Shawn O’Connor had no intention of bagging a state record bear when he settled into his tree stand on Sept. 9.
“I didn’t even know what the state record was,” O’Connor said. “I never wait for a big one. I hunt for the meat, so I usually take the first one that shows up.”
O’Connor has been hunting bruins for over 30 years. Prior to Sept. 9, the largest bear he ever harvested tipped the scales at 225 pounds. “I had clients get big bears,” O’Connor said. “I saw bears that weighed 553 pounds, 580 pounds, and one that was 611 pounds.”
O’Connor owns a roofing company in McGrath. He gave up his guide ticket a few years ago when the pressures of work and family left him too little time to commit to the bear business. He still hunts, though.
Sept. 7 fell on a Saturday, and O’Connor put in a full day of work before he slung his rifle over his shoulder and headed into the woods on the east side of Mille Lacs Lake.
“My daughter and I scared a big bear off that bait the day before when we went to check it,” O’Connor said. “I was hoping he would come back.”
By the tracks, O’Connor guessed the bear was between 400 and 450 pounds. His estimate was a bit on the conservative side, as he soon found out.
“I got in my stand at about 4:30 in the afternoon,” O’Connor said. “It was rocking hot that day.”
O’Connor sat and suffered through the heat and bugs for three hours. As the sun dipped toward the horizon, he looked down at his phone to check the time. “When I looked back up I saw his head sticking out of the brush by the bait,” he said. “It was windy, and I never even heard him coming.”
O’Connor froze. The bear peered idly out of the bushes for a few long moments before he lumbered into view. “He was huge,” O’Connor said.
The bear circled the bait station and exposed its flank. O’Connor took the shot.
“I knew it was big, but I didn’t know it was that big,” O’Connor said.
The bear tipped the scales at 642 pounds, 12 pounds heavier than the current state record. Its hide alone weighed over 170 pounds.
“It doesn’t really matter a whole lot what it weighs as far as the state record goes,” O’Connor said. “But it matters to me, I guess.”
While fish are judged by weight, and bucks are judged by their racks, bears are judged by the size of their skulls. “This bear had a big old melon on it,” O’Connor said. “A lot bigger than that 611-pounder.”
O’Connor will have to wait at least a few months to find out if his name will go in the Minnesota record books. Prior to Boone and Crockett getting involved, the bear skull has to dry.
O’Connor tried to keep his big bear a secret, or at least low key. It didn’t work. Word spread fast through the jack pines, and soon everyone from his barber to the fellows at the lumber store were congratulating him on his trophy.
“I went from about six friends on Facebook to 306 friends,” he said.
As far as the state record goes, O’Connor is more curious than concerned. “It’s going to be in the ballpark,” he said. “We’ll see.”