When you think of black bear hunts, Arizona usually doesn’t come to mind as a top drawer destination. But like most hunting in AZ, what we lack in quantity we make up for in the quality of animals we harvest. The Arizona Game & Fish Department (AZGFD) has carved the state up into 72 separate “units” or areas for hunting. Some units are combined for certain species, while other units are further divided up to ensure that all herds or areas receive some hunting pressure. Some units do not hold certain species such as desert bighorn, elk, bear, etc.
There are both spring and a fall black bear seasons in AZ. The spring hunt is by permit only through a draw/bonus point system, but the fall hunt is over-the-counter tags, which are not “unit specific”. In other words, a non-permit bear tag allows you to hunt anywhere in the state where a unit is open for the taking of black bears. The fall black bear season for 2009 was divided into three separate hunts. The firearm hunts ran from Aug. 1-20 and again from Oct. 2- Dec. 31. An archery hunt is wedged in between the two rifle hunts.
Unlike most other game species, black bears reproduce only once every two years. Therefore, the AZ bear population is closely controlled by tracking female/sow harvesting. A hunter is required to report his harvest within 48 hours by telephone, with a follow up physical inspection of the bear within 10 days.
Fall black bear season typically opens on a Friday morning. Any black bear without cubs is a legal animal. The hunt remains open until the following Tuesday. At that time, a hunter must call in daily to see whether the female harvest objective has been met for the unit being hunted. If the objective has been met, the hunt immediately closes for that unit. If it has not, the hunt remains open in that unit until the objective is met. For most units, the female harvest objective is only one or two animals. This means that while the hunt may be listed as two months in length, the female harvest objective is usually met over the first weekend and the unit is then closed for the taking of additional bears.
My adventure took place during the final black bear hunt that began October 2, 2009. While scouting for Coues Whitetail several years earlier, my hunting partner Kelly stumbled onto a canyon filled with bear sign. This remote canyon was close to food sources, but more importantly, it held both water and shade. These things are vital to bears in Arizona. Although we knew the canyon probably held several different bears, I did not get back to hunt it for two more years.
My hunt was almost an afterthought. I had not planned on bear hunting that fall, but I unexpectedly found myself with an open weekend coming up, so I bought a tag and packed my gear. The hunt began at 3:45 AM Friday morning with a 2.5 mile hike by moonlight from my camp at the end of the road into the remote canyon. Travel was a little slower than I had planned, so I arrived at the mouth of the canyon about 30 minutes after legal light. The sun was just coming up behind me. Being careful not to skyline myself as I topped the ridge, I began to search the opposite side of the mountain in front of me for any sign of bear activity.
Since I had arrived at my ambush site later than I had planned, I did not expect to see anything. However, the jet-black dot on the hillside across from me stuck out in contrast to everything else. At first, I thought it might be a burned out stump from a fire that had moved through the area many years before. That thought vanished as the “black stump” began to move even before I could put my glass on it. Even at 465 yards, the bear looked enormous. I watched it for several minutes to make sure that no cubs were following it. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I had a very large, legal bear opposite the canyon from me, well after the sun had risen. And it was working towards the same choke point in the canyon that I was. Things are never this easy for me (I would later prove myself right)!
I moved up the canyon parallel with the bear and picked an opening across from me where I expected the bear would come out of the brush. It was exactly 248 yards across the canyon to that point, so I dialed up .75 MOA on the Nightforce NXS. There was no opportunity to go prone or shoot from a rest because of the tall shrubs around me, so I sat down and put the rifle across my knee. As I watched the bear lumber ever closer to that opening, I had ample time to check the distance, wind, drop chart, my quickening pulse, erratic breathing, etc. I began to realize that this was actually going to happen for me.
At 7:15 AM, the bear broke through the opening as if on queue. I gave him a soft cow elk call that stopped him in his tracks. I remember settling the crosshairs of the scope just behind his shoulder. I began silently walking myself through my pre-fire sequence and then the rifle bucked in my hand. I watched the bullet impact through the scope. The bullet dropped the bear in his tracks. He rolled some 20 yards down the hill and never moved again. The performance of the 130 gr. Accubond from my 6.5-06 AI was everything I had come to expect from the bullet.
After the echo faded away, I felt the need to share my good news with my buddy Kelly. I found that I was able to get a signal from my perch on the ridgeline, so I called him with good news. He asked if I need any help, but I confidently told him that everything was well in hand. In other words – I didn’t have clue. Fortunately for me, Kelly had a lot of experience with bears and insisted on cancelling his work appointments and come help me out. That act of kindness would eventually become my saving grace.
Although the bear was only 248 yards away from me, I had a very steep canyon to traverse to get to my trophy. It took nearly an hour to negotiate my way down the steep canyon wall and then up the other side of the brush-choked hillside. I was exhausted by the time I got to the bear. I had never been this close to a black bear before, so I had no point of reference as to his size. To me, he looked enormous. I was quickly able to confirm that he was a boar. He also had the tell-tale divot or crease in his head and his ears were set far apart which suggested I had taken a mature bear. My taxidermist later told me that he had taken in ten black bear that fall season and that my trophy was definitely the largest. At the physical inspection, AZGFD estimated the boar’s age at 4 & ½ years with a live weight at 325+ pounds, which is quite large for an Arizona bear. Interestingly, when we measured the skull, it just missed the B&C minimum requirements by an inch or two, coming in at 18 & 6/8 inches. Apparently, as bears age they begin to lose weight and mass, but gain additional bone structure in the back of their skull. Another year or two and he would have made the record book.
I must apologize for the poor quality of the pictures. The steep hillside that the bear was on made the taking of pictures rather difficult. I would set up the camera and then trip the automatic timer on the shutter. This gave me approx. ten seconds to slide down the hill and get into the picture frame. The ground was very dry and any movement I made would kick up a lot of dust. Unfortunately, the wind would blow the dust back into the picture for every shot. The bear was too heavy to pull further up the hillside. Rolling the bear down the mountain would cause the bear to go over a 40 foot drop before hitting the rocky, dry streambed below. Since his hide was in excellent shape, I elected to deal with him exactly where he came to a rest.
As all of you know, the real work begins once the animal is down. Never again will I go after black bear by myself in the back country far from any roads. I had no idea what I was getting myself into and as a result that bear almost did me in. By mid-morning I had run out of water. Having had no breakfast that morning only served to worsen my condition. At 11:00 AM, I was relieved to see my friend Kelly coming over the ridgeline to help me out. We finally had the bear processed and packed by 1:00 PM and then began the long hike out. We debated on whether or not to drink the water in the canyon bottom. We knew it was probably tainted, but it would restore us before beginning the long hike out. I had drunk tainted water once before and never wanted to be that sick again, so I elected to push on without the water – something I would later regret. Progress was slow and by 4:00 that afternoon, temperatures had climbed to 87 degrees. By then, I was showing all the classic signs of dehydration such as cramping, headaches and slight disorientation. With the sun starting to set behind the mountain, our situation began to become more desperate. We finally decided to abandoned our packs and the bear under the shade of a cactus and resume our hike out to the trucks. By the time I reached camp, I was in pretty bad shape. I stayed in camp recovering, while Kelly went back and packed the bear out to the truck by himself. We finally got off the mountain at 7:30 PM that evening. I was completely exhausted, but totally exhilarated with the trophy I had. And none of it would have been possible without the help of a very good friend.
My set-up is a custom 6.5-06 AI built on a Lawton 7000 action by Kirby Allen. The rifle has a 1:8 twist #5 Lilja barrel with what I believe is a DE brake. The scope is a Nightforce NXS 5.5-22x50. The action is bedded and the barrel floated in a Manner’s Ultralight stock and the trigger is a two-stage Huber Tactical set at 1.25 pounds. As usual, Kirby did an outstanding job on the rifle.