Jun 08 2017
By Clay Newcomb
Montana bear hunting has been rough on me. I just returned from my second DIY trip to the Big Sky state in three years, and I still don’t even have a scrawny mountain bruin to show for it. I traveled 18 hours from Arkansas to Cody, Wyoming where I met up with Jim Sessions of Best of the West and Huskemaw Optics. We then hauled his two horses and two mules another nine hours north into Northwest Montana for six days of hard bear hunting. It was a 30-hour drive for me. We both wanted to get into the backcountry using equines. I was eager to learn from Jim who’s been doing this type of hunting for 30-plus years.
A view just above our camp in Northwest Montana in mid June 2017.
Jim is a veteran Western hunter and his favorite method of getting into the backcountry is with mules and horses. The trend in the industry right now is using personal physical fitness to get you into wild places. I love this philosophy and all the benefits it brings. However, a mule or horse can take you places faster, further and get you there better equipped than anyone ever could afoot – even the top mountain atheltes. This is just the truth. However, equines bring with them significant challenges. To do it right you’ve got to be a horseman or muleskinner. You can’t just borrow a horse, having never ridden one, and expect to be successful and safe. They aren’t robots you can turn on and off. You can’t script their movements and actions with extreme accuracy, so they do add an element of complexity to the hunt that isn’t for everyone. Honestly, it’s probably for just a few. Jim finds that beyond six or seven miles from the road most places are void of hunters. For whatever reason, many outfitters are no longer using pack strings to access remote country.
Myself and Jim Sessions of Best of the West and Huskemaw optics. Jim is riding his 18-year-old Fox Trotter horse named Bo. I was riding a 16-17 hand mule named Minnie Pearl. I learned a lot from Jim about handling these animals in the backcountry.
Pack animals aren't for everyone, but sure make camp more comfortable once you get there. This is called a "crossbuck" or "sawbuck" packsaddle. You drap large saddle bags over the wooden bucks to hang your gear off the animal.
*First Lite gear is made for this type of hunting. I basically wore the same clothes for six days....well, I'm sugar coating it....I did wear the exact same clothes for six days.
I was a little intimidated by her size at first, but grew to love riding Minnie. My mules at home 13-14 hands high, basically a full foot shorter than this one. Once during the trip I gained 2,000 feet of elevation on Minnie over the course of about two hours - she wasn't phased.
Jim and I glassing for bears not far from camp. I was carrying a Best of the West Elite Hunter in 7mm. These are top-of-the-line long range rifles. Check out www.longrangestore.com
Best Of The West rifle systems come fully ready to hunt and are built in Cody, Wyoming. They are guaranteed at 1,000 yards. These guys will custom build your gun, gather the ballastic data, sight in the gun, find the right ammo and deliver you the last gun you'll ever need.
Our bear camp on day two. Camp just isn't camp without fire.
We hunted six hard days in two different locations. We devoted our time to glassing locations that afforded big views of lots of open country. We camped in locations where we could basically glass from camp and spent long hours peering through Huskemaw binoculars. You’d have thought we’d gotten lucky and seen a bear within a few hundred yards, but we never did. Sometimes you just can’t even luck into good luck. Such was our hunt. However, lack of success always delivers many valuable lessons. Here is what I learned:
- Spring bears weren’t in the openings feeding on grass.
Timing is everything and by the middle of May, even in NW Montana, there was food everywhere. We did see five adult bears in six days and they were all moving through openings but not feeding. Most of the guys we heard about being successful were using vehicles to be mobile and glassing from the road. Touche’ to them, but we were trying to get away from vehicles.
- Seeing a bear in Montana doesn’t mean anything unless you can get to him.
The shooter bears we saw were almost a mile away and by the time we got there they were gone. Vast and rugged terrain holds bears, but can be really hard to hunt. The only good bear is one that’s in range while you’ve got your finger on the trigger.
- Though I didn’t get to shoot it at a bear, the Best Of The West Rifle systems are truly at THE top of the line in long-range hunting rifles.
The guns are built in Cody, Wyoming and are guaranteed hunting accurate out to 1,000 yards. Basically, they’ll sell you the gun that will take the average guy three lifetimes to build on his own. These guns come in multiple calibers with tons of options. If you’re wanting your last long-range rifle look to Best Of The West. I was carrying a 7mm Mag in the Elite Hunter.
- Mules are amazing animals.
One morning I rode 2,000 vertical feet over a two-hour period. The average mountain hunter could hardly do this in a day. When I got to the top I was fresh and ready to hunt. If you’ve got a safe animal and good handle, a mule is a heck-of-a ride in the mountains.
- I brought too many clothes and the First Lite geared performed excellent.
I wore the same pair of First Lite Allegheny bottoms the entire six days (non stop). I wore a pair of Softshell pants over them (non stop – even slept in them. I’m serious). And I wore the same First Lite 100% Merino wool shirt as a base layer. It may sound rough, but it wasn’t. Temperatures ranged from 30-70 degrees. On top, I wore my First Lite Uncompaghre Puffy Jacket about 80 percent of the time. I also wore my SEAK jacket a lot when it rained (which it did).
I spent the week on Jim's gaited mule named Minnie Pearl. Her withers (where the mane ends on the shoulder) was taller than my head. This mule was between 16 and 17 hands high. I struggled to get on her during the first part of the trip. She was an amazing and safe animal. Gaited mules are known for their smooth ride and long step. In a gaited animal, the travel of the back hoof extends beyond where the front foot leaves the ground creating a very long stride.
A nighttime view of our camp on day five. We may have killed more bears if we'd stayed in a hotel and drove around in our truck glassing. However, we choose to hunt this method and were glad we did.
The view from one of our glassing locations. With as many hours as we spent watching these openings you'd have thought we would have lucked into bear, but we didn't.
In closing, we had a tremendous trip. I learned a lot from Jim Sessions and gained a great deal of respect for him as a person and the products his company produces through Huskemaw Optics and Best Of The West. I don't like traveling that far and not bring home an animal, but such is hunting. I'd like to say that "it's all about the experience," but that really isn't true. I'm a hunter and I hunt to kill. If I was going on vacation to see the West I'd have brought my family. Notwithstanding, not killing an animal during a hunt doesn't make it a failure. The experiences we had were tremendous and irreplacable. In the end, all I brought home is those memories, the experience gained, and some new wisdom. It was worth it.