There I was… the clock struck 4:00 PM on a Wednesday. “Just one more email, then I’ll go bear hunting,” I told myself. Besides, it was early in the spring bear season and I was just going to scout out an area for the weekend’s adventures. Little did I know, I wasn’t going to get to sleep until eleven hours later, exhausted from my first load of bear meat off the mountain.
I had been looking at this drainage on the map for a while. Multiple folks I consider to be bear hunting mentors had told me to look for some key characteristics. First and foremost, this spot had to be low enough on the mountain that there was good grass for feed. Black bears love gorging on lush green grasses and forbes right after they come out of the den from the winter.
Secondly, this spot on the map was the place where multiple water sources ran together into a larger drainage. Looking on OnX Maps, there are three major creeks that join in this area, with a handful of small springs and seeps on the main timbered slope. This area fit the bill for water sources. It was also glass-able. There was an old burn that had regrowth coming in that made it look more like a “reprod” patch from a timber cut than a place that had torched in the 80’s. Plus, and potentially most importantly, it was steep country.
I didn’t leave my truck until nearly 5:00 PM. Knowing I was late, I jogged to get to where I was going. I dropped into the canyon from an entrance in the cliff band about a mile and half from my pickup and was immediately met with the pulse-quickening excitement of finding my first rattlesnake of the year. Like most folks, I don’t mind snakes…that is unless I am in their personal space and they are letting me know it by the all-too-chilling sound of their rattle.
Nonetheless, I clearly had a long way to hike to get rid of the rattlesnakes and sage brush in exchange for bears and lush green-up from the mountain’s freshly melted snow. I kept climbing up the drainage for another couple of hours.
It seems as most days, when I leave my truck for a hike I plan out a route that ends in some sort of loop. For some reason or another, I just hate walking back on my own track. The furthest end of my circular route was the place from which I could glass the area where all three creeks converged. I knew it was there I had to crawl up the only other crack
in the cliff band above me to let me get out of the drainage and back down to the truck. I slowly worked my way up toward the opening in the cliff band to climb out, glassing back across the drainage for multiple minutes at a time. Long enough to enjoy a handful of snacks out of my pack.
Just as I was tossing another handful of cranberries in my mouth, I was simultaneously looking through my Maven’s on my tripod and saw a brown figure lumbering down the far slope. Of course, after a quick double-take, I knew exactly what that figure was; a bear.
My heart skipped a beat and immediately I threw my cranberries down, got out the spotting scope to get a better look. Forest Gump would have been impressed at the speed of which I tore down and put back together my optics equipment. It took me all of four seconds in the spotter to see that I needed to get closer to this black bear to get a good judge on it. For one, I knew it was not a small bear. Secondly, I was running out of daylight if I was going to try to get over there and make a shot.
I used OnX to get a yardage read from my position to where the bear was located. It was over a mile (my rangefinder wouldn’t read that far). Based on some loose math, I carried the two, added a few for steepness of terrain, and I figured I could be across the canyon from the bear within a half hour. I had about an hour and a half of shooting light left.
Knowing that any more deliberation may not get me the time I needed to watch this bear and verify it’s gender and size, I got to boogieing. First, wading across the steep creek that was rushing with spring runoff, then scrambling side-hill across the scree and cliff-laden slope. At just over 400 yards away, I still wasn’t perfectly across canyon from the bear, but close enough I decided to analyze the bear and see if it was a critter I wanted to take. It was a beautiful chocolate color. There were no cubs with it. By all indications, it was a good-sized older bear. I was going to take the shot.
I set up my rifle at more than 400 yards, dry fired multiple times to settle my nerves, then realized that I had the time, the wind, and the terrain to get closer for my shot. Working my way up the canyon just a little further got me to a very good rest at 323 yards. I was almost perfectly across the canyon from the bear.
The 180-grain copper bullet hit it’s mark exactly where one would want to put it. Though most bears tumble, spin or run after being shot, I saw this bear slump in it’s tracks. It rolled over one time due to the angle of the slope and get caught itself on a downed tree, where it so happened to be perched perfectly for one person to take solo photos.
Walking up on a recently shot bear is something that most bear hunters agree can be nerve racking. Between crazy stories of wounded bears scratching up hunters to just people being disappointed in the size of bear they have taken because of the difficulty judging these creatures, there are a handful of unknowns when walking up on a bear – especially by yourself. Luckily for me, this bear was not only right where I had last seen it, but exceeded all of my expectations. It was a beautiful chocolate coated healthy old sow with no cubs.
That night, I brought out half of the meat, and left the hide and other half of the meat at a hanging tree for me and my friend Jessi Johnson to return to the next day. I cashed in for the night in the back of my Tacoma canopy knowing I would be headed back in the next morning as soon as Jess showed up.
Jess arrived the next morning with coffee, food, and a ready-to-rip attitude at 6:30 am. With that kind of people in your life, how could you not be excited to head back in? Those four miles back into the meat tree to get the rest of the bear would have been much less enjoyable without the good company.
We could have hauled butt, been in and out of there in half of a day, and called it macaroni, but that was not what we did. Instead, we snacked lots, drank our share of water, and made sure to give our legs breaks. We even watched a herd of bull elk, who’s antlers had just begun to fork passed the brow tines, meander through the downfall timber around us. We were back to the trucks by 3:00 pm.
Shooting a critter deep in a hole in the backcountry and packing it out is not something I dread. On the contrary, it’s part of the process I sign up for that makes the experience all the more memorable. As one walks around the house with tender feet for the next week, it serves as an excellent reminder of the hard work that went into the harvest of a big game critter like a black bear.
As I sit here now, reminiscing on this textbook bear hunt, I am undoubtedly grateful for the stomach full of delicious spicy bear sausage I had for dinner. I am grateful for the blisters on my feet reminding me that bear hunting is no walk in the park, rather it’s an incredible challenge to find these awesome animals in the places they live. And I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to get to go do it again on an over-the-counter tag in my home state next year.