Spot & Stalk
Jul 20 2021
A young hunter's five-year quest for a Washington state black bear.
By Jason Brooks | @jason_brooks_photography
When I was sixteen and earned my freedom in the form of a driver’s license, I spent that summer exploring the mountains, forest and rivers. One summer day while fishing a local creek, I stumbled across a cinnamon color phase bear that was tearing up a stump and eating ants. Standing still so the bear wouldn’t run away, the afternoon was spent watching that bear instead of casting for trout. After that encounter, I became intrigued by black bears, reading everything I could about them and studying each one I came across in the mountains. The next fall I was able to tag my first bear, and like other bear hunters it fueled my passion for them. After packing a few other bears out of the backcountry, either my wisdom or aching body caught up to me and I began enjoying watching the bears more than harvesting them. But my respect and admiration kept me hunting bears each fall even if I chose to pass instead of pack another one off of the mountain.
Several years later on a fall day, while my youngest son and I were driving down a logging road to look for deer, we noticed an object in the middle of the road. Ryan asked what it was and at first I thought a logger had rolled a stump into the road. Then the stump slowly strolled to the edge of the ditch and Ryan shouted, “bear!” It was the first time he had seen a bear in the wild and the young six-year old was very excited. The cinnamon colored boar ambled away as we watched. Like me, he became fascinated with bears and this sighting began Ryan’s quest for his first black bear.
Three years later he passed hunter education and as we walked into our local gun shop, that my neighbor happens to own, Ryan was ready to buy his first hunting license and big game tags. In my home state of Washington, we get to buy over-the-counter tags for most big game animals and Ryan proudly handed over his Hunter Education card to John, our neighbor. John asked which tags he wished to purchase and Ryan simply said, “black bear.” He then told the story of how he first saw that bear in the road and it has become his most desired big game animal to hunt. I added deer and elk tags as well as small game, which allowed him to hunt upland birds and rabbits.
That fall Ryan followed our Hungarian Vizsla in sage flats and wheat fields, learning how to shoot birds on the flush. A youth pheasant hunt in early September allowed him to harvest a rooster and the following day a few quail as well. By October when the deer season started Ryan lugged around a single shot Thompson Center Encore in .243 and kept asking if it was “big enough” for a bear. I assured him that if we found a bear, which season coincides with most other hunting seasons in Washington as it runs from August 1st until mid-November, that he could in fact take a bear with his rifle. Personally I hoped it would take a few years and he would work his way up from the .243 as I have taken several bears over my hunting career and know they can be a tough animal.
Deer season was a gift as we hunted opening morning in the Palouse’s rolling hills of wheat and scrub brush. A mule deer buck ran past us after it was pushed by my brother from a coulee only to continue past where we heard another hunter’s shot. Hiking around a small hill there was a dad with his two young boys, standing over the buck. Ryan had learned that hunting public ground meant hunting among other hunters. That afternoon as we headed to a newly burned forest Ryan found his own buck, a heavy and mature mule deer. Antlers blacked by the burned pine trees and his .243 did the trick of a quick kill.
The following year he asked for a 7mm-08, like what his older brother shot and one of my favorite calibers. Two years before I had taken a bull elk in Idaho’s backcountry with the odd cartridge so Ryan knew it could kill larger game, but it was not elk that Ryan wanted it for. Since he shot the Thompson Center Encore platform that Christmas he received a 7mm-08 barrel and he quickly assembled the rifle to inform me that he had his “bear gun,” or so he thought.
September offers a unique opportunity for rifle hunters in Washington state with a “high hunt.” This hunt is from the 15th to the 25th of the month each year and certain wilderness areas are open to deer hunting. Hunts mostly take part above 5,000 feet along the Cascade crest where berries and bears are plentiful. Lugging his 7mm-08 up the mountain, the ten-year old kid made sure to have another bear tag in his pocket. While glassing one morning he informed me that he really wasn’t worried about finding a buck but would rather look over the berry fields to find a bear. Ryan always reminded me that his quest for a black bear remained his main focus. No bears where spotted but later that fall he filled his tag with a blacktail doe using the single shot rifle.
Now going into his third year of hunting Ryan stayed focused on black bears. Each summer he wanted to hike into the high country, mostly into alpine lakes to do some fishing but also to scout for bears and get a “berry report,” looking to see if last winter’s snowpack would leave enough moisture for wild huckleberries, blueberries, mountain ash and thimbleberries to grow. Ryan was turning into a true bear hunter without even harvesting his first bear yet. Once again that fall we found ourselves on the high hunt and the area we hiked into had become very popular with other hunters. Most animals moved out and no bears spotted. Ryan kept asking me to tell him about my hunts where we harvested bears. What they tasted like, how to skin them, and most importantly how to find them.
The next summer we found ourselves on a family vacation to Alaska. While visiting Juneau we decided to go for a hike up Mt. Roberts. Being a popular tourist destination we didn’t think our chances of seeing any “Alaskan” wildlife would be more than a few eagles or a deer. Hiking up the ridge and past the paved “nature” trail we continued up a slope covered in ground blueberries. Coming to a far point we sat down and looked over the hillsides. Mountain goats dotted the far ridges and then movement below us. A large black bear was grazing along a creek bottom. Ryan sat and glassed over that bear until it finally fed around a bend and out of view. It was like this bear had rekindled the fire in his belly to hunt black bears and that is all he talked about for the next month until the season started.
Like most hunters, and boys who like to shoot guns, Ryan “upgraded” one more time, commandeering a rifle I had been sent to test and write about. A Kimber Mountain Ascent in .280 Ackley Improved. This lightweight mountain rifle became Ryan’s as he hauled it back up into our high hunt spot that September. Glassing over a grassy bench we spotted a black bear eating mountain ash nearly a mile away. Spending our day trying to get to that bear before he disappeared led us to some steep cliffs, scrambling up hillsides and dropping down into the basin. The bear was gone.
Another hunting season passed and Ryan continued on his quest. Before long it had been five years since Ryan first walked up to the counter at Welcher’s Gun Shop and bought his first bear tag. In that time he had harvested six deer, two turkeys and a cow elk, yet no bears, but he was only thirteen years old. He hiked the backcountry each summer into high mountain lakes for trout fishing and bear scouting. Always looking to see which berry plants would yield fruit when the season opened. Researching areas and trying to figure out where to hunt for a fall bear, getting a bear was still his quest.
One day in August my dad called me and asked if I had a free weekend. Work had been busy, same with raising two boys, but the upcoming weekend was open. He asked if Ryan and I would like to join him at his cabin, which is on the far end of Lake Chelan, a remote fifty-five-mile long lake in Central Washington. We loaded the boat with our fishing rods and backpacks and that is when I asked Ryan if he remembered his rifle. It was mid-August and bear season was open. Quickly he ran to the gun cabinet and grabbed his Kimber, placing it in a hard case and into the boat. Once we launched the boat and made our way up to the cabin we spent the afternoon fishing.
The next morning we went for a hike and Ryan shouldered his rifle in hopes of finding a bear. He began pointing out the thimbleberry patches in the avalanche chutes and how they were ripe. Mountain ash was still green and so were the huckleberries but then Ryan found a berry that intrigued him. Large red fruits hung in clusters, it was choke cherry, often used to make jellies and jams and also a favorite for black bears. The day was spent glassing hillsides and then a boat ride, hoping to find a bear along the wilderness banks of the lake. We made our way to the remote village of Stehekin and ran into a high school friend and her husband. They informed us that their son had taken a bear on August 1st and they had seen four more along the lake. This got Ryan excited knowing bears were frequent in the area.
That evening we made our way up a large valley, lush and green from a wildfire that burned through four years earlier. Trees were void of limbs and needles, making for great glassing. Each draw had water running off of the few remaining glaciers in Washington and the alkaline rich soils were perfect berry growing conditions. It seemed everywhere we looked we should be seeing bears. Then, finally, after years of scouting, hiking, glassing, and hunting, a bear made his way up a small drainage.
The black color phased bruin disappeared in the shadows as it was late in the evening. Not much shooting light left but the bear let us know his presence by bending over the choke cherry bushes, gorging on the fruit that Ryan was so excited to find earlier in the day. The bear fed and Ryan slipped closer with his .280 Ackley in hand. Finally, the bear stepped out from the far side of the choke cherries and offered a broadside shot at 60-yards. Firing off hand the bear was hit and ran downhill into the steep cut where it had come out of. Soon the telltale moan of the bears last breath was heard. Ryan wasted no time getting to his bear and though he should have approached with caution, he knew the animal had expired. I made my way down just in time to take a few photos in the last light of the day.
Breaking out the headlamps, we worked on the bear together. All of the stories Ryan had heard about their fur being soft, claws sharp, and teeth worn showing the age of the bruin where now his to tell. Gutting the bear and then carefully skinning it for a rug mount. Removing the meat from the carcass as well as making sure to fillet as much fat as we could. Over the years of reading about bear hunting he had learned that bear fat is very useful once rendered. It can be used for various things such as making pie crust, waterproofing leather boots, and candles to be added to the backpack for survival. This bear was more than just another big game animal to his hunting credit, it was the end of his quest and everything he had learned was going to be put to use.
Once home we took the hams and hocks to a local butcher shop that specialized in smoked meats to be cured and smoked. Steaks and roasts were cut in our garage and we used our meat grinder to make the rest into breakfast sausage. The hide and skull were soon at a local taxidermist, who learned of Ryan’s five-year journey to harvest this bear. We were assured it would be taken well care of. On the drive home we discussed the hunt and the upcoming deer season. Pulling into the driveway Ryan walked over to his bow that was hung in the garage, taking it down, and said to me, “I think next year I will try for another bear, but this time with my bow.” And now the quest starts all over again, a new challenge, and a new journey of a young hunter who will spend countless hours shooting arrows in the backyard and more alpine fishing trips to get a berry report and another black bear.