Spot & Stalk
Dec 10 2020
By Josh Kirchner @dialedinhunter
Aside from many not knowing about the spring seasons that Arizona has to offer, many don't even know there are bears here. When one thinks of Arizona, they probably are just thinking "dry desert" with bears being far from their mind. I've talked to more than a handful of folks who were surprised when they found out Arizona offers some great black bear hunting opportunities. In fact, when it comes to the lower 48, Arizona actually comes in 3rd in top record book black bear locations, right under Colorado, with California holding the torch and standing on top. It is my opinion that this is true, due to the rugged country that they live in, as well as the lower density when compared to other areas. A lot of bears simply go unnoticed here, because people just don't see them, and/or aren't willing to go into the areas that these desert bears call home.
For the past 5 years, I have chased fall black bears here in the great state of Arizona, that I call home. The first half being with a rifle and the second half being with a bow. As far as bear hunting is concerned Fall is the most popular time to do it here. Many want to experience the "bears in the pears" phenomena. I don't blame them. That is an exciting time to be out in the hills looking for bruins. Many people don't know this, but Arizona also offers spring bear seasons. These seasons have had my attention the past few years, due to the very little pressure that they recieve, as well as the cooler temps, as opposed to hunting in August. This spring was no different.....well, kind of....
We awoke at 3 a.m. to start the long journey across the state of Arizona. Our plan was to head into an area we have never stepped foot in, with the hopes of filling one, or both, of our OTC bear tags with our bows. Visions of grass choked hillsides and hungry bears grazing through them sent waves of adrenaline through us. Creeping into bow range of an unaware and feeding black bear is something I have dreamed about doing for years. The previous year, I had done just that. However, my 2 arrows ended up sailing right over the bear's back, leaving me making the long walk of shame back to camp with less arrows, no bear, and a gripping story. That experience lit a fire under me that wouldn't soon go away. Since then, the memory of those arrows barely missing that bear is one that has not only haunted me, but driven me.
First Evening, First Bear
On our hike in, I could not stop looking at all of the tracks and vibrant colors on vegetation. The striking sights of the high country were something to behold and not views we were accustomed to. This country was big and steep. Perfect habitat for a roaming black bear. My amazement didn't stop there. We saw elk after elk after elk. These were big velvet bulls too, that I jokingly described as looking fake. As we watched multiple groups of bulls come out to feed, my brother caught a bear walking along a log at last light. Our suspicions were true and the bears were indeed here.
As I sat in camp beneath the moonlight and drank my coffee that morning, I wondered what the day would bring. This would be our first full day in this country and we planned on staying out from sun up to sun down. Many hunters head back to the truck during midday, and while it is slow, if you aren't looking, you aren't going to see bears.
We glassed all day long turning up deer and elk. At 5 p.m. I saw that familiar lumber that I had been longing for. I said to my brother, "BIG RED BEAR." Up ahead of this bear, I caught more movement. The crushing feeling of it being a big sow with cubs was put to rest when I realized this was a boar trailing a sow. The sow alone was a big bear, but when compared to the boar......Let's just say he looked part grizzly.
Because, it was so close to sunset and I was confident we would find one or both of these bears the following morning, we opted to stay back and enjoy the show. We were amazed at how these bears just walked around manhandling trees. They would bend the trees over, sit on them, and then eat the flowers that were growing on the tops. The boar did this, all the while, never losing the trail of the sow. Love was in the air.
After what we saw the night before, to say I was motivated for the day would be an astounding understatement. Today was one of those days where I was ready to do whatever it took to get a play on one of these high country bears. Not 30 minutes after our arrival, I picked up a bear working it's way through the thick ferns across the drainage. We grabbed our packs and started to move closer, but ended up losing sight of the bear....
I knew that the bear had to be somewhere in the vicinity of where I last saw it. After twiddling my thumbs and wondering what the best move was, a lot of precious stalking time had passed. An opportunity lost, is an opportunity wasted. Three hours later, I picked the bear back up with my binoculars. It happened again though, and I didn't act. Excuses rolled through my head about why I shouldn't try to make that stalk. "The bear is not going to be there when I get over there. I don't want to waste time going on a blind stalk." Before I knew it, we were heading back to the truck to regroup, dreaming of the fantastic breakfast we would have in town the next morning. The whole time in doing so, I was frustrated. Frustrated that I didn't at least TRY to make something happen.
Are You Kidding Me?
With our spirits renewed, we went back into the drainage from that morning. Shortly after our arrival, I noticed a black spot in the bottom of the canyon. What I saw left me almost speechless. It was a boar breeding a sow, just 400 yards below us on the top of a parallel spine. I have looked over a ton of bears over the years and never have I ever seen anything like this. About 10 minutes went by and I could see that they weren't going anywhere anytime soon. This seemed to be a perfect opportunity for me to get over there and close the distance with my bow. In no time, I was headed down into the deep drainage to ascend onto the spine where the bears were.
It only took me about 20 minutes or so to get onto the same hill as them. The thing was, I really had no idea where they were in relation to where I was, other than they were to my right somewhere. I just knew that if I got to the top of the spine and crept my way down it, I should run into them. So, that's what I did. I remember thinking on the way up the steep mountainside, "I hope this boar doesn't come charging down at me, thinking I am another bear coming to cramp his style." Soon after the thought, I made it to the top unscathed.
There is No Wind...
Slowly, I crept my way along the top of the spine. On my way, I can remember thinking how far fetched it sounded for this to actually work out. Stalking a bear is one thing, but stalking a pair of breeding bears? That is something I still have never heard of. The topography was starting to look very familiar from what I saw when I was above. All of a sudden, I saw a bush move right in front of me, not 40 yards away. I took note of the very slight breeze hitting me in the face and that it wasn't enough to move that bush. Then I heard a deep sound that hit me right in the chest. It was the grunts of the boar while he did his deed. Soon after, I could see movement through the bush. They were right in front of me and had no idea that I was there. With that being said, I had no shot, so I inched my way closer.
The bears were just on the other side of a fallen tree and the boar was not giving up on the sow. Every time the boar brought his eyes down below the tree that separated us, I'd take another step closer. Soon, I was a mere 30 yards away and watching this sow try to get away. The boar would grab her by the top of the head and pin her to the tree. I could hear them breathing, so that was close enough for me. For 15 minutes these bears bred in front of me with no shot from where I was. Even if I didn't get a shot, I would have been content with just experiencing this at such a close distance.
The sow was finally able to break away from the boar. She walked off to my right, but not far. The boar though, ended up sitting down and panting like a dog, still 30 yards away, and still with no shot. I decided to try to move to my left for a different angle. In doing so, the boar ended up hearing me break a stick. His head lifted up, and soon his entire body. This bear was standing on its hind legs looking at me. I came to full draw and settled my pin on his chest. However, I noticed that the bear was slight turned, so I let down and so did the bear. He slowly walked towards me and got up on the fallen tree. Again, he presented me with his chest, but this time he lowered his head trying to figure out what I was, blocking a shot. We were now facing each other with nothing standing in between us, looking into one another's eyes. A powerful experience.
All the while, I knew that the sow was over to my right still, and I knew that eventually the boar would turn to the right atop of that fallen tree and make his way towards his female. The boar looked towards the sow and I came to full draw and stayed there for what felt like a minute or so. Eventually, the boar turned to his right and gave me a broadside, slightly quartering to shot. My pin rest behind his shoulder and the arrow was on its way.
When my arrow hit him, the bear did a full on flip off of that fallen tree and screamed. His roar echoed through the canyon, followed by him charging his way down the hill away from me. Aside from watching where the bear went, my first instinct was to grab my handgun, because I had no idea how the sow would react. She ended up stepping out at 15 yards looking at me. I yelled at her and she looked at me like I was an idiot. So, I picked up a rock and threw it her way while yelling with my hands in the air. Once she realized what I was, she bombed down the hill away from me. I could hear my brother whooping and hollering from above. I thought to myself, "did that just really happen?" It was 6 p.m. and I just sent an arrow through my first archery bear.
Better Safe Than Sorry
Recovering my arrow had me slightly worried. I indeed got a pass through on the bear, but the blood was a darker red, rather than bright red with bubbles. I also didn't see or hear the bear go down. Because of this, I opted to back out, thinking I hit one lung and liver. My thinking was, I'd rather lose a little bit of meat, than the whole bear, because I bumped him. This decision was not easy for me and left my stomach in knots the whole rest of the night and following morning. When I got back up to my brother, we hugged and I said, "all you have to do is try." Because of just trying, we would be heading in the next morning to pack hide and meat. My only hope was that it didn't rain and or other predators would get to him.
Relief and Resolve(Day 4)
The whole hike in that morning, I felt like I was going to throw up. I was hoping beyond hope that my bear was OK, and that we would find him with no hiccups. We soon arrived at the sight of the shot. Not 2 minutes in, I found blood. Then more, then more. The trees were painted red going down the hill. It's not often you get a good blood trail with bears, so I was very grateful for this. About 75 yards from the shot, I looked up ahead of me and could see fur laying there in the dirt. "There he is," I said. We had done it.
Walking up on that bear filled me with emotion. I'd be lying if I said I wasn't fighting the tears back being down there with my brother. This was something I had been pursuing for years and it finally all came together. The way it came together though was a scenario that I couldn't come up with if you asked me to do so. Never would I have thought that I would sneak up on a breeding pair of bears, followed up by arrowing the boar. Unforgettable.
As it usually is, the pack out was one to remember. We traversed our way up and down the steep grades that called this unforgiving place home. Every step we took was one more closer to the truck. I love these rough pack outs. The whole time, I tell myself, "you asked to be here, soak it up." We made that 2 mile hike with heavy packs and a huge smile on our faces. To come into an area that we have never stepped foot in, fill a tag in a way that has been a dream of mine, and do it with my brother? That is the making of a memory that will be burned into my mind forever.