Ride the Lightning: OTC AZ Black Bear Hunt
Updated: Jan 1, 2021
The 2020 fall bear hunts came with great expectations, as usual. The feed conditions during the summer months leading up to the opener looked to be incredible. Two weeks prior, Dillon and I made a burner of a two-day trip and checked multiple spots in three different units. In the first unit, we found an abundance of feed and located three bears, two of which were absolute bruisers. We made the decision that we would hunt the bears we dubbed “Buffalo Bear,'' an enormous light tan sow, and “Scooby,” a long and lanky chocolate boar, every day in some capacity once the hunt began. In theory, they should stay put and give us an opportunity. The second unit looked fantastic as well and was set to be great for the October hunts. The third unit did not have near the feed as the other two, but our favorite spot seemed to have survived the dry summer. A few hundred miles of driving and our plans for the first and second fall bear hunts were set.
Fast forward a short ten days later and we were getting our first camp of the fall season set up. Let me tell you, it was glorious. Shower enclosure, running hot water, covered kitchen set up, four tents, three freezers and an electric coffee pot. Between Dillon and I our schedule was set so that we would be guiding/hunting for over three weeks straight. We were glad to have added some more home-like comforts. A super bright moon combined with extremely high temperatures had slowed down the bear activity drastically from the previous trip. We talked about where we would set up opening morning and try to locate Scooby and Buffalo. Dillon, Jim and his client Doug would glass our usual spot. Zach and I, along with my client Matt would sit roughly 1200 yards away at “the Cliffs of Dover.” The distinctive white cliffs we had dubbed at the head of the drainage.
Daylight broke and it was a relatively slow morning. Around 9 am Dillon got on the radio and said “we almost got run over by a freakin bear, just now!” A small to medium sized pumpkin colored boar was walking the trail and stopped a mere 30 yards behind them, before taking off and making a huge ruckus in the process. As we glassed to see if we could locate the bear, I looked at my map and figured the logical route for it to take would be the small drainage behind us. Sure enough, about 15 minutes later the bear appeared below us slowly making his way up the draw to thicker cover. Matt got on the gun as I ranged him at 165 yards, and while he was a very unique colored bear, he was young (around 2 years old) and not the caliber of bear that we look for. Pumpkin bear got the pass.
That evening we switched things up, Dillon’s crew hunted another spot while we hiked out to the normal glassing spot. We got out there early and glassed the hillside waiting for prime time. About an hour or so before dark, other hunters drove in on a closed-road through the middle of where, where the bears typically feed. Then they bombed up the hillside next to us to glass the basin. To add insult to injury, at dark we heard a shot ring out around the corner. We briefly chatted across the small draw and to our enjoyment the unethical hunter’s shot had not connected. Their shortcut hadn’t paid off.
Saturday morning, we hiked out in the darkness to get into a shooting position before the crowds. Despite being the first ones into this area, we only turned up a few deer, elk and a random guy in shorts foraging berries. No bears. As we packed up, a shot rang out to the north of us by about 500 yards. This was once again disheartening, but bear hunting is a lot about being in the right place at the right time.
Saturday after the morning hunt, we loaded up the coolers with some lunch and headed out to meet up with Dillon’s crew who had seen a good bear, but was just out of range for a shot. As we ate our lunch and chatted about the morning endeavors a substantial monsoon storm surrounded us. The Texans, both clients coincidentally being from The Lone Star State, hadn’t seen or heard a lightning storm like this in awhile. We donned rain gear and found a tree to hide under. Was it the tallest tree around? No. Was it a tall tree? Yes. Matt was soon spotted trotting down the road to find a low spot to wait out the storm and said, “Y’all are crazy standing under a tree that damned tall.” The storm raged around us with heavy rain, hail, and cracks of lightning. All the while, Jim got in a solid nap, seemingly unfazed by the war raining down from the heavens.
Once the storm subsided and Matt came back to join us, we looked at the clock to see that it still wasn’t even 1 o’clock yet. It was pretty early to head out and burn up our eyeballs glassing. After another 30-45 min of trying to pass the time by practicing the ancient art of throwing a tomahawk into a stump, we decided to head out to the point to glass. As we set up overlooking a good travel corridor that was adjacent to a solid food source, I explained to Matt, “Bears can literally appear out of nowhere, it's like a super power. Wide open spaces where you think a furry black tractor can’t hide and all of the sudden they’re in the middle of them.”
I'm pretty sure he didn't completely believe me. Until at 2:15 he excitedly says, “BEAR! Right in the middle of the open!” This is where the SOBP (Sudden Onset Bear Parkinson's) started to kick in as he grabbed the rifle and ran down the hill about 30 yards to get set up. I walked down to him and got the turret on my 7mm WSM adjusted to 300 yards, as he set up on the jet black boar that was working his way through the drainage. I stopped the bear with the trademarked, “woooo!” Matt whispered, “oops safety...” Shortly after, his shot ripped through the canyon. The shot sailed about 6” over his back and the bear raced for the bottom. As Matt got up, his legs were shaking and we tried to relocate the bruin in the thick bottom to no avail. He looked at me, as I was shaking a little myself, and said, “Are you shaking too?!” I replied, “Well yeah! This is exciting stuff dude!” We got back on our binos and talked about the excitement. He said, “How did I miss that thing at 300 yards? I was shaking way more than shooting at an elk or a deer. I LOVE IT!” I explained to him that he isn’t the first person to miss a bear at moderate range, “But I’ve got bad news, that wasn’t the gun’s fault since we shot it on Wednesday out to 600 yards,” and we both laughed the miss off.
Less than an hour later, I glassed up a giant blonde and chocolate colored boar coming over the ridge feeding at 645 yards. While it was an easy shot with that rifle, we collectively made the decision to cross the canyon and get to the ridge between us, for a much closer shot. Missing once is hard, but missing twice within an hour can be devastating for confidence. We needed to be 100% confident to make an ethical shot. We scrambled down the canyon and up the other side within 15 minutes. Slowly we worked our way across the top of the ridge. We knew we would be under 200 yards from where we had last seen the bruin. With no sign of the bear having left, we figured he was in the thicket below. As the second storm of the day pounded us with rain, we hunkered down and waited. Once the rain was gone, I told Matt to watch the thicket while I walked about 30 yards behind us to check the canyon we crossed, just to make sure he didn’t slip behind us.
Ten minutes later I heard something below me. I stood up and there was the same bear he had missed earlier. Feeding at 176 yards, I quickly set up my phone on the 15s and got Matt’s attention. He set up the bipod, got the bear in the scope and I started rolling video. The gun went off and the 180 grain Berger VLDH did its job. The bear dropped and rolled down the slope with its feet in the air. Matt stood up and let out a rebel yell as the bear then rolled over and attempted to propel himself down to the bottom of the canyon. Matt then sent another round down range and anchored him, for good this time. The amount of punishment these bruins can take and keep moving is amazing!
I quickly got on the radio and contacted Zach, who was glassing a spot about ¾ of a mile from us. He headed over to assist with the pack out. Matt rolled a small boulder onto his foot while we made our way to his first bear. We were both happy to have Zach’s additional help in the rough spot. We took some great pictures, processed the meat, loaded up all of our gear and prepared for the hike out. With just over a ½ mile hike to the General, and around 900 feet of elevation gain, it made for a fun trip with heavy packs and a sore foot. Once we got to the bike, we named this no-name area “Profanity Ridge” for obvious reasons.
After shooting, all Matt could say is, “Man I am addicted to these things. You guys better save me a spot for next year, because I'm coming back!” Despite the rough pack out, he still had the same fire, which is impressive to say the least. A week later, he sent Dillon and I a picture of his foot in a boot. He had partially torn his achilles tendon from the rock. The caption said, “Yeah, sucks! But I’ll be back. I definitely haven’t had enough! Y’all stay safe!” Bear hunting is definitely an addiction, and it’s been said more than once that you have to be half crazy to hunt them in the places they call home. Nothing else quite compares to the adrenaline rush it gives, except maybe the lightning striking within a hundred yards away.
Author: Daniel Drown