Jan Johnson knew the bear was in the area, and he knew it was big.
He was right; it was.
Johnson, of rural Roseau, Minn., toughed out a gloomy, rainy afternoon of bear hunting Oct. 1 and came home with a black bear that unofficially weighed 721 pounds live weight.
Bears are scored by skull size rather than body weight, but Johnson’s bear definitely is one of the heaviest bears to be taken in Minnesota in quite some time. Photos of the bear have been making the rounds in texts, emails and social media.
“It’s been Facebook friends, and all that other stuff has been going off the wall,” Johnson, 54, said. “Taxidermists have been calling—stuff like that.”
Hunting a patch of river bottom on his family’s land in the Malung-Pencer area of Roseau County, Johnson said he put up a ladder stand that morning in the rain and returned late that afternoon. He knew a big boar had been roaming between the river bottom and a nearby sunflower field.
The area is in Minnesota’s No-Quota Zone, where hunters can buy bear tags over the counter instead of going through the lottery required to draw a license in other parts of the state.
“I’ve had it pretty nice there,” Johnson said. “Whenever I don’t get drawn for a quota tag, I can always go there and usually get something to come in if there’s an acorn crop.”
Recalling the hunt
Sitting in the rain, Johnson said he watched a pair of smaller bears come in first, followed by a sow and three cubs.
They bolted when the big bruin approached.
“I sat 2½ hours in the rain,” he said. “I didn’t hear any of them because it was raining, but I could tell by the body language on the bears that were there that something was going to happen.”
He shot the bear using a .270 Winchester at a distance of 25 yards.
“He fell right on the spot,” Johnson said.
Two brothers came and helped Johnson load the bear onto a yard trailer, a struggle that took about about 45 minutes, Johnson says. They then hauled the bear a short distance to his parents’ place, where a small crowd already had gathered.
“All their mouths dropped when they saw it,” he said.
Using two scales that went up to 440 pounds, they attached one scale to the front legs and the other to the hind legs and lifted the bear on a hoist.
The combined weight from the two scales was 721 pounds, Johnson says.
They figured that was wrong, he says, so they lowered the bear into the back of a pickup truck and brought it to a seed company near Roseau and weighed it on a truck scale.
The scale only read in 20-pound increments but settled at 700 pounds.
“Everything is rounded down on a truck scale,” Johnson said. “If it would have been 719 pounds, it still would have read 700 pounds.”
The bear later weighed 602 pounds field-dressed, he said.
Dave Garshelis, bear biologist for the Department of Natural Resources in Grand Rapids, Minn., said the DNR hasn’t tracked official bear weights since the 1980s, when staff operated official weigh stations, but the heaviest bear in DNR files, taken by a hunter near Mizpah, Minn., weighed 687 pounds live weight.
The hunter later said the bear weighed 654 pounds field-dressed, a weight Garshelis questions because the organs of a large bear can account for as much as 20 percent of the animal’s live weight.
“We don’t certify weights, and we have this mishmash of live weights and dressed weights,” Garshelis said. “And even on the dressed weights, people maybe do not want to take everything out to make it seem heavier.”
The bear Johnson shot likely was at least 8 years old, Garshelis said, but beyond that, it’s hard to say without analyzing the tooth sample hunters are required to submit after shooting a bear. The oldest bear the DNR studied in the wild lived to be 39½ years old, Garshelis said.
“Typically, these really big ones are not super old,” he said. “For males, they reach a maximum weight usually like maybe about 10 or 12 years old, somewhere in there. And after they’re about 15 or 16 years old, then they actually start to decline.”
There have been cases in which live research bears weighed more than 800 pounds, and a bear the DNR sampled in northwest Minnesota as part of a tracking and habitat study weighed 600 pounds, Garshelis said.
That puts the weight of Johnson’s bear into perspective.
Johnson says he hopes to have the bear skull measured after the flesh has been scraped clean and the mandatory 60-day drying period has passed.
Minnesota’s record black bear skull scored 22 5/16 inches, a measurement that is taken from the front teeth to a back corner of the skull, said Randy Dufault of East Grand Forks, a certified measurer.
Two bears are tied for first place, Dufault said, one taken in 2000 in Hubbard County and the other in 2013 in Isanti County.
The largest bear skull ever measured in Roseau County scored 21 7/16 inches and was taken in 1994.
“The head looks like it’s maybe good-sized,” Johnson said of his bear. “Hopefully it will give (the record) a run.”
Johnson says he hasn’t decided whether to mount the head or have a bear rug made from the hide, which measures 8 feet, 6 inches from nose to tail.
“The wife figures if I get a rug then she gets a new house,” Johnson said. “We live in a trailer house so there would be no room for anything that large.”
Life has been kind of a blur since shooting the bear, Johnson said.
“It’s been kind of busy with phone calls and stuff like that—it’s been pretty hard to get anything done, really,” he said with a laugh.
Judging by the calendar, though, that shouldn’t last much longer.
“Once deer season opens, then it will be a forgotten deal,” he said.