.
“We had two double stands where you could sit two people and two single stands that were wide open, and then we had one that was a box blind that was wooden, a handmade one, and we put burlap around it. That’s where I sat with Dave in the pouring rain, and where I shot my bear from.”
The first few days, Dawn and Dave had a friend hunting with them, Jason Reynolds, and Brad was there to help his mom hunt, so his dad could have a chance to shoot his own bear. Dave and Jason both bagged their bears on day two of the hunt, Sept. 2. Dave shot his bear first—weighing about 300 pounds. Jason shot his next; a small one. “Once you get your bear, you’re done. So, when Dave got his, they processed it the next day and did Jason’s as well. Skinned them, quartered them, took care of the meat basically. Brad took me hunting Saturday and Sunday. Jason left Wednesday.”
“We processed the meat at our camper. We have a big screened-in tent where we have a picnic table. We were out of the rain and the elements. We had to go shopping to buy a freezer on Thursday. Dave had his bear meat in the cooler on ice. We needed more dry ice but couldn’t find dry ice anywhere, so the next best thing was to buy this freezer and plug it in to our generator. We got the hide and the meat frozen solid, so it wouldn’t go to waste. When Brad left, Sunday, Sept. 8, he took the two other tree stands and the freezer full of meat home with him.”
Only one person had still to bag a bear. Dawn finally shot her bear Monday, Sept. 9.
“We’d sat there (in the box blind)from 2 until 7:30 p.m. It had rained hard, roads were flooded. It was windy. But, in the blind we were dry. I was tired, I just wanted to go home. I’m saying, ‘nothing is going to come in’, but Dave said, ‘no, we’re just going to sit here until dark’. I was worn out. It had been two weeks. I said ‘whatever’, I’m just going to sit here and be good . . . so I just said the Lord’s Prayer, and Your Will Be Done, when Dave said, ‘You need to get your gun out and get ready,’ the Holy Spirit is telling me just to get ready, and no sooner than I got my rifle up and was positioning it on my shoulder, Dave’s like, ‘There’s your bear, there’s your bear. Take it, take it.’ The bear was right in front of the stand, I saw half the bear’s body, and I thought, I’ve got the perfect shot, and he taught me how to breathe through the shot . . . Boom. Dave said, ‘Dead bear.’ and I’m celebrating, and he’s saying, ‘Shhh.’ And, I thought, oh yeah, we need to wait for the death moan. When we heard it, we took a bearing with the compass on my phone as to where it ended up in the woods.”
The Thomas’ found the bear; it had gone about 40-50 yards. When they got there, they took some pictures. At that time, they’d totally lost sight of the crib, and where they had gone in at in the woods.
So, Dave got some cord and he took a branch about two-feet long, tied the cord around the neck and pulled on it like he was rowing. “Here we are in the pouring rain, trying to pull this bear out. I’m just trying to give directions guiding him around things (rocks and trees) and trying to find a path to go. It was pitch black. So Dave went and found the four-wheeler trail, and hooked up his headlight to a tree. When we got to the four-wheeler, we had to get him on the trailer. The trailer was like a foot and a half off of the ground. We prayed for supernatural strength. (The bear ended up weighing about 400 pounds.)”
Dawn said she never really thought about it before, but she assumed they would drive right up to the bait site. No, not there. She said they would park their four-wheeler a half or three-quarters of a mile away and walk in. There were times they would drive 30 to 45 minutes, and then get off and walk another 10-15 minutes to get to the tree stand. It was interesting, she said.
“I would never do this on my own. I am so blessed, that between my son and my husband, they take good care of me. They allow me to hunt with them, because otherwise I just wouldn’t do it.”
The first time Dawn said she shot a bear, it was with a long bow. She had Dave with her and it was a small bear. She was asked to compare that time to this, her second bear hunt.
“I couldn’t believe it the first time when I shot my bear with the long bow. I was just in awe. It was almost surreal, like, did that really happen? That time I was there just to enjoy, because my guide did all the baiting. After the shot, he gave me the thumbs up, and then I gave him the thumbs up, and we sat there listening until the bear made the death moan, so we knew that it had died. I know it’s sad, but it’s a good sound for me . . . because I don’t have to track a wounded bear. So it’s like YES. But this second time, it was much more challenging and I had done a lot of work preparing for this trip. I was’t scared. I don’t know why. Maybe because I’ve been practicing and I feel more confident with my rifle (a Savage Scout 7mm-08). I was just sitting there looking at Dave and he was looking at me. With bear, you aim for the middle of the middle and then just a little forward. Their vitals are in a different place than deer. You don’t want to shoot them head on, you want a broadside shot. This was so much more rewarding, and it was SO BIG.”
By the time they got the bear loaded and back to their camper, it was 11:30 p.m. They processed her bear the next day and brought it home in a cooler in their camper.
Looking back on this bear hunting experience, Dawn said she learned by trial and error and had to figure out for herself, what works and what doesn’t. The biggest thing she said, is learning to sit still for a long period of time. Or when you hear a noise, not to react so fast, just slowly move your head; and experience helps.
“I enjoy being outside. It’s overcoming some of your own fears. When I shot my first big buck, I was hooked on hunting. Once you do it, it’s a challenge. Just knowing that you can do it—it’s a pretty amazing feeling. You can say, ‘I did this, it was me . . . nobody else. What a great learning experience.”