In more than a half-century of bear hunts, there are many special memories, highs and lows, and, unpredictable what-ifs; but one stands out.
For me this would be “Bobber Bear.”
Since my first bear hunt at the age of 17, the passion I have for bear is something I can’t even describe. From horses in the high country, spot and stalk in huckleberry fields, to the endless bear habitat of Alaska. No words can express my obsession. When I’m not hunting bears, I’m thinking about hunting bears.
Before we get to one of my favorite bear hunting adventures, let me fill you in on a few of the lessons I’ve learned over the years.
JUST A QUICK THOUGHT ABOUT GUNS AND caliber. Pick a rifle you are comfortable with and can shoot accurately. I have found while helping youngsters and also guiding in Alaska, that bullet placement is much more important than caliber.
A few words about observation: Good optics are an absolute must. You need to be able to scan the countryside thoroughly many times over. Keep reminding yourself to be patient; the beasts are normally on the move, so you never know when one will show up. Maybe it will be just a black spot or a stump that seems to move. Or yep, it’s a bear.
Use your field glasses, because you don’t want to shoot a sow that has a cub. So take the time to observe the critter before squeezing the trigger.
Also, before shooting, especially in the spring, you’ll want to look over the bear for the quality of its hide. Look for bad rub marks; good binoculars will allow you to do this.
Judging the size of a true trophy can be very frustrating. Personally, I find determining the size of a bear is the hardest of all game to judge. I remember a guide telling me once, “a large bear standing on a hillside should look like a Volkswagen. A small head, little ears and very little daylight under his belly.”
SPRING IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE TIMES to hunt. Washington, Idaho and Montana are all very target-rich environments for black bear. Washington has a very good population of bear. Why Washington does not have an open spring season is the question, especially since we can’t hunt bear with dogs anymore. Spring bear hunting would be a great tool to keep bear in certain areas. Maybe someday we’ll convince the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife of that.
Longtime hunting partners, Jerry Taylor, Jerry Downing and myself, plan our hunt. In the spring, timing is a large part of things that need to come together to have a successful hunt. If we are too early, with no vegetation there are no bears. If too late, there’s too much foliage that comprises our ability to spot bear. Plus, the probability of finding rubbed hides is much greater. It is often to your advantage to make a scouting trip to check on the snow pack, etc. The spring dates will vary each year. The weather and snow pack will determine the start of growing grass, skunk cabbage and wild onions. Those are all part of a young bear’s diet. Frequently, lower elevations are earlier. As a general rule, follow the snow levels; as the snow melts, start moving up. Larger rivers first, around April, and then higher creeks and meadows. Old roads through clear cuts can also be a good bet. As for time of day, probably 70 percent of spring bear sightings will be the last two hours of daylight. You will see them earlier, but not consistently.
Ghosts of spring! Nature calls, and magically, bears start to silently appear. Over the years we have our favorite areas that we see game. Some areas look good, but with nothing to show for them. I think this has a lot to do with den areas. More often than not, the bear will den close to its food source, which is often the north slope. If the weather turns really nasty, the ghosts return to the same den until, once again, nature calls.
For many years I have made a practice of keeping a journal of both hunting and fishing trips. Where, when, weather, and details of what and who. I have been blessed to have many very good hunting partners. Unfortunately, some of the best are no longer with me. They were my teachers. The people I looked up to and still miss, for me, were the perfect role models.
Hunting partners Jerry Taylor, Jerry Downing and I have had many years of fantastic memories. On Labrador, I saw Jerry D. shoot a caribou at 600 yards. In Alaska, Jerry T. took a 10-foot brown bear. Both of them are seasoned, so on this hunt I’ll be in good company. Both are dedicated bear hunters. Jerry D. lives in north Idaho, and was our recon man. Anyway, enough about strategy, let’s get to my hunting story.
I get a call, and it looks like it will be another week or 10 days. The meadows are probably starting to green up, but there is still too much snow in the pass. I relay this to Jerry T., and we will need to make arrangements to get off work for a few days.
IN MID-MAY WE HEAD NORTH. We plan to park the camper in a small camp about a mile from the start of the chain of meadows. The meadows can’t really be seen from any road. It’s truly hit-and-miss this time of year as to the weather. As luck would have it, we head right into a heavy rainstorm. We plan to hunt that first evening. So we set up camp, collect firewood and make our plan for the evening.
As we head out, the rain is still coming down, and it’s miserable. I am taking my chest waders in my pack instead of hip waders, just in case the water’s too deep. The country is heavily timbered. Coming down out of the high country is a creek, but more like a small river this time of year. The steep hills determine the speed and course the gushing water will take.
As I start to break out of heavy timber, it’s time to put on my chest waders. Almost to the creek, I’m in swampy alders, making my way toward the creek and meadow. Over time, beavers probably created these intermittent meadows. This is prime habitat for spring bears.
We each plan to hunt a different spot, which ups our odds. Jerry D. will hunt the first one, Jerry T. in the middle in the spot he killed a 6-footer a couple years earlier.
I have hunted my spot before, but was never able to connect because the wind always had my number. A bear’s nose is his first line of defense.
In any type of hunting, the weather is a huge factor. Today’s wind seems to be consistently downstream, which is good. As I make my way through the alders, I’m able to watch most of the meadow. I find a very large tree that’s slightly elevated above the meadow that has been down for years. I tell myself that this will make the perfect bench rest. Ninety percent of the meadow is across the wildly-flowing stream. The open grassy area is about 200 hundred yards long and 150 yards wide.
As I sit in the nasty, cold rain, it’s getting close to prime time. Matching wits with animals on the ground is not for everyone. Anyhow, I started to get the twinge of anticipation. Usually, I’m right on, and there’s a certain smell in the air. Jerry T. calls it a vision. His visions are, more often than not, black clouds.
AFTER A LONG AND AGONIZING WAIT, the rain is finally letting up. I sense that something is starting to happen! I catch some motion across the creek and to my left. It’s a bear!
The big hairy creature is coming through the alders toward the meadow. It’s a massive dark chocolate-colored bear. My first though is this is a grizzly. With that color and its size, it has to be. As the big bruin moves through the alders, try as I may, I can’t get a good look at him. I peer him at first through my field glasses, then my 300 Winchester mag with a 4-to-12 Leupold scope. I’m not too excited because it’s a grizzly, right?
Now slowly feeding to my right, he is coming out into the open. Just then my blood pressure jumps. There’s no hump; it’s a giant (black bear). The enormous creature looks all around, with nose in air. The wind is still good. He’s 180 yards, almost totally broadside and slightly downstream to my left. The rain has stopped as I snuggle in close to my rifle.
I take a quick look back down the way he came, and good; there’s no company. My crosshairs lie solid in his shoulders. Talk about exciting. It’s time to seize the moment. I fire, and the loud boom echoes violently through the steep canyon, and the bear lies motionless. I quickly let off another round while I keep the crosshairs on him. I determine he’s dead. Wow, what a rush. After all these years I get still jacked in the moment.
With roughly 45 minutes of daylight left, there’s no time to waste. I need to get that hide back across the raging waterway tonight. And I have totally lost bears to other bears overnight. Believe it or not, I once had one totally disappear.
Before I leave behind my pack, rifle and both coats, I take one more good look through my binoculars. There’s no movement at all. I tote my knife, steel (sharpener) and small flashlight, pick a good spot to enter the icy waters of the creek, and start working my way across. It is so cold! I have only about 6 inches of freeboard above my chest waders. But so far, so good.
As I climb a small bank towards the bear, I see him lying on his right side with his back to me. I get fairly close when – holy crap- he’s motionless, but still breathing. Now what? As I say only a few R-rated words, I realize I should have brought my rifle. I’m not liking this one bit, and it’s rather scary. I look around for whatever is handy, a club, big stick, anything.
Finally, I pick up rock, and say to myself, “This is plain dumb.” Moving closer, I can see his eyes are wide open, and they seem to be following me. He doesn’t move a muscle, and must be paralyzed. I sure hope he is. I hit him with the rock, but not too hard fearing I’ll tick him off. Nothing happens, and he can’t move. With no time to ponder, I take out my knife, and put my left foot on his nose and head. Still nothing. So I grit my teeth and plunge my knife deep into his heart/lung area. I jump back, and there’s still no movement. Within a minute, two at most, the bear’s breathing stops. Time to roll him over and get to work.
WHAT A GORGEOUS BEAR. My plan is to skin the body as fast as I can. I have done this before. With not much daylight left, I hear someone call out. It’s Jerry T., standing on the opposite bank looking at me through his field glasses. It is a welcome sight. He yells across the water to ask if I need help. Then he says, “It looks like a good one.” I tell him the water would be over his hip waders, and besides, I’m almost done. I finish up and hold the light in my mouth.
I drape the huge bear over my shoulder, and wow, is he ever massive. His head is touching the ground, as are his hind feet on my backside. I’m about to outsmart myself. I head upstream from where I climbed out. This way I’ll be able to hit the same place I entered the biting cold, rip-roaring water. The hide is very heavy and I’m having a heck of a time.
As I slide into the water, my toes feel for the bottom. In an instant, I disappear and fall into an 8-foot-plus hole. The frigid water takes my breath away. I scramble frantically trying to get some air. My right hand has a death grip on the bear hide; I don’t want to lose my beautiful trophy. Good grief, my waders are now full of air, forcing my legs and feet to the surface. I am almost turned upside down. At this point I am moving very fast downstream. As my chest waders begin to get filled up with ice water, I manage to get some air and begin to get my feet on the bottom. I start to feel the creek bed, making it possible to slow my downstream speed. Finally, I can stand up upright.
With waders full and towing an even heavier bear hide, I make my way towards shore in slow motion. Hypothermia is now setting in. At this point, Jerry T. comes out to give me a hand. As Jerry pulls me up on the bank, he starts to chuckle. I stand there, shivering.
“I fail to see the humor in this.”
He chuckles again.
“When you were drifting, with your duck hunting hat still on and the only thing visible, you looked like a bobber going downstream,” he says.
Thus, the Bobber Bear.
AS I SHED WET CLOTHES, Jerry retrieves my pack, rifle and coats, I drain my waders, put on my dry coat and head for camp. Jerry takes my pack and the ponderous, soaking and wet bear hide. Meanwhile, I’m just struggling to get some warmth back in my shaking blue body.
Well over 6 feet and approaching 400 pounds, Bobber Bear is now mounted life-sized in my man cave. A lifetime of memories is contained in that room.
Now, past the age of 70, my mind says “Let’s go!” But my body reminds me I’m fast approaching that sell-by date. I plan to spend my remaining energy passing on what my mentors taught me. With all the outside influences, I find it very important to take a youngster hunting.