When my neighbor found out I was going to Montana for a spot and stalk black bear hunt he suggested I shoot the first bear I saw, arguing; “It might be the only bear you see.”
“No.” I said, “I want to enjoy the hunt and find a nice bear.”
I had always wanted to go on a bear hunt but had no desire to set looking over a bait pile, swatting bugs and waiting for a bear to come out to surrender to a pile of stale donuts. No, I wanted to look for big bears and look at big beautiful country at the same time. Montana has both and it’s not hard for a non-resident to get a tag. All you have to do is pass the bear identification test and pay the license fee.
I could have hired an outfitter for this hunt but that cost money and as always I was operating on a limited, hillbilly budget. A guide is not required for hunting in Montana and my hunting partner has lived and hunted in Montana most of his life so I didn’t have to worry about getting lost.
After the long winters nap, black bears need to quickly recharge their batteries to build up stamina for mating season. In early spring it is too soon for berries so lush grass is a bear’s food of choice. If you can find a location just below snow line that offers water, green grass, and good cover it should be a good bear spot. Fresh tracks or scat near a location like this is an obvious, good sign.
Knowing that we expected to hoof it long distances over steep terrain I took my Ultra Light Arms rifle. You don’t need a canon for black bear but they can be tough. My Ultra Light was chambered for the .358 Winchester—not a long-range rifle by any stretch but this was planned to be spot and stalk, not spot and shoot, hunt. Nosler’s big 225-grain Partition bullet over 46 grains of Ramshot TAC powder left the barrel of the .358 at about 2,450 fps. I felt sure that was enough “whack” for a black bear.
Day two found us on a steady climb. At an elevation of about 7,000 feet we topped out in a lush park and I immediately saw a bear. He was at the head of a narrow coulee about 250 yards away and he saw us too. This was a mature bear but he faded into the darkness of the timber before we could react. Thinking the bear had not been spooked too bad, we found a spot in the shadows on the western edge of the meadow and proceeded to eat our dinner.
After about an hour I looked up and the bear was strolling out into the meadow. He had emerged the next coulee over from where we had originally spotted him. He made his way down to the little mountain creek that trickled through the bottom of the draw and started munching on the grass at the water’s edge.
I would be lying if I said that I was not excited. My pulse quickened and my breathing became audible. I placed my rifle on the shooting sticks and when the reticle found the bruin’s near shoulder I touched the trigger. When the bullet slapped him, he went down but in a second was on his feet and headed for the trees. I struggled to compose myself and sent my three additional bullets toward the bear as he raced for the wood line but they only found Montana soil. For the second time the brute disappeared into timber.
A bear, any bear, is a powerful animal and a wounded bear is a long way from being nicknamed “Teddy.” I stuffed a new batch of cartridges in my rifle and my partner chambered a round in his. We silently walked across the meadow to where the bear had charged into the trees. I took a deep breath, rested my thumb on the safety and stepped into the shadows expecting at any moment to be met by a coal-black freight train full of teeth, but we found the bear piled up just 20 feet inside the tree line.
With the chore of packing the bear nearly three miles back to the truck ahead of us, we took a moment to admire our trophy. Sitting there on the cool, green grass under a cloudless Montana sky, I realized that this was the first wild bear I had ever seen. And, he was a very nice bear, likely just out of the den with sharp claws and a perfect coat that would square about six feet.
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