Spot & Stalk
Jul 08 2021
By Josh Kirchner | @dialedinhunter
Late August in Arizona has truly become one of my favorite times of the year and holds a hunt that is near and dear to my heart. It’s not just the hunt though; it’s the experience of the whole thing that really grabs ahold of me. The hunt is secondary to the special times I share in camp with a few exceptional individuals. You know, the kind of folks you could call at any time during the night to help you out of a tight spot. The kind of guys that thrive at living in the dirt and regularly practice laughing until they cry. Those guys. I’m lucky to say that I have a group of those very people in my hunting circle and each year we join together here in Arizona to hunt black bear and velvet bucks. In the process of doing so, we usually create some incredible memories, and every now and then even fill a tag or two. 2019 was a year to remember, and one that will remain in constant rotation among our future conversations.
Along with my brother Jake and best friend John, whom have hunted bears with me for multiple years, there were two other fellas in camp. Cody and Gabe were first-time bear hunters. Cody did spend a day or so hunting bears the year previous, but that’s it. Neither of them had ever seen a bear before. So, when Cody told me in camp that he wanted to come chase bears with me instead of deer, I welcomed him with open arms. Cody and I would split from the group opening morning, while the rest of the guys went deer hunting. I couldn’t wait to show Cody what was in store. My plan was to have us sit a spring in the bottom of a canyon with our bows. This spring had produced loads of bears in the past for me, so my hopes were through the roof.
As we made our way down into the canyon, my reassurance for the area grew even more. Fresh scat, filled with acorns, lay at our feet. Cody had never seen such a thing. He looked at me and said, “this is it!” That excitement in his eyes was a reminder to me just how special this stuff is. A few minutes after seeing that scat, we arrived at our spot. “Let the wait begin,” I said.
A few hours went by without a bear sighting, so I decided to start predator calling, a tried and true method of hunting bears for me in the past. Calling for bears requires your utmost attention and patience. You just never know when or how a bear will come into the call. Maybe they run? Or maybe they slowly saunter their way in cautiously? You need to be on your toes. After about 10 minutes we had something just on the other side of the brush in front of us. At just 20 yards away, we both had our bows at the ready. However, the wind was swirling and whatever it was, never showed itself. We decided to head back to camp to regroup with the others.
Back at camp, we laughed, ate, and shot our bows to pass the time until evening. Our plan was to head into the same area, but come in from above and perch up high with a rifle. We’d have our bows too, but wanted to take opportunity if it presented itself for a rifle shot. A few hours before sunset, we all hopped in a truck and headed out for the evening. On the drive there, I kept thinking of how good our chances were of seeing a bear this evening. Being 200 yards above the water would give us ample opportunity to get a visual on a bear. I didn’t want to get anybody’s hopes up, so I kept that to myself. Between you and I though - I was as confident as ever.
An hour went by, followed by another. Still no bears. I told the guys, “it’s getting to be bear thirty now.” As if it were pre-planned, a black bear came strolling down to the water beneath us. I could tell this bear wasn’t big, so I decided early on that I wouldn’t be shooting. My brother had his bow, as did Gabe. From 200 yards out the bear serpentined his way to a mere 55 yards below us. My brother sat at the ready with an arrow nocked. He looked over at Cody, saw how excited he was, and decided to put his bow down to give Cody the opportunity. Not many guys would have done that in his position. So, the rifle got handed over to Cody. This was going to happen.
This canyon is about as thick as thick can get, so it took awhile for the bear to emerge and offer a clean shot. Eventually, the bear made its way up on top of a boulder and sat while pulling acorns off of the brush. With the bear’s back facing Cody, he centered the crosshairs right in between the shoulder blades. “Ready when you are,” I said. BA BOOM! As if flicking a light switch, the bear rolled forward and just fell over. It was about as quick of a death that you could ask for as a hunter. One and done. Now, came the fun part. After hugging and giving congrats where it was deserved, I told Cody and Jake to make their way down to the bear while Gabe and I stayed up top to guide them in. We knew we were in for a long night.
After 30 minutes Jake and Cody arrived at the bear. Walking up to your first bear is a memorable and almost uncomfortable experience. The thought of touching it and it jumping up and grabbing you is very real and Cody experienced that slight fear before laying hands on the bear. I don’t blame him. When he did though? The canyon echoed with celebratory “whoops.” He did it and I couldn’t have been more happy for him.
Once Gabe and I got down to Cody and Jake, it was indeed dark and it was time to get this bear taken care of. Via headlamp I took care of the bear while the guys helped holding legs and loading meat in game bags. After two nerve-racking hours, just waiting for a bear to come walking up on us in the darkness, we were ready to make our way out of the canyon. It was about 30 minutes of “where do I put my foot?” and climbing on all fours up bluff-like features with weight on the back. I remember telling Cody which way to go and then him responding with “where?” All he could see was brush and boulder. It was quite funny for me. Once out of the canyon, the hike was a breeze and we got back to camp unscathed. Who knew that in just a few short hours, we’d be doing this all over again? Certainly not us.
None of us got much sleep that night. Between the adrenaline and the camaraderie that surged between one another, sleep was the last thing on our minds. Nonetheless, when the alarm sounded off, all of us answered the call and rose before the sun. Our plan for this morning was to head into a completely different area. An area that we had never been before. We figured we’d let the canyon where Cody killed his bear quiet down a bit, but we would head back in there this evening if nothing panned out for us this morning. So, after chugging down some coffee and scarfing some granola bars, we were off.
Due to my bow getting knocked around like a bad habit while packing out Cody’s bear, I decided to leave it at the truck on this morning. This was a tough decision for me, because I am about as nutty for bowhunting as peanut butter. It’s what I think about every day, but I just didn’t feel comfortable heading afield with it before getting to confirm the sight in. This meant that the old 30-06 would be taking a ride for the morning. This is the same gun that Cody killed his bear with the night before and the same gun I killed my first bear with. That rifle is as much of a bear hunter as I am and had the scars to prove it.
All five of us spread out along the edge of this canyon and used our binoculars to scan the dense brush beneath for feeding bears. Gabe ended up splitting from the group early on after spotting a great coues buck off in the distance and making a run at him. Jake, John, and I were fairly close and Cody was just around the bend from us. After an hour or so, Cody comes running to me from his vantage point. I knew what this meant and grabbed the rifle right away. There is only one reason he would be running towards me and it wasn’t because he saw a deer. His first words to me were “BEAR, A VERY LARGE BEAR!”
Cody brought me over to his perch and kept pointing out where he saw the bear. I just couldn’t find him though in that brush. After a minute or so, I saw a large black shadow emerge from the vegetation. Instantly I knew I would shoot this bear. There was a rock out cropping that I spotted in front of me that would put the bear at under 200 yards. As he fed I crept out to the rock while the others stayed behind and watched. The bear was unaware to my presence and in just no time at all I was laying prone on the out cropping. Here we go.
Once I found the bear in my scope, I just stayed on him waiting for the right angle. Then I saw it. The bear offered me a quartering away shot and I made a “WHOOP” sound to stop him. The crosshairs disappeared into the black hide of the bear and I began pulling the trigger. BOOM! The shot went off and it was very apparent that the bear was hit. He ran straight down towards the bottom of the canyon, but never made it. As he lay up against a juniper, he roared and sent his voice throughout the entire canyon. It was the cries of a warrior that had fallen. My 2019 bear season was over thanks to Cody. He and I had a nice long hug and I thanked him. That right there is what this hunt was all about - friendship and making memories. It was successful on all accounts.
After breaking the bear down, we all started making our way up out of the canyon with loads of bear meat in tow. It wasn’t a far pack out by any means, but still held the same potency that any other would. Each step I took back to the truck and every time I saw the pack train of buddies on the hill before me, brought a sense of comfort to me. It was comforting to know that we have the ability to put ourselves in wild places like this and enjoy them with special people like these. What a privilege it was to double down with a good friend and watch him get his first bear. This bear’s meat and the experience he gave me are things that I am eternally grateful for, but getting to share the hunt with guys like this? I dare say that right there is bigger than any bear I will ever harvest.
My Rifle Set-up for Bear
Throughout my childhood, my father would always talk about how he wanted to get a 30-06 eventually for hunting. His belief was that you just couldn’t beat the grain fluctuation. A fella could use the gun for anything from coyotes to polar bear. So, naturally I followed suite when I got older and got a 30-06. This is the rifle I use on all of my black bear hunts. With it I shoot a 180-grain Remington Core Lokt. The bullets aren’t anything fancy, but have gotten the job done just fine for me in the past. On top of the rifle I’ve got a Vortex 4-16×42 Diamondback scope. This scope has been great for me and I just love running it with the Dead Hold BDC reticle. The 30-06 is a caliber that has stood the test of time and will continue to do so. A one and done gun, if you ask me.