By Matthew Taylor
Bear hunting ain’t easy! In fact, the possibility of even seeing a black bear in the wild is absurdly rare.
I am an Arkansas resident, a passionate hunter, and an outdoor enthusiast. I spend most of my hunting time pursuing whitetail deer, turkey, or squirrel, and occasionally enjoy a coon hunt. Hunting is a big part of life for me and my family. My sons (Jaxon, 17 and Weston, 14) are pretty good, dedicated hunters. My oldest daughter (June, 6) has spent countless hours as my hunting sidekick in the woods and my wife (Melissa) and youngest daughter (Kate, 3) help process, cook, and consume our harvests.
Despite living in bear country and spending nearly three decades hunting the rolling, rocky mountains of western Arkansas, bears have mostly eluded me. It wasn’t until the fall of 2020 that I experienced my first “real” bear hunt. Let me quickly define the use of the word “real” in that last sentence. Bears are always on my mind when I’m in the woods, but I wouldn’t define any hunt that I’ve ever had as a bear hunt. When I’m scouting places to deer hunt in my beloved Ouachita Mountains, I look for deer sign and incorporate those observations in my final stand selections, BUT what I’m really looking for and am hoping to find are overturned rocks and/or bear scat. And while I’m on the deer stand, I often pass the time wishing for a bear to emerge from the brush, hoping to catch a glimpse of black fur approaching from over the ridge. Though the majestic bear never reveals himself, he knows exactly where I am. He smelled me the minute I got out of the truck. He is incredible at utilizing his senses to avoid danger and has earned my highest respect. In his wild setting, he is just so much better at evading me than I am at pursuing him.
I’ve only seen two bears in my 28 years of hunting the Ouachita Mountains. It is not due to a shortage of bears here. In fact, they are thriving. I see their sign. I catch them on trail cameras. They are just so much better than me.
My first experience with a bear occurred in the fall of 2005 when my long-time hunting partner and friend Russell and I were hunting the muzzleloader deer season opener in the Ouachita National Forest. We were hunting independently at that time, fixated on the gray-brown body with a white undertail of a deer. Neither of us were thinking anything about bears, but…that morning, as luck or fate would have it, we both chanced upon a bear and took advantage of the opportunity. What are the odds!? Both of us seeing our first bear simultaneously and taking the majestic beasts. On a side note, my son (Weston) and his good buddy both harvested their first turkeys on the same morning last spring! I don’t want to get too far off track here, but this is one of the most beautiful parts of the hunting experience, the shared adventures and stories with friends with a mutual passion.
Following that experience in 2005, I didn’t see another bear for another 15 years! On a Friday morning during archery season in the fall of 2020, I was sitting in my office when I received a text from Clay Newcomb: “Wanna go bear hunting over bait with me?...leaving at 11a.m.” I replied with something like “Man, I’m swamped at work. I’ll be there!”
I have never made an attempt to bait any animal but was very familiar with this tactic for bear hunting through discussions with friends and conservation research. I have no reservations with this method and based on my decades of hunting national forest in bear country and the extreme rarity of bear encounters, I recognize the critical need for baiting as a management tool to maintain healthy populations of bears.
This adventure began on the backs of mules, riding up the rugged, south facing slope of the Ouachita’s. Clay had access to a piece of private land nestled within the surrounding national forest, near the top of the mountain (it is only legal to bait bears on private land in Arkansas). We tied the mules off and trekked the remaining half mile on foot with a fresh sack of bait and archery equipment in tow. When we arrived at the bait site, he was a little disappointed to see that there was still a pile of bait remaining from the previous weekend. Checking his trail camera didn’t boost his level of optimism either as there were few shots of bears and they were all taken at night. Me however, I was thrilled! There were actually bears feeding right here within the past few days! I told him then that if we saw just one bear, no matter the size, that would equal success for me.
We freshened up the bait pile and as we settled into our tree stands about 20 feet above the bait site, the hunt was on. As we scanned the woods for sounds and movement, I began to reflect on the day and the privilege that I was experiencing. A few hours ago, I’m staring at a computer and now here I am, in bear country, hunting with a good friend and a great equalizer on our side: food. Now I hadn’t spent the past few weeks driving down, hauling bait up the mountain, hanging tree stands, or checking trail cameras. My point here is to acknowledge that baiting bears doesn’t mean that you’ve made hunting easy. While it certainly increases your chances of success, baiting can involve a ton of time and work to get to the point that I was now enjoying.
As time ticked by, the woods seemed to be dead. Not so much as a squirrel passed through. We were in the final hour of daylight when Clay and I both picked up on a minor disturbance to our left. We looked at each other for validation and both signaled that we had in fact heard something. It sounded and “felt” close, but I couldn’t see a thing. A minute or so later, another pop. I looked at my buddy and could see in his change of demeanor -- he’d spotted a bear. There is it was, right there at a distance of maybe 35 yards. I couldn’t find him initially because he was absolutely creeping through the shadows and blended in exceptionally well. My adrenaline was pumping, my heart racing, and my breathing was accelerating. I tried to settle down and focus, but I was blown away as I watched the bear inch closer to the bait -- and I mean inch! He’d take one step, sniff, and look all around, lick his nose, wait 30 seconds, and finally take another step. No wonder I never get to see these unbelievably wary creatures. The analysis transacting through his senses made the work that I was doing on my computer this morning seem rudimentary. Finally, after a magical few minutes of observing the bear approaching the bait, he was in a position where I felt I could take my shot. I released the arrow and watched him expire within sight.
I was flooded with emotion. I have so much respect for these animals and as I watched him take his last breath, the words of Jim Doggett from Thomas Bangs Thorpe’s 18th century story “Big Bear of Arkansas” rang so true in my heart “I loved him like a brother.” It’s perhaps impossible for most to understand -- how that feeling could be true. I don’t believe that a non-hunter could ever love these animals like those of us that pursue them. Through our conservation model, we hunters take only what we need and in doing so, the species can flourish. It’s a relationship that God initiated and I couldn’t imagine a life without these experiences.
With our mission accomplished, we packed the hide, fat, and meat and rode the mules off the mountain. In the following days, I rendered the fat into bear grease, processed the meat, and delivered the head and hide to my taxidermist to make a rug that I plan to drape over a loft railing overlooking my living room.
This was an extraordinary experience, and I can only hope to repeat it. I can’t think of anything more rewarding to both the species from a conservation standpoint, as well as to us hunters for the experiences that our pursuits provide and the wildlife commodities procured. Happy hunting!