Manton hunter shoots mammoth black bear

Manton’s Ken Koch, right, shot this massive bear Sept. 17 in the Red Oak Bear Management Unit. Houndsmen Kelly and Keith Whitehead lent their dogs to the effort. (Contributed photo)

Manton, Mich. — Manton’s Ken Koch peered through his rifle scope at a mammoth bear just yards away, but he could do nothing about it. A writhing maelstrom of bear and dog fur greeted his eye.

Then, the picture cleared. Voices beside him urged him to shoot. Koch squeezed his rifle’s trigger. The shot was good. The bear fell instantly to the ground. It twitched a bit, and Koch fired a second shot to make sure the huge creature wouldn’t get back to its feet. He thinks the second shot was unnecessary.

The avid Manton hunter has been pursuing bears for 20 years or so. He always applies for hunts in the Red Oak management unit, though, where permits are hard to come by. During that span, he’s received but three. This was the first year he was successful.

With the season approaching, Koch was putting out baits at a couple of locations in some state forest land between Manton and Lake City. He had been drawing hits, too. He had a trail cam posted at his bait site that sends photos directly to his phone. One big bear attracted his attention. Koch didn’t doubt its size. Its ears, small in proportion to its body, and other bear-size judging indicators gave it away. Koch thought that despite its obvious size, he might pass on it if he had a chance for it. The bear had thin hair on its rear quarters. The bruin had been coming in each evening during shooting hours, however, so Koch had been scrutinizing its pictures.

Then came Sept. 16, opening day. Koch was in his blind, but no bears arrived. On the 17th, though, hunters could use dogs. Koch decided to change tactics. He got together with houndsmen Kelly and Keith Whitehead. They run a pack of Plotts and English bear hounds.

Just as Koch was, the Whiteheads were familiar with the big bear. They had run it before, most recently during a training jaunt a few days before season opened. Keith Whitehead had once watched the brothers’ hound pack swim the Manistee River while pursuing it.

But on the second day of bear season when the Whiteheads and Koch found a bear track on a sandy state-forest road not far from Koch’s, they could tell that a good-sized bear had left the print. They didn’t know it was the one that had been coming in to Koch’s bait even though they had pieced together some of its travels. It had been at Koch’s bait from 2:15 to 2:51 a.m. the night before. By 4:30 that morning, it had been at one of Kelly Whitehead’s bait sites. (Koch figures the sites were about an hour’s distance apart as a bear walks.) It was only later that they knew for sure the hounds were on the big one with the thin hair.

Upon finding the track, the trio turned the dogs loose. After a chase that lasted a little more than a mile, the dogs brought the bear to bay in a swamp thick with hemlocks and white cedars.

Getting to the dogs and bayed bear was tough. As the hunters closed in on the bear, they sank in muck. Branches clawed at them. They swatted mosquitoes.

Kelly Whitehead said the trio was doing its best to approach the bear quietly. “It was so thick we could barely see ahead of us or walk. We determined the bear was still on the ground and not treed up in a big tree top.”

Then, suddenly, through the screen of brush, the Whiteheads and Koch saw the bruin. They were right on top of it. It had backed up against an uprooted cedar. There it stood swatting at the pack of hounds. As the hunters closed in, the bear heard them and peered around the upturned tree roots. It stood up to run, but the hounds kept it busy. Koch aimed his rifle and waited for a safe shot.

Then, the chaos in the scope cleared. The dogs were away from the bear for a moment. The Whiteheads, experienced in such situations, urged Koch to shoot. The shot was on target. He hit the bear right between the eyes.  The hunt was over.

At times like that, a person knows who his friends are, Koch said. It took a group of seven guys three hours to get the massive bruin 150 yards to a spot where they could get some help from a winch. Even then, getting the bear out of the woods was tough. The group assisted the winch’s work. When they finally got the bear to the vehicle, they threw a rope across the limb of an oak tree and hoisted the bear aloft to weigh it. It had a live weight of 482 pounds.

The bear isn’t escaping notice. At press time, Koch’s Facebook post of bear pictures had been viewed 20,000 times.

And the story has a bit of an addendum, too. Twice in the days leading up to the season’s opening day and again on Sept. 16, the bear tore up Koch’s blind. Apparently, the big bruin didn’t like the thought of anybody concealing himself there. Each time, Koch repaired the structure.

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