Spot & Stalk
Jan 12 2023
First Time in Bear Country
By David McDaniels | @easttxcamo
“What in the world would possess you to want to travel all the way across the country to climb a mountain, just so you can kill a bear?” my mother questioned.
It was a fair question with a complex answer. Notably, in the opinion of most of my East Texas friends and family, my newfound fixation with the idea of bear hunting was being viewed as abnormal. After giving it some thought, though, why wouldn't it be?
My introduction to bear hunting was not via family tradition or through a hunting buddy. I grew up in an area fully steeped in Southern hunting culture, but there just aren’t a lot of people in our area interested in bear hunting. Additionally, I’m a first-generation hunter who has only been hunting for two years.
“You haven’t even killed a good deer yet and now you think you need to drive across the country to chase a bear?” my good friend and neighbor quipped.
In short, the answer to that question was yes. For reasons that would be hard for me to put into words, bear hunting became a strong desire for me after I watched Clay Newcomb’s original appearance with Steve Rinella on “MeatEater.” Suddenly, I somehow felt like I was hooked before I really knew what I was getting into.
After that episode, I subscribed to Bear Hunting Magazine, started listening to their podcast, and started watching the magazine’s Youtube content. I also bought Douglas Boze’s book “The Ultimate Guide to Black Bear Hunting” and connected with him through a decent barrage of questions that he patiently answered for me via Instagram. From there, I started making plans for my new dream hunt adventure to become a reality.
I was all in. Along with consuming as much bear hunting content as I could, I started working out and preparing physically for the demands of a backcountry hunt while also doing deep dives into all the necessary gear to pull it off. My good friend, Kelly Humphrey, a life-long hunter also from East Texas, had been dreaming of doing a backcountry hunt for years and committed to going with me just for the adventure. He spent an incredible amount of time “e-scouting” on onX in the different areas we had looked at hunting as our plans took on multiple iterations through the course of time. Then, in a stroke of what I can only describe as providence, I made a new friend that morphed this hunt into what it ultimately became.
Through a series of wild events, I became fast friends with Brent Reaves. You might be familiar with Brent from his time with Bear Hunting Magazine as a photographer and videographer or more recently for his contributions to MeatEater’s “Bear Grease” podcast. In our short time as friends, Brent has been an extremely positive and influential figure in my life for many reasons. One of those reasons was him going out of his way to introduce me to another new friend and a central figure to this hunt, Kolby Morehead, of Bear Hunting Magazine.
After our introduction via Brent at a BHA event in Arkansas, Kolby and I established a quick friendship based on our shared core values, our East Texas roots, and our enjoyment of hunting. Shortly after we met, Kolby’s original spring bear hunting plans fell through. For reasons that surely include his being a glutton for punishment, he graciously decided to take on the task of mentoring three hunters from Texas with a combined total of zero hours of boots-on-the-ground bear hunting experience. Our additional Texan was Kolby’s cousin and life-long compadre named “KD.”
Kolby had been backpacking to Montana multiple times and was willing to lead our group on a hunt in areas that he was familiar with and believed would give us a good opportunity to see—and hopefully harvest—a bear. Along with that offer, he graciously offered me the first shot at a bear on our trip, should the opportunity arise. To say that I was both humbled and excited about how these things unfolded would be an understatement.
That excitement was undoubtedly an asset as we hopped in my black F250, loaded down with four hunters and four hunters’ worth of coolers and backcountry gear, for the 30-hour trek from East Texas to Western Montana. We left Texas late on a Monday night and arrived in Montana at 4:00 a.m. that Wednesday. We grabbed the equivalent of a decent nap, ate, got our gear fully prepped for the trip up the mountain, and headed out.
Day 1 - Wednesday
As the crow flies, we didn’t have too far to go from where we parked the truck to where we pitched camp. It was, though, about a 4.5 mile hike up and around switchbacks and across a drainage with about a 1500-foot elevation gain up to the ridge we wanted to camp on. Even with the physical conditioning I did in preparation for the trip, I felt every bit of that first hike up. My body seemed to settle in over the course of the week, but that initial ascent was a shock to my lungs and legs.
Incredibly, though, we started seeing bears almost immediately once we arrived on the mountain. During that first hike up, Kelly spotted a beautiful, large, jet-black sow with a cinnamon-colored yearling cub up toward the top of the ridge on a south-facing slope. We took some photos and videos and watched them feed for around an hour before we continued on our journey to camp.
Immediately after we got camp established, Kelly saw another bear feeding at the top of the ridge close to camp. This bear looked larger and was alone. We believed it to be a boar and tried to put a quick stalk on it. However, it was already late evening when he saw him and then he went up and over the ridge, so we never laid eyes on that bear again. The events of our first day—getting camp set up, seeing a sow and a color phase cub, and then already having a shot to put stalk on a bear—had our spirits high as we went to bed dreaming of what the rest of our hunt had in store.
Day 2 -Thursday
We got up the next morning and primarily glassed from camp as a group. We were camped high on a ridge and had plenty of country we could cover with binoculars and spotting scopes as we got a better feel for the lay of the land. Again, we sighted a bear. Around 10:00 a.m., KD glassed up what we believed to be a large boar all the way across the drainage we were hunting toward at the top of the mountain ridge. He was alone, feeding on the logging road working right to left on the mountain. He was over a mile away linearly and to put a decent stalk on it would have been over a 2.5 mile hike around the drainage, so we decided to watch him for a while and evaluate our options. We watched that bear feed for about half an hour and then he disappeared up into the timberline at the top of the mountain.
For our evening sit that day, we split into two groups to cover more ground. I went with Kelly and Kolby went with KD. We were set up to be able to punch out and cover two different drainages, but the only bear any of us laid eyes on that evening was the same big black sow and cinnamon cub we had seen the day before. Still, spirits were high and we remained optimistic about the amount of action we had in such a short time so far.
Day 3 - Friday
Overnight and into Friday morning, we had a sudden storm roll in and the temperature dropped from the 60s down into the upper 20s. It brought with it a decent peppering of snow and some fog into our drainage. Along with the unfriendly glassing conditions, Kolby had been fighting off being sick for a couple days. He’d shown a lot of grit and had toughed it out so far, but as a group we decided to make a quick trip down the mountain that morning to try to help him get his body on track. Sometimes a hot shower and good meal can go a long way, and that proved true in this situation.
With Kolby feeling better, our group refreshed, and the morning fog burned off, we hiked back up that afternoon and split up again to glass. Once again, we only saw that same sow and cinnamon cub that was now considered an afternoon staple to our glassing sessions.
Around 8:30 p.m., though, Kelly and I hiked back toward camp. We closed out the evening on a glassing knob a couple hundred yards from camp that offered a great view of the primary drainage we were hunting. At that time while I was scanning the drainage with my naked eye, I thought I saw a large, dark speck move. “That’s a bear,” I told myself as I raised my binoculars up to my eyes to confirm. I was right. It looked like the same large boar we had spotted the morning before. Only now, he was closer as he had moved into the corner of the drainage—still working right to left on the mountain in our direction. There wasn’t enough daylight left to stalk him that night, but Kelly and I put together a plan to try to go after him the next morning. That night, I barely slept as I tossed, turned, and dreamed in anticipation for tomorrow’s hunt.
Day 4 – Saturday
Kelly and I woke up early, ate breakfast, had a cup of coffee, and prepped our packs with the essentials for an all-day sit. We headed up the ridge and down the logging road about a mile to the area we felt would be ideal to glass up and put a stalk on that bear based on where we thought and hoped he would be.
“I’m gonna shoot that bear today,” I said confidently as we made the hike. To be fair, I’m an extremely optimistic person and hunter. I say things like that early and often, but in this exact moment in time I truly believed it.
“Seriously Tall-boy (my nickname on the farm back home), if we do see that bear today, you just need to stay calm, breathe, and listen to me while we make a real plan. I don’t need you trying to sprint straight up to the bear and knock him on the head,” Kelly half-joked. He knew I was really excited.
Around 8:30 a.m., we got settled in after our hike and got set up to glass. As we sat there a few feet apart, Kelly asked me to toss him some of the extremely tasty trail mix that Kolby’s wife, Joleen, had sent along for our hunt. I tossed it over to him and turned my head back toward the drainage and raised my binoculars back up to rest on top of my nose.
Logically answering questions like the one my mother asked me can sometimes prove challenging. Explaining a passion that is unfamiliar to those around you often doesn’t provide them with the eloquent response they’re looking for. However, on an emotional level it can often be summed up simply by moments like this one.
“Bear,” Kelly said in the loudest whisper I think I’ve ever heard in my life. It felt like a lightning bolt suddenly struck my heart.
I turned my head back toward Kelly and about 600 yards away over his shoulder on the side of the mountain, there he stood: that big, beautiful, dark chocolate boar. Still working right to left on the same logging road, patiently lumbering along and stopping to eat the green grass on our south facing slope as he saw fit.
“The wind is perfect, grab your gear and let’s go get him,” Kelly said.
With the wind in our face as we hiked up the logging road toward the bear, the only thing racing faster than my heart was my mind. “Calm down. Go through your mental checklist. You got this,” I told myself as I tried to fix my thoughts on the processes I knew were important in the moment. I was excited, but I felt ready.
After quickly going up the logging road, we knew we should be getting close. We turned the next corner and there he was, standing broadside eating some grass on the fringes of the road. I tried to get set up in time to get a shot on him, but in my nervousness I had a hard time getting comfortable with my rifle. Suddenly he was out of sight. He was walking in a section of road that ebbed into the mountain, but was still coming toward us. I had a decision to make that I wasn’t excited about. “Am I going to take this frontal shot when he turns the corner?” I asked Kelly.
“Yes, he’ll be at 75 yards—-it will get the job done,” he responded.
Suddenly, there he was. The vision of him turning the corner and stopping and staring right at me—the big white blaze on his chest almost glowing in my mind—as I looked at him through my rifle scope will stick with me for some time. Boom! The sound of my rifle cracked as I released a round from my .308. “High right, high right,” Kelly said. I missed. I racked another round, pointed it straight at his chest, and did what I hadn’t done the time before. “Breathe, David,” I told myself. I breathed out slowly with control, and with a steady trigger pull I released another round. Almost simultaneously, the bear started to turn to try to run. In doing so, he set up perfectly for my rifle round to pass through both lungs and the bear expired almost immediately, moving just enough to roll down the mountain about 60 yards.
In line with the spirit of the trip, we skinned out and quartered the incredible bruin as a group and packed his meat and hide 4.6 miles down the mountain. We later discovered he squared six feet and a half inch—considered by many a once-in-a-lifetime bear for that area.
Everything about this trip, from Kolby’s selfless decision to take our group of rookies hunting, to Kelly not leaving my side in hopes of helping me get a bear, to our team hiking out together, it was all more than I could have dreamed when the idea of this hunt took root in my heart. I believe our hunt particularly embodied two tenants of the mantra, “Guard the Gate”, which has helped define Bear Hunting Magazine for some time now: mentor new hunters and help shift hunting culture. In many ways, it embraced these ideals that I believe will help carry on and protect the tradition of bear hunting for generations to come.