El Oso: The Beginning
Bears have always fascinated me. Powerful and intelligent creatures Black Bears in Arizona are one of the more unknown big game species. Bear encounters by the casual forest visitor for their weekend camping trip are typically rare. In order to find and observe bears you have to be willing to go where most others overlook. My bear-hunting quest began several years before I killed my first bruin. Ultimately it was an animal I knew little about and had a curiosity for. Since then I have filled in many of the missing pieces to my understanding and continue to do so. This is a recount of my first successful Arizona Black Bear hunt and the begining of CTK.
Smoke rolled up the canyon as I drove up the dirt road to our campsite. A wildfire had begun shortly before from some careless campers. I rolled down the window and spoke with one of the firefighters. It was determined the area was still safe for us to be in. The fire was a few miles up the road and under control at this point. Our plan was to head up on the Ranger and check out some new high desert country. The August heat was brutal even in the mountains. The evenings brought with them turbulent thunderstorms releasing more lightning than anything. The years before my hunting buddies and I had explored much of the area and seen numerous bears without any luck. This was the year to make it happen, after three years of chasing bears it was time to start killing bears.
Much of my bear hunting knowledge at this point had come from invaluable talks with my father, Richard. Much before my existence and age of memory, in the 80’s and 90’s he had owned a piece of this country. Many animals were pursued in that time but the stories I had become most infatuated with were those of hunting bears. There was something alluring about the rugged brutal landscape that set everyone who entered it equal. Bears added the humbling realization in their stories that you were not at the top; they were the true survivalists and masters of this world. Over the years my parents, family, and other visitors to the ranch has taken several bruins. The photographs from this era had captured my attention from my youngest years. At this point I hoped that I would be able to write my own chapters for this region, to hunt it the way my imagination had painted vivid recollections of their times here.
I was joined by my now fiancée Kalea Taylor for the hunt. We set camp and headed out to glass the thick scrub oak canyons. Before leaving we had one quick stop to make. We would pass by the burned out area of the fire on our way up the mountain. Wrapping up the nights dinner in foil I stopped and walked out into the moonscape of ash. Some areas were still smoldering underfoot so I buried our food to cook and we were off once again. A rough Ranger ride took us up the narrow two-track on the mountainside and overlooked a larger expanse of perilous beautiful country. Grassy ridge tops faded into oak, manzanita, and juniper draws. Pockets of prickly pear covered the southern exposures. We ran across a few velvet Coues Whitetails on our drive and a large Tarantula methodically crossing our two-track but El Oso was no where to be found for the day.
The next morning we hunted here again with the same amount of luck. More heat, more deer, and the same amount of bruins. A mid day run down the mountain to refuel and we crossed paths with the wild land firefighters. We were told access to the area was now being closed off and we wouldn’t be allowed back in. Promptly the two of us packed camp and began to head back to the Taylor family’s nearby house.
The evening hunt would take us to an area we had hunted in past years with no success. The steep cliff sides were thick with large old growth oak trees. Often we would see bears cross the openings and disappear just as quickly. An older man was stopped near us while we glassed from the road and we struck up a conversation. He had been out looking for bears for the last five years and had yet to actually lay eyes on one. Looking through the binoculars a bear stepped out. Too far away to reasonably have a chance at we showed the man what we were watching. He was thrilled to see a bear but was baffled on how you would kill one in such a daunting spot.
Moving on brought us to our maps. We knew where we had seen bears in the past now we were trying to identify topographical features that offered similar terrain. Searching through the topo and road maps an area was picked to go explore. It appeared promising, on a map. A poorly developed road took off through the ponderosa pines. Deadfalls and small branches reached at the truck as I took it through the several thick deep mud pits crossing the trail. A tight few corners and it was as far as the forest would allow us to go. Shouldering my pack with my optics and tripod I walked towards the North. The trees abruptly stopped at a shear cliff edge. Setting up to glass looking off the side at the many basins and ridges below two bear climbed up a rock chute to the top of the ridge several minutes apart. Both bruins took the same line and began to feed at the top of the big, nasty, thick, ridgeline. The bears both finally caught wind of each other and stood on their hind feet to size the other up. Each bear must have come to the same conclusion, bolting away from each other they both disappeared in seconds. Our hunt was over for the time being as the sun fell that Sunday evening.
A return to the Valley of the Sun would offer time for further map research of the area the bears had been. I headed back for the mountains shortly after. This time accompanied by the man who had taught me my foundations in hunting, my dad. The morning of this chapter played out unmemorable other than a drive down a new-to-us road. As the day went on and the temperatures climbed so did the brilliant white clouds enveloping the sky around us. Late morning would offer my first real chance at a bear. We covered some ground on foot to glass the overwhelmingly thick ridges. Manzanita hooking and grabbing us as we forced our way through we made it to a vantage point. Dad quickly glassed up a bear many ridgelines from us.
I set off. If all went as planned I would cross a few oak and Pinyon choked canyons and get in position for a shot. Rangefinder and rifle in hand I crossed through the thick country as quickly as possible. I came up what appeared to me to be the last necessary hill. Approaching the top I unslung the Ruger No. 1 and located the bear in the glass. I clicked the rangefinder repeatedly. Two different numbers kept relaying back. “That’s odd,” I thought to myself. Frustrated at my handheld technology it was time to act. The bear moved into an opening and the break of the 300 roared with flame. Nothing. No impact. No bear movement. The shot had felt good. I sent another down range with similar results. The bear, unalarmed stood on his hind legs up against a bare trunked pine tree and scratched his back almost tauntingly. What had happened?
Thoroughly confused I descended from my spot and met back up with my dad. The rush of excitement in full effect I had shot for the wrong distance. All I had managed to do was blow manzanita leaves all over the mountainside with the violent rush of air fleeing the rifle’s muzzle.
The mid day clouds still building around us we headed for higher ground. We perched ourselves near the edge of a large shear rock face. Not the kind of spot for the timid. Summer days in the southwest seem to creep on slowly. To kill some time we traveled up our rocky rim a ways and sent some .44 mag bullets downrange and, as everyone would have done, tossed some rocks off our cliff. There are very few things that offer the excitement and terror of watching a large rock slam into the canyon floor. The thunderous crashes of a few strategically rolled rocks were quickly echoed by the late afternoon skies. With the cloud cover and cooler temps it was time now to sit behind the glass and catch a bear out feeding. Within a few minutes we both stated, “I’ve got a bear.” After a bit of debate we had actually discovered three bruins. A sow with a small cub and another lone bear were out amongst the prickly pear feeding in the shadows. It was time to make a play.
Heading down the large mountain on a narrow road we parked at the end of a ridge across for the big lone bear. I made my way up the nearly vertical manzanita covered slope. Climbing on top of bushes and pulling myself upward, I pushed forward. The heat was relentless. Sweat poured from my body in the heat. I made the top and quickly picked up the bear. A chocolate color phase bear was feeding in a large southern facing field of cacti gorging itself on the ripe red fruit. I flipped out the legs of the bipod and took a range. I took two shots and nothing happened. The bear did nothing more than lift its head to the noise. What was the problem this time? The bear turned and walked off into the trees. I had blown it again. The shots felt good but nothing had come of it. A few seconds passed and I notice the bear moving across the skyline. I double checked the drop chart and steadied my rifle. As it crossed an opening and hesitated I touched off the shot. Immediately the bear collapsed and toppled down the hillside into the top of a large juniper tree. I quickly radioed my dad and told him I had made a good hit. After the bear had moved down the ridge it had become visible to my dad and he had seen it fall into the thicket, leaves and branches shaking violently.
A few minutes passed as I waited to make sure the beast was truly dead. I sat watching the bushes when movement caught my eye. The bear crawled out and began heading down the grassy slopes towards my location. I set up once again and ranged a wide grassy clearing it was about to cross. I settled the crosshairs and sent another 180-grain bullet through it. Lifting its front left leg I had crushed its shoulder and in barreled to the bottom of the ravine between us in a crash of manzanita. It had to be dead now. Silence was the only thing in the canyon.
I began my wait once again, this time listening for anything. If the bear made a move I would pick it up easily only 100 or so yards away from me now. A short radio conversation and I heard a snap below. I quickly told my dad to get set up further down the draw incase it made it around the corner to prevent the bear from entering the next complex of drainages. The crashing softened as if slung the .300 over my back and unsnapped the Super Black Hawk on my side. The noise was approaching on the game trail I was now sitting on. 30 feet out the bear appeared face to face with me, blood soaked. I clicked the hammer back on the single action revolver and sent a .44 Mag bullet into the bear’s chest. Startled, the bear continued in my direction. I cycled the revolver and slammed another round into the bear 15 feet away. The chocolate bear spun and crashed down the ravine landing on its back 25 yards below me. Shook up, I radioed my dad “I’ve got a dead bear…now.”
I sat, revolver in hand watching and ready if it moved again. How could this tank take so much? The first two hits with the 300 were broadside chest hits and the .44 had added two 240-grain bullets to the recipe. I began to move in closer, just then the bear made a movement. Suddenly revived it rolled over trying to run away but the thick brush slowed it down. I sent two more .44s into it each time anchoring it with the impact. It stood with one final push and I let my fifth round go. The bruin dropped in place, this time permanently. My dad came back on the radio with a confused voice. “How many bears have you shot?” I quickly responded, “It’s the same one. It is dead this time, for sure.” I picked up some rocks and hurled them at the bear. Making sure there was no response I finally approached the animal. This beautiful animal was as tough as a machine. Each of the 7 bullets would have all been fatal on their own. There was fight in this animal to survive. It was not your average prey animal submitting to its death. Tooth and crawl it was going to show its power to its last breathe. The final shot that put an end to the chaos had entered at the base of the skull and stopped just below the hide on the forehead.
I had done it. Several years of hard hunting and trial and error finally resulted in success. After taking a moment to let the reality set in we strained to move the solid animal for a few pictures. The darkness fell quickly as we began working on the animal. Taking off the hide and carving away the meat I placed it into packs for our trip back to the vehicle. In the process we recovered multiple bullets. Loaded heavy I shuttled one frame and returned for the next. The hunt had come to a close, this time with a tag filled. The mountains had given up one of their most illusive beasts as the result of hard work, prayer, and persistence. A new addiction had just begun.