Iʼve often said that you donʼt need to be behind the bow or rifle to enjoy a hunting adventure. The hunt can be just as thrilling being the companion or guide as the hunter and I recently had an experience that proved just that. My stepson Brennan Waller, an International Business student at UW-Madison, Wisconsin, flew out to Montana for a three day spot and stalk bear hunt, his first Western hunting experience. Having a double major in college, itʼs tough for Brennan to break away from classes but he picked a long weekend in mid September in hopes of getting a taste of the West, if only for a brief visit.
Brennan has been a successful hunter in Wisconsin since the age of 12, taking some impressive bucks right out of the gate, but the mountains of Montana would provide a completely different hunting experience. From the use of a GPS to the importance of your backpackʼs contents, itʼs a whole new ball game coming from the woods of the Wisconsin to the Bitterroot Valley. Bear tags are one of the few over-the counter tags hunters can buy in Montana due to the overpopulation of black bears in certain regions. Brennan completed the online bear test that is required to hunt the state of Montana, purchased his over-the-counter black bear tag and hoped on a flight to Missoula.
After arriving at the house around midnight, Jim and I went over all of the gear that was necessary for this style of bear hunt. Brennan would be using my .300wsm rifle, decked with Vortexʼs Razor HD scope a perfect setup for long distance hunting. Our packs were loaded with plenty of food and water for a full day in the hills along with skinning knives, game bags, flashlights, a jetboil, rain gear, and an emergency first aide kit. Optics would be a key to our success as Brennan was about to learn. Each of us dawned our own binoculars and we even brought one of our spotting scopes and a much needed range finder. The amount of gear needed for packing into the high country might have seemed a bit extensive but being unprepared in the mountains can be a matter of life and death.
With the light barely peaking over the ridge to our East, we parked our truck at the logging road gate which was one of our favorite bear spots. The hike up was steep and rugged but knowing there could be a bear around any corner made us forget about the thin air and shortness of breath. We walked quietly, keeping our crunch to a minimum as we stopped every few steps to glass in every direction. Brennan was the first to spot a young mule deer buck make his way along the ridge top, feeding while a nearby doe stayed bedded. Pausing often to glass, we whispered countless stories of bears we had watched in this very canyon. “We filmed a beautiful big sow with a cub down there last spring” I mentioned, pointing to the lower treeline. “And right around this corner Jim shot a nice jet black bear years ago.” The stories of past bear encounters made the hunt exciting while Brennan soaked in the amazing beauty of Montana. We finally made it to the top of the ridge where we decided to break out the jetboil and make some warm Mountain House meals, adding to the whole backcountry experience.
We continued to hike and glass until we ran out of daylight and energy. Despite not seeing any bears, the first day of Brennanʼs hunt was a true taste of the mountain life including an abundance of fresh air and sore muscles. The majority of day two was spent behind the wheel versus hiking the hills in order to cover more territory. Again we went to an area where weʼve often spotted bears. When the road was gated, we simply donned our packs and hiked in hoping to spot a grazing bruin. At one point Brennan said, “Man, some of your burnt stumps even have ears!” Itʼs almost comical how many times Iʼve raised my binos over the years only to discover what I thought was a nice bear was yet again another tree stump. But there have been a few instances when Iʼve watched what I thought was just a stump suddenly move and begin to feed on the berries and grass along the hill. Itʼs those times that force you to confirm every possibility.
The second day came and went without any bear sightings but the West was showing herself in many ways. We glassed up an elk cow and calf and after Jim ripped a loud bugle with his reed call, the ghost-like bull answered from the bottom of the canyon. We also came across a huge, white wolf that had been obviously poached and dumped off the side of a logging road.
While I would never condone violating any game and fish regulations, it was a sad reminder of the frustration many people feel in regards to the wolf issue. Brennan was definitely getting a hunting adventure to remember. The early morning of day three came quickly with the sound of the alarm and smell of fresh brewed coffee. We headed out in darkness, our headlights beaming off the dusty logging road. Our destination was a canyon that held numerous drivable roads as well as some great hike in spots for bears. On one particular hike in area we noticed a fair amount of scat on the path. Most were from the previous fall but there were a few fresh piles near a water seep which gave us new hope. After spending a fair amount of time glassing that area we decided to walk down to the creek bottom and hike up the opposing ridge for the few remaining hours of the hunt.
Coming to a switchback, Jim and Brennan decided to sit and glass while I walked up ahead to cover another angle of the mountain. The low of the hunt was settling in and our hopes of getting Brennan a bear were fading with every passing minute. Walking into a nice opening of brush along the edge of the logging road, I raised my binos to glass the nearby hill only to have my heart skip a beat. There, only 200 yards away, was a black bear working his way down the ridge in our direction. I quickly turned and ran quietly back to Jim and Brennan waving my arms feverishly. “Bear! Bear! Bear!” I mouthed as they both scrambled to get their guns and packs.
Brennan laid in the prone position while he extended the rifleʼs bipod and got situated for a shot. The bear was moving quickly toward the creek bottom and a prone position shot was going to be very difficult given the angle. “Youʼre going to have to stand up and off-hand him Brennan!” Jim quickly whispered. I ranged the bear at 112 yards as Brennan stood up and shot as the bear stepped out from behind a tree. The report sounded back and the bear tumbled into the thick bottom of the ridge, letting out the telltale death moan. We all jumped up and down in sheer excitement and I got the best ʻbear hugʼ from Brennan Iʼve ever received! The look on his face was priceless, his huge smile saying it all. I can honestly say it was as exciting for me as if I was behind the rifle and my prayers for a safe and successful hunt were answered.
Watching Brennan walk up on his first bear was so thrilling. After a prayer of thanks, notching his tag and taking enough photos to fill a scrapbook, we moved the bear to a good area to process. Showing Brennan how to skin and pack out a bear was just another fantastic piece of the Western puzzle. The light was fading fast as we hiked back to the truck, Brennanʼs pack heavy with the wonderful weight of his very first black bear.
We fired up the grill when we got back to the house and toasted a big CHEERS while we dined on fresh Montana bear backstraps. The conversation on the morningʼs ride to the airport consisted of wallowing in the wonderful memories we created in the past three days. I couldnʼt help but wish I could listen in as Brennan shares his bear hunting adventure on the campus of UW-Madison!