Cooper Parker wasn’t even on his bear stand yet, and already he was feeling the anticipation of Minnesota’s opening day of bear season on Thursday.
“I’m trying to stay mellow,” said Parker of Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Parker and his buddy, Marshall Henricks of Redfield, Iowa, had come north to hunt bears for the first time with Grand Rapids guides Justin and Alice Wiese. The couple operates Wheezy Outdoors, a guiding service for anglers and bear hunters.
Justin Wiese wasn’t doing much to calm Parker’s jitters. He was telling his gaggle of opening-day hunters at midday Thursday how eager bears had been to visit the baits he and Alice had been tending near Hill City since mid-August.
“We have 15 out of 15 baits being hit,” Wiese said. “All of the berries have dried up.”
When natural foods become scarce, bears are more apt to turn to the baits that hunters place in the woods.
The Wieses have six hunters in camp this fall. By early afternoon on Thursday, four of them had been delivered to their stands among the maples and popples. After ushering the hunters to their stands, the Wieses refreshed the bait sites with sunflower seeds, licorice, popcorn, peanuts, Rice Krispie bars and gummy bears.
“They get fed pretty good,” Justin said. “We spoil ’em.”
All of the stands were on public land and signed as required. Most of them were in remote locations that required a few miles of driving down logging roads, plus another few miles on side-by-side ATVs followed by short walks through the woods. The Wieses began exploring the Hill City area, about 20 miles south of Grand Rapids, shortly after moving to the area. It was lightly traveled, and there were plenty of creeks or small lakes, something the Wieses like to see near bait sites. After a bear eats for a while, it usually wants water, Justin said.
Storm presented challenges
Getting to baiting sites was more challenging this season than usual because of the windstorm that swept through the Hill City area in late July, dropping thousands of trees across rural roads and trails.
“It took us two days just to get into some of the sites,” Justin said.
The couple had to cut their way down tote roads and trails. Loggers working the area cleared many roads as well. And some bait sites had to be given up entirely because they would have required too much tree clearing.
But by opening day, the Wieses’ baits were well-established, and bears were visiting them daily. Trail cameras in place at the sites verified the bears’ visits and what time of day they were hitting the baits. At one site on Thursday, Justin pulled a camera card from a trail camera and checked it quickly. He smiled.
“Fifty-four images,” he said. “But some of them could be raccoons.”
He was confident, though, that many were hungry bears.
Success in the woods
Just an hour after escorting the hunters to their baits, Justin Wiese’s cell phone started singing. It was Alice. One hunter had already dropped a bear, she said. In another hour, two more hunters had called the Wieses to report that they had shot bears.
“Now I’m all excited,” said Justin, by nature one of the most laid-back guys you could hope to come across.
The afternoon became a scramble to track bears, find bears, drag them to the ATVs, haul them from the woods and field-dress them. When the hunters gathered, they eagerly shared their stories.
Parker said he watched the bear he shot approach the bait site from behind him before it turned toward a nearby road and circled back to the bait.
“It flopped down, pushed a log out of the way and started eating,” said Parker, who was hunting with a rifle.
His bear field-dressed at 150 pounds.
His friend Henricks, bowhunting, had taken his bear about 15 minutes after Parker had shot his. Henricks said he watched the bear feed and move around the bait pile for about 40 minutes before it presented a good shot.
“I let the arrow fly,” he said.
The bear went only a short distance before it died. It field-dressed at 238 pounds.
Zach Byron of Waseca, Minn., also took a bear with a bow on the opener with the Wieses. That one required some diligent tracking by Byron and the Wieses after it crossed a creek. Minnesota’s bear season continues through Oct. 16.
Wiese, 30, is a bear hunter himself and understands the appeal of the pursuit.
“To me, it’s the adrenaline rush, and the love of eating bear,” he said. “For some people, it’s something they’ve never done before, and they want to try it. For others, it’s something they look forward to year after year.”
Bear meat, he said, is “almost like a red-meat pork.”
Justin and Alice Wiese, 30 and 27 respectively, moved to Grand Rapids from the Brainerd area in 2013 to pursue their interest in guiding hunters and anglers. They started by renting out fish houses on Pokegama Lake and expanded from there.
“Seven years ago, this was a pipe dream,” Justin Wiese said. “Now it’s all falling together.”
He gives much of the credit to Alice.
“She’s the one who got me into doing this full-time,” he said. “It’s been a lifelong dream of mine to hunt and fish for a living.”