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Its not very often that my black bear tag makes it past the spring season. This year was different. I had limited days to spring bear hunt with my bow after preparing to move to Bozeman and had failed to get any decent opportunities to arrow a bruin. It was somewhat exciting to have a black bear tag for the fall season, and considering the locations I would be hunting elk and deer, the likelihood of seeing black bears was high. I was excited to see what opportunities would present themselves.

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Chasing elk through prime bear country.

Fast forward to September. I had just finished a grueling 9 day out of state hunt. I failed to fill my tag and was now back in Montana to hopefully help call an elk in for Zack. After grinding through a couple days of work, we had just enough time to pack up the truck and head out for a 2.5 day backpack elk hunt. I must say it is nice feeling being able to enter the elk woods with a bear, wolf, and elk tag in your pocket.

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The hunt started with Zack taking the lead as we crossed creeks and finally entered a timbered stretch littered with elk sign. Zack ripped a few bugles along the way, hoping to locate a bull. With no responses, we slowly followed a game trail, still stalking the timber hoping to catch a glimpse of a bull. Magpies rang out their typical cry and Zack crept slowly in their direction. Suddenly Zack froze and waved me to creep up to his position. 130yds away was a stout black bear ripping at some sort of animal carcass.

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Just what a bear is looking for to fatten up.

With no bear tag left for Zack I was the only option for a stalk. I picked my stalk line, made sure the wind was good and proceeded to ninja to 43yards. I got ready for a shot and waited for the black bear to turn broadside. The bear was moving around the carcass eating on various pieces and occasionally moving away and then wandering back. Finally he remained in a single position on the carcass. I drew, settled and released. The bear ran 15 yards, looked around and then proceeded to come back and feed. I must have misjudged my yardage or my broadhead dove as I missed low. I crept up to 37yards from the unaware bear. I drew, really took my time to pick a small spot and released. This time I saw my arrow hit its mark as the bear whirled and took off on a death march down the mountain and out of sight.

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Good blood on an intact arrow.

Zack and I looked for my arrow and found it completely intact and covered in blood. I felt good about the shot and with light fading fast I followed the direction the bear had sprinted. The blood trail was minimal, so I made the decision to just go look for the bear. Zack and I spread out and started searching. After about two hundred yards later I heard Zack holler.

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Cautiously approaching.

I crept his way arrow nocked, only to see the motionless mound of fur that lay ahead. He was done, a quick clean kill. The beautiful dark brown boar was a sight to behold as he lay in a patch of timber littered with elk rubs. The trees in the area were perfectly displaced and made for some unique photos.

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Good sized paws, but extremely stinky from the elk carcass.

This was my first time having a fall black bear tag and also my first bear with a bow. A memory that will live with me forever and an adrenaline filled stalk that I won’t soon forget.

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-Travis

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Let me preface this by by saying that the following statements, events, and recounts of events are all true. Except, of course, for the ones that aren’t. In truth, I know almost nothing about bears and bear hunting, this is all speculation.

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Reason #1 – Tomahawk Chucking
First things first, if you’re in bear camp you’d better be throwing a tomahawk or two. Get to camp, dump your crap, and troll backroads in your freak-nasty Dodge until you spy a suitable round of firewood that one of your Keystone slurping, chew-mowwing brethren has left behind. Sling that bad boy in the bed and get to camp stat. You don’t need to bear hunt tonight anyway. Undoubtedly, you and the homeboys will spend the rest of the week playing grab-ass and squabbling about who threw it best. Assuming none of you are a direct descendant of Sitting Bull, you’ll all be horrid. Good luck. Loser washes dishes.

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Reason #2 – Big Bonner’s
Camping beats actually hunting almost every time if you’re doing it right. After acquiring your tomahawk target you’re going to need to get a big ole’ bonner (bonfire) started. If you’ve been blessed with super neat hunting buddies like Jay and  I have, they’ll probably say something like: “Hey you little gremlins, get a raging bonner started before we die out here!” Awesome. Gather as much wood as possible and get it going. Since you and the boys were busy farting on each other when your Boy Scout camp counselor explained how to start a fire, you’re going to have to grab the gas can and get aggressive. Mission accomplished.

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Reason #3 – Crop Dusting
It’s noon by the time you drag your un-showered ass from the tent on day two. You’ve missed Bear:30, but just the morning shift. If you’re lucky your camp cook James has already whipped up a fresh pot of coffee; which will be about 15% actual coffee, and 85% grounds. Delicious. When you’ve chewed and swallowed your morning coffee, grab your pack and get to hiking. With any luck you’ll be hot on the six of the best beer drinker in camp. We’ll call him Zack. Stay close, and make sure you’re breathing hard. When last night’s beers hit bottom, you’ll be the first to smell it.

“Dude, they aren’t even bad!” Zack laughs.

Right. You could pass him, but it’s pretty steep. You might just have to suffer through it. Don’t stress, you’ll get him back in time.

Reason #4 – Bear Snacks
“Dude, you want some candy?” Travis asked as we filled our packs for the evening hunt. I stared at him like it was an of inside joke that I wasn’t in on.

“Uhh..no I’m good, thanks,” I said.

“Your loss,” he replied.

I’d never hunted with these guys before, and I sure as hell didn’t want them to think I was that greasy kid from the second grade who never grew out of his baby fat. You know, the kid you were afraid to high-five because of the sweat-induced film that always covered his hands? I didn’t need that crap.
Two weeks later, Zack, James and I were huffing and puffing our way through mile-three of a lengthy pack out at around 1 a.m. We reached the halfway point and scrounged for a place to take a load off.

“Dude, you want some candy?” Zack asked.

I could have cried. You bet I wanted some candy. Two Rolo’s and a stale gummy worm later we were ready to roll. Energy stores replenished, we stumbled through the next few miles without a hitch. Long story short, bring some kind of sugary bear-snack when you hit the hills chasing spring bruins. You never know when that same sugary snack that propelled your beefy, second-grade pal through recess will save your ass on the mountain.

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Reason #5 – Ronnie, Lonnie and Connie
If for some reason you stumble on a bear or two worthy of naming, there are a few things you should know. For starters, names that command a certain sense of badassery should be reserved for bears to match. Average sows with cubs need names you might overhear at the local supermarket or while attending the neighborhood book-club. Margaret, Sharon and Barbara are fail-safe. Jason, Matt and Paul are good names for those schmedium boars, while Kenneth is only acceptable if he shows potential for future badassery.
Size isn’t the only thing that comes into play when naming your bears, though. Attitude should be a taken into serious consideration. On the first evening of bear camp, Zack and I spotted Ronnie (Coleman). He sauntered back and forth atop a knife ridge about a mile and a half distant. He ripped 35 inch trees apart with his brute strength, and ran sprints to and fro in some kind of high intensity interval training. As we watched, he laid beneath a hanging log and leg-pressed a monstrous ponderosa for ten sets of ten. We elected to chase him in the morning.

Ronnie was big, but it wasn’t sheer size that earned him his name, it was mostly his attitude. We saw Connie, his sister, out with the cubs later that night, and his brother, Lonnie, later met the business end of Zack’s rifle. But we never caught up with Ronnie, likely due to his aggressive attitude and peak physical condition.  If your unfamiliar with Ronnie Coleman the video below will get you up to speed.

Reason #6 – Bear:30
What the hell is Bear:30 anyway? Good question. Bear:30 – not to be confused with its close cousin, Beer:30 – is when those veteran bruins get up and slow-ride their way to a favorite munching ground. Maybe it’s where the grass is the best, maybe it’s where the honeys are. Regardless, if it’s Bear:30 you need to be in the woods; and I don’t mean chilling in the whip, “glassing” with a cold beverage.

By Bear:30 you should have summited at least two peaks, crop dusted your buddies, and be looking into country that hasn’t seen a human-being since Lewis and Clark. Once you’re there, chill out. Bear:30 generally runs from around 6:30-9 in both the morning and evening, give or take a few minutes. Find a good spot and set up, it’s only a matter of time until Lonnie makes an appearance; or even better, Ronnie.

Reason #7 – Bear Chronic
Graminoids are monocotyledonous, generally herbaceous plants with narrow leaves sprouting from the base. This includes members of the family Poaceae, Cyperaceae and Juncaceae. Simple right? Actually, it is. All that shit is just grass. However, we like to use its scientific name: Bear Chronic. Bear Chronic grows everywhere, but where you find the highest concentrations of the stuff you’ll also find the bears. When Ronnie, Lonnie and Connie awake from their long winters nap they’re headed straight for the thickest, juiciest Bear Chronic.

Frequent users argue that Bear Chronic is non-habit forming, but we know better. Side effects include drowsiness, dry mouth, abundance of Bob Marley apparel, lack of motivation and over-use of words like ‘gnarly, chill and rad.’ Street names for the substance include, ‘Astro-Turf, Dinkie-Dow, Bo-Bo and Donna Jauna,’ so keep your ears open.
Old logging roads usually hold large quantities of Bear Chronic, so check ‘em out. You should be seeing piles upon piles of bear dung to boot. If so, you’re definitely in the sweet spot. Come back a little before Bear:30 and wait for the action to start.

grass, sunrise, hunting, logging roads, springtime, bear chronic
Reason 8: Stump Bears
“I’ve got one,” James hissed.
Travis ditched the spotter and hustled to where James was glassing. I followed suit.
“Where is he?” I whispered.
The abstract directions that followed guided my glass to rest on a big, black…something.
“Uhhh…has it moved?” Travis asked.
The answer is no. It hadn’t moved, ever, at least not since it came crashing down in the blaze that charred it pitch black. The moral of the story is this: nine times out of ten, it isn’t a bear. It’s a stump bear. Yeah yeah, we know, it really looked like a bear, and you swear it was moving just a second ago.
Everybody wants to be the guy that spots the bear, you’re a hero if you do. But it’s likely that you won’t be that guy. Someone in the group might be, but it probably won’t be you. Stay frosty, keep your eyes on him, and if your stump bear takes off running or stands up on it’s hind legs, then and only then, would it be appropriate to alert the posse.

Reason 9: Truck Mobbin’
“Do you say ‘mobbin’ too?” Jay looked at me.
“Yeah man, mobbin’, it’s basically all I do,” I mumbled between bites of my tailgate turkey sandwich.
Being from the Tennessee, I guess Jay had never ‘mobbed.’ Mobbin’ is basically the act of cruising the Dodge – or whatever truck brand you and your daddy choose to associate with – down some backroads and kicking it. Whether you’re headed to town or back to camp, more often than not you’re bumping your favorite beat – Avril’s 1992 hit Sk8er Boi – and Tokyo drifting every corner. Or not, maybe you’re just chatting up an evening GP (game plan) with the dudes. Whatever the case, you’re mobbin’.

mobbing, dodge, dirt roads, logging, spring, bear, bear hunting

Reason 10: Ticks
Ticks are a terrifying creature. If the thought of a nickel-sized insect braving the dangers of your ass-crack to suck your blood doesn’t terrify you, you’re either a SEAL, or impressively dimwitted. I’m leaning towards dimwitted. Anyways, the aftermath of a long pack out left me standing alone in my kitchen at 3:30 in the morning. I was starving, but I struggled pouring the milk into my Frosted Flakes. Standing in the half light of the kitchen, I ran my hands through the mane. The little beasts were everywhere. I abandoned the cereal – a cardinal sin – and hit the shower. I think I pulled five or six of the little buggers off of me that night; most of which had taken residence in my fledgling mullet. I wrestled with my emotions as I contemplated cutting the hair I had worked so hard to achieve. I had already limped past the awkward stage. You know, when it’s too long for you to be a responsible adult but not enough to achieve your desired degree of mullet success? On the other hand I had serious personal issues with the tick-farm my hair was becoming. But I had already come this far, I couldn’t let them win. I kept it and returned to my soggy bowl of cereal.

So that’s it. There’s ten good reasons why you need to be chasing spring bears with your buddies. If that doesn’t convince you, I don’t see how anything will. More bears for the rest of us I suppose.

-Written by Sam Averett

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Words by Anthony VonRuden

Last light was fading as I left our viewpoint and made my way over to the heavy pack that I had become all too familiar with over the course of this six day hunt.  Another day had passed and we still were in search of another black bear.  Our Idaho backcountry hunt had us located twelve miles back in a basin full of thick brush, broken up by small grassy meadows and a half dozen creeks. This hunt was very special to me because I had roots in the region, my dad was a logger back in the 80’s and worked in the very same area that we would be hunting.  Zack and Travis Boughton, the co-founders of Montana-Wild, were alongside on the hunt.  Travis would be hunting with myself and Zack was manning the camera during our week long adventure.  These two spend as much time in the woods as anyone I know and with the combined expertise of the three of us the expectations were running high.  We all had a role to play on this trip and I was in charge of research and logistics.  We all wanted to do something that would test our limits both physically and mentally and our destination would do exactly that.  After countless hours scouting Google Earth, checking outfitter websites, and talking to fellow hunters, I had scouted a basin that looked like a black bear haven, the only catch was that it was over 8 miles from the trailhead.  We knew it wouldn’t be easy, but the reward if we pulled it off would be more than worth the effort.

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After a five hour drive from Missoula we finally were close to the trailhead and ready to hit the trail.  As we drove along the river upstream we actually spotted a bear from the road.  Unfortunately he was inaccessible and we just watched him feed for a while before continuing on our way as planned.  We rolled into the trailhead and began making final adjustments to our packs before leaving the truck for seven days.  After a short time we we’re ready.  Our packs were far from light as they were loaded down multiple cameras and lenses on top of our basic gear such as tents, food, and other backcountry necessities.  We weighed the packs prior to leaving the house and the lightest pack weighted in at 60.4 pounds.  Not exactly lightweight.

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We made good time and were soon eight miles back and at the base of the hill that we would have to ascend to reach our campsite. The brush was unbelievably thick and far from what we had expected after looking at Google Earth.  It was nasty and steep and home to a few moose looking to evade the local wolves.  The 1600′ of vertical climb took us two hours of solid climbing to complete.  The hike made us all want to quit but we pushed through and finally emerged on the top to a wonderful view and a chance to finally rest.

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Once at camp we were treated to a king’s view of the basin and it quickly became evident that we would see plenty of bears throughout the trip.  We threw up camp and hurried over to a rock outcropping that would give us a commanding view of the drainage.  After five minutes of glassing we had turned up four bears out feeding.  Light was fading as we all exchanged high fives.  We began to strategize a game plan for the following day as we cooked up our meals in the soft light of an awesome Idaho sunset.

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The glow of the morning light was just becoming visible as we crawled out of our sleeping bags and began gathering our gear for the mornings hunt.  The plan was to work our way down the ridge that would take us to the head of the basin and into some clearings that looked promising the night before.  The brush was over our heads and the going was tough, but it seemed that every time we broke out into a clearing we would glass a bear feeding miles away on the other side of the drainage.  We just had to get closer to some open areas and hope we could locate a bear in a stalkable location.

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Seeing those bears gave us the motivation to keep pushing forward until midday when we finally reached our destination and set up to glass.  Almost instantly Zack spotted a beautiful cinnamon bear about 800 yards below us.  Zack and Travis were gathering themselves for a stalk when I saw a little cub zip out of the brush to its mother’s side.  We just sighed and went back to glassing, hoping to turn up another bruin.  Hours passed and nothing showed itself, so we moved locations to get a better view of the area.  As we did, a spring storm blew in forcing us to take shelter under an old pine tree and wait for a break in the weather.

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After the storm had passed we pulled out the binos and Travis spotted a monster bear.  The large boar was on the move and never even slowed down to feed, finally making his way into the dark timber.  We were pretty dejected and decided to start working our way back towards camp.  We stopped at a small creek to fill our water bladders for the night.  As Travis was pumping water I looked up and something caught my eye.  The binos confirmed my suspicions and I excitedly whispered to Travis to get ready for a shot.  A beautiful blonde bear was feeding through a series of small clearings above us.  After a few tense minutes of scrambling to get Travis set up, fire up the cameras, and relocate the feeding bear, we we’re ready for the shot.  As the bear fed into a good clearing Travis settled the crosshairs and made a perfect heart shot at 388 yards.  A short blood trail led us to Travis’ first Idaho bear.  We all exchanged high fives, snapped a few photos before breaking the bear down for the pack back to camp.

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By the time we got the bear in the pack and started working back to camp it was pitch black and pouring rain.  We slowly followed a grown in horse trail back down the basin.  Our camp was located only a mile away, but with a 1200′ ascent in the wet jungle we decided that our best option would be to spend the night under a tree.  When your that far back safety takes a high priority and it was decided that we would find the best shelter available and tough it out.  After finding a group of large, old pines, we quickly scraped together a small area where we could all sleep around the fire.  We got a fire started and roasted some bear backstraps as we dried out our wet gear.

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I can honestly say that if we hadn’t invested in the the best gear available we could have been in serious trouble.  Fortunately we all had quality gear that mainly kept us dry and happy despite the poor conditions.  After fully drying out and filling our bellies, we began a long night huddled around the campfire.  Constant attention was required to keep the fire going through the night.

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The next morning it was decided that we would forgo returning to camp and instead try to get on another bear.  It was a smarter decision to hunt during the day rather then waste our energy just to bust back to camp.  We hunted new country all day in an attempt to double up but were unable to turn up any bears.  As the sun sank lower in the west it was decided that Travis would pack his bear back to the trailhead and sleep in the truck.  Zack and I would make our way up the mountain to our camp and in the morning we would pack up camp and relocate to the opposite side of the drainage where the majority of bear sightings had occurred.  Travis would meet up with us at the new camp after his twenty four mile mountain marathon.

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Tuesday and Wednesday passed slowly as we were forced to change tactics.  A lack of any good vantage points forced us to hunker down and wait out promising areas hoping that a bear would show up.  It was slow hunting but it was going to give us our best chance at a bear.

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Wednesday afternoon I spotted a bear across the drainage feeding in the highest clearing.  It was a large chocolate black bear and I was eager to burn some rubber off my boots.  To much sitting around will make you itch to climb a mountain.  Zack and I quickly assembled our gear and began the trek.  We hoped the bear would feed while we crossed the basin.  As we crossed the creek and began to climb we soon realized the apparent stupidity of the idea.  What had seemed simple enough turned into a grueling two hour journey.  As we neared the top we elected to circle around the ridge and glass a few adjacent meadows.  The country was beautiful but all we turned up were two large elk in velvet.  As we made our way back down the avalanche shoot I spotted a large black bear across the drainage.  We quickly hustled to close the distance.  Five minutes later we were five hundred yards away but the bear was no where to be seen.  We had missed him by a matter of minutes.  A long nasty hike took us back across the creek and back to our camp.

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Day 5  was much of the same.  Our morning turned up zero bears and the temperatures were reaching the high 70s.  We spent the day napping amongst the aspens and waiting for the high sun to fade to the west.

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The golden time had finally arrived and we were set up over a wide high alpine hillside.  Time passed and we continued to patiently wait.  All of a sudden the silence was broken as Travis exclaimed “Bear, bear, up on the far hillside.”  A large chocolate bear had worked out into a clearing on the far side of the basin.  It was too far of a shot where we were at and we quickly scrambled to close the distance.  Five minutes later and the .300 was resting over my pack and a bear was in my sights.  The shot was 602 yards and the bear was feeding on fresh green grass.  His head was down and facing directly towards us.  As I settled the crosshairs on him I felt that instinctual moment when you know your ready to pull the trigger.  The shot rang out and the bear ran off to the left.  The guys were yelling saying I missed him.  A disappointing few minutes ensued as we all sat in disbelief.  I had taken a shot that felt right but wasn’t.  I got lectured on taking a broadside shot at that distance and we quietly retreated down the mountain for the night.  With only two days left to hunt it was coming down to crunch time.  Food was running low and our bear sightings were slowly declining in number.  It was now or never to redeem myself and make the trip a success.

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Crunch time was upon us.  The vibes were refreshed that night in camp and we hoped that the following day would allow me an opportunity to redeem myself.

Read Part 2 here > Part 2.

It was sometime in February after a day of fishing when Zack, Travis, Anthony and I huddled around a computer reviewing pictures and reminiscing the past hunting season.  As always the conversation turned to the coming hunting season and plans began to materialize.  We decided that Travis and I would start hunting the last weekend in April.  Zack and Travis had hunts planned for the first two weeks of May when the hunting would be ideal for spot and stalk hunting with a bow.  The goal was to try to get me my first bear with a rifle to start the season off with a bang.  After juggling school and work we finally made time to get out to the range and get the rifle dialed and ready to go.

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We made quick work on the range as we sighted in and then took a few shots over on the 600 yard range.  It was go time, now we just had to wait a few weeks until our schedules meshed and we could get up in the mountains.  After two long months of waiting the call finally came.  Zack and Travis would have a few days to get out after a win at the Simm’s Shoot Out competition.  They were on the road back to Missoula and it was time to load up the pack.  On Friday afternoon I met up with Zack, Travis, and Brandon to get ready for our hunt.  Before long, the bikes were loaded into the back of the truck and we were off to the trailhead.  After an uphill ride we reached the base of a steep ridge where we stowed the bikes and took off on foot.  The hike was steep but it felt good to be back in the mountains.

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After a couple of miles we rounded a corner and entered what looked like bear heaven, there were clear cuts separated by dark timber and a creek running through the middle of it all.  We soon spotted fresh bear sign and our excitement levels rose.  It was still pretty brown and seeing some sign definitely took a little bit of the edge off us all.  We continued hiking and stopped to glass every time the trees opened up enough for us to get a clear view of the opposing ridge and basin.   As we hiked single file along the ridge I heard the unmistakable voice of Travis saying “Bear!!…………I gotta bear!”  I turned to see Travis looking up the drainage through his Vortex binos.  Zack quickly set up the camera and got some footage as we discussed the game plan.  Everyone agreed that the bear was big and worth a stalk, but he was over a mile away and there was only about an hour and a half of daylight left.  The race was on and we busted ass up the ridge.  Once we reached where we had planned to camp we dropped our packs and continued towards the spot we last saw the bear.  Forty-five minutes after Travis spotted the bear we came to the corner where we had last seen him.  Zack and Travis turned the cameras on, I checked the wind and it was go time.  We crept around the corner as slowly and quietly as possible while keeping our eyes peeled for the bear.  We rounded the corner and the bear was no place to be seen; we decided to keep moving.  We didn’t go another 10 yards and I spotted the bear in a dip below us not 80 yards away.  I quickly dropped to the ground and everyone else followed suit.  We sat there and discussed the next move.  From where we were located I didn’t have a clear shot at the bear and we weren’t sure if the bear was heading towards us or away.  We decided that we needed to get to a high spot 15 yards in front of us if we were going to get the shot on film.  Travis and Brandon stayed back and filmed from their location as Zack followed me forward.   At that instance I felt what every hunter dreads……..the wind at the back of my neck.  I thought for sure the stalk was blown and the bear would be gone.  As we continued forward the wind switched back and was once again blowing in our face, but the bear was nowhere to be seen.  Still we crept forward until we could see the entire dip that the bear was in….still no bear.   My heart sank as I looked around.  At that point I was sure he had winded us and took off.  I turned and shrugged my shoulders to Travis and Brandon and figured the hunt was over for the evening.  When I looked back over my shoulder there he was, standing 90 away with his head down feeding.  I swung my pack off and sat down; quickly I rested the rifle on the pack and waited for him to come up on the road.  Adrenaline was now strongly surging through my veins and moments later he appeared back on the side of the logging road.  I turned to Zack and he gave me the green light.  I settled the cross hairs and squeezed the trigger.  A few seconds later and my first bear was dead not 50 yards from where I shot him.

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Congratulations and high fives were shared between us all as we headed downhill to the bear.  As I approached him I saw his gray face, split ears and large paws; the sure sign of an old bear.

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I was overcome with excitement to have killed such a big mature boar as my first bear and it was a surreal moment kneeling beside an old warrior of a bear who had seen many hunters in his time.

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I punched my tag and we raced to get as many pictures as we could before dark.  Soon we were all working away to get the bear skinned and quartered.

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Before we knew it the Mystery Ranch was loaded down with meat and hide and we were headed to camp.  The 3/4 of a mile back uphill to camp was grueling.  It’s a lot of work in the backcountry and the four of us all teamed up to pump enough water for 4 meals and gather wood for a fire.  The moon was out and it was all laughs around the campfire.

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Needless to say a warm fire and some freeze dried food put us to bed quickly.  The next morning we were up and heading down the hill with our packs heavier than the trip up.  Though the weight of the bear was a burden on my shoulders I couldn’t help but smile knowing I had killed my first bear with good friends in the backcountry.

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Finally we rolled around the last Forest Service gate and quickly dumped our packs and took a well deserved rest.  We unloaded the meat and threw it in the YETI.  The end of an amazing hunt was here and it had only been one day!

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I can’t thank Zack, Travis and Brandon enough! I wouldn’t have been able to do it without them.  The next week will be spent finishing school and then we will be back in the mountains searching for a bear in hopes of sneaking close enough to let an arrow loose.

-Stan Spoharski

Predator vs. Prey.  It’s a dynamic balancing act.  During most of the hunting season I am the dominant predator, or so I thought.  Seeking to find my prey, preferably elk or deer.  This is the time of year when I get the chance to harvest my own wild meat and enjoy all the amazing wild places found here in Montana.  I never realized how many other predators were out there until the past two years.  Wolf tags have been issued in Montana for a reason.  In 1995 & 1996 federal Fish and Wildlife Service transplanted 66 Canadian wolves to Yellowstone National Park and Idaho. By the year 2002, the Northern Rockies wolf population surpassed the federal recovery goal of 300 wolves in 30 packs. In the past decade, Fish and Wildlife has killed about 7% of wolves annually (1,200 wolves in total over the years).  The wolves have expanded into most mountain ranges now in Montana, and we are seeing a decrease in elk & deer populations in many areas.  As of now, the population has grown to over 1,700 and stronger measures were taken this year to help hunters reduce the population.  One thing is clear, hunting is conservation.  As a hunter I feel I should do my part.  That’s why I bought a wolf tag and if the opportunity arose, I would be glad to use it.

This past weekend we met up with our Dad for some time spent elk hunting.  He was looking for his first elk, and we were excited to help him try to achieve that goal.  Unfortunately the trip started out with a flat tire just a few short miles from camp.  We threw the spare tire on and got geared up at the trailhead.  That night and the next day we spent our time attempting to still-stalk elk through the dark timber.  A tough venture when there’s three guys and frozen, crunchy ground.  With a stormfront moving across western Montana, I made the decision to change locations for the night.  We navigated our way through the falling snow, often not able to see more than 50 yards in front of the truck.  We knew with the fresh snow in the morning we would have a great chance to get close to some elk.  The snow would allow us a huge advantage come morning.

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After my 6AM alarm, I opened truck topper door to a fresh 3 inches of snow covering our two-truck campground.   Zack and I gathered ourselves in time to eat a quick meal and move our Dad’s truck 1.75miles to where we planned on exiting the timber later that day.  We dropped the truck off and made it back to the trailhead for a 3/4 mile hike through the squeaky fresh snow.  I made sure not to tell my Dad exactly how far we were going to be hiking, for I wanted him to forget about miles hiked, and just focus on shooting a bull.  Fortunately we made it over halfway up the first ridge before shooting light was upon us.  Once making it to the top of the ridge, I saw my first set of animal tracks on an old logging road.  It looked like snowshoe prints from a distance, but upon further examination it was a fresh set of grizzly tracks!

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Of course the bruin was walking in the direction we were hunting, so I carefully followed the tracks, hoping he jumped off the game trail further ahead.  My Dad was getting antsy, always thinking the worse is going to happen.  I reassured him that the bear didn’t want anything to do with us.  Soon we came across two sets of elk tracks heading the opposite direction we were hiking.  They obviously had sought out lower ground during the night.  We pushed on, glad to see the grizzly tracks head off the trail a 1/4 mile later.  As we hiked we passed multiple sets of deer tracks, but never caught a glimpse of a single deer.  My Dad was in awe of the beautiful white landscape before him, helping to keep his mind off of his aching legs.  We finally got to the location where I shot my very first elk.  Unfortunately, the elk were not there feeding in that same spot.  We sat down and ate a quick bite, boosted our energy, and set out looking for fresh elk tracks.

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As we worked our way back over the steep ridge, we came across 4 sets of elk tracks.  I asked my Dad, “you have the energy to follow these tracks a ways?”  He replied he did, so we started following the tracks.  Soon enough we found some fresh beds, but no sign of elk.  We followed the tracks further, as they spread out in the same general direction but a good distance apart.  We positioned my Dad in the lead so he would get a shot if he caught view of a bull.  Zack was between us with the camera hoping to have enough time to film if we saw an elk.  After about a 1/4 mile of slowly creeping through the dark timber, my brother stops us dead in our tracks.  He mouths “bull”, pointing to the hillside 150yards away.  My Dad and myself look, unable to make out an elk.  The timber was blocking our view and before either of us could move he trotted off.  Zack was smiling, thinking it was funny that the cameraman could have just shot a nice 5×5 bull elk while the two hunters could see nothing.  I didn’t share the same feelings at the moment.  We continued following the set of tracks through the overgrown larch trees, hoping for the best.  After tracking another 1/4 mile, I see another bull looking at us through the trees!! As I raise my Vortex scope up to see the bulls rack, the bull takes off once again.Elk tracks, tracking elk in snow

The whole time we were tracking these elk we noticed that there was dirt kicked up along their tracks.  Almost as if they were trotting through the woods.  We knew it wasn’t us pushing them so we pushed on hoping to catch up to them if they slowed to feed for the morning.  There were 5-7 sets of tracks in the snow so we knew there were more elk to find than just the two bulls we had bumped.

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As we bypassed a small clump of thick brush I saw a dark figure moving through the timber to our left!  At first I thought bear, but I saw a long tail!  I instantly dropped to a knee and said “wolf” to Zack behind me.  I quickly aimed my rifle into the only clear gap I had in the trees.  The wolf finally trotted into my shooting lane.  I settled the crosshairs and let the 8mm Ultra Mag rip!  The wolf dropped instantly, my quartering away shot killing him instantaneously.  “I just shot a wolf!” I glanced back at my brother, with the camera on me.  “I just shot a black wolf!”  I was so amped up and couldn’t believe what had just taken place!  One second I’m following bulls, the next I’m seeing wolves hunting the same group of elk as we were!! This was my first real up close encounter with a wolf.  I’ve heard them howl, and seen fresh wolf kills, but have never had the chance to get this close undetected.  I approached the black mass of fur, completely in awe of the sheer beauty these animals behold.

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To see the size of these animals is quite amazing.  Upon further investigation of the area, we found multiple sets of wolf tracks, some being larger than this black male.  Obviously a pack of wolves had the same idea we did that day.  To be able to share this moment with my brother and Dad was priceless.  My Dad only gets time to hunt a couple times during the year and this was truly an eye opening experience for him.

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After knotching my tag and getting a handful of photos, I loaded the jet black wolf into my Mystery Ranch Long Bow and began arduously placing one foot in front of the other as we climbed the steep snow covered hill.  It would be a good 500 vertical foot climb to the ridgeline and then 2 miles downhill to the truck.

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After cresting over the small peak we came across the logging road which would take us back to our truck.  Before I stepped foot onto the road, I noticed once again a set of large tracks?  It honestly looked like bigfoot had ambled through.  Of course we knew better and upon further investigation it was another set of grizzly tracks, this time even larger!  Once again the tracks were going in the direction we were heading.  Another 1/4 mile down the logging road the tracks made their way back into the forest.

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We peacefully made it back to the truck, all things intact.  No we didn’t get a bull for my father, but we did have one heck of a hunting experience! I couldn’t believe it, I had just put down an elk killing machine, another predator.  The same predator that was hunting the same prey as I was.  Not to mention we saw grizzly tracks twice that day.  As humans we feel we are at the top of the food chain, when in reality, grizzlies and wolves rank very close seconds.  We all have the same motive, survive.  If it weren’t for grocery stores, humans would have to go out and harvest their own meat, which today is the healthiest meat in the world!  The wolves are taking a toll on elk here in Montana, and I have seen this first hand.  There out there, and we cross paths more and more often.  This time we crossed paths a little too close.  I may have just saved those elk I was pursuing today, and ya that feels good!  The balance between wolves and elk is off right now and it felt great to help do my part of the management that FWP sets out for hunters each year.

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-Travis