A Hard Truth
In 2013 something happened to me that changed my life. The kind of thing that no matter how hard you try, you can’t stop thinking about. I went on my first bear hunt here in Arizona. Going into the hunt, I read everything that I could about bears in Arizona. Where they like to reside, what they like to eat, and their overall habits in the rugged environment that AZ has to offer. No matter how much I read though, I felt ill prepared for the journey ahead. It’s hard to picture something standing on a hillside when you have never really seen what you are looking for. By some stroke of luck though, it happened. I saw a bear on the evening of opening day. Because, of the bear being obscured by brush and other vegetation though, I wasn’t able to take a shot. From that point on I was caught hook, line, and sinker. I hunted bears for the rest of the season and never did get another look at one. That didn’t matter though. I would be back next year.
I returned in 2014 armed with much more knowledge than the previous year and even saw a bear before the season opened and a sow and cubs during the season. Again, I came up empty handed. Trail cameras became part of my scouting routine and I was surprised by how many bears were actually in the area I was hunting and how many of them I wasn’t seeing. They are extremely reclusive and don’t reach the sizes they do for no reason. Bears are a different animal all together than your standard ungulate. I think that is what intrigues me about them so much though. I love watching game of all sorts, but when I see a bear strolling across a hillside, it is a special thing for me. It makes me feel like I did something right by being in that spot, at that time, looking in that direction.
During the end of the 2014 bear season I found a vantage point that offered a pretty spectacular view of 2 canyons coming together. In fact, this area was only a few hundred yards away from where I saw all of the bears mentioned earlier in season. The area was filled with oaks, but unfortunately the acorn crop that year was very poor. I knew though that this was something special and wouldn’t forget about it. Again, I would be back.
In June of 2015 I indeed returned to the area to scout with a friend and found more bear tracks than I have ever seen. It was unreal. We even laid eyes on a nice cinnamon color phased bear right from the vantage point I found the previous year. On top of seeing all of the sign and the bear, the acorn crop was looking magnificent. My hopes were high. August 21st couldn’t come soon enough.
After a few outings earlier in the season, I returned to my prized spot. It just got done raining all night, which made my optimism sky rocket. From what I have observed, bears are usually out walking around when it gets done raining. Why? Not sure. Maybe, they have been laid up for awhile and just want to get out and stretch. Whatever the reason, it’s what I have observed.
By the time I got to my glassing spot, which was later than intended, I had about 2 inches of mud stuck to the bottom of my boots and had already heard a shot go off. Lucky for me, it was in the complete opposite direction of where I was traveling. I arrived at the vantage point at about 6:30 a.m. My plan was to stay here until about noon and then go set up my campsite for the next few days. At 7:00 a.m. I caught something move out of the corner of my eye in the bottom of the canyon. IT WAS A BEAR! That was quick! It wasn’t a small bear by any means either. This was a nice sized chocolate colored bear working his way through the oak thickets, grabbing acorns on his way.
The bear was roughly 300 yards from me. The problem was, as during the first year of hunting bears, he was obscured by brush and I couldn’t see him. I would get a glimpse and then he would disappear. This went on for another 10 minutes or so. It felt like an eternity. An idea popped into my head to use my predator call to draw the bear out of the thickets and into view. Softly, I whined on my call, just enough to arouse his attention. THERE HE WAS! The bear popped back out of the thicket and continued tearing up the oaks in search of acorns. He stood 270 yards from me and was facing directly away from me. I was above him though. My cross-hairs settled right in between the bear’s shoulder blades and I squeezed the trigger.
The bear stood up and bucked like a bronco! “I hit him!”, I thought to myself. He came charging through the bottom of the canyon and I could hear him breathing heavy and growling. It sounded like he was having trouble breathing. Had I just killed my first bear? Had all of my scouting just paid off? I hoped beyond hope that it did.
Many phone calls followed and before I knew it my dad was on his way up to help me track the bear. It took us about an hour just to get down to the vicinity of where I shot the bear. The whole time that we were walking down into the bottom of the canyon, I was saying to myself, “This is why these bears are down here.” The terrain that stood beneath us was the most rugged that I have encountered. It was like rock hopping through a box of toothpicks. Low and behold though, WE FOUND BLOOD! Not just a couple of drops either. It was a lot of blood. A clearly defined trail of blood pointed us down the path that my bear took. Seeing the blood, and how much of it was there, made me burst with confidence. The bear had to be just up ahead.
Just up ahead turned into 5 hours later, still with no bear. We were baffled. So much blood brought us to this point. How the bear was still going, and through this country to boot, was nothing short of impressive. The season was closing at sundown. There was a thunderstorm on its way. Time was running out and with it, our water supply. To avoid dehydration, we elected to leave the canyon. I marked the last blood on my GPS and we crawled out of the hole that the bear brought us to.
The next morning I was back in the canyon, this time with my best friend. Immediately, we got on more blood. Our hopes grew more with every splatter of blood we continued to find. That was until we reached a bed that the bear had dug out for himself. It was filled with fresh, wet blood. Not a good sign. Past the bed, we found 2 pin drops of blood, and that was it. Because, of the fresh blood that we found, we believe that the bear is still alive. We believe that the bear spent the night in that bed, heard us coming, and just got up and walked away, probably with his wound closed up at this point.
The search didn’t end there though. We continued to crawl on our hands and knees, in the general direction that the bear was traveling. Through all of the “bear tunnels” going through the thickets we looked for more blood. Heck, I even crawled into a cave with my headlamp and .357 in search of the bear. Probably not the smartest thing I have ever done. It just wasn’t happening. After tracking for 8 hours that day, we left the canyon empty handed. I was crushed. The only thing that I could do now, was come back in a week to check for buzzards on my bear. Upon my return, I was not greeted to any buzzards.
If you have been hunting for any significant amount of time and have never lost an animal in the field, my hat is off to you. Being someone that lives and breathes this way of life makes it a very hard thing for me to swallow. I know that it is all part of the game and no matter how much you prepare, there are just some things that are out of your control. It doesn’t make dealing with it easier though. Even though that it didn’t end the way that I wanted it to end, going through this experience has made me a better hunter. Sometimes it is hard to focus on the positive when the negative is biting us in the face, but it’s what we have to do in order to grow. We need to get back up and keep trucking. That is exactly what I plan on doing. Bear season opens back up in October and I will be back.