I suppose if I were a proper English gentleman I would express my frustrations with words such as bloody bugger or blimey. But, I’m proud to be an American and, with that, comes a more colorful vernacular; words that start with D, Sh, and F (you know: Darn!, Shoot! and Fiddlesticks!). These were the curses I issued under my breath as I just blew a long still-hunt/stalk on a black bear whose ultra fresh sign I saw a half-mile back on the well used bear trail in a brushy creek bottom in the south Cascades. I heard a twig snap directly in front of me and before I knew it a medium sized blackie sprinted across the trail 30 yards ahead with no possibility of assessing the status of the bear (female, cubs, etc.) or shot opportunities. Following the bear through the tangle of blowdowns was a futile endeavor and I wasn’t familiar enough with this particular piece of ground to try and cut off his lane of travel. Tail tucked, I continued on to see where the trail lead before I gave up and headed back to the drawing board.
My frustrations at the blown stalk were just the end result of a solid two weeks of hard hunting, including a 3-day scouting trip, producing no prior bear sightings and only a handful of scat, none of which were fresher than a week or two. This year the spring green-up in the south-central was way ahead of schedule, almost a month earlier than the average year and a couple weeks earlier than last year’s very early spring.
At 4500’ elevation the habitat looked spectacular---the grass, sedges and other food stuffs were already mature and thick in all locations along the creeks and in the forests. From the small amount of old bear sign I found it appeared the bruins had moved through the area already. As far as other critter sightings, my hunt area in April/May usually produces a bachelor herd of elk or two, with no more than 20 animals.
I see even less deer migrating through the area in May, with usually less than ten deer my entire stay. This year in my hunt area, I stopped counting elk at 300 head, over 60 of which were bulls travelling in their small bachelor groups; and I observed over 70 deer. There were so many ungulates milling around it almost seemed that the sheer numbers pushed the bears out of the area---there were just animals everywhere I turned. Along with deer and elk numbers at an all-time high, I also observed skunks, beavers, weasels, raccoons, raptors, rodents and coyotes in numbers I had never seen before. It was like I was in a wildlife sanctuary---an uncanny year. Just no bears to speak of.
Since low elevation bear sign was absent in my most popular hunting spots I had to think outside the box, so my next strategy was to climb to the highest elevations and see if green-up and bear made their way to the top of the world. Normally in past years, there was so much snow accumulated at these higher wilderness locales that even driving to the trailheads was impossible. Again, this spring was unseasonably warm and early so I hiked for miles into several wilderness areas at over 6000’ elevation. There was no snow to speak of, but the food availability was still at the beginning stages of growth---still it was more than I expected. I found a few elk track and even an older pile of bear scat at the end of a log on the edge of a large alpine meadow, but no live animals were sighted except for some randy mallards in the wilderness marshes and several bald eagles soaring on the thermals.
My next plan of attack involved some deductive reasoning. If, in fact, bears (with their shy and secretive nature) have been pushed out of the lower elevations by the overwhelming sheer amount of non-target animal (and human) activity, and they have not quite yet wandered into the low-food wilderness elevations, maybe the mid-elevation habitat was sustainable and bear friendly. Bingo! At the 5000’-5500’ elevation I found plenty of bear forage with minimal non-target animal activity, but more importantly I found fresh bear sign. In essence, I had followed the edge of their food source up the mountains to areas that had the perfect balance of forage, water and security suitable for a bear’s comfort level. Which brings me to the beginning of my story. I bumped that medium blackie on the first evening of my mid-elevation outing. It was difficult getting to sleep in my wall tent that night as I kept trying to strategize a way to hunt the steeper mid-elevation creek environs. I decided to look over a different mid-elevation drainage the next morning to see if my theory held water or if the black bear encounter the previous evening was just a lucky event.
It seemed I just closed my eyes when the 3:30am alarm went off. I stoked the fire in my tent’s wood stove and gave my topo maps a final “once-over” to pinpoint my exact maneuvers for the day. By 6:00am I was back in the mountains and was still hunting a half mile past the trailhead on a game trail that meandered above a shallow, flat creek draw that was thick with lush, herbaceous bear vittles. The surrounding forests were your typical dry, Lodge pole and Ponderosa pine thickets with plenty of blowdowns. I crept along at a snail’s pace peeking into the draw at every opportunity. In one particularly thick stand of timber, blowdowns and lush bear forage, I took extra care to observe every opening---I just had one of those feelings. Sure enough, 60 yards down the draw, I spotted the south end of a north bound bruin. At first I thought I blew the hunt like the blackie on the previous day, but I could see he wasn’t busting out of the area; instead he was just moving at a fast walk. I guess he just had one of those feelings too! I immediately made a plan to cut off his lane of travel. I backed out a couple hundred yards and then hustled side hill for several hundred more until I felt comfortable that I was ahead of his travel route. I set up on a small mound that gave me a good, but limited view, of the brushy draw---all that was left in my bag of tricks was hope, patience and lady luck.
Five minutes passed and I caught movement 80 yards to my right. It was like an apparition in the dark woods with the sunlight starting to filter through the trees. Walking perpendicular to my position, at one point the big boar strolled right through a shard of sunlight and he shined like a new penny---to my pleasant surprise he was a beautiful cinnamon/brown phase bear---he just glistened. The trees and brush were so tight along his line of travel that I thought I would not be able to get an ethical shot through the tangled maze. I forced myself to take my eyes off the bear and look ahead of him for an opening---a difficult thing for me to do because I was so mesmerized by his presence. I found a two-foot opening 58 yards ahead and to the left of me that the bear should enter, giving me a slight quartering-away shot; and that’s what he, and I, did.
I had the crosshairs on that spot and I waited---and waited. First his head passed through the opening, then his shoulder---I touched off the trigger of my .45-70 just as his left front leg stepped forward opening up his chest. If I waited for one more half-stride, he would have passed out of my life forever. It went from slow motion to fast forward as the bear lunged forward and disappeared after the shot. I heard no crash or death moan, and that’s when doubt always starts creeping in. I continued to listen for 10 minutes before I approached the site of the impact. When I arrived I saw blood immediately and when I looked up there was my bear in a fetal position piled up 20 yards ahead of me. Pure elation! And what a beautiful mature boar---long reddish-brown fur with no rubs, a good 270+ pounds with nearly an 18.5” skull and well worn teeth. I thanked him and the powers that be for his life. Once again, my fully equipped OPW Orion pack made quick and comfortable work of the processing and haul-out of the ol’ boar. Two hours later and three half-mile trips under my pack, I was headed back to camp with a hard earned 2014 Spring bruin and a big smile.
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