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My father is my best friend in the entire world. He is an avid outdoorsman and taught me everything that I know about hunting, fishing, bowfishing, shooting firearms, and archery. He has five kids, so as I got older I found myself trying new things on my own. Every time I went on a new hunt, I would call my dad before going, and text him during the trip to get any sort of advice that I could! I’d ask him questions and he’d guide me to the best of his ability from a remote location. Every time I harvest an animal, he is the first person I call.
Whether you’re a hunter or not, you can most likely relate with me on this next statement. “I LOVE to talk about my successes and never tell of my failures.” No one needs to know about my unsuccessful hunts, right? I want to be a winner, but it takes many losses and lessons learned to get to where you are routinely successful. I can tell you for a fact that I learn something new every single time that I go out in the woods. The story I am about to share is of a failure on my part that I have not talked about to this day, but to those that read this, you get a true story of an experience and feeling that many hunters know, but never tell about.
It was a cold October day, and my dad and I drove all the way from Tennessee to New Jersey to go on a crossbow bear hunt. We’d never harvested a bear before, so the 11-hour-drive was worth experiencing a new hunt together. New Jersey’s bear season lasts one week in the fall and one week in the winter, so there’s not much room for adjustment if the weather is bad; however, Jersey has an insane overpopulation of black bears so I was surprised that the season wasn’t longer. My dad and I arrived in North New Jersey at his old Army buddy’s house. Upon arrival we went to the properties that we were going to be hunting and shown the exact spots we were allowed to hunt. Our stand locations were set up to overwatch well used bear trails. Depending on the prevailing wind, we would make our way to one of the stands the next morning.
I hate to say it, but I had never used a climbing stand until this trip. I practiced a few times going up and down a tree in the dark the night before season, and there I was using a climbing stand for the very first time to bear hunt. It made me nervous but I got comfortable fast. It’s not nearly as nerve-wrecking as the climb in a perfectly good aircraft you’re about to willingly jump out of during Jump School and watching the people get sucked out of the plane when you’re the last one off, so I knew I could handle this.
Dad and I were doing a three to four day hunt. I got dropped off at the woods just before dawn on the first day. Dad used his rental truck to get to his location about 20-30 min away from me, and his guide buddy dropped me off in the area I was about to hunt. The place I was hunting had 11 different bears that traveled two trails that intersected near my stand location; my dad’s spot had the biggest bear seen on the property religiously pass through his location. We saw several trail camera pictures of some incredibly sized bears come to each of our locations so we were very excited for the possibilities of this hunt.
The first few days were miserable. I sat in a tree from before sunrise to sundown every day that I hunted. It rained so hard the entire time and it was windy and miserably cold. I had on every layer that I could think of from my long johns to my camo pants, my bibs, a hoodie, a couple of jackets, hand warmers all over my body, but my saving grace was the apple cider that my dad’s buddy prepped each morning and the tree umbrella that kept me dry for the most part. Any time it would get too cold to bear the weather, I would take a sip of that hot apple cider and it would warm my whole body up for a little. I was highly jealous that my dad could get out of the tree at any time and sit in the truck to warm up; in fact, he told me he got to sit and eat lunch in the truck while I was trying my best to keep my sandwich dry as I ate it and shivering because I was in the woods with no way out until dark.
I found that bears are such fair-weather animals and we were NOT experiencing fair weather. We’d seen a few deer and a bunch of squirrels making a commotion in the woods in the poor weather conditions, but no bears to be seen. The weather would pause at night and the trail cameras would catch them passing through the areas well after legal shooting light.
I needed to change my luck. I came all the way up to New Jersey and hadn’t seen one bear. There was sign of them everywhere but no physical sightings. The last morning I wore a different pair of long johns, my dad’s socks, and carried a challenge coin that my dad’s Army buddy from Korea gave to me – maybe this would give me good luck.
Besides the new routine for a change of luck, the day starts out the same as the other days that we hunted. Wake up, eat eggs and make apple cider, dad goes to his spot and I get dropped off in the woods by dad’s friend. The only difference this day was that while I was throwing my bibs on at the site, my dad’s friend handed me my crossbow and it was already drawn back. I felt quite uneasy about this because I never let people touch or mess with my weapons. I like to check them and load them and make sure they’re good to go. The only way to decock the crossbow I was using was to shoot the bolt and I was already at the hunting spot and had no target to shoot at so I just trusted that dad’s friend knew what he was doing and I left it as is. THIS IS WHERE I WAS WRONG.
I went to a different location in the woods the last day and climbed up a tree that overlooked this little bowl with a downed tree about 25 yards from me. (The day before season, dad’s friend showed me this area and stood on the fallen tree and jumped and it barely moved and told me that usually bears travel through this area pretty frequently.) I felt really confident about the spot I was sitting at and the rain finally cleared mid-morning. Everything felt good about this day. This new spot seemed promising, the sun was out and the wind was in my face. I was going to see a bear.
At one point I stood up, my phone fell from my pocket and hit the rocks at the bottom of the tree. I was contemplating leaving it there or getting it, but I was in the woods alone and that was my only form of communication to my dad and his friend.
I climbed down the tree, grabbed my phone – luckily the only damage was on the rear camera. I went to climb back up with the climbing stand. I climbed once, I climbed twice, and in the middle of my third climb I had raised the upper part of the stand and set it in the tree and I heard a loud “THUMP!” Without ever hearing that sound before, I knew exactly what it was. A bear. A bear had stood right on that fallen tree and he was so big that he stepped on it and moved the entire thing to the ground. I was surprised and taken aback since I was moving around and making all that noise retrieving my phone and getting up the tree.
I was standing facing the tree at this time about 5/8ths of the way up the tree to my original spot. I slowly and carefully turned my body around to face the downed tree and there he was, the most beautiful black bear I had ever seen in person. He had a huge head, a brown snout, a gorgeous black coat and this beautiful white cross on his chest. It was the prettiest thing I had ever seen. I was in a bind at this time – my crossbow was hanging on a bow hanger in the tree. I looked up and I was just able to get on my tip toes and grab the stock and slowly unhook my crossbow from the hanger. Again, I was standing, so I leaned up against the tree and aimed my crossbow at the bear.
It couldn’t have been more perfect. It was a 25-yard shot, the bear was standing facing the left and he had just lifted his arm closest to me to reach up into a tree, exposing all of his vitals. I could taste the victory, I could imagine the bolt going into the lungs and lodging into the opposite shoulder, I could see dad being so proud that I harvested such a beautiful animal, and I can see a couple coolers full of bear meat and a gorgeous bear hide. I wanted it so bad. I clicked the safety off, I put the crosshairs on his vitals, I breathed and I gently squeezed the trigger. Nothing happened. The trigger didn’t move. I squeezed even harder – nothing. I double checked the safety, it was off. I put all my force into trying to get this trigger to go off and it was locked. The trigger box was locked!!! I didn’t know it at the time but my dad’s friend cocked the bow by hand and ended up cocking it off center which placed too much tension on one side of the trigger box. I tried to troubleshoot it, but the bear ended up walking off like he wasn’t phased and I watched him walk out of my life before I could get my crossbow fixed to where it would work.
Before I had any time to think about it, I quickly pulled out the crank and used the accudraw to force the bowstring back one click further. I shot a bolt into the ground to check it and it worked. I recranked the crossbow and put in another bolt in hopes that I would possibly have another opportunity at a bear.
I was so adrenalized from the first good size bear being that close and walking away, that I was shaking. I had so many emotions going through my body. I was devastated, I was angry, I was sad, I was in awe, I felt robbed and all of that emotion came out in tears. I texted my dad and his buddy and let them know what happened. I NEEDED my dad to get a bear so badly now.
As time went by and I silently had to deal with my pain, I saw a doe and a red fox, both in season and in range, but I didn’t aim at either. I just observed. I was here to bear hunt and I just destroyed one of my bolts and with my luck, I wouldn’t be prepared for the next bear that showed up either. I was determined to get one, but it was getting dark fast. My hope was fading away. I wasn’t going to see another bear and I knew it at that point.
I felt so defeated. I had just sat through a few of the hardest and most miserable days of hunting in my life for me to miss an opportunity at a beautiful bear. My dad let me know that he hadn’t seen a single thing either. I was so upset. I kept praying and praying to God that my dad would get a bear. I kept saying “Please dear Lord, let my daddy get a bear.” I thanked Him for giving me an opportunity and I was appreciative that I even got to see one, but again, I NEEDED my dad to get a bear.
At last just before last legal shooting light I get a text from my dad’s buddy saying “Your dad got one. I’m on my way to get you and we’re going to go help him find it.” I felt so much relief. THANK YOU LORD! MY PRAYERS WERE ANSWERED! All of the pain and distress that I felt that day disappeared. My daddy got his first black bear. This trip wasn’t in vain. And at that moment everything felt worth it.
Dad’s friend came to get me and we headed to the site. We had 4 people to help look for this bear: my dad, his friend, another man and me. The one guy I didn’t know was determined to find this bear. He wasn’t a hunter and had never retrieved a bear before so he was overly excited at this opportunity and made it a competition almost. We followed the blood trail in the dark and got to this creek and the trail ended. The area was very thick and swampy. The search party didn’t know where to go. The one guy was on the other side of the creek looking around frantically and said in the strongest angered Jersey accent I’ve ever heard, “I don’t know where it went. I mean I can smell it! It’s gotta be right around here somewhere!” Just as he said that I looked to the left in the creek bed and there she was. I quickly and slyly replied with “You mean this bear over here?” And he lost the retrieval game! Victory was mine! He was mildly salty about it and everyone laughed and came to help me get my dad’s bear out. The bear only made it about 25 yards from the site of the shot before piling up but the thick swampy terrain made retrieval difficult. I was extremely happy that my dad shot a bear and I was able to be the one to find it for him. The trip was even more worth it at that moment.
I learned a lot of things that trip. I already knew not to let others touch my weapon, but now I know to always double check my own stuff regardless if someone touched it or not. It happened so fast that I couldn’t tell him not to touch my crossbow, but if anyone ever touches my weapon again, I will definitely be resetting it myself to make sure it’s good to go. I learned that I appreciate hot apple cider and hot hands and whomever invented them. I learned not to be overly confident while hunting. I felt the power of prayer, and I felt emotions I never thought I would experience.
I’m grateful for the experience, being able to hunt with my dad, and even the lessons learned from my failures during that hunt. If New Jersey has another bear hunt this year I will definitely be back.
Nina is a 1st Lieutenant in the United States Air Force and an avid hunter from Tennessee. The 25-year-old has been hunting since the age of six.
She is very passionate in the outdoors. Her favorite hobbies include hunting, fishing, bowfishing, shooting firearms, singing, country swing dancing, hiking, lifting weights, and working on her Jeep.
In 2019, Nina graduated from the United States Air Force Academy. She graduated with a bachelors in Military Strategic Studies and Foreign Area Studies with a minor in Portuguese, and is now an Acquisitions Officer.
Follow her online HERE.