Skull Bound: Elk Sheds And Mountains And Black Bears… Oh My

Today’s blog post comes from Jana Waller, host of Skull Bound TV.  You can tune in for hunts with Jana on Wednesdays at 8:30 PM ET, Tuesdays at 1:00 AM ET and 12:00 PM ET.

Springtime brings an awakening to the Great Outdoors, especially in the Northern states.  As the snow lines recede and the air temperatures increase, brown hillsides slowly turn back to green as nature figuratively breathes a big sigh of relief.  Animals emerge with their tufted winter hides looking for fresh shoots of grass and rediscovered nutrients.  Spring also brings many hunters out of their winter doldrums and back into the mountains in search of fresh air, adventure and emerging black bears.

My stepson Brennan Waller, a 21 year old Junior at UW-Wisconsin Madison, was excited about taking a well earned break after final exams to visit me in Montana for his annual bear hunt.  Brennan had hunted bears with me the previous year and found success in the very last hour of the four-day hunt.  His love for the mountains and his excitement in taking his very first bear were palpable and I knew he would try everything in his power to make it an annual event.

We started out this year’s bear hunt with a day at the Game Range searching for sheds. Montana shed hunting is way more exciting than Wisconsin, since you can find not only whitetail, but mule deer, elk and even moose antlers. Game ranges are wintering areas for elk and deer and are closed to the public until May 15 every year to avoid added stress and pressure to the ungulate populations during their springtime birthing.  At noon the gates are unlocked by Fish, Wildlife and Parks officers and the roads opened for public access to look for sheds.  It’s like the adult version of an Easter egg hunt. Just imagine people scattering throughout the hillsides searching for brown gold.

Shed hunting success!

Shed hunting success!

Within the first twenty minutes of the shed hunt I spotted tines protruding from the bushes up ahead.  Making a mad fifty yard dash, I ran up to the huge elk shed and lifted the six point above my head! “Brennan! Over here!” I yelled out with excitement.  Hoping he would stumble upon the match, Brennan helped me comb the area for it’s partner but without luck.  I broke the cardinal rule in shed hunting which is yelling with excitement when you find a good shed.  A bunch of other shed hunters were soon combing our area and found the other side.  While I was excited that our group wasn’t skunked on elk sheds, I wished Brennan would have found the shed instead of me.  There are days I often wish I would’ve kept my cool and ‘lead‘ him towards it!

Cameraman Jimmy, his two sons, Brennan and I continued to look for sheds throughout the entire day.  While our yield was the lowest it’s been in years, a few elk and one whitetail shed, it was still fun hiking the mountains and experiencing the clever signs that animals leave behind.  From bear scratchings on a stump to a grouse drumming in the bushes, it’s always fun to get outdoors and discover tracks, scat and signs of activity.

The next morning came quickly with an early wake up call.  We downed our coffee and packed our Tenzing CF13 backpacks full of food and water for the day.  I love the CF13 because it’s lightweight, has a sturdy frame made out of carbon fiber and it has incredible expandability.  We’ve packed many big game animals out of the mountains with our CF13’s and we were hoping this day would be no exception.

We drove the truck to one of our favorite canyons for bear hunting about an hour away from our home.  The spot and stalk method for rifle hunting black bears is so fun because you get the opportunity to put on a lot of miles, spot a lot of game and see so much beautiful countryside.  We like to park our truck at a gated, closed off logging road and put our hiking boots and Vortex optics to work.  While it’s possible to spot bears from the road, it’s way more productive to hike into the backcountry and glass deep, secluded canyons with fresh green grass, preferable near streams or creek beds.

Despite getting skunked the day before, Jimmy finds a huge whitetail set on the mountain side!

Despite getting skunked the day before, Jimmy finds a huge whitetail set on the mountain side!

While driving the switchback roads, Cameraman Jimmy slowed the truck down to a stop.  He raised his binos and peered down the steep, angled ridge.  “Oh yeah!” he yelled!  “An awesome whitetail set of sheds!! Down there, underneath that tree about 200 yards down!”  ‘Old eagle eyes’ Jimmy might have disabled hearing from his Marine Corps days but his eyesight is impressive!  Brennan and Jimmy climbed down the ridge to retrieve their white gold, finding redemption from getting skunked on the previous day at the game range.

We spent the morning glassing and hiking and glassing and hiking and glassing.  We’d find good spots that we could sit and let our binoculars cover vast areas at a time.  Suddenly, Jimmy exclaims, “I’ve got a bear.  He’s miles away but if I can see him from here he’s probably a good sized one!”  Brennan and I confirmed the spotting, watching a light colored black bear feed on an opening on an opposing ridge top.  “He’s worth taking a better look at but we’ll need to drive back down and then hike up to that other side.”  explained Jim.

An hour later we finally made it down the switchbacks to the other side of the valley where we parked the truck and started our hike upward towards the area we last spotted the bear.  We made it to a ridge top that was directly across from the bear’s last position, a mere 200 yards away.  There was no sight of him but with the groups of pines and scrub brush, it’s possible that he could be taking a siesta out of sight.

With the wind in our face and carrying our scent away, we decided to boil up some water to cook a hot Mountain House meal on the mountain.  There is nothing better than a warm, delicious meal after you’ve been burning a lot of calories hiking in the cold mountain air.   Lasagna was the meal of choice and we devoured it like a flock of ravaging ravens.

Tracks in the snow after the first bear gave us the slip.

Tracks in the snow after the first bear gave us the slip.

After waiting for another hour we decided to slowly make our way over to the ridge, keeping the wind in our face and eyes out for the bear.  Hiking to the top, we found fresh tracks in the snow where the bear had given us the slip.  The tracks lead into a thick ridge of lodgepole pines that dropped off sharply down the other side making it hard to see and difficult to maneuver without announcing our presence in the crunchy snow.

Two hours of light remained as we made our way back down the mountain towards the truck.  Suddenly and without warning Jimmy whispers, “Bear! Bear!”  Directly across the canyon, a jet black bear emerged from behind a group of trees,  feeding on the fresh grass shoots 340 yards away.

Brennan quickly got down in the prone position and steadied his .300wm rifle, using his Tenzing backpack for stability.  My adrenalin was coursing through my veins as if I was behind the rifle. Cameraman Jimmy pushed record on his camera and gave him the “ready when you are” command.  Brennan slowly squeezed the trigger sending the Nosler accubond across the canyon.  “You hit him hard!” I exclaimed, watching the bear roll into a group of thick trees.  “It felt good!  I think it was a good shot!” Brennan said kneeling back on his knees while trying to calm his racing heart rate.

We gather our gear and made our way over to the bear, approaching him from the top part of the ridge.  The blood trail was easy to follow, and the bruin only went 75 yards.  Hugs were had all around before we took a moment to say a prayer of gratitude for the safe hunt, the bears life that would sustain ours, and the opportunity to spend a hunt together with family.

Brennan and I with his second Montana black bear.

Brennan and I with his second Montana black bear.

Brennan was all smiles as he posed for pictures with his second Montana black bear before skinning and quartering the meat.  We packed the CF13’s to the brim and made our way off the mountain right before a harsh rainstorm hit.

The following evening we celebrated with fresh bear steaks on the grill and a toast to passing on the passion of hunting! Whether it‘s treestand hunting in Wisconsin, or spot and stalking the mountains of Montana for bears, there’s nothing like watching your loved ones find success on a hunt and appreciating what hunting’s all about…experiencing nature, filling the freezer, and family time.