The only we could think about as the 2021 Spring bear season rolled around was just that, bears and where we were going to find them. After a few years of hopes, prayers, missed opportunities, and just plain terrible luck, it was my lifelong friend Cody up to bat. This would be his bear hunt. We spent ample time at the shooting range during the off season preparing for the potentially long shots and fast scenarios that could occur on a spot-and-stalk bear hunt like this. I was dedicated to Cody's success and didn't bother buying a bear tag for myself, it was all on him!
We set off to make camp. A slow grueling hike through a well used but highly overgrown system of both man-made and animal trails allowed us to access our hunting grounds. I was very familiar with the large area we were planning on hunting but hadn’t thoroughly explored each of the different canyons to document the seasonal food sources yet. In effect, the plan was to spend one morning in a particular area and the evening in another, until we found that “beary” spot. The three day weekend came and went. We had found one sow with two little fuzz balls cubs, way off in a distant canyon. They weren't legal bears and the spot they called home was far beyond our level of preparedness to even consider venturing into.
The following weekend we had the kids with us, so packing all the way in was something we tabled for a later date. Instead, we treated it as an exploratory trip. Heading into spots I hadn’t been back to is some time, we reexamined their potential. This habitat was easy and we hoped to catch the transient boar traveling through in search of his next meal. We spotted no bears that weekend.
Third time is a charm, right? It was our last decent chunk of time to spend in the unit before both of our work schedules piled up and would make it impossible to get out for another month or so. After checking a few spots off the list already, I had narrowed down our approach to three specific areas. We set out first thing and watched over a large bowl until mid-morning before having lunch. At camp I asked Cody, “how bad do you want to kill a bear today?” “Really bad" was his response.
That was exactly the answer I was looking for. “Gear up Cody, it’s going to be a long one.” I knew in my gut that we were going to find a shooter bear that afternoon, we just needed to be prepared for the difficulties that come with packing into such a rugged canyon. We loaded our EXO 4800’s down and set off into the mountains. As we crested the first ridge top I pulled up my 10’s for a quick look for anything blatantly obvious. An awkward, misplaced shadow caught my attention immediately. I alerted Cody and we set off at a faster pace, chasing the dwindling daylight. We arrived at our target peak 40 minutes later. I pulled out my 15’s and tripod, set up ,and sat down. We glassed for a few minutes peering through the thick growth when that suspicious shadow found me once again. It’s a bear, and it’s a shooter. A beautiful, solid chocolate, Arizona black bear.
We needed to close the distance and fast, so we all but ran across the ridge line. We stayed just off the top as to not be sky lined. The wind was strong enough to cover most any noise we made as we scrambled across the rocks. Finally Cody and I got into shooting position, which was not optimal in terms of comfort, but it would work for a steady shot. Cody set up the packs as shooting rests as I gathered myself and settled the 15 power binoculars on his target bear. I got a final range on the bear at 654 yards straight across the canyon. I reached over and dialed the scope turret for him, then called wind hold. I hear a deep breath followed by a slow but exaggerated exhale, signaling his intentions. “Send it...”
"High!" The bear froze, unsure of what had happened. Another deep breath followed. “Inch over its back, perfect left to right.” The follow up shot ripped through the bear and sent it tumbling down the steep canyon slope, crashing into the thick bottom. As the sun continued fading, we packed up to start the hike across the gnarly slopes to a bear we were fairly confident was dead.
Or not? We reached the bottom of the cut that the bear rolled into and heard deep grumbling and splashing. The bear caught one last adrenaline burst and charged us through the trees. Cody acted fast and shot once more. Instant stop. The bear was now almost completely submerged in a deep pool formed in the rocks. I called Daniel and gave him the quick rundown, and while he was on the phone, I had Cody throw a rock at the bear. This was to confirm the now submerged predator was indeed dead. It thumped loudly enough that Daniel could hear it smack over the phone. Very dead bear. It was completely still. I hung up as Cody approached the bear puddle. “Oh, it’s dead for sure...”
Suddenly the bear jumped up from the water and blew past Cody down the ravine. Our reactions were completely appropriate of course, consisting of screaming like young girls and scrambling out of the freight train's path. It was now almost completely dark and we had zero interest in searching for a wounded bear in the dark. We started our slow hike out with the aid of headlamps and came across the bear not 80 yards from its previous "death." This time it was piled up and truly finished. Bears are tough, tough animals. Examining the bear we found the entry and exit wounds, both shots had been through the ribs into the vitals.
After taking a few pictures, Cody started breaking down his first ever Arizona black bear with some minor assistance from me. Both of us were still amped from the day full of adventure and excitement. It was now too late to attempt the long hike out. I gathered enough firewood to keep a small fire going through the night and made a dehydrated meal for us with my Jet Boil stove. The animal processing was completed and we now doctored a few wounds we had incurred along the way before cleaning up to eat. I pulled out my Firstlite down jacket to curl up in and a down filled backpacking blanket for Cody. Settling in around the fire for the night we drifted off to sleep. It was a decent night’s sleep considering the circumstances. After boiling water out of the creek that next morning, refilling our supplies for the heavy hike out, we then shouldered our packs and pushed up the ridge line. A few hours later we had made it back to camp, packed up, and we drove home. It was no text-book hunting scenario but we had indeed been successful and come out safely, tagged bear loaded up!