Bear hunting learning curves
It all started in the early months of 2017 when my current hunting buddy and good friend Danner Haskins and I both decided to hunt spring bears together. I remember this very clearly; we were calling coyotes in the bitter cold on a bone chilling January morning. With winter dragging on exceptionally long this year, warm weather and spring bears were on our minds. Right then, during our last stand of the morning, we decided that once the dreaded snow was gone and the bears came crawling out of their dens, we would hunt, hike and glass until the very last day, if necessary, so we could both harvest bears. However, there was one slight problem: neither one of us were that knowledgeable about hunting bears in the spring. We had each killed a bear before, but only with the help of our respective dads. We were far from experts. Of course, we knew the basics like finding the freshest green grass and the purple and yellow flowers—even checking the occasional rock slide and always glassing logging clearings—but we still had a lot to learn! This was going to be a season of persistence and a lot of of trial and error.
Because we were hunting in our home state of Montana we couldn't legally bait bears or hunt them with hounds so we would have to use spot and stalk tactics only. Once bear season rolled around (April 15), I knew it would be tough to get anywhere high in elevation with this winter's immense snowfall.
I waited about one week before curiosity got the best of me. I had to see how far I could drive into our area before hitting snow. I packed my rifle, spotting scope and shovel before setting out to find the snow. It didn’t take long before I found it; however, I was able to reach one of our main glassing points, which was a plus! We could at least glass and get the spring jitters out while the snow melted, granting us access to better hunting grounds.
April 23 was the first bear sighting. That night I had to work, but that didn’t stop Danner from twisting his dad's arm and convincing him to go for a drive after work. As luck would have it, they spotted a nice chocolate phase bear in a rock cliff about 1,000 yards away from the truck.
With light fading, they sat back and watched the bear. Danner texted me a few photos of it though the PhoneSkope. Once I got the text I immediately went into panic mode and asked him if he got a shot, but after hearing the situation I knew that we needed to hike around the hillside and set up on this bear the following evening if it was still around.
As the evening of April 24 rolled around, we were right where Danner had last glassed the bear the previous night. Quickly, we found a rough two-track that would take us about a third of the way to where we needed to be. After that, we’d have to guess elevation and try to get ourselves level with the cliffs the bear was on. As soon as we rounded the corner, we spotted the cliff and stopped. We took a quick breath and I heard Danner say, “There he is.”
Danner ranged the rocks; it was 600 yards.
“To far,” I said. We were not taking shots like that with our .300 win mags. Besides, neither one of us are skilled long range shooters; 400 yards and under was all I felt comfortable shooting bears. It was a mad dash to round the ridge and try to close several hundred yards on this bear before he climbed out of the cliffs and into the thick timber and gone forever. As we were quickly closing the yards we caught glimpses of the bear here and there, but once we arrived at what we thought was an ideal spot about 200 yards away the bear was nowhere to be found. We were bummed but still excited; this was our first stalk on a bear for the spring. We made the mutual decision to sit there until dark just in case the bear came back; however, we never saw it again.
After eight days (it was now May 2) and a couple of more trips out, we finally saw two more bears: this time it was a sow and her cub. The cub was a beautiful cinnamon/blonde color, but was not much bigger than a standard trash can. We hoped we could catch up with it in another 10 years after putting on some age.
On the evening of May 8, we went to one of our more productive glassing areas. On this night we spotted bear number five of the season; it was a decent-sized black phased one. I spotted this bear late in the evening and it was to far away to make a stalk or take a shot so we sat back and watched the bear feed for a while before heading out. That night I made the decision that I would start to carry my dad's .30-378 Weatherby Mag after locating several bears that were within that gun’s effective range and not being able to do anything about it.
On May 10, we went back to the same familiar spot where we glassed the black bear two days before. After setting up the spotting scope I located what I believe was the same bear. We grabbed the big gun, some shooting bags and the spotting scope, then found a good place to set up and take a shot. The rangefinder said 777 yards, which was nothing for this caliber. However, it would be my first time ever attempting to take a shot that far at an animal, but I was confident after all the practice during the offseason. After dialing the turrets to 700, (because I was shooting slight downhill) I settled in and took the shot. I remember watching the bullet sail just a couple of inches over the bear’s back. Disappointed we packed up and headed over to check out the spot the bear was standing just to be 100% sure it was a clean miss. Unfortunately, it was.
On May 13, I was at work when I got another text from Danner. This time it was a picture of him with a dead bear. Once I got home he called me and told me the story of how it all went down: he and his dad had hiked up into some remote country they found using Google Earth and his dad's knowledge of the area. To their surprise it was a decision that paid off big time! He shot the bear at 380 yards. After finding his bear piled up in a creek they both knew they had a lot of work ahead of them since they were three miles in. After hearing this news I was both excited and relieved. I was stoked for him since it made this his second bear and he was only 14! I was also glad that he had gotten one because now I was the permanent shooter. As it turns out, I would need all the chances I could get!
On May 13, my dad and I left the house around noon knowing that we had an hour and half drive ahead of us. As we neared the trailhead, all I could think about was the nice chocolate bear I had spotted the last time we were in there. On the way in we had to cross a slippery wooden bridge covered in a slick layer of dew from that morning. We both knew it was going to be a grueling three mile hike through some rocky terrain and, as we gained elevation, we pushed through the deep snow on our snowshoes. Nearing the summit where there were avalanche chutes, I took my rifle out of my pack and loaded it as we got close.
The weather had cleared and the sun was starting to reappear. As we reached the meadow, my dad walked in front of me, slowly peering around the trees that covered the chute from my view. Right as he looked he saw an obvious black spot in the middle of the clearing. He rushed me over to his side and I ranged the bear; it was 428 yards. We slowly took off our snowshoes, careful to not make noise because we needed to get closer. There was a great stump to rest on forty yards above so we pushed to get to it and set up for a shot. When we got to the stump I got situated and checked the drop chart I had in my pocket. The bear was now at 380 yards, but he had disappeared behind a small patch of pine trees. After a moment, he reappeared and gave me a perfect broadside shot. I settled the hash marks perfectly on his front shoulder, took a deep breath and fought my trigger pull, missing the bear completely. He took off straight uphill. I quickly reloaded and hammered him on the second shot. He rolled backwards and gave me another shot. This time, I drilled him again and he started to walk toward the dense willows. After the last shot, he rolled head over heels down the slope into the creek and out of sight.
After about a 20 minute hike, battling the thick, pokey brush, I reached the spot where I had last seen him. He was nowhere in sight. We searched high and low and I was ready to quit until I decided to check the creek. As I was approaching the creek I could see black fur in the water. I was astonished and rushed with emotions that I had found him there. A few quick pictures later we began the real work of packing this guy out the three miles we had hiked in. Since we had plans for the next day, we knew this bear had to come out in one trip. My dad took the hide and I took all of the meat. We started back down the trail. It was tough and grueling, but worth every second. It will be something I’ll never forget!
Back to Wyatt's report
On May 15, I ended up hunting solo that night because Danner had plans to check-in his bear with our local game warden. I was going to the same area where I had glassed an awesome chocolate bear far in the distance the night before. My game plan was simple: I was going to sit on the hillside adjacent from where I had seen the bear and hope he would return. It would be a 305 yard shot across the canyon, which felt perfectly fine to me. Yet, after about two hours of nothing, my patience got the best of me and I decided to hike around the bend and glass the small clearings for a half hour or so just to check things out. As soon as I had sight of them I stopped, threw up my glass and bam! In my binos was the bear I was after! I hiked around to a place where I would be positioned straight across from him and measured the range: it was 388 yards.
“Nothing,” I thought because I had the .30-378 and that was well within range. I found a stump and was able to sit legs crossed and rest the gun across the other stump. Because the bullet drop was only about 3” at that range I only gave the gun a 1” adjustment, figuring that was fine. The bear was in no hurry at all so I spent time watching him through the scope. He stood on his back two feet and scratched his back on a lodgepole, which I found funny and unique. He looked enormous, stretched out like that and seemed to be about a 6’ tall bear. After seeing how big he was, my adrenaline started pumping. I had to take the shot soon in fear he might take four steps, walk into the timber and disappear. l hunkered down, nestling the gun into my shoulder and lined the crosshairs vertical down his leg and squeezed the trigger. When the gun went off I saw the bear switch directions and take off into the trees. I thought for sure I had smoked him!
Once I hiked around to where he was, though, I didn’t see any blood, which didn’t initially bother me since I know that bears don’t bleed like deer and elk do, but when I couldn't find hair I became worried. I called my dad and, when he arrived, we tried to follow the trail the bear took the best we could, but with nothing to go off of like tracks, hair or broken sticks, it was nearly impossible.
I started walking in big circles, hoping that I would stumble upon a body, but I found nothing. We eventually made the call and figured it was probably a clean miss. I’m still not sure how, but it was. When I returned a couple of days later, I didn’t discover any birds after carrion so I was happy to determine that it was a clean miss. Because that was my second miss this season I thought it would be in my best interest to leave the big gun at home, practice shooting those types of shots in the summer and just try to get close with my .300.
From May 22 to 26, I would be out of town, acting as a counselor to the sixth grade class traveling to the local and historic Savenac tree nursery for one week to learn some wilderness basics as well as enjoy fun activities and learn about jobs in the outdoor industry. I would lose a whole week of bear hunting, which sent me into panic mode since it was already somewhat late in the season.
It was the evening of May 28. The agenda for the night was to travel back to where I missed the nice chocolate phase and hike the old logging roads across the canyon. I knew boars would be out cruising, looking for sows by now, which meant walking the roads would likely be my best option. It was about 80 degrees that day so Danner and I waited until about 6 p.m. before heading out. This put us at the spot around 7 p.m. and gave us around two hours to hike. It was going to be a short hunt, but through some amazing ground. When we arrived at the general area, we found that the previous week’s snowstorm had blown a few trees across the road. Not wanting to scare anything out of the area we parked even lower than expected and walked the main road to our old brushy logging road.
We got to the last half mile when I took a Snapchat literally saying, “Bears don’t exist.” Not ten minutes later we rounded the corner to the home stretch where the road turns into more of a wide game trail when Danner, who was walking on the outside corner,” said, “There's a bear!” We stopped dead in our tracks. I backed up and handed him my coffee cup. I flipped my scope covers up and made sure my gun was ready to rock. Then, I told him to stand still and plug his ears; we crept forward and the bear was feeding about 80 yards away. That’s more my style! The bear's head was behind a thin bush and was feeding; it had no idea we were there. I took my time and put the crosshairs right on his shoulder. I remember watching the bear roll off the road head first after the shot. I ejected the shell (a 180 gr Nosler Accubond I loaded myself) and stopped to listen. We could hear the bear rolling down the hill.
“He’s dead before he stops rolling,” I said. We ran up to where he was and then another smaller bear that we believe was came running out in front of us and down the hill towards where mine had went. We backed up to where I shot from and waited about eight minutes before heading down the hill. It was super thick and hard to see past 30 yards so I knew finding the bear would mean following its trail as it rolled. We were staring at the ground and following the trail when Danner looked up and about 60 yards there was the other bear standing next to my bear. The bear was popping its jaw and heading toward us. I hollered and waved, but it kept coming so we backed up the hill and I called my dad to tell him that we had gotten one and to come help us pack it out. After the phone call we went back down the hill with renewed courage and headed straight back to where we last saw the bear. Danner caught some movement: it was the other bear running away down the hill.
Happy we could recover my bear without any confrontation we walked up on it and it grew immensely—no ground shrinkage at all—it grew! We stood there shocked and dumbfounded and I told Danner that it was the biggest bear I’d ever saw. He agreed. After staring for a solid 20 seconds we moved the bear to a level spot and snapped some quick cell phone pictures before heading back to my truck, grabbing my big camera and met up with my dad, who was sawing out the fallen logs back on the main road. My dad was just finished sawing the logs by the time we got to my truck. He was already past mine and up the road further so Danner hopped in with him and rode back to the end of the road while I got to my truck.
When we all met up again, it was at my kill site. I gave my dad a brief lesson on my camera so he could snap a few good photos of Danner and I before it got totally dark.
The bear was too big to drag out whole (we tried in my jet sled) so my dad and Danner quartered it in the dark while I packed meat back to the truck. Every trip was uphill and smiles the entire way with mosquitoes tearing my back apart. I loved every second of it! I shot the bear around 8 p.m. and we didn’t get it all back to the truck till 11 p.m. We didn’t get home until midnight. It was a late night, but one I would do a thousand times over if I could.
The bear I shot was the tenth bear I saw all season and the third one I had shot at. This spring was all about trial and error coupled with a lot of persistence and luck, but I would much rather be lucky than good any day! That concludes our spring goals. We created memories that will last the rest of our lives and made stories to tell our grandchildren someday! We both cannot wait to do it again next spring except this time I’m trying with my bow in hand!