As long as there have been hunters and as far back as people have brewed bocks and biers and stouts and ales, hunters have celebrated a harvest by tipping back a cold one. These days we don’t have to settle for a mass-produced beverage. There are so many craft brews and specialty tastes from various parts of the continent, that we can tailor the taste bud sensation to the cut of meat, to the preparation of the main course. I think we start with where the bear was from, what it was eating. Let’s start with the Star of the North, in Minnesota, on the Upper Peninsula.
Minnesota Black Bear
Back behind a screen of limbs, I saw the legs of a bear. He stalked the bait and, screened by branches, I could see parts of him, but I knew it was a boar. Brian Bachman, the owner of Arrowhead Wilderness Outfitters, had told me, “I want you to take him at the first good opportunity.” My thumb was on the safety. I saw nose and head, then foreleg, then lower half of the body. In an instant, the rifle was at my shoulder and I had the vitals in the crosshair.
The trigger broke, the rifle crashed and the 165-grain AccuBond took the bear behind the shoulder where it struck and followed a rib, expanding rapidly through the lower region of the lungs.
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Spinning, the bear smashed into an alder that shivered all the way to the top of the tree. When there was a chance, I put a second bullet into him. I call that insurance.
When the magazine was topped up, when the sounds of the forest returned, when the birds lit, cautious, in the treetops again, I climbed down and counted steps, pushing the muzzle in front of me. Eleven paces to the bait. Fifteen paces to the edge of the clearing and finally 23steps to the bear.
That afternoon, with my Minnesota bear tag punched, I had a lot of time to think about these bears and what make them different than the black bears I hunt out West. They thrive on a diet of anything from grasses, acorns and hazelnuts to ants, ant pupae, squirrels, wild cherries, raspberries, blackberries, gooseberries, wild grapes, wild plums and chokecherry. Because they eat so many nuts and berries, these are good-tasting bears, great for barbecued pulled-meat sandwiches, roasts with cooked carrots and potatoes and steak bites on a skewer with steak sauce accents.
Pairing: Silhouette, Lift Bridge Brewing Co.
Eastern Oregon Black Bear
Now he climbed the hill, moving away, a chocolate-brown black bear we had called across the river. My 12-year-old Jennifer dropped to her knee and shouldered her rifle. In moments he would hit the hawthorns and disappear. The bear paused on a rock outcropping and turned broadside. Jennifer, with her elbow on her knee and the gun against her shoulder, tightened her finger on the trigger.
Thirty minutes later we stood over my daughter’s first bear, a chocolate boar with a longhaired coat, laden with summer fat.
Back at the ranch house we skinned the animal and hung it in the shade. The girls picked apples while we rendered the fat into grease.
Making a living on the edge of farm and forestland, this bear was summer fat on a diet of grasses, ants, crabapples, pears, hawthorn berries, blackberries, red huckleberry, manzanita berry, wild onions and elk calves. One of the best-smelling bears I’ve ever processed, this bear’s meat was complex with sweet-smelling notes from the fruits and berries it had consumed in the last weeks of August.
Pairing: S1nist0r, 10 Barrel Brewing Company
North Central Idaho Black Bear
Its long, unrubbed coat shined cinnamon when it passed through patches of sunlight. Rex Hubbard ranged the bear with his rangefinder. I missed with the first shot but the bear gave another chance.
“Three-hundred-two yards,” Rex whispered. My .30-06 was sighted for a hundred-yard zero; the 165-grain Nosler AccuBond drops 14″ in 300 yards. To allow for the angle, I calculated 9″ high and squeezed. Twenty minutes later, we started down the slope and found the bear where it had come to rest along the creek.
In the wilderness in north central Idaho, these bears find spring grasses and alder buds early in the season then dig out wild onions and ants and termites. If they are lucky, they find an elk calf or a deer fawn. Later in the year, they eat blueberries and elderberry and dig out ground squirrels from their dens. Eating fresh fruits and good wild meats, these black bears offer a pleasing, complicated taste in steaks, roasts and burger.
When grinding for burger, try adding bacon ends instead of beef fat. For a big party, I like to cook sliders on a Camp Chef pellet grill. I’ll blend in a prime rib rub, roasted garlic and then add a cheese-stuffed red pepper and garnish with blue cheese crumble.
Pairing: Minimalist Bane IPA, McCall Brewing Company
High Sierras California Black Bear
I shoved four rounds into the tube, jacked one into the chamber, then eased the hammer down, setting it at half-cock. Then I slung the Marlin Guide Gun on my shoulder.
A hundred yards from the tree we could see the dogs running in circles and manzanita bushes shaking. For a moment, we thought the bear was on the ground, but then we saw it, halfway up a small Ponderosa. The bear was shifting in the tree. I sprinted for an opening where I could get a good look, 25 yards from the tree.
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“He’s coming down,” someone yelled. The bear spun to the other side of the trunk with only his legs showing on my side.
There were 15 hounds beneath the bruin, six humans nearby and a good chance someone would get hurt. I found the bear as he turned to negotiate a branch on his downward slide. In a moment, he would be in the dogs. Rifle up, I thumbed back the hammer and fired. The bear shivered at the impact and began to drop. I hit him three more times as he fell through the branches.
In the High Sierras, black bears grow big on a diet of acorns, spring grasses, summer ants, crabapples in the fall and blackberries, elderberry, red huckleberry. From time to time, they can catch a deer fawn or even a wild boar.
Pairing: Narwahl Imperial Stout, Sierra Nevada
Olympic Peninsula Washington Black Bear
According to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, there are approximately 30,000 black bears in Washington. There is no place in the state with more bears than on the Olympic Peninsula. If there is one place on the Peninsula where the bears are thickest, it might be the Quinault Indian Reservation. I hunted with John “Tater” Bryson who grew up in those big woods and on that river. He is Quinault and Quileute, a fisheries technician, a fishing guide and the owner of Quinault Bear Commanders.
On the first morning, Bryson left me at a blind inside a rainforest of cedars and fir trees. After eight hours, a blackness appeared at the edge of the clearing. It moved left to right at the edge of the trees. When it stopped out in the open, when it was in the open, I saw the bear well.
It was on a log three feet off of the ground, its black hair shown like silk. It looked toward our blind. The gun was already up and I found the bear in the crosshair, let the reticle driftto a spot right behind its shoulder. When the bear was still, broadside, I touched the trigger. I found it 50 yards away where it came to rest on a bed of moss at the foot of a massive cedar.
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On the Olympic Peninsula, black bear grow fat on salmon in the fall, and when they emerge from their dens in the spring, they eat grasses, clover, skunk cabbage, cascara, salal, alder buds, fiddleheads and the cambium layer of certain trees. Before the fish runs, they forage for blacktail deer fawns, Roosevelt elk calves, marmots and voles. They graze in salmonberry, elderberry, wild strawberry and in blueberry patches on south and west-facing slopes.
One of my favorite ways to fix these northwest country bears is in a slider-size burger on a baguette. Accents include fig jam, balsamic vinegar, berry jam, pickled onions and pepper and salt.
Pairing: Ballz Deep Double IPA, 7 Seas Brewing
If you’ve made it this far you either like hunting bear or beer or both. I hope you learned a thing or two about hunting, preparing bear and washing it all down with a quality brew. Life is too short to drink the wrong beer.