Reflections(2016 Arizona Black Bear)
If you’ve been following along with me for the past few years, then you know how much of a bear nut I am. Last year I wrote a story called Canyon Bruins, which took you along the epic journey that was my 2015 season. If you read that story then you know that is when I was able to harvest my first black bear. On that morning, we were able to see 9 bears in about an hour and a half, all within 300 yards of each other. Everything from the shot to the packout was nothing short of an adventure. It took me 3 years to find a good bear spot here in AZ, so you can imagine how excited I was to get back to that magical hell hole that these Canyon Bruins called home for the 2016 season.
My bear season really started in March this year. I was lucky enough to draw an archery spring bear tag in another unit that proved to be one of the most difficult hunts I have ever been on. During the course of 4 months, we were only able to turn up 5 bears! It was a completely different type of hunt than I was used to, but in all honesty, that’s what I wanted. I wanted to be challenged and I wanted to learn. Both of those things happened on the regular during that hunt. Another thing that kept happening was the vivid dreams of my precious Canyon Bruins replaying over and over again. It was almost as if they were calling to me. How could I not think of them while out chasing bears in another unit? Unfortunately, the only thing my spring tag filled, was my time. In that whole 4 months, I never even drew my bow. I was content with this, because besides filling my tag, I got what I wanted. I’d be lying if I said that I was totally disappointed when I didn’t fill my archery tag. In Arizona, you are allowed one bear a year. This meant that I would indeed get to go back into my spot from the previous year and be reunited with the Canyon Bruins.
On this hunt, I would only have 2 1/2 days to hunt. The season opened on Friday and my Dad, Brother, and I arrived in camp on Thursday morning. The first day was spent just getting settled into camp and telling of our excitement for the following morning. For fear of possibly spooking any bears in our spot, we elected to stay out of the area until opening day. Fortunately, we all drew coues deer tags in the same unit, so we got to scout/check cameras for our upcoming deer hunt at the end of the month. It didn’t take us long to find what we were looking for and we ended the night with grilling up some burgers around the fire and telling hunting stories. A fine stopping point for the day. Now, came the hard part. Going to sleep. If you are a hunter than you know what the anticipation of opening morning feels like. Part of you wants to go to sleep as soon as possible, to try and bring on the morning quicker. The other part though can’t relax enough to actually go to sleep! This is exactly how I used to feel on Christmas Eve as a child.
Just when I started questioning if my alarm was working properly, it FINALLY went off. I felt like I couldn’t get dressed fast enough. The quicker I got ready and out of the tent, the quicker I could scarf down my breakfast, enjoy some nice hot morning coffee amidst the brisk morning air, and make the 1 hour trek to our glassing spot. Mornings like this remind me of when I was younger. Waking up on opening day and having coffee with my dad in deer camp was a constant when I was a youngster and was actually how I started drinking coffee in the first place. I’d imagine that is true for a lot of kids out there, at least I hope it is. The only difference on this trip was that we had bears on the mind, not deer.
It seems as of late, every time I bring my dad into one of my hunting areas, during some point along the hike he is always fascinated with how I found the place to begin with, due to their rugged locations. More and more often I am the one dragging him around, instead of the other way around, like when I was a kid. I get a kick out of that being 30 years old now and it makes me grateful that he introduced me to hunting at such a young age. If it weren’t for him, I might not be sitting here writing this story right now. We arrived at our glassing spot about 15 minutes late. I wished we would have gotten there earlier, but what was done was done and the most important thing was that we were there now. All we had to do was wait.
Over my 4 years of chasing bears here in AZ, it really has become apparent to me how important finding a prevalent food source is. The saying here is, “You find the food and you will find the bears.” Well, the day before our hike into our opening day spot, I noticed that the acorn crop seemed a bit behind. This had me a little worried. They were there, but hadn’t started dropping yet. The bears really love when they drop from the trees, because they hardly have to work for them. Why would you climb a tree to get acorns, when you could just pick them up off of the ground? I do know there are some really nice berries that grow in the bottom of the canyon that we hunt, but getting down there to check is a chore to say the least and would risk bumping any bears out of the area. With pretty good rainfall earlier in the season, I was optimistic that they would be there.
As we sat at our glassing spot, I couldn’t help but reflect on last year’s hunt. Looking at the terrain that we went through just made me think to myself how we even did what we did during the pack out. Not just how, but WHY?! Someone would have to be crazy to traverse through that stuff. Call me crazy, but I love it. The canyon was filled with adventure and we had a history. It was good to be back and show my dad where I had been seeing bears over the years, where I killed mine last year, and the route we took to pack it out. He couldn’t believe it either.
Our first day of hunting really can be summed up into one word……….NOTHING. I was baffled. Never before had I gone to this area and not seen at least 1 bear. What had happened? What was different? I felt like the canyon was playing tricks on me. We did hear 3 shots come from down the way from us, so we knew 2 things. The bears were indeed still using the area and that there was another hunter around. Who in the world would be as dumb as me to hunt this nasty unforgiving hell hole of a canyon? We later caught up with the hunter and it turned out to be someone I speak to regularly online. Small world. Those gentlemen actually ended up missing the bear they shot at. Nobody likes missing, but that’s all part of hunting. We wished one another luck and went our separate ways.
Today would be our last full day of hunting and because of that, I said right from the get go that I was going to sit at my glassing point all day long. During the month of October bears can be seen at any time of the day. The weather is cooler and they are all out trying to put on as much fat as possible for the coming winter. I just felt that at any time a bear could make his way past us.
We arrived at our spot right on time and before we could actually start glassing. I love this time of the day. It’s eerily quiet and you can hear a pebble drop. There is just something about sitting in your glassing spot before daylight that brings a rush of optimism. I needed this after not seeing anything the previous day. When I got up on this morning, I just had a really good feeling. Between my anticipation for the day, the morning optimism, and my sheer determination, I was wired.
Before we knew it, the morning was in the rear view mirror and we were looking at the warm, long, and sunny road ahead. Nothing again! What the heck was going on?! Again, I was baffled. I was starting to really buy into my acorn theory that I mentioned earlier. Maybe, the bears just weren’t in the area yet? No, I know this area and I know that the bears are in here. I just have to wait. That is exactly what I intended to do. My dad decided to head back to camp midday to catch some Z’s and check out another canyon for the evening. I told him that I was going to stick it out right here until dark. My brother would join me for the rest of the day.
At around 5 p.m. I called my wife to express my discouragement for the day. She has a way of being able to lift my spirits and is always willing to let me vent and listen to my hunting struggles. I can’t thank her enough for as much as she does that and, let me tell you, she does it a lot. It really does help on those tough hunts. The conversation ended with something along the lines of me telling her it was Bear:30 and her telling me to just stay positive.
All day it had been fairly windy. Because of this, the water that lay beneath us would ripple ever so often. Every time that would happen, it would perk my head up thinking that a bear was down there drinking or taking a bath. About 10 minutes after I hung up with my wife I looked down to see more ripples in the water. Something was different though. There wasn’t any wind. That’s when I saw it. A black bear walked out of the water straight towards the exact oak thicket that my bear died in last year. Was this how this was going to happen? Right now the bear was probably 20 yards from the bones of last year’s harvest.
I signaled to my brother that I saw a bear and let him know that I intended on shooting it. As I put my eye to my scope, for some reason I just couldn’t get the bear in my view in time. Just like that, the bear was gone. I decided to get aggressive and started predator calling to try and draw the bear back out of the oak thicket it went in. The call sang from my lips for a few minutes when I decided to run over to a different vantage point in order to possibly get a better view and see the bear. Not 30 seconds after I did that, I saw the bear working its way back out of the oaks. I couldn’t believe that it worked! The bear slowly came out with its nose in the air, looking for the origins of the call. At this point I was 230 yards away. With my rifle resting on a rock I just stared at the bruin through my scope, waiting for the right shot. After what seems like an eternity, the bear came out from behind a tree standing broadside, still curious about the call. My thumb clicked my safety off. I settled my crosshairs on the bear’s vitals and steadily squeezed the trigger. BOOM! The shot echoed throughout the canyon. Soon after, I saw the bear running from right to left paralleling the hillside. I knew that I needed to try to get another round in the bear. Tracking in this country is a stress test to say the least. I ran up to the edge of the canyon and laid down in the prone position. As I did this the bear started traversing its way straight down the hillside offering me a shot in between the shoulder blades from above. BOOM! Another shot serpentined its way through canyon. Just as soon as the shot went off, the bear fell in its tracks. For probably 5 minutes I sat there with my crosshairs on the bear, making sure it didn’t get back up. It never did. I had done it. For the second year in a row, I had filled my black bear tag in Arizona.
I ran over to my brother and we hugged in celebration of what had just happened. My whole bear season flashed before my eyes at that moment. Not just the day before that, the whole 4 months I chased spring bears with my bow too. On top of that, my brother then tells me that he got the whole thing on video! WHAT?! I wished my dad was there to see it with us, but we knew he heard the shot from where he was and we knew he was gonna be excited. We made a few phone calls, loaded our packs, and started the hour trek back to camp. My best friend would be meeting us in camp at 5:30 a.m. the next morning to help us with the packout. Neither of us could believe what had just happened. When we arrived back in camp, showed our dad the footage, and told him the story, I don’t think I have ever seen the man that excited. Last year, our dad was in and out of the hospital with intestinal issues and missed out on quite a few hunts, including when I shot my first bear. To be out there, know that his son just killed another bear, and to know that we were packing meat in the morning was probably a pretty special feeling for the guy. I know it was for us.
After a long and somewhat sleepless night, we woke up and got ready for the work ahead. This was going to be difficult and we knew it. It is no easy task getting a bear out of this country, which is probably why I have never seen another person back there. Like I said, nobody is as dumb as me to hunt this nasty stuff. That is where the bears are though. Right on schedule, my best friend arrives in camp and ready to pack. He was with us on the packout last year as well, so he knew what waited ahead of us.
45 minutes or so went by of hiking and then we were staring at my 2016 black bear. No tracking job needed. We were so elated that we found this bear right off the bat and that it was right where we left her the night before. Yes, it was a her and a big her! We snapped some photos and got right to work in order to beat the sun. Fortunately, I killed the bear on a shaded slope, so we had some time before the sun would hit. Our dad was like a kid in a candy store with no money watching John(best bud) and I skin out and quarter the bear. He had never seen the process done before and was eating up every second of it. Great memories and some I will always remember.
Camp greeted us back at around 11 a.m. We had done it again and conquered the canyon. She had blessed me with another great bear and I couldn’t be more grateful. This bear actually died 40 yards away from the bear I shot last year. Talk about epic. I don’t hear of too many folks killing bear after bear here in AZ. I don’t say that to boast. I say that to express my appreciation for the opportunities that I have been given. That feeling of getting back to camp with my quarry in tow, loading it in a cooler, and driving away is something that I will forever chase and in turn will become one more Reflection in my library.
Watch the hunt unfold on video here!