MARSHALL - On the first day of bear hunting season 27-year-old Marshall resident Travis Kesteloot sat in a tree-stand deep in the woods of Deer River on his first big game hunt.
It can take hunters years before they bag their first deer, so Kesteloot was not expecting much as his hunting guide led him to his stand and set out bear bait -sweets and raw meat -in a clearing of the woods.
It was 2:30 p.m. when the guide left Kesteloot alone in the woods. As late afternoon turned to evening, Kesteloot began to hear the sounds of the woods, hoping to see a bear.
This photos gives a good indication as to just how large the black bear killed by Travis Kesteloot was.
"I sat there for a couple of hours and every little noise I heard made me jump," he said.
The seasoned hunters back at camp had told him bears move silently through the woods; you don't see them until they are right in front of you.
"All of the sudden he was just there; kind of like a ghost," Kesteloot said. "I looked up and boom, there was a black bear."
The bear cautiously stepped out from the brush, stopping about five yards away from the bait, Kesteloot said. It walked around the perimeter, checking the area and smelling the air.
"They are very cautious; they have very good smell and hearing," Kesteloot said. "I thought 'shoot he smells me,' but he came around and did the same thing, stopping just short of the bait."
Kesteloot remained motionless in his tree stand 10 feet above the bear as it surveyed the area. Finally, it moved in and began licking at the bait in the clearing below Kesteloot's tree-stand.
"He kept looking right at me in the tree," Kesteloot said. "I just stayed there motionless."
After the bear took further interest in the bait Kesteloot raised his gun, a 7-mm rifle he borrowed from a friend, and took the shot.
"I shot, and I don't know if my scope got bumped or what, but right away he was moving," Kesteloot said. "I took another shot and hit him, but he was going. I took one more shot and he went down."
In the end, two of the three shots connected with the beast. Kesteloot waited a few minutes for his nerves to calm before climbing out of his tree stand to check on the bear.
"I got about 10 yards and he had his head buried under a downed tree, so I couldn't see his face. I couldn't tell if he was breathing or not, so it freaked me out," Kesteloot said.
Climbing back up in the tree he waited a few more minutes before climbing back down and confirming the kill. After checking the bear over Kesteloot started heading back toward the road to find his father and the guide. The guide was out helping another hunter, but Kesteloot's father returned with him to the site.
"He goes, 'Holy crap this is the biggest bear I have ever seen,'" Kesteloot said.
The bear was heavy - the two could not budge the bear on their own. After finding the hunting guide the three men heaved the dead bear into a sled towed behind a four-wheeler.
"It took all three of us to tip the bear into the sled," Kesteloot said. "He was big, bulky and heavy."
Back at the base camp the bear weighed in at 332 pounds - well above the 125 pound average, Kesteloot said. According to the DNR, the bear probably weighed closer to 395 pounds when it was alive. The initial weight was recorded after some of the bear's innards had been removed.
Hunters back at camp were surprised that the young first-time bear hunter got a kill on the first day of the season. Kesteloot's father, who had been bear hunting six times prior, had only shot two bear in his years of hunting, Kesteloot said.
After returning home Kesteloot brought the hide to a local taxidermist to be turned into a rug. A local butcher carved up various cuts of meats for the family as well.
With his first hunt behind him, Kesteloot said he hopes to return to the woods in the future for more big game hunts. Hunting bear, he said, was more thrilling than the typical deer or waterfowl hunting he had experienced in the past.
"They are very graceful creatures," Kesteloot said. "It's just a different type of rush when you're hunting a bear."