By Brian Strickland
He appeared just 12 steps from the base of the pine I was perched in, slipping towards the bait like a ghost floating above the forest floor. His raven-black hide looked impressive through the screen of brush he was easing through, and as he crept forward I knew the quest for my first black bear was about to come to a close. With each slow step he took my heart rate increased; but when he paused and raised his nose to inhale the cool mountain air, he knew something wasn’t right. For 10 minutes he stood statue-like, slowly turning his head in every direction surveying the area, and all I could do was wait.
With the evening mountain thermals already rolling downhill, there was no way this Utah bruin was smelling me. I hadn’t so much as even blinked since he appeared, so I knew he didn’t see me. With his sixth senses in overdrive, he knew something wasn’t quite right and I was hopeful the jelly-filled treats that had brought him to this point would push him over the edge.
Other than the bear’s pumpkin-sized head that slowly scanned the area, he stood motionless, trying to locate any potential danger. For a moment I thought his cautious virtue was satisfied and he was going to move towards the bait, but when his coal-black eyes looked up and locked on mine, that all changed. If looks could kill, Search & Rescue would have found me dangling from the tree in my safety harness the following day. And as suddenly as the encounter began it came to an abrupt end as his bulky body lumbered back into the brushy mountainside from where he had come.
As I’ve mentioned in previous columns, I was a latecomer to bear hunting. Other than an unsuccessful spot-and-stalk hunt in British Columbia one spring shortly after picking up the bow, black bears were never on my radar. I suppose that I could blame my initial lack-luster response to living out west and having oodles of other game to chase come fall. Plus, with Colorado eliminating spring black bear hunting opportunities shortly after moving there in 1992, I honestly gave them little thought unless I happened to have a fall black bear tag in my pocket. Even then, it was more of an opportunity endeavor while chasing elk or deer, than a focus. As they say, hindsight is always 20/20, and as I watched the Utah bruin fade back into the mountain, I wish that I would have taken them more seriously back then. They have a lot to offer the willing hunter.
First off, they live in some of the most spectacular country found in the Lower 48 and Alaska. The fact that most of it is publicly owned makes the whole endeavor that much sweeter for DIY hunters. Secondly, you can hunt them during the spring and fall in many places, and with the price of bear tags generally less than other western big game species, they are even more appealing. Also, because you can experience a hunt using so many different methods, there’s rarely a dull moment. Lastly and most important, they offer a fine hide for the wall and a rich taste for the table.
I had established this bait site deep into the Utah mountain range just six days prior, and it was on day three when my trail camera revealed my first visitor. He was a young bear that seemed to hit the bait daily, and although he was not worthy of an arrow, it was nice to know that one was interested. A couple of days later another one appeared, and when his image flashed across my computer screen, it caused me to do a double-take. He was clearly the one that had left tracks leading from the bait when I freshened it the previous day, and by the number of images my camera collected, he was laying claim to the bait.
As the evening wore on and the sun-kissed the western horizon, I still had hopes that either a new boar would appear or the same one would try to slip in again to steal a tasty treat. With fresh pastries, meat scraps and used cooking grease delivered to the bait earlier in the day, the scent was overwhelming and drifting into the valley below.
Just as suddenly as the first encounter occurred a few hours earlier, so did a second. His shadowy form oozed towards the bait, but this time from the opposite direction, and it was clear by his blocky size that it was the same boar from earlier. He stood behind a cluster of spruce for several minutes mere feet from the bait, listening, smelling and watching, hoping the coast was clear.
With my bow already in hand, I clipped my release and waited for his chest to slip through the shooting lane. Adrenaline surged through my body with each passing second, and when his sweet spot appeared I slowly drew, settled and then released. The arrow disappeared through his chest in a flash and as the mortally wounded bruin thundered down the mountain, I was once again humbled by the sheer awesomeness of the whole western experience.
All first big game animals are special, but this one seemed a bit more. Being a late-comer to the craft of bear hunting I’m sure had something to do with it, as well as my maturity. Something about age that slows you down to appreciate the little things in life a little more. As I stood over my fallen prize, I couldn’t help but appreciate the whole experience.