Feature Articles from BHM
May 19 2016
Josh and I had barely left the 4-wheeler when I heard him stutter, “There’s a bear.” In shock, I threw up my binoculars. The black-phase sow scooted across the flats in front of us, stopping on the edge of the timber 100 yards out. She turned to look back. At that time, I noticed a second bear. His reddish-chocolate coat glistened in the afternoon sun as he hurried to rejoin her. I had seconds to decide. He looked great, but I hesitated too long. He disappeared into the maze of brush in front of us. I looked at Josh. His eyes were as big as saucers. Looking for comfort, I asked what he thought. “That was the biggest bear I have ever seen.”
The author overlooking a rugged drainage in Idaho that proved to hold some great bears. The author wears First Lite hunting gear.
Spring had come to Idaho early this year. Anxiously, I planned on my yearly bear baiting adventure. I had decided on switching sites up, and the season couldn’t come soon enough. While surfing the web at lunch one day, I read the bear draw results had come up. I choked on my sandwich when I saw “successful” next to my name. My spring had done a complete backflip in seconds. I was going on my first spot and stalk bear hunt!
After the excitement began to wear off, reality set in. I lived six hours from the unit. I had never set foot in it, and the season opened in weeks. Nerves began to take hold. As unnerving as it was, this was the part of the adventure I liked the most: the unknown.
I quickly began networking. Luckily, I had friends in the know. Between several Facebook messages, Google searches, and a bunch of staring at my Onx Hunt map, I had a game plan. Research had indicated that the later part of the season would be best when the bears were rutting hard and the wild onions would be in full bloom. But with the early spring, everyone suggested I hit it hard opening weekend and see what was going on. April 1st slowly crept up on my calendar, and before I knew it, I was headed down the road.
A younger color phase bear that the author chose to pass. Beautiful bear!
It takes a special hunting buddy to load up in the truck and drive to an unknown part of the state. I am lucky to have many. The first trip would take someone with a high pain threshhold and a poor short-term memory. My father-in-law, Scott fit the bill. I had shared many adventures with him over the years: moose hunting in Northern Idaho, hunting ducks on the salt flats and endless late night packouts are on his resume. Plus, he was stir-crazy after winter. We pulled into camp late the night before opener, ate some dinner, and hit the hay.
We woke to the sound of geese terrorizing the campground. No joke. They had pulled a roll of paper towels out from under the camper and strewn it across the site. When I gained control of the situation, my surroundings took hold of me. I was in the most immense canyon I had ever set my eyes on. Towering hillsides climbed thousands of feet up with timber pockets and grassy meadows dotting the landscape. Scott looked at me with a grimace. I could tell the realization was setting in. We were going to be climbing.
Since my reading had suggested bear hunting this area was more of an afternoon/evening game, we left the trailhead around noon. We slowly started our way up a suggested trail. Everything was new to us. We hiked through creek bottoms filled with walnut and oak trees, crossed steppe hillsides through giant ponderosas and scanned clearings while seated in giant fields of arrowleaf balsamroot. And we were alone. No one had been up there all spring. It was pretty cool to be laying down “first tracks.”
Typical glassing location in the mountains of Idaho. No potatoe farms anywhere near here....
We worked our way up the draw glassing and looking for sign. I have done quite a bit of elk and deer hunting over the years, but I was new to this one. Feeling discouraged, I stepped up a rock ledge and looked into the timber. There in front of was a bear scratch tree. I had seen claw marks on trees before, but this tree had a rough history. We inspected it with a smile. Motivation had been restored.
Scott and I climbed a couple thousand feet and set up where the trail splits. While we were eating our lunch, I glanced across the canyon, and there fed a bear. I scrambled to set up my spotting scope. With only seconds to field judge, I decided to pass. The bear was black-phased boar and pretty good sized. I guessed him at between 5-6 feet, and it really got us excited. The bear drifted into the brush, and we lost it forever.
We continued around the bend high above the river. The views were awesome. It felt like we were in New Zealand with the huge grass bluffs dropping to the bottom. As we rolled into the next drainage, sightings of elk and deer kept us entertained. As we crept through a timber patch, I saw a puff of fur in some downed trees. Suddenly, a bear popped up 50 yards in front of us. The two-year-old bear had an awesome cinnamon coat, but it wasn’t what I was looking for. We watched him for a few minutes and continued on.
The day continued on and the hours passed. Slowly we completed our loop. The camper was a pretty awesome sight that evening. It had been a great start. Two bears were beyond any of my expectations. The next day found us in a new draw with similar terrain. The big climb produced a blond cinnamon sow at snow line. We glassed all day and worked back toward the bottom. Right before the road, a beautiful blond bear fed into a clearing on the other side of the creek. He was very tempting. But again, he was a young bear. Scott thought I was crazy. But I had been told by many to look for the bear of a lifetime because they live here. We arrived at camp for another gourmet dinner planned out by my mother in law Diane and discussed our options. We decided to do some road hunting and glassing the next day since weather was blowing in and our legs needed a rest.
The next day was rough. A terrible rainstorm blew in and shut down all visibility. Even so, the area we were in was too high. No food was up, and it was gnarly. But we saw some really awesome sights on our travels that day. We came beak to bumper with a strutting grouse who wasn’t impressed with the F-150. We saw both whitetail and mule deer in the same stand of timber. And some of the old dilapidated barns were super cool. But with rain pouring down, we surrendered. We spent the day at camp relaxing, with some fishing and stories. The storm finally passed and we organized our packs. Our final day found us in the canyon from two evenings before. No bears popped up after eight hours of glassing, so we hunted back to camp. Near the bottom, that same small blond bear showed himself. I bit my tongue and kept walking. Mentally, I was already planning my return trip in two weeks.
Work dragged out for what seemed like an eternity, but I finally felt the wind in my hair as I drove down the highway. I paused in a small town bar for some buffalo wings and waited for my second hunting partner for the adventure. Kevin and I have spent many years chasing elk and deer, and I knew he would like a chance to see some bears. I had a three-day window, so we made the dash for another chance at bears. Watching the weather report, I had noticed it had warmed considerably since my last trip. After doing some more research, we decided to hunt at the top of the canyon rim. This previously gloomy terrain was now lush with vegetation, and it was apparent the bears had been using it. Holes littered the landscape. Bears had been busy digging onion bulbs and ground squirrels. Decaying stumps had been ripped apart, and scat piles were abundant.
Kevin and I spent the next two days cruising the meadows high above the river. We saw some really neat sights. But our trip coincided with the full moon, and I think it really affected the hunting. Our time did produce one bear sighting. The small cinnamon didn’t interest me in hunting terms. But Kevin and I sure enjoyed watching the bear do bear things. Kevin hadn’t spent much time observing bears, and this one put on a show. He walked around the hillside, standing on his rear feet many times. The bear rubbed his butt on trees and dug holes in the dirt. After many smiles, we moved on.
Our time in camp was just three short nights, but Kevin and I did everything we could to setup success. We both knew this was most likely not the trip to kill a bear. But we hunted really hard. We spent many hours carrying heavy packs, glassing from rises in the terrain for feeding bears. After 7 total days of hunting, I finally felt like I knew where the bears were. I had one more three-day window at the end of the season. From what I read, it should be the peak of the rut, and the new moon looked promising. The knot in my stomach reminded me I only had one more chance.
I soon found myself in now familiar country. I had weaseled my best hunting buddy Josh in on this trip. He was dealing with concussion symptoms, so his spring mountain bike trip turned into tagging along on my bear hunt. With great anticipation, we loaded up the quad and pointed it to an X on the map that I had been staring at.
Well, a mile out of camp, my borrowed 4-wheeler got a flat. We made record time for a trip into town, a tire fix, and return trip. Two hours behind schedule, we got to the gate where the road ends and non-motorized begins.
Within minutes Josh and I had an encounter with a big chocolate boar and sow. I left the scene in a little bit of shock. I shook it off as Josh and I continued to our planned glassing point for the day. After the hour of hiking, we set up in middle of scattered rain showers. As the fog patches rose from around us, Josh and I experienced the one of the greatest days of hunting I’ve ever had. Bears continually popped up in the folds of the terrain all day. We built a small fire to warm up and dry out and enjoyed the show. Across the canyon, a medium sized black phased boar was chasing a sow. A small boar fed in a clearing miles away. Several other smaller boars cruised the benches with their noses in the air, searching for a hot female. All of nature’s critters were out. Deer kept popping up out of the brush. We saw a great muley buck that had great potential for May. We also watched a big herd of elk navigate the trees with tiny spotted calves in tow. Coyotes yipped all hours.
We enjoyed the day, but nothing as big as the previous bear showed itself. I was mentally kicking myself. I had really screwed up. We were walking back to the quad when Josh spotted a final bear. It didn’t look big, but we had been glassing all day and needed an up-close encounter. We marked where the bear was feeding in the clearing and made a big stalk. The wind was perfect as we popped over the rise. And there was the bear. It was a medium black phase boar. At 40 yards, he would have been an easy shot and great story. But I had come for a big bear.
Josh and I returned to camp and started dinner. We were on a real adrenaline rush from our day of hunting. We had seen 8 bears, which was just crazy to us. The next day was Saturday. I could hunt Sunday morning, but realistically, the next day would be my last good chance at a bear. We were cooking dinner when we heard the hum of an engine. Kevin pulled into camp for the last hunt. The three of us enjoyed some fireside comraderie and stories and got ready for a hard push tomorrow.
We rolled out of camp earlier then usual since I wanted to give myself the most time in the field as possible. With three of us and only one four-wheeler, we had to run in shuttles. Josh and I went to our starting point first. Josh dropped me off and went for Kevin. While I waited, I climbed to a small rise and set up my spotting scope. I looked to the meadow across the valley and there was a black and brown spot. I cranked the power up to 40x and confirmed my suspicions; there fed the big chocolate boar from yesterday.
Getting a better look at him, I could now tell this was the bear I had been waiting for. His head was big and blocky, his shoulders were huge and muscled, and he dwarfed his sow. I watched them move into the brush while I waited for Josh and Kevin.
When they arrived, I explained the situation and we made a move. I hoped the bears would feed on the canyon rim before dropping into the vegetation. We hustled as fast as we could, but the vegetation and rough, rocky terrain made the going tough. It had been over an hour since I had last seen the bear, so I didn’t have much hope. We were slowly working our way over towards a glassing point to spend the afternoon when I saw a flash of black in a patch of aspen.
I focused my binoculars and spotted a familiar black sow feeding in an onion patch. Behind her lay the boar. He was exhausted. He slept in the sun with his head the ground. I quickly chambered a round and checked the wind. It looked good, so I found a fold in the terrain, left Kevin and Josh, and moved in. I lost sight of the bears for several minutes, but when I came out of the trees they were less then 100 yards from me. The boar continued to sleep as the sow fed. I got set up as I felt a trickle of wind on the back of my neck. The sow threw up her nose and made a move for the vegetation. I clicked off the safety as the big male rose. He turned broadside and my .280 barked. He spun and roared, biting at his side. Two more follow-up shots put him down.
The shakes wore off about the same time Kevin and Josh got to me. We approached the downed bear and reality of the situation set in. I had taken a big old bear. His face was completely covered in scars. His incisor tooth was chipped off. His eyes were opaque like a blind old dog. And he was absolutely covered in ticks. I had accomplished my goal.
We took some time for pictures and celebration, and the work got started. Somehow I had forgotten my knife. Luckily my buddies had two, and we slowly skinned and quartered the bear. I loaded my Exo Mountain Gear pack with the cape and hide and limped back to the quad. It was a really tough packout. The bear was much heavier then any I had taken in the past. I got the opportunity to lie in a grassy field, watching the clouds drift by as I waited for my shuttle ride back to camp. It was a perfect ending to a perfect day.
In the end I was able to find the bear of my dreams through hard work and great friends. From the information I was able to get from the Internet and social networking to help with making breakfast, I couldn’t have done it without my hunting buddies. My bear ended up scoring 19 13/16”, inches bigger than any of my previous. I may never get a chance to hunt for bears in those hills again, but I will never forget it.
The author with big OLD Idaho DIY bear. Below: the old bear's eyes were glassed over and was likely almost blind. His teeth showed extreme wear, typical of a very old bear.