GRAND FORKS, N.D. – Tony Weber knew he had a bear within shooting range when he saw the nose.

Not until the bruin turned its head did Weber realize it was THE bear.

The orange ear tag was a dead giveaway. From a distance of 25 feet, the bear’s bling was difficult to miss.

“Then I got nervous,” Weber said. “I was pretty excited.”

Weber of East Grand Forks was getting ready for a late-afternoon bear hunt Sept. 7 on family property near Middle River, Minn., when he decided to check a bait station where a bear had scented him and bolted the previous evening.

At about 6:10, Weber said, he could hear something approaching to his left and figured it was a smaller bear he’d spotted on a trail camera. Big bears often don’t show themselves until dark, and it was relatively early.

Still, Weber had his .300 Winchester Magnum at the ready.

“I kept watching and had the gun standing straight up in front of me, and about 6:15 I see something black moving in and knew it was a bear coming,” Weber said.

Chances can be rare, Weber said, so he was ready to pull the trigger at the first opportunity.

That’s when the bear turned away to check out a scented cloth Weber had hung from a nearby tree. The orange tag in its right ear clearly visible — it was the same big bear he’d seen on the trail camera the night before.

Weber said the bear was 25 feet away when he pulled the trigger.

“It never looked at me. Never,” he said. “The night before, it circled around me and winded me and took off.

“I knew I had to get the gun up as soon as I could and figured I better just aim at the spine to drop it,” he said. “I shot and down it went.”

Weber said he waited in the stand 20 long minutes to make sure the bear was dead.

When he got down and tried to flip the bear over, he couldn’t budge it.

“I called my dad and told him to run to the neighbors up there at the hunting shack to see if he could get a sled to put it in,” Weber said. “He said, ‘We should be able to drag it.’

“I said, ‘It’s only 30 feet away from me, and it’s big.’“

When his dad returned with the sled, Weber said it took the two of them four “good pulls” to get the bear loaded.

They had pulled the sled maybe 10 feet, Weber said, when his dad decided that was enough fun for one night and told him to get the Polaris Ranger ATV to pull the big bear out of the woods.

Weber said the bear, which measured 7 feet nose to tail, weighed 462 pounds, field-dressed, on a certified scale. Live weight, it likely would have tipped the scales at 550 to 575 pounds.

“It’s just enormous,” he said.

TAG TELLS A STORY

Karen Noyce, a research biologist for the Department of Natural Resources in Grand Rapids, Minn., said the bear was trapped May 25, 2007 in Palmville Wildlife Management Area in southern Roseau County as part of an ongoing research project to learn more about the animals in northwest Minnesota, which is on the western fringe of the state’s bear range.

The bear at that time weighed 182 pounds and was 3 years old, Noyce said.

The DNR in 2007 also fitted the bear with a GPS collar that provided information on its travels for the next several months. They traced the bear to its den and replaced the unit the next winter, Noyce said, but that collar failed and the researchers lost contact with the bear until Weber shot it.

“We now know that he has been out there all along, that his collar released at some point, as it was supposed to do, and that he lost one ear tag somewhere along the way,” Noyce said.

She said the bear was 7 years old and “entering his prime adult years.”

Black bears exceeding 500 pounds aren’t common in Minnesota, Noyce said, but research has shown bears in the northwest grow fast and large. She said another bear with a radio-collar weighed 523 pounds last December in its den and already would have lost some weight from hibernating.

Weber is getting a full-size mount of the bear. Jayson Deziel, the Grand Forks taxidermist mounting the bear, said the skull measured 20 3/16 inches, which qualifies it for Boone and Crockett Club recognition.

Just the hide, Deziel said, weighed 110 pounds – without the skull.

“Weight-wise, it’s a big bear,” he said.

For Weber, the big bear continues a hot streak that included winning the Cats Incredible Catfish Tournament in 2010, shooting a big buck during last fall’s rifle season and shooting a brown-phase black bear with a bow two years ago.

Weber admits the story has a lot of “ifs”: If he hadn’t stopped to check the Zak site, he said he wouldn’t have startled the bear. And if he’d stayed there to hunt after seeing images of the big bear on his trail camera, Weber figures he never would have seen the animal.

“That could have played out way different – then to have that big one come in that early,” Weber said. “There were a lot of variables.”