To Hunt a Predator
I had completed my first year of college without killing myself and had grown up quite a bit. My sophomore year up at CSU was about to begin. I knew that I had to stay focused on my studies if I wanted to make it out of CSU with a degree in wildlife biology in only 4 years. I couldn't (and still can't) afford to extend my stay any past that. But there was one big hurdle in my way (two I guess if you include all the ladies that reside in Fort Collins); I had drawn a tag for the September bear season in Colorado. Unlike the over-the-counter bear hunts that take place during the combined deer and elk seasons, this hunt takes place when bears are in hyperphagia (a state of intense feeding activity to pack on weight to survive hibernation). I had carried one of these over-the-counter tags in the past but they are pretty much an insurance policy just in case you run into a bear while chasing other game. This hunt would be different. For the next month I would be focusing all my primal focus on taking a predator; an animal that I had never seen while hunting.
Over the summer I had made two scouting trips to the area that I had drawn a tag for and had located good patches of different types of bear food. I made sure to locate different types of forage so that in case one source failed, I would have other options to fall back on. I focused on berries (currants, buffaloberries, huckleberries, blueberries, raspberries etc), manzanita and scrub oak for their acorns.
My brother and father had also drawn the same tag and joined me on both of the first two hunts of the season. Hot weather, a poor berry crop and intense OHV use throughout the forest hampered us on these first forays into the bear woods. I was finding tracks (up to 6 inch front pads!) and scat in many of the places that I suspected to find bears. But things were just not coming together. On September 12th my dad got quite the show. He was set up at the head of a drainage watching the adjacent ridge. 45 minutes before sundown out stepped a very large bear with a beautiful cinnamon colored hide. The bear acted fairly nervous after stepping out and kept looking back behind itself. He already knew what to expect next. Sure enough, two jet black cubs came toppling over an embankment and fell down almost on top of mama bear. In Colorado you are not allowed to shoot cubs or a sow that is accompanied by cubs so he was put on stand-down, but he was treated with quite the show until sundown. The cubs wrestled and chased squirrels non-stop for the next 45 minutes. They never knew he was there. This would end up being the only bears he would see during the hunt but he will always remember those playful cubs.
The first three weeks of the season had past without a tag being punched and my optimism had started to wain. Up to that point I had only been able to make it out on the weekends trying to avoid missing school. But the time had come to make the decision to sacrifice some school days and head out on my own. This was the first time that I would be completely hunting on my own. No one would be there if I got hurt, if I got lost or if I got a bear for that matter. My family would be nearly 300 miles away. This was new to me. But I had my mind made up to fill this tag. I was going to give it all I had. I left on Wednesday morning and got to my camp around 3 o'clock in the afternoon. I set up camp and went out for an uneventful evening hunt. The campfire that night was unlike any other I have ever had. It was smaller, it was lonelier, but it was purer. It was just me and my quarry and I was proud of the undertaking that I was embarking on.
For the next three days I hunted myself to the bone. I still hunted. I stand hunted. I mimicked dying rabbits and bleating fawns. On Saturday I spotted a bear at about 2 miles away through my spotting scope. It looked like he was feeding on a cow carcass. The scary thing was that he was nearly as big as it! A smaller bear circled the smaller bear trying to get in on the kill but the big bruin would chase him off every time he got close. I found the spot on the map and drove over to the general area because there were two cliffs between me and him. I searched for that bear (and the carcass) all day to no avail. After everything was said and done, this bear did get taken by a hunter. But not by me. When the CDOW got the age of the bear back to the hunter who got it, he was shocked to find out that it was over 10 years old.
But I still had one morning left to hunt on my solo mission. I had a speech to give on Monday and had to be back to school by early evening Sunday to prepare for it. Around the fire that night I pored over maps trying to guess where the bears might be in the morning. I chose my spot and took one last pull off my tobacco pipe and hit the sack. Sleep evaded me.
I got out of my tent earlier than the past couple days because I had a 2.5 mile hike in the dark to the area that I wanted to be in when light first graced the land. By the time I hit the creek I wanted to be on, it was just starting to get light out. The creek meandered down a canyon with fairly steep walls with both sides covered in dense scrub oak. I knew where there was a small opening about a quarter mile downstream and that was my destination. As I neared the opening I slowed to a snail's pace. As I stepped out of cover I saw it! 125 yards across the steam, just inside the scrub oak stood the first bear I had seen within rifle range during the hunt. Right away, I knew he was a smaller bear. But his deep chocolate coat had me thinking about taking him. He was acting very nervous and looking up the creek in the direction that I had come. But I had the wind perfectly in my favor. I slowly got my rifle up and got the cross hairs on him when he made up my mind for me. He bolted! I couldn't figure out what went wrong. Then I heard it. Up stream, from the direction that the bear was looking I heard a branch break. I quickly sat down and got set up. Every once in a while I could hear the smaller bear in the scrub oak but when another branch broke, this time much closer, that little bear took off for good. I was shaking pretty good when I got my first glimpse at him. He meandered through a gap in the alders and I knew if he gave me a chance, I was going to take the shot.
He continued on his course and when he stepped out at 90 yards I sent a 130 grain western silvertip out of my .270 Winchester into his boiler room. He dropped out of sight. I stood up and still couldn't see him but heard branches breaking. I was worried now. Had he made it into the scrub oak on the other side of the stream? Was I going to have to go into thick brush after a wounded bear with no backup? I crossed the creek and when I crested the bank I saw him. He had buried his head and chest into a hole at the base of an alder. I was going to have to set my rifle down and reach into a hole to drag him out without being able to even see his eyes to make sure he was dead. BY MYSELF! I decided to pull out my side arm in order to be able to get more than one round off in case things went awry. I poked that bear in the rump with a stick for probably two whole minutes before climbing into that hole. But when I got him out I knew that I had quite the trophy and quite the memory.
To this day, my solo bear hunt is by far my best hunting memory. My mom puts it best when she explains that my kids are going to show my grandkids my rug and tell them the story of when their grandpa went out on his own and killed his first bear. I have never felt my inner fire burn hotter than that morning. It was a feeling that I will never forget to the day I die.