Hell's Canyon Spring Bear Hunt
By Tim Titus
Grueling. This hunt is grueling. “Hardcore” would be a good word except it can actually have positive undertones in my mind. Grueling is a better word to describe this hunt. The entire hunt is grueling. What were we even thinking? With snow packs unrivalled in recent years, the only option to enter “The Canyon” is from the river. The Snake River Canyon. Even the insects and worms are black. What did we expect to find but a grueling hunt? And what made us think we could make it across the Snake River at flood stage in a 12 foot row boat? Oh, yeah, the guy in Lewiston that manages the river. He’s the one that said we could make it across the river in a 12 foot row boat. What was he thinking? He must have thought we were going in October. But, I get ahead of myself.
Spot and stalk is my kind of hunting. Good optics, good vantage points, knowing where the animal is (or was) then going after it. That’s hunting at its finest. A spring bear hunt is the epitome of spot and stalk hunting. The wide open ridges of Hell’s Canyon country just scream of spot and stalk opportunities. And, besides varmints, what else is there to hunt in April and May? Spring bear--what a great idea!
Apply for the tag. Gather the gear. How in the heck are we going to get a bear out of that country if we kill one? Young legs. We’ll recruit young legs. Get the family together. This isn’t the stuff for the faint of heart—possibly for the soft of mind--but not for the faint of heart. Hire a jet boat to drop us off down the canyon. Boy, that’s getting expensive but, hey, the river manager says we should be able to cross with a row boat. He should know if a row boat crossing of the Snake River is feasible this time of year, shouldn’t he?
We arrive on the Idaho side of the river with our 12 foot row boat. That looks like a lot of water. The Corp can only release 78,000 cubic feet per minute from Hell’s Canyon Dam without flooding the towns downstream. They released 72,500 cfm yesterday. Dang, that’s a LOT of water. I think we can make it if we don’t get too close to that seam of rough water most of the way across the river. After all, the river manager said we could.
Life jackets. The bag of life jackets seems to have only one real life jacket in it if you don’t count the one for a 30 pound child. The “Floaty Cushions” look pretty sea worthy. It still looks like a LOT of water but we only have to make two trips to get all five of us across the river. My brother and his son are going with me on the first trip. My nephew is the only one with a real life jacket. Why did he strap his 13 pound rifle to his back? Is it his equalizer to make sure he doesn’t have too much of an advantage over his dad and his uncle with their Floaty Cushions should we not make it across? Don’t know.
Hitting the current was a wake-up call. Did I mention that there was A LOT of water? The tops of the bankside trees sticking out of the river are an obvious indication of the water level but it’s now the Power of the current that has our attention. “Are we still heading towards the barn on the Oregon side?” “Yeah…well, we were!” my nephew says. “Are we still heading for the opening in the tree tops on the far shore?” “Yeah.” A couple of minutes later my brother looks over my shoulder and says, “Row, Tim. We’re in trouble!”
The river current swinging us into the corner helps us get within arm’s reach of the top of one of the trees sticking out of the river just ten yards from the next stretch of white water. My nephew lays hold of a branch and stops our progress towards a certain shipwreck. A strategic, adrenaline-assisted push or two on the oars gets us to the next tree top. A couple more strokes and we’re against the rocks.
A quick assessment of the ship’s crew says that we are NOT going to do that again. None of us are sure what the options are but none of us really care. This will not happen again with us in the boat. This may have been one of the stupidest things anyone has ever done and lived through it.
A call from the fish hatchery’s Sat phone finds a jet boat outfitter coming to take a tour group on the river. My oldest son negotiates a rate to take the rest of our gear and party across the river and get our rowboat and crew back across several days later. We didn’t time it but it seems the jet boat took longer to get across the river than our rowboat. My son is now our hero. No doubt about it.
All we have left to do for the day is backpack four and a half miles and gain 3000 vertical feet of elevation. Sounds pretty reasonable after our boat ride. Grueling. Did I mention it was grueling? The majority of the first 1200 feet of elevation gain came without a trail. Can you say “major muscle-group cramping”?
Thankfully, camp is made before the rain starts and the rain doesn’t stop now until two o’clock the next day. Dehydration makes leaving the tent unnecessary so we count our blessings and lick our wounds until the rain stops. An evening trip down the trail looking for bear helps loosen the muscles and get us ready for a few more hours in the tents.
The next morning finds us splitting into father-son teams to do our first serious bear hunting. My oldest son stays in camp to gather wood and organize. Elk are everywhere. The 12-40X Leupold reveals a single bear several miles away and 1000 vertical feet above us. I think the word is “grueling”. That bear is nowhere to be seen when we reach his home on the ridge several hours later. A predator call doesn’t bring him running but it does stir two different sows on the far side of the next drainage. One has a single cub. The other has twins.
It’s a long hike back to camp with feet so sore I don’t even notice the bear meat on the log behind me as I collapse at camp. I once again decide that this is the last time I will be hunting bear on this trip. My nephew, Gus, decided that stalking within yards of a carnivore is even more thrilling than shooting one at long range. (Just reporting the facts.) The blond and cinnamon bear fell to his .308.
The following day, I’ve decided once again I will hunt bear. Our entire party climbed 1500 feet to the snow line at the top of the canyon where the elk herds were so numerous in the canyons below that the use of a group of elk to point another person towards a potential bear sighting resulted in confusion because the wrong group of elk was used! The bighorn sheep and hawks were well below us. Yeah, this is a Hardcore Hunt. I don’t care what my brother says.
Eventually, a bear is spotted miles below us—even below the trail we had hunted the day before. We made a quick decision to go after him and began the descent past the bighorns and the elk. We pass below the birds of prey on our way towards the ridge the bear disappeared over. As we get closer we split up to get different vantages. My two sons and I caught sight of the bear coming up the creek below us and my nephew goes to get my brother--each group approaching from a different side of the draw.
Crawling out on a rock point, we watch the bear continue upstream in our direction until at 200 yards he raises up on his hind legs. Fearing he had spotted or smelled my brother and nephew, we were surprised when he jumped a mule deer doe from the brush in front of him but dinner was faster than he was. Using the top section of my shooting sticks as a prone rest, my Model 700 .300WSM was ready to send the 150 grain TTSX through the bear’s chest when he stopped his pursuit of the deer. My brother yells, “Bear down!” from the other side of the draw. Five packs made the pack out bearable (so to speak) but it was still close to ten o’clock when we arrive at our camp. Mountain House meals and cold creek water never tasted so good.
Neither bear was particularly large but both were trophies in terms of the effort required to get to their country and execute the hunt. The trail out was slick from rain and just as steep as we remembered. We camped on the Oregon side of the river while waiting for the jet boat to arrive the following morning. We slid the row boat over the front windshield of the huge jet boat. A couple of minutes later we slid it back off on the Idaho side of The Snake. With all due respect to the river manager, this was definitely the way to cross the Snake River with a row boat! One jet boat trip back for our packs and bears and we gladly left a large tip for the outfitter. Not nearly as exciting as a row boat—just the way we wanted it!
The muscles have healed. The trophies have been taken care of. It’s been just long enough to cloud my memory and cause me to put in for the tag again. They say marathon runners get addicted to the agony of the race and go back for more. My brain must be getting weaker. The hunt is more than just hardcore. It’s grueling. Why do we do these things to ourselves? Did I mention this hunt is grueling?
Tim Titus has been calling coyotes for 35 years. He lives in the coyote rich country of Southeast Oregon where he and his son spend their winters calling predators and their springs and early summers shooting varmints. Tim owns and operates No Off Season, an on-line predator and varmint hunting store and guiding business. You can check it out at No-Off-Season.com.