The recoil from my 7mm sent a jolt through my body and my head bounced up just in time to see the flames fly from my barrel. Despite being precariously positioned high on a cliff-face, I frantically worked the action of my gun, loading another round into the chamber. In the dimming evening light, I squinted through my rifle scope and continued searching through the boulders that scattered the river-bottom below me, hoping to see the huge black bear once again. As the shadows faded into the blackness, I could only hope that my first shot had hit home.
My passion for hunting bears had begun three years earlier when my good friend, Trent Thornton invited me on a bear hunt in the low desert country of the southwest. I was enthusiastic to try a new hunt and I gladly accepted Trent’s generous invitation. Three years and 28 days of hard hunting later, I still had not connected on a big bear. Despite close calls with rattlesnakes, flashfloods, spider bites, scorpions, cactus and a few bad tumbles over rocky ledges, my goal to harvest a large black bear was beginning to border on an obsession.
Over those three years, Trent taught me some very important lessons regarding hunting black bears. First, get the best quality optics you can. We spent most of our long days glassing over steep hillsides and deep canyons. Quality optics definitely made a difference! Second, you must have a good long-range gun. Most the shots presented in this terrain would be at long distances….500 yards or more….and having a gun set up for longer shots would dramatically increase our odds. Third, Trent taught me never to shoot a bear until you had a chance to see it walking and moving around. All-to-often during our day-long glassing sessions we would spot bears bedded in the shade of trees or in rocks. That’s when the hard part would begin: actually trying to size them up. Trent taught me to be patient and to give the bear time to get up and move around. Only then could you get a better look at his body and the way that he moved. Numerous times I was reminded just how important this was and how deceiving a bear’s size could be. Only through glassing up and watching multiple bears did I fully understand what Trent was teaching me. It was focusing on the small details that were so key in sizing up bears. Looking at the width of the ears, the length of the legs, the “blockiness” of the shoulders, the girth of the belly and the length of the nose….and after all of that, to be patient and let the bear get up and walk around so you could look for that “big bear swagger.”
After spending more money than I want to admit on optics, and getting my gun adequately set up to shoot long range (not cheap either) all I had to do now was find that big old bruin that I had been dreaming of. To say this was easier said than done would be an understatement. Simply put, those big bears are mighty hard to find. Fortunately for Trent, he had killed a monster bear a few years before. His bear was a beautiful chocolate-colored bruin with a skull measuring 21 12/16”. So at least he had a Boone and Crockett bear on his wall to keep him company. But after a total of nearly one month spent hunting in the desert over the last three years, I was still searching for that elusive trophy. I was hoping luck would find me on this hunt.
As the day of our hunt approached, I had high hopes. After driving through the night to arrive in time for the evening hunt, Trent and I got to camp and quickly unloaded our gear. With a few hours of hunting light left, we split up and headed to our separate glassing points. As the afternoon faded into evening, Trent’s voice crackled over the radio. He had spotted a bear and it was definitely a shooter! My heart began to race as I frantically searched through my spotting scope to find the bear. I spotted him moving across an open mesa 700 yards across the canyon. Immediately I realized why Trent had called the bear a shooter. He looked huge!!! His belly seemed to drag on the ground and his blocky shoulders swayed back and forth as he deliberately moved through the cover. From the moment I saw him there was absolutely no doubt that he was the bear of a lifetime!
The next 20 minutes dragged on for what seemed like hours. The bear continued to move in and out of cover, offering me no shot from that distance. Finally he made his way to the canyon rim and dropped into the bottom only 300 yards below me. It appeared that my decision not to take a questionable long shot across the canyon might just pay off. Through the Cottonwood and Juniper trees that lined the canyon floor, I had only one small window to shoot through. As if an answer to my prayers, the bear stepped into that very opening, turned broadside and stopped. My crosshairs settled behind his shoulder and I squeezed the trigger.
The crack of the rifle shattered the silence of the desert evening as it echoed across the canyon walls. In no time, Trent and I were picking our way together down the steep rocky face as we dropped into the river-bottom below. After searching in the dark for quite some time, the light from our headlamps fell across the hulking black form of my bear as he lay silent where he had fallen. Sooner than I had expected, my hunt had ended.
The bear was incredible! Our measuring tape showed that he had a chest girth measurement of 60 inches (under the armpits) and a head-to-toe length measurement of 82 inches. According to our chart, he weighed over 600 pounds!!! A mammoth by any standard! His skull ended up just missing Boone and Crockett, measuring in at 19 14/16”.
I was on cloud nine as we took pictures and spent the rest of the night caping him out and packing him back to camp. And although my pack weighed more than 120 pounds, I didn’t mind too much! It was a burden I was thrilled to carry. Finally at 4:30 am we staggered into camp and got our first sleep in nearly 48 hours.
Looking back, it was one of the most unforgettable hunting experiences I had ever had and I am so grateful to my good friend Trent for helping me harvest such an incredible trophy. Thanks buddy!