As a deer and elk hunter, I am a died-in-the-wool archer. As a bear hunter, I leave a little discretion for a rifle. just in case.
In Spring of 2005, Memorial day found me trudging through 6 inches of wet snow in the mountains around Wise River Montana. I was with Mark Shutey, owner of Stockton Outfitters www.stocktonoutfitters.com , on some prime bear ground that he guides. We both knew that when it comes to bad weather, bears of all kinds, "hole up," a term for "they are not moving today."
Since they hibernate during the winter, bears are not accustomed to the degree of bad weather that other animals tolerate. Still we were trying Mark's secret weapon and in the past, snow, as long as it is not falling or blowing doesn't necessarily put a freeze on spring bear hunting. Mark has the highest ratio of record book bears next to his name of anyone I know.
Mark's secret weapon is to use a calf elk in distress call, similar to other using a rabbit in distress call for coyotes. We had set up around some clearings and called twice this morning. Sometimes you get bears, sometimes you get coyotes, and many times, you get an extremely irritated cow elk or two.
The previous year, I had bow-hunted with Mark. Hunting had been slow for a couple of days so I asked Mark if I could try my fawn in distress call to try to pull a bear in for my partner, Todd Styles. Mark reminded me we were in elk country, but if it would humor me, go right ahead and call my heart out. Wouldn't you know I no more than put the call to my lips when I heard a crack behind me. The problem was I was sitting against a tree and whatever stepped on that twig was coming in blind, and hard! I tried to screw my eyeballs around in my head, but as soon as I saw a cinnamon blur at arms length, there was no time for subtlety. I grabbed my bow and spun and there was a big cinnamon bear about an arrow's length away giving me an up close and personal bear stare!
The big boar was crouched for action and there was simple no bow shot opportunity on a point blank face to face bear. I could hear his breathing and smell his bear breath. I reached full draw hoping he might bound out a few yards and present a broadside, but when he decided it was time to go, he boogied and was gone in a heartbeat. As I stopped shaking enough to stand up, Mark and Todd came out of their hiding place and said, "Man, that was awesome! I told you that fawn call would never work!" Lots of laughs about that!
Here I am a year later and a close encounter wiser, hunting with Mark and my long time elk hunting buddy, Gary Clutter of Bozeman, Montana. Gary is a great, hunter, guide, and friend. It was great to be back with my bow, Mark and Gary pursuing spring bear again. We had hunted 3 days without a sighting, but the weather was improving. The snow was melting. Things had to get better.
Glassing the country in Mark's favorite bear honey hole, Mark spotted a big blackie down in the bottom of a big alpine bowl. The bear was next to some quakies and dark timber, grazing on new green growth of grasses. He was about 3 miles away and 1000 feet down in elevation.
Mark looked at me and said, " He's a long way down in that hole. Are you ready to kill a bear?"
I replied," Yes sir, I am!"
Mark replied, "Then give that bow to Gary. Take his 300 Win Mag, and lets go get him."
Now this was a difficult decision, not only because I had yet to christen my faithful PSE with any bear blood, but I knew Mark was right. In that alpine bowl, there was no more cover than your front lawn, so slipping within bow range would be impossible. In the back of my mind I knew my rifle skills were very rusty. Could I even hit it with Gary's rifle?
No time for debate. Give me that rifle and let's go kill that bear! We took off at jogging speed down toward the bear, taking advantage of any cover we could. Working down from above, the grazing bear never spotted us. Mark made a stalk that would bring us up behind the bear with the rising thermals in our favor. Three and a ½ miles is a long way, even down hill, but it went fast, even with this altitude being 7000 feet higher then what I was used to breathing.
As we narrowed the distance, the available cover thinned and finally at about 300 yards there was little left to hide behind. Mark motioned me to stay low and crawl to a rock outcropping about 30 yards out, and to set up there. I slipped off my backpack and pushed it out front as I crawled slowly to the outcropping. At the rocks, I rested the rifle on the backpack and found I was surprisingly steady.
I estimated the distance to be about 270 yards. Gary had said his rifle was dead on at 200 yards and 6" low at 300. 50 yards is a long shot for an archer, so I really had to guesstimate with a rifle I'd never shot before. I put the cross hairs at the top of his shoulder, figuring on about 5 inches of drop.
At Mark's advice, when shooting bear with a rifle you always shoot first to" Anchor" him. Break his shoulder. This keeps him from running away, or worse yet, charging you. I tightened my finger on the trigger, with the cross hairs not moving off the target. I didn't hear or feel the boom consciously. I didn't even see the bear fall, I just saw him piled up in a heap. I stood up and started back toward Mark, when he shouted, shoot him again, and shoot him again! I turned back towards the bear and was horrified. The bear was up and struggling into the edge of dark timber. The bear was gone.
Mark slapped me out of my daze and said, "Take the rifle, all your shells and leave your gear behind. It's rodeo time!" I was up and running trying to catch up with Mark's mountain hardened legs. As he hit the timber, the pace slowed as we tracked through matted grass, broken stems and a dot of blood now and then. Bears usually do not drip much blood, because their large amount of fat often plugs the bullet hole. After 30 minutes and 400 yards of climbing over and under logs in the blowdown jungle we found the bear. A final shot anchored him for good. He tried to scramble over one more log and was stuck half way over one when he died.
He was a beautiful chestnut brown bear; with out any rub marks, or scars. We caught our breath. I dropped the rifle with Mark and backtracked up to retrieve my knives and gear. At the spot I first hit the bear, a second bear, a big cinnamon, was already sniffing the blood trail. He stood up when he saw me a few yards away and there I was empty handed yelling "Shoo bear!" Down in the timber, Mark heard my yelling and figured I was hallucinating!
After fetching my gear, skinning and quartering the bear we had a monster hike back up and out of the basin. After dropping the first load, we dropped back down to the carcass for a second load and yet a third bear, a smaller blackie, was already on the gut pile. As I think of it, for 3 days we could not find a bear, now they were all around us!
After the two 7 mile round trips of hauling, bear head, hide, meat, gear and us back up the 1000 foot in elevation my tongue was dragging like a Texas well rope, but we were done. The next day my legs and back felt like they belonged to the devil himself! But I'll be back again. My PSE is still looking for bear blood!