Feb 03 2023


Arizona Fall Bears in the Pears

As we sheltered ourselves from the sweltering sun, my friend, Cody, and I sat and reflected on the past 24 hours. The previous evening we saw what we deemed “the last grizzly in Arizona”: a giant color phase black bear gorging himself on prickly pear fruit. We got set up for a shot, but the bear ended up laying down behind vegetation until dark. After heading back the following morning, we witnessed someone trying to poach a sow and cub—a highly illegal act that left both of us in a funk. Luckily, the bears got away unscathed and the fella missed multiple times.

Then we sat waiting, hoping beyond hope that the grizzly of a black bear we saw would reappear. It’s moments like these that make you question your own sanity. At 5:54 pm, though, that doubt melted away; there was the giant bear we’d been dreaming about, and we had only nine minutes of shooting light left.

Season Structure and Management

Arizona has several Fall bear seasons in place ranging from mid to late August clear into December, pending sow quota limits. Through mandatory harvest check-ins, AZGFD keeps track of how many sows are killed per unit. Once a sow quota limit is reached, that particular unit will shut down bear hunting the following Wednesday at sundown. It’s the hunter’s responsibility to keep track of what units are open throughout the season via an online harvest report on azgfd.gov or by calling the Bear Hotline.

A Look in the Rearview Mirror

Fall bear hunting in Arizona is where I’d say I became a bear hunter. Starting from the ground up, I’d read every ounce of info I could on the topic. More times than not, that was only designated to local hunting forums because bear hunting was not that sought after in Arizona. In fact, there are still a fair amount of people to this day that don’t know bears even exist here even though there is some pretty good bear hunting to be found down in the desert.

Something that I’d always come across as I’d peruse through these local hunting forums was the mention of “bears in the pears.” I’d soon find out that this was a driving factor in the little amount of attention that Arizona does get when bear hunting is top of the conversation. Bears in the pears is a phenomenon that happens every four years or so, depending on rainfall amounts, that forces the bears down out of higher and denser elevations and into the desert. Here they can be observed quite easily from a long distance feeding on prickly pear cactus fruit. It’s like candy to them, and they can’t resist it.

Solo in the Backcountry

Eight days is what I had set aside for this Arizona Fall Bear hunt. The first few days I planned to spend in a familiar place at an unfamiliar time of year; it was a backcountry camp that I had frequently hunted during the spring, but had never stepped foot in once fall arrived. So I was intrigued to see what was lurking about in October vs. April.

I only ended up spending a night back there, and it wasn’t because I was homesick. The acorns just weren’t right and, while I did turn up one small boar, I knew I’d have better luck if I switched things up in terms of what food source I was focusing on. This is one of the hardest parts about bear hunting—the only way to know how food crops are doing is to get out there and look at them.

After packing up my camp and hiking the long way back to the truck, I knew exactly where I was going to go. It was a place that sat deep in the core of my bear hunting history.

Changing Things Up

This new area I was headed to is actually where I learned how to bear hunt. It’s where this whole passion of mine developed and what really served as a second home to me in my early years. There were some months that I’d spend more nights in this country than in my actual bed at home. Pair that familiarity with one of my best friends scheduled to meet up with me, and I knew the next few days were gonna be special regardless if a bear went down or not.

After poking around some of my old haunts and not turning up anything but waves and waves of nostalgia, it was apparent that I’d have to slightly switch gears again. A feat in itself with so many memories flooding my mind, but this area was proving to show the same acorn situation as the last. No food, no bears. Luckily, I knew a hell hole of a canyon nearby that was loaded with prickly pears. It was worth a look and exactly what Cody and I planned to do on the evening of his arrival.

“There’s Gotta be Bears Here”

We busted our way through the oak brush and out to the edge of a beautiful drainage. Shortly after sitting down and getting a closer look at everything through our binoculars, I knew we were in the right area. The prickly pear fruit was beet purple and abundant down the whole canyon and there was water flowing through the bottom. But, this country was anything but forgiving. The cactus and oak-choked hills were protected from sheer walls in all directions. “There’s gotta be bears here,” I said. It only took a short while for my assumption to come to life.

Cody spotted him, a giant boar that looked like fear was not something he possessed. Who knows how long he’d been living within this crack in the earth undisturbed. We had eyes on him, though, and quickly tried to make a move.

The next 20 minutes felt like an hour. Soon, however, we were right across from the bear at 500 yards with Cody behind the gun. It felt like a done deal. Just like bears do, though, this monarch had other plans. He decided to lay down behind a prickly pear patch until after dark. Our rifle did not report anything that evening, but our enthusiasm for the next morning was at its peak. We knew where this bear was living, and it was only a matter of time before we saw him again.

Sick to Our Stomachs

Our headlamps bounced through the darkness like fireflies as we made our way to the edge of the canyon the following morning. Right away at gray light, I spotted a color phase bear working its way up the hill across from us. But after getting a closer look, I realized it was a sow and cub. I decided to grab some film of them. As I was doing that, we started hearing gunshots down the way. I figured there was another bear someone was shooting at, but I was wrong. The ground started erupting around the sow accompanied with the sound of a rifle. We witnessed someone miss the sow, as well as the cub, eight times. The bears got away, but we were sick to our stomachs. So much so, we decided to end our morning hunt and try to grab the license plate number of the would-be poacher. We were unsuccessful and he snuck out of there unnoticed.


After seeing what we saw, I’d be lying if I said my enthusiasm wasn’t squashed a little. Cody felt the same way. We didn’t even feel like hunting. So, we went into town, grabbed a bite to eat, and relaxed in camp for the day. This is not the kind of thing I do on a regular basis—normally, I’m out hunting all day. However, it felt nice to just kick back and talk about life with a good friend. That therapy session was exactly what we needed in order to get back in the right mindset. We knew that big boar was still in there and that we’d get an opportunity with time. Which brings us right back to the beginning of this story.

It took 2.5 hours of snacking on gummy bears and staring into a lifeless mountainside before that country came alive. This time I spotted him. The bear we deemed “the last grizzly in Arizona” was there the whole time, bedded beneath us, and we never saw him until he decided to get up for dinner. With nine minutes of shooting light left, we both snuck down the steep face to cut as much distance as we could. 398 yards is what my rangefinder said. MOA was dialed. Rifle was on a solid rest. All I had to do was make a good shot.

The bear feasted on prickly pear fruit and decided to lay down quartering away. I didn’t have time to wait for him to stand. Once those crosshairs were settled, that trigger felt heavier and heavier. Once the gun went off, I honestly thought I missed. Cody responded by saying, “He’s done.” I didn’t believe him, so I shot the bear two more times. But after reviewing the video footage, it was very apparent that the first shot turned him right off. We had a big bear down in a big canyon that didn’t give a damn about our well being. Hiking back to the truck that night, I called another one of my best friends to come help with the pack out first thing in the morning. He enthusiastically accepted. We had no idea what we were in for…


The following morning we started our hike well before daylight. We had a merciless canyon to cross and only a foggy idea of how to do it. It took us 3.5 hours to get to where the bear was and he was just as magnificent as we thought. A color phased blocky headed boar that once owned the very country we were standing in. The hill was littered in his fruit smoothie-looking prickly pear scat. To stand where he stood is about as wild as it gets—wanderers in a kingdom without a king.

1.5 hours later, packs were loaded down with meat and hide. It was time to start our slow and arduous journey back to the truck. I didn’t tell my friends this until later, but I was honestly worried. We were in some nasty stuff. The fact that they devoted their time to come help me recover what is an absolute dream bear for me means more than any words I can type out here. They know that. What we didn’t know was how exactly we were going to get back to the vehicle. There were plenty of slips and falls with heavy weight. We also ran out of water. Luckily, we had a water filter and had flowing water beneath us. Even with it, one of us still got heat stroke before getting out.

And then there were tears. Tears from me when we finally made it out of that canyon, but not because of sore muscles and exhaustion. I was just so happy that my friends didn’t get hurt and felt bad for putting them through the nine hour packout we just tackled. It was a selfless move on their part. The thing that we all have in common, though, is endearment. Endearment for the bears, the country we live in, and for moments like these, etched in our memories forever. The thirst for more of these things never goes away.