Difficult to Bear: My Idaho Black Bear Hunting Story
The following is my 2016 Idaho bear hunt story. I hope you enjoy it!
The skies were dark and a steady cold rain soaked the steep mountainside. A big chocolate phase black bear was barely visible feeding in the dense brush forty yards below me. After ranging him several times and unable to make out his vitals, I knew I’d have to get closer. Any apprehension I had about getting close to dangerous predators was suddenly gone. I eased into thirty yards and nocked an arrow. The bear sat on his rump facing away from me. My eyes were locked onto him as I crept closer. I ranged him again at twenty yards. Close enough, I thought, wait for him to turn. The storm-driven wind began to swirl. Something had to happen.
I don’t remember exactly when it started, but several years ago I felt compelled to challenge my bowhunting abilities by pursuing dangerous game with a bow. I suppose this is the natural progression of any serious bowhunter, but in the back of my mind I wasn’t completely confident I had what it takes. I would often play out the stalk in my mind, but when it came to getting close I always felt a tinge of panic. I knew that a bad hit could turn deadly, and so getting well within bow range would be the ultimate test of grit.
This year I miraculously drew an any weapon Idaho controlled bear tag with less than 1 in 40 odds. Like many hunters today, I read and reread the word Successful on the postcard, thinking there must be a mistake. It was hard to believe that a quality bear hunt was on the horizon. Back in 2012 I bought an OTC tag and took a kamikaze trip to Idaho looking for bruins. It was a complete failure. At no time did I feel remotely close to one of these elusive animals. I had much to learn. Now, with my hunt just a month away, I knew almost nothing about hunting bears.
The unit I drew is actually two large units, neither of which I’d ever seen before. The hunt spans the entirety of April and most of May, so there would be plenty of time to learn the area. In March I contacted the biologist for the region. All I really wanted was a starting point. Unfortunately, the information she gave me was pretty vague. When I asked about concentrations of bears, she said they were scattered evenly throughout the area. However, the northernmost unit had historically better harvest statistics, so that’s where I would begin my search. She also mentioned that it was a heavy snow year, so the best strategy was to avoid the first week of April to allow time for the bears to emerge from their dens. By the last week of April, all the bears should be out and feeding heavily on green shoots just below snow line.
My plan was to hunt the second week of April alone. Mostly I’d be looking for road access and bear sign throughout the unit. If that trip failed, I would return the last week of April with my wife, Esther, for a week-long excursion. I must admit that I felt much more comfortable having a “gunner” with me in case I got into trouble. Needless to say, my first trip was one of apprehension. In the meantime I dug around for more information online and was fortunate to find a few good starting points. I also read everything I could about hunting black bears. Some of the best information came from Eastmans’ Bowhunting Journal. Years ago I began clipping and saving some highly informative articles written by Guy Eastman and the bear-slayer himself, Brian Barney. This lexicon of bear knowledge became the guidebook for my hunt.
After a long, eight hour drive across the plains of Southern Idaho, I arrived at the beautiful, moss-covered woods of Western Idaho. I set up my solitary camp alongside a muddy dirt road near a runoff-swollen stream at the bottom of steep canyon. Around 8:00 a.m. I headed up the slippery mountainside. From the information I gathered, bears like to feed for a couple hours on open, green, south-facing slopes during warm weather, and then bed down for a few hours in the dark timber, and repeat. Not even fifteen minutes into my hike I spotted my first bear feeding exactly where I expected: on a green, south-facing slope near old-growth timber. This was the first bear I’d seen in more than a decade, and my heart leapt with glee. Was bear hunting really this easy, I wondered? The bear was about a thousand vertical feet above me and too far to judge, so I needed to get closer. While scrambling towards the bear I suppressed a nagging inner voice that continually questioned my motives, asking “Why are you running towards this horrible beast?!”
In short order I arrived on the same elevation as the bear and shot some video from about 120 yards. He’d finished feeding and was ambling into the dark woods where I quickly lost sight of him. Judging by the distance between his ears, I estimated him as a younger bear. But what did I know about judging bears? Slowly, I made my way to where he disappeared. I soon realized he was gone and began hiking up the ridgeline. A little farther along I heard a scuffling in the woods below me. As I pulled up my binos, the hair rose on my neck and my hand fumbled for the .357 revolver on my belt. That same bear was digging out a bed just thirty yards away and somehow didn’t notice me. He just lay down and went to sleep. For the longest time I stood motionless, peering at the sleeping bear through my binoculars. He was indeed a young bear, and eventually I moved off to glass different parts of the mountain. A few hours later I glassed up another bear—a big blond sow with two cubs—half a mile away. I shot some more video and then moved along. As exciting as it is to see sows with cubs, they are protected and illegal to hunt, for obvious reasons. Still, my hopes ran high most of the day. Unfortunately that was my last bear sighting before getting socked in by storm clouds and running out of daylight. All in all it was a productive first day.
I woke the second day to an inch of snow. My goal was to cover as much new ground as possible. Apparently the bad weather had the bears down because I didn’t glass up a single bear, nor did I find any fresh tracks in the snow. I’d read somewhere that bears hate being out in the rain, and this was proving to be true. That night I stumbled back to camp wet and sore, and a little discouraged. At that point I decided to move camp to a different part of the unit.
On Wednesday I spent the day driving the muddy roads farther north. I soon discovered that most of higher elevation roads were snowed in. I would plow my truck as far as I could, then get out and hike. Overall I wasn’t finding much sign. That afternoon, while driving lower elevation roads, I spotted a huge blond sow with two cubs about a quarter-mile up the mountain. When she saw my truck, she bounded onto a boulder outcropping and took a defensive posture. She held her head high with her eyes transfixed on me while swaying back and forth. I half-expected her to come barreling down the mountain and tear my truck apart. I knew that sows were protective of their cubs, but this was ridiculous. What have I gotten myself into, I wondered?! This was my second reality check moment. If I were to continue hunting bears with a bow, then in a very real way I had to make peace with the possibility of death. Success meant that one of us was not coming out of the woods alive, and there was a fair chance it might be me! It was painfully necessary at this point—on this very hunt—to either accept the this fact, or go home. Did I really have what it takes?
Later that evening I went searching for a campsite. Just before the road became snowed in, I was able to glass up big, jet-black bear on a far-away hillside. It was loner bear, likely a boar. My game plan for morning was to drive as far up the road as possible, then hike after the lone bear. But the weather had other plans. On Thursday I woke to a full-on blizzard and knew my hunt was over. The bears would hunker down and the roads would only get worse. Best to cut my losses, take the knowledge I’d gained, and come back later with a plan. I was encouraged that in three full days I’d had four bear sightings. Still, I didn’t get a single stalk opportunity, and for such a difficult-to-draw hunt, I expected a little more. Perhaps they were still hibernating…
The following week we had beautiful warm weather, but I was stuck at home working. Then, just as we departed on another week-long bear excursion, it turned bitter cold and wet. Originally I planned for my wife Esther—who is deathly afraid of close-up bear encounters, by the way—to be my gunner and carry a rifle for protection. But in the week between bear hunts, I decided the mountains were just too steep to carry all that extra weight. Instead, she came armed with paltry can of bear spray. ;^)
Before setting out on the open road, curiosity had me searching the IDFG website for past harvest statistics for my unit. I was surprised and dismayed to learn that of the 75 tags given out, only 20 hunters were successful. That’s less than 30% success! Already, I was planning a third trip in May.
On the night of Sunday, April 24th, we pulled into the area that I’d left off on my first trip in the remote, muddy mountains near the Oregon border. There were no other hunters in the area, which I found encouraging. As we set up the tent we were accompaniment by the ghostly howls of wolves in the distance. There was something peaceful about having these blustery, wild mountains to ourselves.
We struggled to keep warm that night and into the next morning. On Monday we began hiking where the road ends and right away spotted a sow with cubs on a far-off, cliffy mountainside. We continued hiking all day, stopping frequently to glass. Eventually we dropped into the large canyon where I’d seen the lone black bear on my first hunt. There were numerous bear tracks in the area, as well as frequently used bedding areas surrounded by fresh scat. The whole time I felt we were very close to our quarry, but still we couldn’t turn up any bears.
After a hard freeze overnight, we spent Tuesday morning driving miles and miles of roads with no luck. In the evening we returned to the canyon with all the bear sign. We sat on a saddle with deep, dug-in bear tracks going over it and a rubbing tree littered with bear hair. I nicknamed this area “Bearea.” All was quiet, but then just before dark we caught sight of a sow with cubs walking along a logging road.
On Wednesday we went back to Bearea with intentions of exploring it entirely. Around 10 a.m. a heavy rain pinned us down in the dark timber. The relentless rain eventually chased us back to camp where we changed out of our soaked clothes. We were yet to see a lone bear on this trip and were getting a little discouraged. The rain let up that evening, and again we dropped into Bearea but to no avail. At that point we decided to move camp farther south, to where I had my first bear encounter.
Thursday was sunny and clear. We spent the whole day hiking from 4000’ to snowline at 5000’. We were excited to come across innumerable tracks, beds and fresh scat. Still, no amount of glassing would turn up a bear. Nonetheless, I was learning quite a bit about bears, primarily what I refer to as the “triple S” of bear behavior: shy, secretive, and slippery. Bears, like deer, don’t want to be found! Even if you spot a bear, they tend to move around a lot and eventually disappear. Sometimes we’d find a steamy, green pile of scat, but the reliever of such excrement remained invisible. I began to refer to them as “invisabears.” It became increasingly clear that at least one bear was living full time on this mountainside situated not far from camp. We just couldn’t turn him up. Frustration had me clambering from pine bed to pine bed, all over the steep slope looking bears that I knew existed but couldn’t be found. The day ended bear-free. While pondering bears that evening I decided we should start hunting bears like we hunt deer. We would wake very early on Friday and spend the whole day glassing and bed hopping. All the information I’d read about bears—that they emerge from beds several times to feed during the day—was apparently not the case here.
It was a cold and rainy Friday morning as we began our ascent up the mountain. When we arrived at our first vantage we spotted a lone chocolate phase bear feeding far above us in the low clouds that partially obscured the mountain. Determined to finally get my stalk on, I trotted up the near vertical slope with Esther floundering behind. Just as we were closing the distance on the bear, he disappeared into the clouds. Surely he’d bedded down in one of the dozens pine beds littered across the slope. So the rest of the day was spent hiking in circles looking for the lone bear, who for no particular reason I named Sedwich. We visited all the promising areas—and more—but again found nothing. Wet and discouraged, we returned to camp around 2 p.m.
We were officially out of dry footwear which encouraged us to go driving down one of the long, winding roads in the relentless rain. By late afternoon we hadn’t set eyes any bear and returned to camp for lunch. To my dismay the forest service had opened the locked gate on the logging road leading up the mountain where we had toiled for so long. With the impending weekend, I feared the area would soon get blown out. It was becoming very difficult to imagine a scenario wherein I might have a successful bear stalk.
In disgust we took advantage of the newly opened road and drove a short distance to glass. Not surprisingly, the bears weren’t out. As we sat pondering the demise of our endeavors, Esther suddenly leaned over and asked, “Is that your bear???” My binos flashed up and sure enough a large, lone bear materialized out of nowhere and sat feeding in the rain on an open slope 1000 feet above the road. Instantly I grabbed my pack, slipped on my soggy boots, and just before jumping out of the truck exclaimed to Esther, “Stay here!” Then halfway across the road I looked up and noticed a second lone bear feeding a short distance from the first one. When it rains, it pours bears! I looked back to Esther in astonishment, and then took off running up the mountain. Halfway up the near vertical slope I paused. I couldn’t breathe and both my legs had gone numb. I gasped and sweated, slipped and fell, then pushed onward. A few minutes later I arrived at the same elevation as the bears, and wouldn’t you know it, both had vanished! When I got within view of the truck, I waved and flailed my arms at Esther, hoping she could guide me with hand signals. To my dismay, she held both hands up, gesturing that she too had lost the bears. What now?!
Through drizzling rain I zigzagged to the top of the ridgeline, desperately trying to get above the swirling winds that had likely busted the bears. Soaked with sweat and rain, I glassed every bit of the mountain but turned up nothing. Darkness was falling, as were my spirits. The only option was to work back towards the truck and try again in the morning. While following a finger ridge down the mountain, a dark blob in the brush caught my eye. My heart jumped. It was the big brown phase bear, nearly invisible as it fed in the dense brush below. No shot; must get closer.
Staying above the feeding bear, I crouched low and skirted the hillside towards it. I ranged the bear at forty yards. He was feeding in circles, but only the top of his back was visible. Gotta get closer! I slowly eased into thirty yards, trying my best not to roll a rock down the hill. My heart thundered in my chest. I took long, deep breaths to calm myself, knowing this would likely be my only opportunity. I nocked an arrow and waited for him to present a shot. Instead the bear sat flat on his rump facing away from me. The storm-driven wind began to swirl. Must get closer quick!
I meticulously closed the distance to 20 yards. Close enough, I thought. Wait for him to turn broadside. I drew my bow and held tight. He didn’t move; I let down. Seconds later he stood and slowly turned uphill, exposing his shoulder. My sight pin danced all over his vitals. I paused for a couple seconds and slowly breathed out. I resettled the pin and the arrow was off. To my dismay, less than half the arrow buried into its shoulder. The bear swung around to face me and somehow, in the same two seconds, I had loaded another arrow and redrawn my bow. The bear’s head swung left then right, then forward. His piercing eyes locked onto mine. When he raised his head to look at me, my second arrow sailed under his chin and disappeared into his chest. The bear swung around and barreled straight down the mountain, smashing through the brush as he went, and then disappeared into the dark timber below. I stood shaking in disbelief, oblivious to the rain battering down on me.
My first instinct was to head back to the car and get Esther. My second instinct told me to go after the bear. The rain threatened to wash away the blood trail and darkness was falling. In no way did I want to track a wounded bear in the dark. I pulled my revolver, and with my gun in one hand and bow in the other, slowly headed in the bear’s direction. The blood trail was heavy and full of frothy lung blood. Surely the bear wouldn’t go far. 200 yards down the mountain, at the edge of the dark timber, I slowed way down, glassing as I went. Fifty yards farther, in the tangled maze of a giant deadfall tree, my eyes locked onto the dark, furry patch of an expired bear. I was overcome by relief and a sense of accomplishment unimaginable. What had arguably been the most difficult and frustrating hunt of my life, had instantly transformed into wonderful success.
After verifying the bear was indeed finished, I hung my bow in a tree and jogged back to the truck. Esther burst from the vehicle and ran to meet me on the road. She raved on about how she witnessed the entire stalk, and her excitement throughout was equal to mine.
The rain died out as we approached the downed bear together.
My bear—Sedwich the bear—has become a major milestone in my life. I can’t think of a better way to challenge one’s skills and bravery than a close-quarters bear hunt with a bow. I also learned that there’s no such thing as an easy hunt, at least not alone in the woods with a bow. As with all hunting, it’s the hunter’s responsibility to learn everything they can about their prey and its habits. I have nothing but admiration and respect for these powerful creatures that we share our mountains with, but rarely get to see. For this reason I’ll probably never hunt bears again. Like all game animals, our beautiful black bears are a renewable resource for our taking. And indeed, blueberry-glazed bear steaks are quite delicious. But unlike elk and deer, there just aren’t a whole lot of them to take. These fascinating beasts have their own special place in the woods, and for me, preserving this hunt as an once-in-a-lifetime experience is plenty enough.
In the end my bear green scored 19.5 inches, making it my fourth spot-and-stalk Pope and Young trophy in seven years. Yet, as proud as I am of this accomplishment, I must remind myself that life’s most precious experiences cannot be measured in inches or trophy quality. How we hunt—and the people with whom we share our hunts—are what matters most. None of my bow trophies would have been possible without the love and support from my wonderful and understanding wife, Esther, who’s been by my side during all of these magical hunts.