Bear Camp, a most underrated event. Montana bear hunting has to be, hands-down, one of the most fun hunts we go on each year. You get the opportunity to test out new gear and work on fixing parts of your system that failed you the previous year. You get to hone in your hunting skills and senses after a few long months off. You get to lace up the boots and start busting you butt back into mountain shape and the things you see rarely disappoint. The icing on the cake is tagging a bear and helping out the local ungulate population. This year bear camp was going to be a little different than last year’s inaugural camp. You can read all about why bear camp is so badass in our post > 10 Reasons Why Spring Bear Hunting Is The Cat’s Ass. For 2016 we’d be a small trimmed down crew of three hunting in a new, more rugged location. This year we’d be hunting the mountains and looking for those small pockets of green amidst a sea of dark timber and scree fields.
Heading up the first canyon of the trip.
Camp started with a flat tire, rain, snow and general poor conditions. With only three and a half days penciled in to get it done we knew we’d need to hunt hard and put some miles on the boots. The first full day was spent driving and hiking into various locations we’d scouted on Google Earth and seeing if they translated in real life. All the areas we hunted looked like they could hold bears but nothing screamed “hunt here!” The second afternoon was spent glassing green hilsides when the fog and rain allowed.
A necessary hike up the scree revealed more of the opposite hillside.
With a few hours left we split up into two groups to try to locate a bear. That evening turned up a sow and two cubs and a few elk and sheep. With little to go off we trudged our way back to camp and fired up the wood stove to dry out and refuel for the next day.
The wall tent is always welcome when the weather is bad.
Our goal for our last full day was to head up into a long draw I’d spent some time looking at back home on the computer. It appeared about 3 miles up the canyon a few large avalanche shoots opened up and would be a nice, secluded spot to find a mature bear. 5:30 A.M. came quick and a look outside the tent showed us that the visibility had dropped overnight. With our prospects of glassing looking dismal, we decided to sleep in till 8 and then see if the forecasted sun would start to burn off some fog. By 9 we were in the truck headed off to find our trail winding up a thick canyon. As we pulled off the main dirt road we found our access road covered in trees. I mumbled a few comments that I’ll keep to myself and fired up the chainsaw. Two trees out and we hopped back in to head up the road. Around the next bend lay a group of about 10 more trees draped over the road. As I was cutting Brandon informed me my pull cord had frayed and was laying on the ground. Well that’s just peachy. I now had to keep the chainsaw running until we hit our trail. After cutting the visible trees out I jumped on my tailgate and keep the chainsaw humming while Brandon quickly navigated my truck up the mountain. Eventually we made it to our trail, a small, grown-in trail that seemed like a bad idea. We contemplated the options from the comfort of the truck and decided we didn’t cut all those damn trees out for nothing. We’d start bushwacking up the wet canyon and see what we thought in an hour. What started out as a decent trail soon faded into a trail that appeared it hadn’t been cleared in 8-10 years. We navigated wet and snowy brush and downfall for two and a half hours before breaking out into our first big opening. Within seconds I’d put my binos on a suspiciously black spot and we had spotted our first bear of the day.
Brandon sizing up the first bear of the day.
An epic spot to see a bear but this one had cubs and eventually moved off.
Brandon quickly had a pack down and his gun lined up on the bear staring down into the valley as a light snow fell through the valley. The encounter was surprisingly calm. Brandon explained he wasn’t sure how big the bear was and he was going to watch it for a bit. I snapped away on the camera enjoying the wild mix of conditions. As Brandon examined the bear two small black cubs came crawling up the mountain navigating the boulders twice their size. We both were glad we hadn’t rushed into taking a shot at this bear. It’s a hard thing for new guys and even experienced guys to do when bear hunting, but watching a bear and determining its sex and if it has cubs is a necessity. We watched mom lead her cubs up through the timber and we threw our packs back on and continued up the canyon.
Brandon picks his way up the canyon among snow covered downfall and an almost non-existent trail.
Soon we had climbed into the next avalanche chute and it was looking good. Snow was still slowly filtering down and the upper half of the mountain was fogged in but we were starting to see the kind of habitat we were looking for. After examining the side of the creek we were on we slowly worked out into the bottom of the clearing when Brandon spotted a bear across the creek. Living in a small alder choked chute in the hill was a black bear, completely unaware of our presence. Brandon quickly got a good rest on his pack and settled in for a good broadside shot.
Patiently waiting for the right shot.
As bears will do they seem to feed in all the right spots that don’t offer a good shot. We waited in position for about 20 minutes as the bear feed amongst the alders and then climbed the cliff up next to some pine trees where she rubbed her back on a dead tree. Finally she worked downhill and stood quartering to the right. Brandon eased into the trigger and the Kimber rang out through the tight canyon. The bear dropped like a sack of potatoes. We were jacked!! We gathered our gear and set out to attempt to cross the creek that was swollen by runoff.
The second crossing creek crossing. This one was slick!
Bears living in crazy zones.
We were able to track down two different logs and made it over the river in one piece. A scramble up another scree field and up through the alder choked chute led us to a cliff edge and Brandon’s bear laying feet from a 75′ cliff. A little work and we got the bear off the cliff and down to a safer place to skin and quarter the bear.
Finding a good spot to make quick work of this younger, dry sow.
From our new vantage point we could see the entire other hillside and new that we had found a nice pocket that definitely held a number of bears. We pulled out our knives and began the process of skinning his bear and deboning the quarters for the pack out. An hour later we were finished and I moved off next to an alder to take a piss. Mid way through I noticed a very tan shape moving on the opposite hillside. I instantly knew it was a bear and when I could finally put my binos on the spot I knew it was a good one. I quickly rushed to grab my gun and pack and had to scramble down in the scree about 30 yards to find a boulder big which was high enough to get behind and get a rest to shoot uphill across the canyon.
Set up and waiting for a cross canyon shot.
My first range on the bear had him at 630 yards. I practice to 700-800 consistently out in the field and knew anything shooting for 700 or less was fair game if I could get a good solid rest and settle down. The bear offered two opportunities for a shot in the first few minutes but I couldn’t settle into a good rest and my adrenaline was keeping me from holding steady enough to feel comfortable taking a shot. I knew the bear wasn’t going anywhere and we watched him as I tried to find an ideal rest and wait for a better shot. Over the next twenty minutes the bear fed up the hill offering no clear broadside shots. It was frustrating to say the least. Finally the bear popped up on top of the large cliff and began traversing across it. It was a cool moment to watch a big bear cross a cliff like that in such an epic setting and made the whole trip worth it right there. We knew he was headed to the next avy chute over and I ranged and got settled in for a shot opportunity. My shot yardage would now be in the 650-670 range. I had now settled down considerably and found a solid rest. As the bear came out in the next chute he began moving downhill. He wasn’t really feeding and wasn’t stopping much at all. Finally he cleared some brush and stood broadside. I slowly squeezed the trigger and my .300WSM barked. I lost sight of him as my gun kicked my scope off the bear’s location. I reloaded and quickly was back on the bear. I didn’t know if I’d hit him but sent another shot at him as he slowly ran uphill straight away. The second shot had good elevation but missed just a foot right. I was pretty upset. My track record with a rifle has been pretty much spotless on big game over the past three years and this was my first flat miss. We knew we’d see that bear on the hillside and we held our spots. Soon we saw the bear running left through the timber and picked him up again as he hit the next scree field. At that point we lost sight of him. We vigilantly scanned the hillside for the next ten minutes without any sign of him. I was sitting there with my eyes looking for movement when I noticed a bear crossing a lower clearing and this time he was headed towards us. My binos revealed it was the same bear! He was going to cross below the cliff he had earlier crossed and the new range was 470. I spun my turret to 500 and got ready for the boar to hit the rock field. As he hit the center of the rock field Brandon whistled and somehow the bear stopped. This time my shot was perfect and I saw the bear spinning holding and biting at his off shoulder. A quick minute later the bear lay dead in the rock field among a few sparse aspen. Emotions were extremely high as we’d just had an epic double unfold in some of the most beautiful and rugged country either of us had hunted bears in. We quickly loaded up Brandon’s bear and set out across the canyon.
Who says bears don’t bleed?
When we got to the bear it was apparent the bullet had made quick work of this bear. A quick kill is what we strive for and after my initial miss I was glad I pulled it together and made a great shot on my second opportunity. As we looked the bear over we both noticed the size of his paws.
Big ole smackers.
I’ve killed some 6’+ bears in the past but this one had the biggest paws of any I’d shot. He was a beautiful chocolate color with thick forearms and a big round head. A bear any sportsman would be happy with. This day had quickly turned into one of the sickest hunting days either Brandon or myself had ever had.
Zack breaking into the color phase club.
With a nasty two hour hike out ahead of us we knew it would be advantageous to not hike out in the dark. With the day quickly fading we decided to skin and quarter the bear quickly and then hang it in the nearby aspen trees and retrieve it in the morning. We made quick work of the second bear and soon had the quarters hanging and hide safely hanging in the trees. We shouldered Brandon’s bear and set off back down the trail. Two hours later we emerged from the forest at the truck and went back to camp to drink a few celebratory beers, fuel up and get some needed rest.
Resting after a long hike in.
The following morning we came back up the canyon to retrieve the second bear. After two and a half hours we made it back to the kill site and began the process of deboning the quarters and divvying up the load among the three of us. The weather was beautiful and with no other bears spotted we headed back down the canyon. As with every kill the sweet weight of success hung on all our shoulders as we bushwacked our way out of the tight box canyon and ended our bear camp for the year.
Better be able to handle the bushwack back in this canyon.
Words by: Zack Boughton
Photos by: Travis Boughton, Zack Boughton, and Brandon Purcell