RAVENSWOOD, W.Va. — A Canadian bear hunt is the lifetime dream of many West Virginia hunters, but for one group from Jackson County. a successful visit to New Brunswick will be forever remembered. Ross Mellinger and his father John Mellinger have now gone to hunt in the north country for two straight years and they have killed bears. But the circumstances surrounding this year’s trip could not have been conceived any better by a Hollywood script writer.
John Mellinger, days before his 67th birthday, was diagnosed with ALS or Lou Geherig’s Disease in May 2014. Mellinger, his son, and two longtime friends Paul Wilson and Kenny Sedeki had already planned and booked their Canadian trip. Fresh off the news, the trip in May 2014 was hard to enjoy.
“It was the pink elephant in the room,” said Ross. “Everybody knew this could be my dad’s last trip, but nobody wanted to talk about it.”
Least of all John who wanted nobody to worry about his condition. John was already hampered by a shoulder which no longer permitted him to hunt with a compound bow. He wanted to take a bear with his crossbow. He had two opportunities and placed shots on two bears. Both of the bears escaped and were never found.
“We all got bears in camp but him,” said Ross. “He played it off the way he always did. He said he had more shots at a bear than anybody in camp.”
The group headed back to West Virginia wondering if it would be their last outing. After a long family discussion, the decision was made to book the 2015 hunt with the same outfitter, Haley Brook Camps and owner Frank Hathaway. Frank was aware of John’s condition and promised if he was still in good enough shape to be in camp, they would go out of their way to make it happen.
“We stayed in close contact with them and kept them updated on Dad’s condition,” said Ross. “Honestly, he didn’t seem to be doing very well, but a few days before the trip I talked to him and he said, he wanted to try it.”
The brutal illness had taken its toll. The elder Mellinger lost his ability to speak. He could barely walk and grew tired rapidly. Just the ride to Canada was an ordeal. The foursome travelled all the way to Maine from Ravenswood and spent the night before crossing the border. But when they arrived, as promised, Haley Brook Camps personnel had arranged to make the week as easy as possible on John. They prepared for him a room attached to the dining hall to make sure he didn’t have to walk from the cabin to dinner. The stand picked out for him was literally steps away from the truck. Along with the Mellingers for the 2015 trip was Wilson again, but a new hunter in the foursome was Jeremy Moore.
“The place they had picked out for his stand looked like something back in West Virginia and very un-Canada like,” Ross explained. “It was on top of the ridge and instead of thick evergreen undercover it was big hardwoods and fairly open.”
Haunted by the two misses of the previous season, John took no chances. He brought along a custom rifle which he built himself. The 35 Whelen was a special rifle which John had used on many big game hunts and even used to kill a moose two years ago in Newfoundland. Guide David Hathaway, son of lodge owner Frank Hathaway, settled John into his blind with a specialized sling which enabled him to aim and shoot. The first day of hunting was very windy and there were no shots fired. But on their way to John’s blind at the end of day one, the headlights of the truck revealed something crossing the road. John said he had seen it, but wasn’t sure what he had seen.
On day two John was dropped off at his blind again and left for the day. David stayed close by so he could hear if John shot and would be able to help him. But at 9:20 a.m. Ross shot a bear and David was busy helping bring that one out of the bush and back to camp. Nobody got back to John’s hunting spot until just after 10 p.m. in the pitch dark. When they finally arrived, Ross jokingly asked his dad, “Where’s the bear?” John began to point toward the bait barrel. David helped John to the truck, Ross headed to investigate the barrel.
“When we got to where we could see, it’s a monstrosity of a pile of fur. I don’t know much about bear, but even I could tell this is something special,” said Ross. “David gets to the barrel and sees it and he’s like a kid at Christmas. He’s going on and on about the size of the bear. This really tickles Dad, because he’s always wanted to kill one.”
The men start to stretch out the bear until they unrolled more than seven feet of bear on the ground.
“It’s then David realizes this could potentially be a record book bear,” said Ross. “For somebody who’s been around bears his whole life to go on about this we knew this had to be something special.”
It took the other three hunters and David to finally load the bear which filled the bed of a pickup truck. The party arrived at camp around 2 a.m. and everybody in camp was astounded by the size. A front end loader was used to raise the animal off the truck bed and onto the scales. The bear weighed 430 pounds field dressed. Camp owner Frank Hathaway estimated it was around 550 pounds alive and had it made it to fall could have been a 700 pound bear. Frank studied the head of the bear and realized it would likely be a record book bear.
“This was really something special,” Ross said. “They finally skinned it out and realized this is not only going to exceed the standing record, but it will exceed it significantly. It has to dry 60 days and you’ll lose a little bit of size, but even with that most everybody believes it will eclipse the old record which was killed 30 years ago.”
The 60 day drying period will be up July 26th and the record keepers feel confident the bear will become the biggest ever killed in the province of New Brunswick. The story didn’t end there. John later told his son he actually missed the bear on his first shot at 9:30 a.m. He was so discouraged he unloaded the rifle and set it aside. The bear returned 10 minutes later and John had an inner debate. He wasn’t going to shoot, but finally convinced himself to give it one more try. John put one shell in the rifle and squeezed the trigger. The bear collapsed in a heap where it had stood.
“I don’t know how a fellow could add anything to the story to make it any more special or any more incredible,” said Ross. “I’m just tickled that it all came together and he killed it with the rifle he built and to kill it on his birthday. He says there are several times he’s woke up in the middle of the night thinking about that bear crashing there at the bait site.”