Muzzleloading for Minnesota Black Bear, 2010

By Randy Wakeman

Dad's black bear and Savage 10ML-II rifle.
Randy, Dad (holding rifle) and Dad's big black bear.

Although far from a certainty, sometimes you can luck out and get drawn two years in a row in Minnesota's black bear lottery. That was the fortuitous circumstance my Dad and I found ourselves in this year. The first step was to confirm our Savage 10ML-II's prior to the hunt. We sighted in dead on at 30 yards. Assuming a 1-1/2 inch scope height, that gives you about 1-1/2 inches low at the muzzle, about an inch low at ten yards and zero at thirty yards. These are decidedly short range exterior ballistics for a long range, high performance muzzleloader like the Savage 10ML-II. You might find it interesting that, although this is a close range set-up, you're still just about one third of one inch below point of aim at 120 yards.


Last year, Dad had great success using 100 grains by blackpowder volumetric measure of Blackhorn 209, pushing a 290 grain Barnes T-EZ Flat Based bullet with the supplied blue sabot. Dad was reticent to break up a good combination and also wanted a very easy loading combination. Actually, it loads too easy for my taste in Dad's gun, going down with just one finger on the ramrod after starting. As a generality, if you want tight groups, your saboted bullet needs to load tight. By �tight,� I mean firmly yet smoothly.


Nevertheless, there are exceptions and Dad's Savage 10ML-II throws them into one hole. I didn't make a particularly big deal of pointing out that, as far as �breaking up a winning combination,� everything my Dad had previously pulled the trigger on with a Savage 10ML-II was one-shot kill in a hurry, all using Accurate 5744 powder. Maybe I'm finally getting to the point where I'm smart enough to know I shouldn't debate the fine points with my eight-two year old father? I measured out a pile of Blackhorn 209 100 grain by volumetric blackpowder measure charges for Dad, made sure he was set on Barnes T-EZ 290 bullets, gave him a fresh box of Winchester W209 primers, updated his 10ML-II with the new 3/8 inch socket head breech plug and my own ventliner, updated his ramrod with a custom �giRAMROD� from Gunn Innovations (with a standard SpinJag attached) and Dad was truly loaded for bear.


Last year, I used the essentially the same combination out of the 10ML-BP, the blackpowder version of the Savage 10ML-II, subbing MMP HPH-12 sabots in place of the supplied T-EZ sabots for a snugger fit and opting for Federal 209A primers. It worked like a charm, going through my bear like butter. The weather was hot in Illinois and time was growing short. My regular shooting and testing is done with a stainless steel laminate Savage 10ML-II. One of my projects was the ideal deep woods Savage 10ML-II, so I had asked Savage to rebarrel my 10ML-BP with a 22" smokeless rated barrel without iron sights. For hunting, particularly when you might be hunting with gloved hands in the rain or snow, a 3-1/2 pound Accu-Trigger is ideal. Too late I discovered my custom Savage 10ML wouldn't adjust quite that high, but Joe DeGrande and his invariably outstanding Savage Customer Service Team came to the rescue and turned around the gun in a few days with a new trigger that could be adjusted heavier.


�Boy Scout's Motto� and all that, so while Savage was quickly turning around the custom 10ML, I sighted in my go-to laminated 10ML-II with 44 grains of Accurate 5744, Federal 209A primers, Barnes Original .458/300 grain Semi-Spitzer Soft Point and orange MMP .458/50 sabots. The Savage 10ML-II carbine arrived back a couple of days before the hunt, so all was well. I mounted my favorite deep woods scope, a Burris Euro Diamond Electro-Dot 1.5-6x40mm with Warne steel bases and medium Warne Maxima Quick Release rings.


Despite the 87-degree, high humidity temperatures, it was off to the range to get things dialed in. Normally, it doesn't take me more than twenty minutes of range time to zero a 10ML-II, but a lot of shooting in high heat doesn't help matters. I felt I had it on, but a hot barrel made the last few shots less than totally convincing. I was curious to see what effect the shorter barrel would have on velocity, so, I set up my CED M2 chronograph to find out. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the velocity of 44 grains (actual weight) Accurate 5744 pushing the 300 grain Barnes Original averaged 2114 fps, showing no velocity loss at all.


The next day was even hotter, at 93-degrees F. On the way down, I stopped by to drop off some goodies for Dad, including a Bushnell BackTrack GPS, so he could leave his compass at home. Dad asked what in the world I was up to now. I told him I was going to go down and fire two shots with this Savage 10ML carbine. If they cut the same, clean hole in the right place it was going to Minnesota. If it didn't, it was staying home. Dad asked what in the world was wrong with me, driving three hours to fire just two shots. Fortunately, there wasn't time to cover that topic in any detail. Nevertheless, if things aren't just right I'm not going to bet a bear's life on it. As it happened, despite the hot conditions, the Savage 10ML carbine did indeed throw two quick shots through the same hole, so it made the hunt. I also added a shorter, 20 inch, custom giRAMROD with a standard SpinJag on the end and a sling. It was ready for bear.


Early morning, August 31, it was off to Grand Marais, Minnesota and the breathtaking Superior National Forest. Aside from a small amount of congestion in the Joliet/Plainfield area, it was a pleasant, uneventful drive, taking about eleven hours to cover the six hundred miles. Amy at the Wedgewood Motel was glad to see us again, or so she said. Bear super guide Terry Bode was already there to greet us, so it was throw a few things into the room and then head out to discuss the next day's hunt over a baby-back rib dinner and a couple of Blue Moons.


It was hot in northern Illinois and it was unusually warm in Grand Marais, as well, at 86 degrees. It looked to be very warm on opening day, September 1, then rain and cooler weather on the second, followed by more rain and winds gusting up to thirty-five miles an hour on the third. Just as my friends in the UK often say when asked about the weather, it is �changeable.� It all sounded interesting.


It was warm on opening day, so even though we were going to be up in trees and motionless for the afternoon and evening, it was obvious we didn't need much in the way of clothing layers. It was just as obvious that we had brought along way more heavy hunting clothes than needed. Not much surprise there, it happens every hunt. Dad was going back to the same area he had hunted last year, although the site had been changed substantially. After wishing Dad luck, I followed Terry in the truck to a new site, quite deep in the woods, some fifteen or so miles away. I was going to hunt all afternoon and evening, navigate my way up the trail back to the truck, then eventually meet up with the others at a rendezvous point at the end of the day.


If there is one thing you need for bear hunting, it is just patience. Up ten feet in your tree, you need to stay alert and motionless for hours. Sleeping isn't a great idea, either, unless you are well-harnessed in or are proficient in landing on your noggin without injury. It isn't a good idea to drink a large amount of liquids before going up in the air, either. Although I carried a pee-bottle in my backpack, clever disguised as an empty jumbo plastic bottle of Mountain Dew, there is no particularly elegant way to use one up in the air standing on a tiny metal platform. If it can be avoided, it should be.


For the first few hours, there wasn't much going on. I did have a chance to reacquaint myself with the local inhabitants, though. In this case, it was chipmunks, squirrels, blue jays and so forth. I do admire the acrobatics of the squirrel, of course. Even the most entertaining of squirrels aren't exactly Al Jolson after several hours of close study. Here's a peek at the bear site. You might notice deep claw marks going nine feet up the tree. The same deep claw marks were on the tree I was sitting in, extending nearly to the base of the platform. That's the sign of a dominant bear marking his territory, the bear I'm hoping to get a good look at.


As the afternoon wore on, the action picked up. It soon became as close to a black bear feeding frenzy as I've seen, with at least two bears in sight and generally one flipping around logs for the rest of the day. They were all nice bears, larger than average, but not quite what I was looking for. I spotted two of them as tan snouts with black noses while still deep in the timber. One bear came in almost directly beneath me to the left of my feet, another to my right. They approach nerve-wrackingly slowly, with alternate stops, starts and sniffs.


It seems like an eternity before you can get a good look at them, but to say it is exciting would be an understatement. After deciding that this prosperous-looking, big-bottomed bear wasn't the one I was looking for, I took the opportunity to grab some video. The first bear that came all the way in began throwing logs around like matchsticks.


There were so many bears it was nothing short of a miraculous experience. Even after it was too dark to shoot, the area was still crawling with bears. In fact, one chubby donut-biter just had no intention of leaving, even after I informed him in a loud voice from my tree that he should pay far more attention, as he was a legal bear. I turned the torchlight on him from the tree, but that still didn't bother him. I made enough commotion climbing out of my tree that, eventually, he begrudgingly waddled his way back into the woods, not at all pleased that I had disturbed his late night dining.


While I was having the time of my life enjoying all the bear action, what was Dad up to? It took me a while to make my way back up the trails and to the truck, then back to our prearranged meeting area. As it turns out, Dad was enjoying looking at a whole bunch of nothing for several hours, save for squirrels and chipmunks, with the bonus of a couple of humorless skunks thrown in. That changed, though, about sunset. Along came Mr. Big, making his way slowly, haltingly past Dad's tree and over to the log pile. It was the bear Dad was looking for. Last year, Dad took a younger bear and his goal this year was to bag a sizable one. This was the moment. As soon as the bear situated himself broadside, Dad's Savage barked and, as before, the Barnes T-EZ 290 blew through the bear. Dad's opening day of bear season started out slow, but ended as spectacularly as he could have hoped for.


My crafty eighty-two year old father proved to be smarter than the average bear. This was no average bear though, measuring some six and quarter feet from nose to stubby little tail, with a massive head and a massive everything else. This old bear's teeth has seen a lot of use, to be sure, for he had been busy foraging, fighting other bears and eluding hunters for sixteen years or so. Weight can only be estimated, but this majestic bear was easily in the 450 pound arena. It's quite a trophy for Dad; this bear will look gorgeous once he's cleaned up. I'm just hoping my Dad can find a wall big enough to put him on. There's no one I know that wouldn't be absolutely thrilled to bag an exceptional boar like this big old fellow.


With Dad tagged-out, it was time for Randy to get busy. The next day saw the predicted rain and drop in temperature, but it was just an intermittent drizzle. Back I went to the same site, but things has changed. If there is one thing predictable about wild animals it is that they are unpredictable. The black bear feeding frenzy was no more. There was a whole bunch of nothing going on for many hours, with even the seemingly omnipresent squirrel acrobatic performances in short supply. However, around sevenish, from deep in the woods to my right, a bear silently appeared. He was bigger than the others I'd seen and he was far too good to pass up. This bear walked in like he owned the place, not even pausing to feed. He strutted past the pile of logs, quickly turned, and started to leave the way he came in, without stopping. It seemed to me he was just about ready to vanish right back into the timber. Though it was a slight raking shot with the bear moving slowly, I knew it was time to get her done.


The Barnes Original blew through the bear like it wasn't there. With no cloud of smoke to obscure my vision from the Savage, I saw exactly what happened when the bullet hit. The bear roared, jumping straight up into the air, accomplishing a 180 degree turn as he did so. Throw a big bullet into a bear and you'll see how blazingly fast they can be, if only for a very short while. The bear took off like a black bullet right up the trail that I had come down. Leaving a massive, bright red blood trail that even Mr. Magoo could follow, he blazed up the trail fifteen yards or so, then veered off into the super-thick stuff, leaving what looked like a thick red line you could have made with a paintbrush.


I went into the brush twenty yards or so. There was still good blood, but night was fast approaching and the rain was picking up. There was no chance I was going to be able to drag him out alone, to be sure, so it was time to head back to camp and get some help. He turned out to be a decent, 4-1/2 to 5-1/2 year old boar, better than average at about 325 pounds or so, but not nearly approaching the big old boy Dad had whacked. You can count on portly Fall bears to weigh quite a bit more than a Spring bear coming out of dormancy. He will make a fine shoulder mount and also a lot of fine dining.


When it comes to Minnesota Bear hunting, there are a few things that strike me as a bit odd. The success rate of bear hunters is generally low. It was 21% for 2008 and 30% for 2009. Minnesota has a strange lottery system. An amazing 25% of those that enter the lottery and are successfully drawn never bother to buy a license, serving only to keep serious bear hunters out of the woods. Nuisance bear complaints in Minnesota totaled 443 in 2007, 511 in 2008 and 600 in 2009. Yet, Minnesota makes fewer tags available every year. They don't seem to have a clue what the bear population is, although I can't fault them for that. Surveying Superior National Forest isn't exactly an easy task. Since Minnesota does not require you to buy your license when you apply for a lottery, as other states do, they are leaving a lot of money on the table. Minnesota had 10,000 permits in 2009, yet only 7,342 licenses were actually purchased. A nonresident bear tag is $201, not pricey by today's standards. The way Minnesota DNR runs it, they lose over $534,000 every year by awarding tags to folks that never buy a license.


It is a real shame for Minnesota bear outfitters, who bring tourism dollars to the state. Bear outfitters in Minnesota are not allowed to buy even a handful of tags to keep their small businesses going. It is baffling to me, particularly when you have 2500 lottery winners every year who buy no bear license at all, resident or nonresident. Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty seems like an extraordinarily bright and perceptive fellow to me, so he has been sent a copy of this article and maybe he can figure out what exactly is going on. To me, it defies both explanation and logic


In 2001, one estimate placed black bear numbers at 31,300. The 2002 DNR study produced an estimate of 20,000 to 30,000 bears. Dave Garshelis, lead bear biologist with the Department of Natural Resources, has put the number right in the middle between the two extremes, at 25,000. According to Mr. Garshelis, the bear population has about tripled since the DNR reclassified bears as a big-game animal in 1971. Prior to that, they were considered varmints and could be shot on sight without a permit.


Yes, in 2001 the Minnesota black bear population was estimated at 31,300 and the Minnesota DNR's lead bear biologist guesses 25,000. The Minnesota DNR claims that the bear population is being allowed to increase slowly, yet despite this unsubstantiated claim the Minnesota DNR currently (2010) says the population is "about 20,000." Somehow, they seem to have misplaced 11,300 bears from the 2001 estimate, or just lost the 5,000 bears that their lead biologist Dave Garshelis recently estimated. All the while, the claim is made that the population is being allowed to increase slowly. Increasing slowly from 31,300 to 20,000 bears is a very slow rate of increase, indeed.


According to an Arizona study, fifty percent of all cub deaths were due to cannibalism. You might want to read this Albert LeCount Arizona study, "Causes of Black Bear Mortality." A 2009 Maryland study noted that 75% of all off-season deaths of black bears were due to vehicle collisions. Whatever the Minnesota DNR is doing is hard to fathom and why they throw away over $500,000 every year that could be used for better game management is a mystery. As always, no one cares more about healthy, vibrant game populations than hunters and hunters are the only ones who gladly pay to support these efforts.


As for northern Minnesota, I just love it. The Superior National Forest is God's country. Sometimes, I have this feeling that life without MacDonald's wrappers wouldn't be all that bad. The weather can be cold, but the people aren't. They are warm, friendly, helpful and fun to be around. The Grand Marais and Superior National Forest areas are great places to be with a pristine shoreline and astonishing scenery. In addition, the bear hunting is pretty darn good!


After an exceptional hunt like this, I'm left feeling grateful. I'm thankful for the hunt in general and to be able to share it with Dad. Terry Bode played a huge role in the success and there is a fellow in Silver Bay by the name of Jeremy who remembered us from last year, pulled some strings and got our bear meat processed overnight, despite the busy holiday weekend. Joe DeGrande and the Savage Arms Team really went above and beyond and got this shorter-barreled 10ML-II back into my hands just in time for the hunt. It's a wonderful rifle, just perfect for a fast-handling bear gun. Black bears are amazing animals and the best time of all was just watching them and being surrounded by them for several hours, without a shot being considered, much less fired. It was a memorable experience. A special thanks goes to the people of San Marais, Minnesota. If you've never been there, you are missing something.

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Copyright 2010 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.