Monsoon Bears: Desert Bruins
Updated: Oct 10, 2019
Early in 2015 I was determined to pick up a client for August bear and set out breaking down the logistics to do so. It has been my goal to take my all time favorite hunt personally and involve others in the difficult, demanding, and highly rewarding pursuit of the illusive bruins of the high desert. We had taken several quality bears over the previous years and it was time to put my knowledge of the animal to the test. In past seasons I had hunted with the intent of understanding the animals in a way that would set what I was doing apart from anyone else. The foundation of which, was not only an in-depth understanding of the units we hunt, but also the movements and patterns of bears. It was fundamental to answer why and when are these animals in certain areas, along with how do you successfully take them? It is no secret among bear hunters that feed plays a huge roll, but even more basic is that you cannot find bears where there are no bears. Feed and terrain are key.
After several talks of logistics I had my client Mike Johnson lined up for the upcoming hunt. I approached it as if it were my own tag to fill. Where would they be this season? I spent numerous days checking areas and simply observing what was around for food and water. I also noted optimal vantage points and the overall feasibility of various spots. As the hunt neared I had narrowed the entire unit we would be hunting into two distinct regions. I focussed then on determining which spot of the two would be most productive and broke out the glass for several days of pre-hunt scouting.
The spot I intended to hunt was no small area. It, as much of Arizona, offered a huge expanse to look over and endless pockets, water, feed, canyons, and hills. I had seen a large strawberry blond boar in a drainage a few weeks before and was hopeful he would show himself again closer to the season. I headed up solo close to the hunt to focus on glassing and decide if the area was going to be productive. I drove out some roads and hiked off to glass that evening picking up a few Coues deer but no bears. It wasn't what I had hoped for that evening. I spent that night on the mountain and was up in the warm blackness ready to catch El Oso in the glass at first light. Several passes and nothing was moving. Later into the morning as the sun rose I picked up an average sized bear traveling across a hillside. I knew the area offered a ton of potential but had a gut feeling I needed to check elsewhere while I had time.
Packing up my gear into the truck I headed to my alternate area. It was a couple hours drive and a big move across the unit to commit to, leaving behind what I knew was promising. I made it to the new spot in the blazing heat of the afternoon and pulled a camera I had in the area. It was a tank I wasn't very confident would have any activity on it. To my surprise the camera I had put out had taken photos of several bears, one particularly large, a lion, Coues, Mule deer, Elk, Javalina, Coyotes, Coatimundi, and several other animals. Having a gut feeling I decided this would be the area we focussed on. I promptly set camp and waited for the long day to begin to close.
My dad decided to come up for the day and help scout a bit. He met me at my camp just before evening and we came up with a plan. I headed off to look at one canyon while he checked another. As quickly as I walked from camp my phone rang. "Come back, I've got a bear." I quickly cut back to camp. He had pulled the jeep up to leave and pulled up his Swaro 8s to focus them before heading out. While he rolled them into focus looking at the mountain a bear came into view. He quickly pointed out where it was and I caught what appeared to be a large sow disappear into the brush. While discussing the oddity of glassing one up from camp I looked over his shoulder at the ridge behind us. "Look! there's another bear right there!" a small jet black bear was headed towards us about 350 yards from camp and faded into to adjacent canyon. We sat down and continued glassing. Out stepped another bear. This one a large cinnamon boar not far from where the first bear had been 1200 yards out. He fed a bit and traveled through the openings giving us a great look. I was fairly confident he was the large bear on camera a few days prior. As anyone who has seen a bear would know, it can be extremely difficult at a distance to distinguish a male from a female. As the boar turned and headed away in the bright sunlight there was no doubt it was a boar. He was quickly dubbed "Nuts" for obvious reasons and as a result of the strangeness of seeing that characteristic feature from three quarters of a mile away. I took video of two of the bears and was very pleased with what we had turned up in a short time.
The day before the hunt Mike was set to come in along with his cousin Cliff Amator. Tanner Kemp would be coming along to film and my brother-in-law Cole McGuire was joining us for the adventure. We shuffled vehicles and gear to camp and my dad headed out. While heading off the mountain a call came through from another friend in the area, Ian. His voice was somewhat panicked as he asked where I was. His hunting partner Taylor had rolled his truck around a bad conner in front of him. Taylor was safe and uninjured thankfully but Ian was unable to pull his truck from the wash. Tanner, Mike, and I met up with them shortly after and assessed the situation, thankful no one was hurt. We hooked both of our trucks up to the stranded vehicle and pulled it back onto the roadway. Unhooking the cables I put my truck back into gear to move it out of the way of oncoming traffic. As i shifted into gear the truck clanked loudly... I could feel what happened and jumped out to look. My drive line had sheared in half... I limped the truck off the road and removed it completely, capping off the transfer case as it poured liquid out. I put it in four wheel drive and with the front wheels powered, parked and left it not far up the road.
This was not how I wanted things to start off as my client came in. With few options we abandoned my truck for the hunt, having enough other vehicles to be more than adequate. We made it up to camp and glassed the evening prior to the hunt while making a game plan for the morning. I was confident we would take one, if not more bears in the following days. Commenting on what we had seen I told Mike he would likely kill within 48 hours if we played it right.
Opening morning we were up early and had a quick bit of food. We hiked up though the manzanita ridges to get into position as the sky began to lighten. It took a bit for things to pick up and we found a sow with two cubs not far from us, one black and one brown. No other bears showed themselves that morning as we headed back to camp to escape the heat. The monsoons brewed throughout the 90 plus degree day and torrential rains rolled through camp. We would lose some prime glassing if the storm didn't clear out quickly. With a bit of time left to glass we headed out on the ranger and checked a few spots. Nothing was moving. I turned around and glassed further off and picked up two large bears but they were too far to go after in fading light. The day came to a close as we hung out around the fire and had dinner.
The next morning would follow the same pattern. We headed high under the cover of darkness and waited. As grey light began we picked up a small black bear 400 yards out. It came closer and passed behind us as we watched searching for something better. I turned back around and looked across the canyon. A dark blob moved through the prickly pears on the adjacent skyline. It was a big bruin. I quickly had Mike get set up and we waiting for it to reappear. I got off the glass and crept over to Mike to make sure he was clear on where I was looking. In the darkness earlier I had heard some rocks below us rolling but hadn't seen the culprit. As I moved I looked off our edge and immediately saw a bear step out below us about 300 yards out. I had Mike switch targets and get reacquired on this new closer bear.
The bear walked away from us up the side of the ravine. I took a range and relayed the information to Mike. Tanner was behind the camera catching everything in play. The bear continued to travel so I attempted to stop it with a few noises. I yelled to stop it when it finally got curious and stopped to face our direction. As it lost interest and presented a shot Mike sent a round towards it grazing its back. The bear rapidly spun and lunged through the brush. I followed it in the glass and called out the range of the next opening. As it cleared I ask "are you on him?" simultaneously I was answered by the bark of the rifle. The bruin no sooner collapsing and falling down the steep hillside.
We were pumped, Mike had just lights-out connected on a solid color phase bear, his first ever! He was no stranger to hunting and is and excellent hunter and guide in his own right. Bears were something he had never pursued and he had accomplished taking one in short order hunting with us. We got on the radios and let the others know we had killed one and where to meet us. Descending the treacherous canyon we all met up in the bottom.
I photographed the area from our shooting position and had our landmarks in mind as we began our search. I picked up the trail and followed it through the thick oaks to the bottom once again. Pilled up in the brush was his bear, a beautiful chocolate color bruin. We celebrated the hunt, took video and photos then went to work. It was a decent pack out of the canyon back to camp getting done before noon.
Mike Johnson's Arizona Color Phase Black Bear
Things weren't over just yet. Everyone else had tags as well and everyone was staying for the third day of the season. We again would set out in the morning and see if we could repeat what we had just done. This time Tanner would be up to bat. We climbing to our vantage point and Cliff and Cole went to another area. Again right at daylight we picked up a coal black bear within range. He was sitting in a rockslide warming up as the sky lightened. Tanner got in position behind my rifle atop a large pile of boulders. We got the gun dialed up and it was time to do this again! He clicked off the safety and settled in for the shot. Letting it go the bullet raced towards its target. The impact was just left and exploded a rock next to the bear. Dazed it stumble up the rockslide and out of site. We saw it shortly after and opted to let it walk because of the terrain it was now in. Tanner was a bit shook up with his miss but that is the reality of hunting, you can't killed them all.
That day would wrap up our time together as Mike, Cliff, and Cole headed back to their jobs for the week. Tanner and I headed to my future in-laws nearby house and took the evening and next morning to relax. We were deciding what to do and went back into the unit to retrieve a few other cameras I had put out. After pulling them we decided we should go back to the spot and see it we could get him on another bear, after all we were free. We discussed a game plan and went back in. This time taking everything in the Polaris ranger and no trucks. During our break my dad had returned with the parts to fix my truck. In the 100 plus degree heat I replaced the driveline and fluids and we were good to go again.
Over our trip thus far we has seen 17 bears, the majority in the new area we had taken Mike's. I told Tanner any bear is fair game for you with one exception. If we found the bear I had on camera that we had seen two days before the hunt it was the only one I had dibs on. Anything else and Tanner was the triggerman. The odds were good. The one hillside had produced close to ten individuals so far. We loaded up the Polaris Ranger with everything we could and made the several hour drive back in. Camp was set up easily in a new spot and we drove off to a glassing point. Early in the afternoon the sun scorched the mountainside. I wasn't hopeful we would see anything for a few hours.
After only twenty minutes or so Tanner made the infamous statement "I got a bear." I was surprised with how early it was and I found the one he was looking at. "holy crap, thats Nuts! we've got to go." I was excited and bummed all at once I had wanted to find any bear but that one so Tanner could shoot it. An agreement was an agreement however and Tanner without hesitation was now my guide. We huffed up the hillside praying we would close this distance in time. With over a mile to close we gave it everything. Sweat was pouring off of us as our lungs seared from lack of oxygen and the intense summer heat.
Cresting the ridge line we broke onto a game trail. Knowing exactly where we needed to get to we popped over the top. I looked across the canyon and stopped quickly. The beast was right across from us in plain site feeding and moving through the scrub oak and manzanita. The bear stopped and sat down. Just like a dog for a few seconds the boar scratched his ear with a hide foot. In that time I was able to get set up on our trail behind the .300 Win Mag. The camera was rolling as I ranged the bruin. 362 yards out i moved the crosshairs onto him. I confirmed Tanner was rolling, put in my ear plugs and got ready. The bear stopped scratching and lowered his paw. Just as his head cleared his vitals I squeezed the shot off. 210 grains of bullet barreled towards El Oso and slammed into him. Collapsing on the spot the giant rolled into the brush.
Two bears! almost three in the last three days of hunting... We were both taken back a bit. I had killed that giant that we had been searching for. I was optimistic he would hit the 21" mark. Full of excitement I called my dad and Cole. We headed down to recover it climbing through the tangle of high desert flora and rocks. Nearing the spot we carefully circled looking for the downed bear. After some time and passing it close by a least twice we found the beast hidden in the brush. Hey was bigger body wise than we had guessed, approaching the 300 pound mark as we struggled to move him to a more photo friendly position.
Cole and Richard excitedly came back up to help us get the bear out before the impending monsoon storms would take over the mountain. Tanner and I met them at the trail coming out with our first pack load. Cole returned with us for the second leg and we had the bear back to camp around 2:30 AM. The storm bearing down on us earlier had passed by close missing us completely. The lightning however made for a tense process. As we broke down camp in a hurry the storms were retuning with vengeance. A wall off rain and continuous lightning approached rapidly from the south. It was a race against the storm for Tanner and I to make it off of the mountain and load the Ranger before the storm hit. Going far too fast down the ridges, winds ripped up from the deserts below. Flashes illuminated the saguaros and mountains almost non-stop. Over the whine of the Polaris thunder bellowed around us. We were in a hurry and hoping the lightning would stay clear of us. We made it to the flat bed twelve miles out just as the sky opened up on us. Floods of water soaked us as we strapped everything down and sheltered what of our gear we had with us.
Cole and my dad came by us in the jeep just as we were ready to roll back to the main road. Had we been 5 minutes faster we would have been bone dry. Soaked to the core we jumped in the truck and began a very slow and muddy drive with a trailer. Back at the highway, well into the night the excitement of everything became even more real. This had been an epic season with two great bears killed and 18 found in a six day period. A results of continued testing of everything we knew and the help of some incredible people. Hard work, preparedness, and knowledge continues to be the key to repeated success chasing one of the most difficult game animals Arizona has to offer.
To see more of our experience check out our video…
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Dillon Currie's Arizona Color Phase Black Bear