This year was a tough one. We had warm weather for 8 out of the 9 days in Eastern Wa. Our target was mule deer…and the target was small. We had a tough time locating bucks with any size to them. There was a big burn earlier in the year and it had really pushed the deer up high. We hit all of our usual honey holes with little success. We pulled out one decent buck on opening morning and then it was just does and fork & horns for the next few days. A few guys got mid week bucks, but nothing to write home about.
On Tuesday night, against the will of pro staffer Travis Nickelsen, I drove 2 hours away to our august bear hunting grounds to try and whack a late season bruin. I luckily had the company of Trav’s dad, Joe Nickelsen. Old Joe has been around a few times and has killed more critters than you could shake a stick at. The guy lived in Alaska for a good portion of his life….enough said. Unfortunately, Joe had busted his leg just prior to season and was hobbling around on a homemade cane made out of an axe handle, rightly dubbed “The 42 mile Cane”….but that’s another story.
So Joe and I get up to where we want to drive in on a little kicker road and there is wal-mart/piece-o-crap looking barricade across the road stating that the road was closed. Obviously this was not put up by the state. A couple of hunters camped next to the road had most likely put it up. Long story short, I was pissed. I drove 2 hours and now I couldn’t show Joe my spot and we would probably not see any bears. We about just driving up, but in the end didn’t want my truck to get shot up. Also, if I brought Joe home with holes in him, Trav would probably be pretty pissed at me…..
I had just pulled off on a wide spot in the road to glass this steep canyon before we made the 2 hour drive back home and Joe says “There’s your bear right there Kris”. I mumbled a couple of 4 letter words at Joe, still being pretty upset at the barricades and the wasted morning hunt, when Joe says, “REALLY, GET YOUR GUN!” Joe is quite the joker and I didn’t take him seriously at first, but when he told me to get my gun the second time, I knew he was serious. I grabbed my 300 Remington Ultra Mag and looked over the edge of the road at 300lb plus, six and a half foot bear.
I don’t know about you, but bears get me…they get me bad. I start breathing erratic, my heart beat is so strong it about knocks my face off my stock as I try on get a bead on this monster. Needless to say, I have a little “buck fever”. I fumble with my range finder, it reads 398….a chip shot…..BOOM! The bear does not fall down….He runs, he stops, BOOM! It looked like a good shot, this time at 526. I had just nicked his back on the first shot as I didn’t compensate enough for the 45 degree+ angle.
We decide that Joe will go and post up the canyon on the other side and I will go in where I was shooting from…..down into the thick, dark, scary, very scary, patch of aspens the bear disappeared into.
As I made my way down a little kicker road, I ran into a small mule deer doe. She was staring into the aspen patch where we had last seen the bear. This was a good sign that the bear was still in there. It was also a bad sign that the bear was still in there…..and still alive.
After glassing the deer and aspens over for about 20 minutes I figured that there was no buck with the doe, the bear was not coming out, and I had to do something. I first started with a couple of whistles, then loud yells, then small rocks, and still no bear coming out. Plus, that doe just stood there and stared at me! I figured I would move down a little farther towards the bottom where the hill had gave way and there was a large rock slide. I kicked loose a few basketball size rocks into the thick brush just about 80 yards below.
The doe that was now only 60 yards away finally spooks off. I thought…ok, it’s go time. I waited for the big bear to come charging out of the aspens. I waited, heart pounding….nothing. I rolled another rock down, gun at the ready, trying to keep my balance on the steep hillside….still nothing. At this point I glass up the canyon to see if Joe is in the same spot. He is still there, just waiting. I turn back to the aspens, when I catch movement at the end of the aspens up the draw. It is the bear, and he is on the move.
I catch myself with my off hand as I fall into the hillside trying to get stable for a rest. I fumble trying to get my range finder out of my cargo pocket. I click once, power on, twice, the range pops up at 314 and he is moving swiftly up the hill. I think to myself, what the hell are you doing, just shoot it! I pull my rifle to my shoulder and find him in my Leupold scope just as he gets to the top of a little knob above the aspens…..BOOM!
The recoil and sound is tremendous in the steep narrow canyon. I try to regain my sight picture through my scope. I don’t see anything. I pull my eye away from the scope and begin to scan the hill side. I don’t see anything….I listen, all I can hear is the stream below. Did I miss? No….no way. It was only 325 maybe. My rest wasn’t perfect, but it wasn’t bad. I had practiced shots like that before, and well out past that distance. I check the turret on my gun. It was dialed for 325, perfect…..right?
Doubt sets in….
I replay the shot over in my head. Yes, I was a little excited. My breathing sucked. I can’t help it…bears just do that to me. I didn’t see him run out, and I know my rifle is on. I shot a hand size group at 788 yards the day before. He must be dead, he must be.
I sit and glass for about ten minutes. I walk back up to the road and glass again. I start the truck and drive around to go pick up Joe, and stop about ten more times and glass. I don’t see anything. I pick Joe up and tell him the story. He reassures me that I made a good shot and the bear is down in the thicket, dead.
We talk about the best way to get down there and I park. I get out and Joe wishes me good luck as he starts a pot of coffee on my tailgate with the Jet Boil. I think “I sure hope I make it back to get some of that coffee”.
Luckily there is an old skidder road that is somewhat walkable that goes half way down and then cuts back towards the bottom. The whole time I am replaying the days events in my head. The first shot, a little high, the second shot felt right on the money, but the angle….the steep, steep angle. He should have been dead, but the angle. Then the last shot. I felt steady when the gun went off. Trigger pull was steady, I didn’t jerk it. My heart and breathe though….man, I was excited. My heart and breathing were out of control. What the heck was wrong with me?…..Nothing. I reminded myself that if I didn’t feel that way, then there is no point in being out here.
I roll some rocks over the edge just above where I had shot. I waited, rolled another, listened, waited, nothing. I thought, OK, there are only two things that could happen, 1. He is down there dead 2. I missed all 3 shots, I suck, he ran away……OR, he is waiting quietly in the bushes and is going to eat me as soon as I get in the bottom. I am hoping for number 1.
The brush is thick, really thick. I try and stay alert as possible as I am looking at the ground for a blood trail. No blood, there is not one drop. I make a circle, and another, and another. I make the circles bigger and bigger. It is so thick and steep and there is so much brush.
Doubt sets in, then more doubt….
I think to myself, “I know I hit this bear, I know he is dead, and I am not leaving until I find him”
I look and look, and nothing. Finally I decide I will go back up, have some coffee and regroup…but, one last circle. I will go and look in front of the knob. Why would I look there? I don’t know….I could see it when I shot and I didn’t see anything there. Let’s say, I had a feeling. I trudge across a creek and back up the other side. Around the side of the knob and through some brush I can see the start of a game trail. I check it for blood, nothing. Doubt sets in again as I duck under some branches and push my way through the brush, and as I pick my head up after clearing the tree branches I see black. I jerk my rifle up to my shoulder (Uncle Mike’s scope covers still on and closed) and get ready for this bear to eat me.
Nothing happens. My heart is beating so hard I can feel my face pushing away from the stock every beat. The bear is dead….A wave of excitement, joy and relief come over me.
Now the work….Oh, the work. This bear is roughly 300lbs, and down in the bottom of a canyon, and it is almost 70 degrees. I begin by caping him out for a Life Size mount. If you have never done this, it is a lot of work. This bear has a large white V on his chest, which in my mind, takes him out of the running to be a rug. I can’t have that cut off and not show. A full mount it is!
I radio up to Joe that I found the bear and to call his son Travis. He was working nearby and hopefully was off of work. Joe, luckily got a hold of him and he was on his way.
I had just finished up packing the hide onto my pack when I heard Trav yell over the side of the rock cliff directly above me. Perfect timing. He put on his pack frame and headed down.
Two trips later we were all up on the road celebrating with victory beer (Just one, we are responsible hunters) and taking pictures with the Victory Bear. It was one of the best hunts, and it was even better that I was able to share it with Joe.
We finished up the dear season by taking a respectable 5×5 on the last day of the season, but that again….is another story.