We knew we had a slim chance of seeing that bear again.
Nick had caught a glimpse of him at more than 800 yards on the adjacent side of the basin in a patch of young pines just below the snow line. Like most of the bears we’d seen on this trip, he was moving quickly across an opening in the trees. Unless you had your eyes glued to your binoculars, you’d never catch more than a glimpse as they passed.
We’d made a move to cut the distance on this bear, but had sacrificed our vantage point for it and lost track of him in the meantime. All we knew was the direction it looked like he was headed, and that he was headed there fast.
We could only see about 100 yards in two directions as Nick watched downhill and I watched the sidehill.
Too much in shock to form words, I watched as the bear step out of the dark timber. He was 90 yards off to my right - well within range of my 338. Upwind, moving in strides, completely unaware of our presence - I was frozen in place. I might as well have seen a ghost.
I’d be lying if I said we knew what we were doing...
Some might argue that two whitetail hunters from Western Pennsylvania have no business being in grizzly country at 7200’ on their own looking for black bears in the spring; yet, there we were. My good friend Nick from Worn and Weathered answered the phone a few months back with a conversation that went something like:
Joe: “Do you want to go on a spring bear hunt?”
Nick: “Absolutely. I’ll be ready.”
Joe: “Ok. Talk to ya in a few weeks.”
That’s the kind of guy Nick is. No nonsense. Decisive. He’s the kind of guy that will pick up and go to Montana without a tag in his pocket, a personal agenda, or any selfish aspirations whatsoever.
We hit deep snow unexpectedly on our way in the first night. With packs full of food and supplies for the week and a long uphill climb, it was not a welcoming hike. Regardless, after a hot dinner and the smell of burning pine logs, anticipation was peaking. We had five days to chase bears all over the mountains. No cell phone reception. No emails. Just us and the mountains.
The black bears had been out of their dens for a few weeks by the time our hunt started and they were on the move looking for food. The rut was starting so some of the boars were already beginning to seek sows to breed as well. This made concentrating while glassing particularly important - which we found out early on the first evening hunt.
Clark and Lindsey were able to hike up with us but only had one evening to hunt before heading back to town. We all trekked over to a nearby glassing spot about a mile away for the evening. There was 3-4 feet of snow in certain drifts and avalanche shoots along the way. Without snowshoes, it’s like trying to hike through thigh deep water with ankle weights. I give Clark and Lindsey a lot of credit. Mountain goats have nothing on them.
After a shockingly cold sit the first evening and a recalibration of our temperature expectations for evening sits, we prepared to head back to the cabin as it was getting dark and visibility was getting low. Nick literally had already started hiking the trail out when I heard “BEAR” coming from Clark behind me. I flipped around just in time to catch a glimpse of a large jet black bear traveling out of the dark timber and into a patch of trees. We had about 10 minutes before shooting time was up so we had to move quick. Luckily, Clark is an expert at that.
Literally jumping down a loose rock covered avalanche shoot, Clark bolted down the hill to close the distance on this bear in a manner that I cannot describe in any other way than with a reckless abandonment of safety (only kidding - Clark is a seasoned high country hunter unlike myself).
We closed the distance to a couple hundred yards from where we’d last seen the bear, but watched as the clock ticked down to closing time.
It was exciting nonetheless…
The following evening, after Clark and Lindsey had to leave for town, Nick spotted a bear from our high glassing point moving quickly through an opening in the timber about 250 yards from us - at a 45 degree angle downhill.
It was apparent by this second sitting that these bears were going to give us a run for our money. They are not easy to spot, and even harder to close the distance on since they were all headed downhill to greener pastures at dark to feed on the lush vegetation and grubs in the streambed. There were very few places we could get to that would even give us a chance at intercepting one of these bears. He didn’t present a shot opportunity, so we planned to head back the next morning in anticipation that he may be headed back up the mountain after a long night.
The next morning we had a late start. I’m an early to bed early to rise kind of guy - and like to be in my hunting spot before shooting light. But after a couple of humbling hikes and some reassurance that I’m not as tough as I thought I was, I’d slept right through my blaring alarm and rushed down the trail 30 minutes after shooting time.
I arrived at our glassing spot with a slight bit of resentment toward myself for my lack of discipline and carelessness. I’d just missed the best 30 minutes of hunting that morning and there’s no way I could get it back. The bears were moving early and late - and I’d just wasted a morning.
As I sat there patronizing myself and pouting like a little kid in time out, I looked downward just in time to see a jet black ball of fur come wandering up out of the dark timber into a small opening.
“THERE HE IS!!!” I exclaimed to Nick at a volume that shockingly didn’t scare the bear off. He was pushing 400 yards at that point - so I Jackie Chan-style rolled over top of a boulder to get behind my gun in the prone position.
Nick ranged him at 385 yards and I knew I could shoot to 400 yards comfortably with my 338 Weatherby mag. I had seconds before he reached the timber and would be gone without a chance of cutting him off. The wind was dead calm...
The wild card was the 45 degree angle downhill…
“Do I hold 6 inches low?... 10 inches low?... dead on…???... BOOOOOOM”
The bear took off into the timber immediately indicating a miss. Nick and I checked for blood and hair for a few hours, but concluded it was a clean miss and that I’d shot right over his back. Valuable lesson learned: Montana mountains are STEEP. I’d better learn to be a better marksman if I’m going to take shots like that. Thank God it was a clean miss. Excitement is no excuse for a rash decision.
Fast forward to day 5 and we had a new plan. We were up high - in fact about as high as we were able to go with the snow that still lay high in these mountains. The bears were clearly filtering out of the dark timber below us ignoring the patchy new growth up high and heading right for the valley bottom at dusk. We had to get lower.
We left early for our evening sit to hike further down to explore new territory 1200’ below our glassing elevation. We’d found a couple spots on OnX Hunt Maps that we wanted to check for bear sign with a theory that it might be a transition area. It was unglassable from everywhere except the North Slope directly across - which was covered in 5’ of snow.
We setup at the lowest point in the openings in an effort to sneak a peek into the timber - potentially catching a bear moving through late in the evening. However, it was still early, and there was a new part of the basin just out of view that looked promising for glassing. Nick and I looked at each other and agreed:
“This is going to be like finding a needle in a haystack.”
A bear would have to wander within 100 yards of us in this spot or we’d have no chance of ever seeing it. We picked up and doubled back to a spot a couple hundred yards away to get a better view of the basin.
The sun tipped behind the mountain top and the temperature dropped about 15 degrees in minutes. We through on a couple of layers and began to settle in for a long sit.
“BEAR!……... BEAR! BEAR! BEAR!”
I couldn’t believe my eyes as Nick pointed out a lone bear meandering across an opening about 800 yards away. This was the earliest we’d spotted a bear in the evening yet… by a few hours! We may actually be able to make a move on him.
He was out of sight in seconds. We grabbed our packs and quickly moved back over to where we’d setup before in an effort to cut him off. As we sat back down in our previous spot, lacking a better idea but full of hope, we looked at each other silently thinking the same thing:
(...needle in a haystack...what are the chances…)
Just then, I spotted the bear entering stage right. When he went behind a tree, I flipped around and angled myself in the direction he was traveling. Nick heard me toss around and by the time he looked over I was already on the scope with the safety off. I followed the bear across an opening and behind another tree.
“Stop him… Stop him”
Nick made a noise to get the bears attention and he stopped right on cue in the perfect opening.
Words can’t describe the moment of elation felt by hunters when a plan finally comes together. There’s something about a truly wild mountain bear that is awe-inspiring.
They are stealthy and they are elusive. Seeing one up close in the high country, unaware of your presence, is a humbling experience. These mountains have a way of humbling you and always serve as a reminder that we all coexist in the same world. We drink the same water. Breath the same air. Watch the same sun sets.
We as humans are truly little fish in a big pond.