By River Newcomb
Since I was a little girl, I’ve been hunting the mountains of Arkansas with my family. I was four-years old the first time I saw a bear in the woods while we were putting out bait. I remember watching that bear and my initial response was fear. I grabbed onto my dad’s leg and said, “Let’s go.” We watched the bear throw his nose in the air, wind us and run off. I remember looking to my dad to see him grinning ear to ear. “Did you see that?” he asked. And his excitement immediately transferred to me. The drive home he had me recount what I had seen and made sure that I understood how special it was that I got to be so close to a wild bear. That was a privilege that not many four-year old kids have.
That same year, the season started and the bears left my dad’s bait. He was planning on giving up, but I had a dream. I woke up early in the morning and told him, “Daddy, I had a dream that the bear came back.” As a four-year-old, he acknowledged the dream and agreed to keep it out one more week. The next time he went to check the bait, sure enough, a bear was back at the bait. I’ve always loved bears.
It was always important to my dad that we valued and respected the wildlife we hunted. We spent our summers catching lizards, snakes, crawdads, and whatever else we could find. Then when fall would come around, we would pack our school bags with hunting clothes so we could leave straight from there to the farm. Just about every night of the week we would help someone track a deer, and then we would sit at the truck and listen to some of the best story telling you’ve ever heard.
I killed my first deer with a bow behind our house when I was nine-years old. I remember calling my mom on the phone and telling her to send my brothers and cousins up to see it. When they got there, I was so proud of what I’d done. Hunting was a part of our culture and it was something done with the utmost respect to nature. We were trained to view wildlife through the lens of a conservationist and to never take it for granted. Deer hunting was something we all got to do, but bear hunting in our family was a privilege, not a right. Dad wouldn’t just take anyone bear hunting, because a bear is “the majestic beast of the Ozarks.” The summer of 2016, I was twelve years old, got a bow and worked to be able to pull back legal weight. The following fall I killed a color phase black bear. That was an incredible experience, but that’s not the story I want to tell you.
The next years I baited and hunted, but didn't kill one. The fall of 2018, just before the season started, we gained access to a remote piece of private land that we accessed by mules. On September 14, I had finished all my schoolwork so that we could bait the new property. We used our two mules to pack in about 400 pounds of corn, dog food, bread, sardines, pastries and fryer grease – and of course, our Northwoods Gold Rush. I didn’t really know what I was getting into. I was just helping my dad set out a bait and I didn’t know who would hunt it. We finally made it to the top, unpacked the mules, set out a camera, and we were ready to go back down.
I was tired and decided I wanted to ride out on our young mule, Izzie. As I was riding, I ducked to get under a limb about the size of your wrist. As I leaned over to avoid getting raked off, I grabbed the saddle horn and squeezed my legs into Izzie, unintentionally queuing her to run. She took off down that mountain at full speed! I lost the reigns and control as she jumped logs and ditches, and then, the saddle started to slide right off her back. My feet were out of the stirrups and I was hanging on only the saddle horn. It felt like she ran forever before finally something happened - I came off in a tumble and hit the ground hard.
My dad ran to me to see if I was okay. My foot hurt bad and my head hurt too. My dad made sure no bones were broken and then he put his hand on my head - it was covered in blood. The cut felt deep but my hair covered it, and we really couldn't tell much about it. I tried to stand up and immediately the trees started to blur and it was as if my legs couldn’t hold me. We sat there on the ground for twenty minutes and prayed before walking the rest of the way down the mountain. We decided it was probably best to go to the ER and just see if I really needed any medical attention. I don’t know why but I expected that we would go to the ER and the doctor would recommend stitches. Then we would probably decide we didn't need that and we would leave. It became a much bigger ordeal than that. We were at the small-town ER for eight hours that night. The nurse washed out the cut to reveal that it was much deeper than we anticipated and you could look down into this jagged three inch cut and see my skull. In that hospital at that time they didn't have enough anesthetic so they weren't able to numb my head when they gave the staples. I had a concussion, eight staples in my head, and a fractured rib. On the three-hour drive home, we decided that mountain was mine to hunt.
A few weeks later bow season opened up, and we were headed back up the mountain again. Before we had even settled into the stand, we had a bear beneath us. However, I wasn’t just looking for a bear, I was looking for a large, adult male – and we had one on camera. By the time it walked away, three more bears had come. We watched bears all day, none of them shooters. The sun was starting to go down and the chances of me killing a bear were getting slimmer. I only had one day to hunt. I knew I didn’t want to get off that mountain without a bear. I looked to my dad and told him I had decided I just wanted to kill one of the smaller bears. We had five bears at the base of our tree all about 200 pounds. I picked out the biggest one and slowly drew back my bow. That bear turned broadside, and I put my pin right behind his shoulder. As I held, I realized that a 200-pound bear was not what we had come there for. I dropped my bow and knew I had to wait for the big one. The sun went down with all five bears at the base of the tree.
Hiking off that mountain with no bear and a bad concussion was not something I wanted to ever do again. But sure enough, the next weekend, we were right back up there. We had a bear under the stand right as we got there. We watched a sow and cubs play out in front of us for a while. Then at about four o’clock I looked up and you would not believe the size of the bear out in front of us. A monster color-phased bear slowly walked right up to the bait. He looked right at us immediately and I knew I wouldn't have a lot of time to make the shot. He turned perfectly broadside. I pulled back my bow, put the sight right behind his shoulder, then shot. I watched a once in a lifetime bear run off the south side of that mountain with my arrow sticking right out of his shoulder. The hit was very high.
Immediately I knew the worst possible outcome had just been achieved. We came back the next day and tracked him for hours crawling on our hands and knees through the thickest stuff you’ve ever seen just to get pictures of him the next night unharmed. We hunted that mountain one more time unsuccessfully that season. I ended my 2018 bow season with no bear, a bad concussion and a bad taste in my mouth.
The next year, to my surprise, my dad was going to let me hunt the mountain again. The “Mule Bait,” as we called it, was by far our best spot. Baiting was tough, but we did it just like last year. On opening day, we didn’t have as many bears are before and the monster I’d shot hadn’t come back. The acorns were thicker this year and the bears just weren’t hitting the bait that good. The first day came and went without a bear.
The second day we arrived at the stand around two p.m., but only saw one bear. The sun started to fade and I knew we weren’t going to come back up after this. The bears had just left. The chances that I would get a bear were slim to none. “River,” I heard my dad say. It was his “oh my gosh there's a shooter” bear voice. I looked out and there he was. A beautiful big ‘ol black bear with his nose in the air was headed straight to our bait. It was getting dark but we could see the bear as he approached the bait. I reached for my bow, pulled back and watched him through the peep sight and waited for him to come into range. He turned broadside and I put my pin right behind his shoulder. “Should I shoot, should I shoot,” I was asking my dad because I wasn't about to mess this up. Unfortunately, he couldn’t hear me. I held the bow so long he whispered, “let your bow down.” I looked at him waiting for instruction knowing this was the last shot. He said, “Can you see?”
“Yes!” I said.
“Well why don’t you shoot?” he questioned.
“I was asking you if I could shoot!” I replied.
“Well then shoot him!” he whispered back. That's all I needed to hear and I drew back my bow, but that pin on his shoulder and shot. I could hear my heart beating so loud as I watched that bear run off. The arrow stuck in the ground on the other side of the bear. This meant one of two things - I missed him or I “ten-ringed 'em.” My knees started shaking. I looked to my dad to hear something like you got him or he’s down. But he was waiting to hear something like that from me. He wasn't able to see the shot too good. I was just praying I hadn’t wounded another one. I told him I felt like my arrow was just in the perfect spot but I didn’t know. I prayed and prayed that the shot was good. The one thing I knew was that when that bear was running off, I couldn't see an arrow.
I got out of that tree as fast as I could and saw my arrow covered in deep red blood. My hands started shaking again as I said “Dad there’s blood on the arrow.” I was fired up! We tracked the bear a little way before deciding that the shot was a little far back and we were going to come back tomorrow. The next morning, we hiked up faster than we ever had before and tracked that bear three hundred yards (farther than I had expected or hoped) and easily recovered the bear. Getting to lay your hand on such a majestic creature is a feeling you can’t get from anything else. As hunters our interaction with the wildlife holds so much beauty in and of itself. And I can tell you that after taking such a beautiful animal, my respect for the bears has only increased.
This Ozark Mountain bear green scored just over 19 inches and we estimated him to weigh 300 pounds. I’ll never take for granted the opportunities that I have had to engage with these beautiful creatures.