Kodiak bear lands hunter in elite club

Posted: Friday, June 24, 2005

GREEN BAY, Wis. — On May 1, Ron Smits of Green Bay killed a Kodiak Island brown bear off the coast of Alaska. In doing so, he became one of the few hunters in Wisconsin to qualify for membership in the North American 29 Club, an elite group within Safari Club International, so named because eligibility requires a member to have taken 29 species of big-game animals found on the North American continent.

''I think I'm about the 115th person to have taken all of those animals,'' Smits said. ''It will depend on how many other people also completed their list this spring.''

Smits, 41, an auto dealer in the Green Bay area, grew up near the west shore of Green Bay and began hunting at 12.

''The first animal I hunted was a squirrel, then rabbits and pheasants. As I got older, I began trapping and was really into waterfowl hunting,'' he said.

In 1979, he killed his first Wisconsin whitetail, an event that ultimately triggered his pursuit of 29 Club entry.

''My life's goal has been to become a member of the North American 29 Club,'' Smits said. ''I seriously began to pursue it about 1990. I was hoping to do it by the time I reached 50 but it all came together a lot sooner.''

The quest, which meant coping with scorching desert heat, sub-zero Arctic temperatures and boulder-strewn mountainsides, required stamina as well as financing.

''I wouldn't even want to put a pencil'' to estimate the cost, Smits said. ''I did an awful lot — roughly half — of the hunts without a guide.

''It took a lot of good planning, taking the time and an incredible amount of luck. I'd like to say I created a lot of my own luck by calling a lot of references and researching areas but the biggest thing is taking the time.''

He averaged several hunts a year. Most ranged from one to two weeks.

''I actually killed one of each of the six deer species in 70 days last fall,'' he said.

''That included a whitetail buck in Wisconsin, a Sitka blacktail on Kodiak Island, a Columbia blacktail in Oregon, a Rocky Mountain mule deer in Alberta, a Coues whitetail in Mexico and a desert mule deer in Mexico.''

There is no requirement for club membership that the animals be of record-book caliber, but Smits managed to take a Coues whitetail and a western Canadian moose that qualified for entry into the Boone & Crockett record books.

''I thought the most difficult animal to take was a Rocky Mountain bighorn sheep,'' he said. ''It was the toughest 10 days of my life. The altitude wasn't particularly bad, but I had to do a tremendous amount of climbing and hiking over mountainous terrain.

''Mentally, I think the most difficult animal was the polar bear. I hunted out of Resolute Bay, about 100 miles from the North Pole. You can only hunt by dog sled, and I was on the ice for six days before I shot my bear. On the day I shot it, the temperature was 60 degrees below zero.

''There's just nothing to see out there — no birds, no animals, no mountains — just white.

''I had two Eskimo guides who spoke little English. After I killed the bear, it took two days of dog sled travel to get off the ice.''

Smits had two hunts for Stone sheep. The first lasted 10 days, the second just four hours.

''Things came together quickly on that second hunt,'' he said.

The idea for a 29 Club formed in the 1950s when that was believed the number of North American big-game animals. Since, nine other animals have been added to the big-game list, although not for club entry. They include jaguar, walrus, Arctic Island caribou, Roosevelt elk, Tule elk, mainland musk ox, gray wolf, woods bison and Vancouver Island black bear. All except jaguar can be killed by hunters. Arrangements can be made to shoot a jaguar with a tranquilizing dart. The animal then is released.

''I've hunted with Eskimos, Mexicans, Cree Indians and Inuits using rifles, shotguns, bows and harpoons,'' Smits said. ''I've slept in ranch houses, hotels, cabins, lodges, tents, lean-tos and under the stars.

''I've traveled by helicopter, airplane, trucks, cars, jeeps, four-wheelers, snow machines, horses, rubber rafts, boats, mules, dog sleds and snowshoes, but mostly by foot.''

Smits said he will pursue the nine animals outside the original 29 list, ''but I'd like to repeat some of my previous hunts just because I enjoyed the experience and the people I hunted with.

''I wonder if anyone has ever done it twice?'' he said.

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