Spot & Stalk
Jan 28 2022
By James Jubran
The mountains seemed to reject me as COVID-19 swept in and Montana canceled non-resident hunting. A month later the ban was lifted, and luckily I was still able to make time to go. I loaded the truck and headed north with the company of my good friend, Ben Vanklombenberg. Two days later, as we drove into southwest Montana, I purchased an over-the-counter bear tag, only to find out that I had to wait 24 hours to hunt after I purchased it. We were forced to spend our first day scouting. I heard a subtle laugh come from the mountains.
We made it to camp and started up the trail, immediately switch backing a very steep incline. Things were looking good: dandelions were popping up along with other green grasses. This was exactly the kind of food source we were hoping to find on these south-facing slopes. It was the last week of May, and my research and advice from some acquaintances said we would hit the mountains at just the right time to intersect the bigger boars as they came down from the high country. High temperatures had been in the 60’s leading up to the hunt, but again the mountains pushed back, and temperatures were forecast to be in the mid 80’s all week long. Hot, just the kind of weather that reduces bear activity.
Our hike took us through patches of cool, dark timber surrounded by hills of green grass. There was fresh sign everywhere. Ben and I pointed out piles of scat and fresh tracks every couple of minutes; we were elated. We stood among several large piles of fresh scat and took in the view as a large blonde boar stepped onto the trail 45 yards ahead. He stood broadside, having no clue we were there. The image of that beautiful mature bear sizzled itself into my mind as he left a fresh pile of scat before slowly waddling his way down into the timber below us. With plenty of food, fresh sign, and now a gorgeous bruin sighted, we decided to head down the mountain to enjoy some elk lasagna for dinner.
After dinner, we drove down the mountain to get cell reception so I could make sure the quota for this particular unit had not been met within the last day. The mountain roared with laughter. At 11:00 a.m. the quota had been reached, and the unit had officially closed. We sat for several minutes discussing our disappointment after having such a promising morning of scouting. I had two more very promising locations picked out in another unit. I told Ben that spots B and C seemed like better locations, but they were just going to be a lot more difficult to get into. We headed back to camp, following a scenic snowmelt stream up the mountain. Minutes later, as the sun slowly tucked behind the majesty of the mountains, we spotted a huge black boar along the stream stuffing himself with tender green shoots of grass. We watched him for several minutes while he gorged himself 80 yards from our truck. We chuckled in both disgust and awe as I put the truck in drive and continued up the mountain. As the black behemoth in my rearview mirror vanished from sight, I’m certain I felt the mountain shake as it laughed at us once more.
The next day was a hard one spent on the mountain with steep inclines, treacherous switchbacks, and hot temperatures. We climbed 2,500 vertical feet of elevation on this short four-mile hike and hit snow halfway in. We continued on, and as we neared our waypoint, we stood thigh-deep in snow after post-holing for a half-mile as we laid our eyes on the magnificent basin that I’m positive would hold big mature boars, had it not been covered in snow. No grass, no bears, it was that simple. Exhausted, we sat and enjoyed our lunch while taking in the views and discussing the likelihood that plan C would be any different, considering it was at the same elevation, around 7,300 feet. We concluded that a hike into plan C tomorrow would be a colossal waste of valuable time and energy. We strapped on our packs and headed down the mountain. I didn’t have a plan D. I could feel the mountain preparing its victory dance.
The next morning’s hunt had to be a short hike in and out; I had a two p.m. meeting in town. After bouncing some ideas back and forth, we decided on a trailhead that originated at a campground where we could camp that evening. We rolled into camp early that evening, and at sunset, a caravan of trucks, horse trailers, and other campers started pouring into the campground. Our quiet secluded campground by the river suddenly became a popular place to be--not good for hunting. As the purples and oranges in the sky faded to gray, I once again felt the chuckle of the mountains that loomed above our camp.
We hit the trail at first light and had two and a half miles to hike upriver to our waypoint. Aerial imagery looked promising, but the proximity of the campground and the apparent traffic that was sure to ensue did not give us high hopes. Once we got away from the campground, we stopped for breakfast and a hot cup of coffee. The views were magnificent. The mountain tops were covered in snow while the hillsides were lush with grass and flowers. Below, the sound of the river mixed with songs from birds as they woke from their nightly roots to greet the new morning. We were in a beautiful place, and despite the obstacles we faced, I was fulfilling my dream to hunt Montana. It wasn’t going the way I hoped or anticipated, but I was here with a great friend enjoying time that would never be forgotten. The sun rose above the peaks and cast its rays down, giving energy to the plants below, but darkness loomed in the distance as thick heavy clouds swept in, bringing with it the rain. We finished our coffee underneath the shelter of an old spruce. The mountain made sure to remind us who was in control before allowing the storm to pass, leaving behind an incredible double rainbow in its wake. Our hike continued.
The coffee did its job, and we were wide-eyed with energy to spare. There are other side effects of morning coffee, and before long, Ben needed some off-trail privacy. I continued another 50 yards to do some reconnaissance while he lightened his load. I came upon a meadow about 60 yards across that led up the hillside before meeting the timber. As I waited for Ben, something felt right about this area, and I stood quiet and still, taking in the sounds, smells, and sights that were in front of me. As I gazed into the timber, movement from the hillside caught my eye--I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. Two hundred yards up the steep hillside, in the middle of an avalanche shoot, stood a beautiful chocolate phase bear, and it was coming straight for the river bottom. I quickly removed my backpack and unstrapped my rifle, trying not to lose sight of the bear. I was in disbelief, and for a very brief moment wondered if I should make a move or wait for Ben. That thought was short-lived as the bear continued to make its way down into the river bottom below and disappear behind the fortress of spruce trees. I chambered a round and slid the safety on before jogging toward the trees where I saw the bear disappear. I slowly rounded the edge of the tree line and peeked into the timber. I didn’t look for more than a second before seeing it standing in a small patch of dandelions, less than 40 yards in front of me. At this moment it was clear that this was a mature sow. I hadn’t seen any cubs with her while I watched her make her way down the hillside, but I immediately began scanning the surrounding area to double-check for cubs. I confirmed that she didn’t have any cubs in tow and looked again at her. She was staring right at me. Interestingly, I think she was just as surprised to see me as I had been to see her, and as she stood there, slightly quartering towards me, her body language showed an uncertainty of how to react. I don’t think she made up her mind whether or not to run away or to scare me off as she stood, staring at me. I didn’t waste another moment. I brought my rifle to my shoulder and put the crosshairs on her front left shoulder before touching off the round. She immediately made a dash for thicker cover, but I was expecting her to drop where she stood. After all, it was a chip shot. She ran to the base of the largest tree and for a moment I thought she was going to climb, but she did not. Instead, she laid down and gave her final growl as she breathed her last breath.
Wanting to share the rest of the experience with Ben, I went to retrieve my pack and my buddy before going to the bear. There were laughs, smiles, congratulations, and disbelief as I recounted the last five minutes of our trip. We paused for several minutes to examine this beautiful bear, and then loaded the meat and hide into our packs. As we hiked out, I thought back to all the obstacles that could have kept us from filling that tag and how the mountain seemed to be against us. Perhaps the mountain wasn’t fighting us at all-maybe it was just reminding us of how vital it is to work hard and not give up on a hunt like this, or in any aspect of life. I think I can safely say that without that reminder, the chocolate wouldn’t have been such a treat.
Essential Gear for a First-Time Hunt
We planned a spot-and-stalk approach for this hunt. The obvious equipment of importance included good boots, quality optics, and a straight shooting gun. All of my optics are different brands, and my rifle is an old reliable hand-me-down, but for over a decade now, I’ve relied on a pair of Danner Pronghorns to keep my feet healthy, and my ankles from breaking in all kinds of terrain and hunting conditions. In my opinion they are the best boots for the money. However, the most important piece of equipment we had, turned out to be our mapping technology. I’ve used OnX Hunt maps on several occasions, and they always proved themselves a valuable tool. On this hunt however, the value brought was immeasurable. After being kicked out of the first unit we wanted to hunt due to the quota being met, and being pushed out of the other areas we went due to snow, and a lack of food sources, the only way that we were able to identify additional potential areas to hunt was through the use of this mapping system. The aerial imagery combined with the numerous mapping layers that can be added or subtracted, we were very easily able to identify additional areas that were likely to have food, cover and water for the bears we were after. Ultimately having these maps available on or phones in the field and on an iPad back at the truck enabled us to locate and harvest a mature bear.