Nov 20 2023

Nine Bear Year

The 2022 hunting season is off to a great start. So far as a team of three, we have harvested a spring bear in Montana and four bears in our home state of Washington since the season opened on August 1st. In Washington, you are allowed two bear tags over the counter and the season runs through November 15th. Jeff has also helped our good buddy, Jon, get his first black bear, which was a beautiful jet black, healthy sow. Also, Jeff and his wife, Janie, set out to get her first bear and she was also successful. As I stated in the previous article I wrote about my experience spring bear hunting in Montana, Washington did not have a spring bear hunt this year. Could that be why there have been so many bears out this year? Possibly. I also think it has a lot to do with how late the seasons have been, and the accumulation of moisture this year has been a lot higher. Whatever the reason may be, it is obvious that there is no shortage of bruins roaming around this state and we definitely have a predator problem. It seems that no matter who I talk to, whether it be another hunter or someone who hikes a lot, they have either noticed more bears this year or have seen a lot more bear signs.

On opening day of bear season, Jeff and Jon decided to take the day off of work and see if they could get it done on a quick day trip. With no other trucks at the trailhead and no worries about pressure from other hunters, they had high hopes for the day and made their way up the trail. They did not even make it a half mile down the trail before spotting a bear. About eighty yards down on the river bank stood a jet black sow that was completely broadside, and Jon pulled up the rifle and shot. The bear climbed up a tree despite taking a hit in the lungs, so Jon shot her again and she fell out of the tree. Bear down! The following weekend on the same trail, Janie and Jeff played cat and mouse for most of the day trying to get within shooting range of a bear that they spotted just after first light. After getting set up and missing this bear in two different opportunities, they were able to get to eighty yards and she made a great shot to finally put this bear down.

Now that Jeff had helped his buddy and wife get their first bears, he was ready to notch a tag of his own. The next weekend, Jeff and Zack headed back to the same area after work on Thursday, and Friday morning they were able to get on a bear right away. Zack had spotted the bear but decided to pass because he thought it wasn’t very big. But we know how deceiving the size of bears can be. Jeff was more than willing to take this bear and made three great shots to get his first bear of the year down. Ground shrinkage is a pretty common thing, but on this bear it was the total opposite. It ended up being a lot bigger than they both thought it was and had a beautiful chocolate coat with a white patch on its chest.

On Friday evening, I loaded up my truck and headed over the mountains to meet the guys at bear camp. Since there has been so much success in the same area, we headed out using the same trail where everyone else had taken their bears. It was late in the morning when we decided to have a nice break and a snack next to the river. While enjoying the sounds of the flowing water, I noticed a light-colored animal moving throughout the thick brush a couple hundred yards up the hillside from where we were sitting. I threw up my binos, and sure enough it was a blonde color phase bear. The guys were about to doze off until I whistled at them, and they knew exactly what that meant. In no time, I had a range of 195 yards and they had a camera on me and the bear. One shot out of my Tikka 7mm Rem Mag shooting a 168 Berger dropped the boar right where he stood. Zack had a very successful bear season as well and was able to fill both of his tags on solo hunts. Both bears were taken in a different part of the cascades than where the rest of us had been hunting. He got his first bear on opening morning and then filled his second tag a few weeks later. It is a lot of hard work to hunt, film, and pack out animals all by yourself, but he managed to do all of that with no help at all. What a stud!

Throughout our years of bear hunting, we’ve figured out that the biggest key for success is to find their food source. In August, they feed primarily on berries: blueberries, huckleberries, or thimbleberries, to name a few. Before the season even starts we do quite a bit of e-scouting on our GoHunt maps and find the areas where those berries are most likely going to be ripe during the time we will be hunting. Therefore during the first half of August this year, we focused our efforts in the 2800-3500 elevation range. As the season progressed into late August, those berries down low start to die off and begin to ripen at higher elevations. Keep in mind that these spots have full sun, so spots that are shaded take longer for berries to ripen. Come September we needed to gain some altitude and hit the alpine. It has been a tradition for the past few years that on Labor Day weekend we like to get high and glass. So instead of hunting the bottom of drainages, we neared the tops of ridges and glassed down and watched the walls of mountain sides.

To say that we had a successful hunting trip from Labor Day weekend would be an understatement. Jeff and I both filled our second bear tags and that made the Pnwild crew all tagged out on bears for the 2022 Washington State fall bear hunting season. We got some intel from a buddy that a bear was hanging around one of our old hunting spots not too far out of town from where we were heading. With about twenty minutes of shooting light left, Jeff spotted the bear as we put the truck in park. Immediately we all put our boots on, grabbed a rifle, and went after him. By the time we got within shooting range, the bear had made its way back into the trees and we lost sight of him. The original plan was to head up to the high country and hike in, but knowing that this bear was in this spot and not going anywhere, the plans changed. Never leave a bear to go find bears. Since Zack was tagged out, Jeff and I were the only shooters and neither one of us really cared who was going to kill this bear. Jeff had spotted it that night, and the following morning I was the one who picked it back up. We both grabbed rifles and went after him. But of course when we got down to where we could shoot, he was already in the timber. We came up with a game plan where Jeff was going to be on his rifle in a comfortable shooting position, and I was going to wrap around the backside of this timber pocket and try to push him out the other side towards Jeff. I eventually made it to the other side and after forty five minutes of waiting for him to pop out, I got impatient and followed a game trail right into the thicket where he had gone. About ten or fifteen steps into the timber I saw an oddly dark shadow underneath a tree. Thinking that it could be the bear, I intentionally stepped on a pile of sticks to see if it would move. As the sticks crunched beneath my boot, the biggest black bear I had ever seen sat up from his bed and locked eyes with me. For those brief seconds of staring each other in the eye, it was almost like we had a spiritual agreement that I was going to harvest this bear and it was his time to go. From twenty yards away, in his bed, I quickly put him down. Having footage of this bear from the night before, we knew he was big. But once I got my hands on him, it was then that we realized just how big he was—an absolute monster of a bear and the biggest one that any of us have ever put hands on.

After getting my bear broken down and taken care of, we made our way up into the high country in search of bears feeding on berries. By the time we got up there, we had a few hours of daylight left and decided to hike out a couple miles and put the glass to work. To our surprise, no bears were spotted. On the following morning our luck would change. Immediately upon arriving at our favorite glassing knob, I spotted a bear. Two minutes later Jeff spotted a bear in another drainage. Our buddy, Chris, sent us a Zoleo message that he had a bear spotted just a mile or so away. Now we had to choose which bear to go after. We chose to pursue the bear that Jeff had spotted because it seemed to be in the best spot to get in close for a good shot. Zack was left behind on the spotter and was told to hang an orange sheet up if either a cub came out or the bear was no longer visible. We were over halfway to the bear when we looked back and Zack had hung up the orange sheet. Turns out that this bear was a sow with two cubs. In Washington State, it is legal to harvest a sow with cubs but we chose not to. It wasn’t thirty minutes later and I had another bear spotted in a very steep bowl beneath us. As we were getting set up to take a shot, out came another cub. It was a good reminder to take a little extra time before shooting a bear and making sure it’s not a sow with cubs. We decided to hike over a pretty gnarly ridge to check out a new spot that had been on our radar for a while. Boy, I’m sure glad we did because this new basin was loaded with berries and after a few hours of glassing, a beautiful chocolate bear came out. With Jeff on the rifle and the bear slightly over two hundred yards away, we gave him the green light once the cameras were set up. The shot rang out, and immediately he knew it was not a good shot. After reviewing the footage, the shot was low and hit the rocks just beneath the bear. We searched for hours and did not see a single drop of blood. Very unfortunate, but sometimes things do not go as planned while hunting. Jeff was understandably feeling pretty bummed so we decided to pack out and head home first thing in the morning.

One of the cool things about hunting is anything can happen at any given moment. On the way home we figured we’d stop at a spot known for having lots of berries (we’ve seen bears there before) and the hike in wasn’t all that bad. Just as we rounded the corner that opened up into a huge meadow, Zack immediately spotted a big black ball in the middle of a berry field. Game on! With the wind in our face and the bear focused on inhaling berries, we snuck into just over three hundred yards and Jeff was able to take his time getting comfortable behind the rifle. He waited for the bear to turn completely broadside and then let one fly from his seven rem mag. The reassuring sound of a thwack and seeing the bear roll was all we needed to hear. We had accomplished our goal of harvesting six bears. All six of our fall black bear tags had been filled and it was an emotional moment, especially for Jeff because he literally started weeping. I can only hope that our early success this season transitions over into our deer and elk hunts that we have coming up. Jeff and I leave for Wyoming this Friday to hopefully fill his elk tag that he drew, and I guess you could say we are very excited to get out there again. If you’re still reading this, good luck this season and happy hunting.