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The Bear Story January 2007
Dave Cooley  

Steve and I had been drawn once again for Cow elk in our favorite unit 4A. Although we knew the area well we hadn’t been there for two years since we were not drawn last year, so I planned a combined scouting, tent-trailer setup, blind building trip for the weekend before the hunt. My plan was to erect four of the pop-up blinds, three on water tanks and one at Steve’s old tree stand spot on the fenceline. It was great to get up into the cool country and visit some familiar hunting areas.

That evening I threw Steve’s blind on my back and set out for his old tree stand site. I was amazed at how much the area had changed. I was also amazed at how much bear sign there was. There were rocks and logs rolled over all over the place. There were also very few elk tracks at the fence crossings which wasn’t very encouraging. The good news was as the sun set and darkness set in, the bugling music began and went on most of the night. I fell asleep in the back of the Tacoma to the sound of bugles all around.

The next morning I put up a blind on what we call Tank 2. It is only about ¼ mile from camp and is where I shot my last cow two years ago. A quick walk around the tank revealed some elk activity but only two elk had visited the tank since the last rain. After erecting the blind, even though it is camouflaged, I brushed it in with pine, oak and juniper boughs to really make it blend in with the surroundings.

Next on the agenda was Steve’s blind on “Good Tank 1”. It is several miles from camp and took some time to get there and set up. Steve shot his last bull at that tank and we have seen several cows come in but they always seem to time it just right after it’s too dark to shoot.

Then it was on to “Good Tank 2”. We haven’t taken any elk there but have named it that because of it’s proximity to the last tank. This one requires a hike in so with my fanny pack on I threw the blind over my shoulder and headed for the tank.

When I arrived I walked directly to the water’s edge and saw the biggest, most well defined bear track I have ever seen. I took the blind off of my back and measured the track with my Victorinox Swiss Tool. It measured 5½ inches across. That’s one very large black bear by Arizona standards. A typical rule of thumb is that a bear hide will square 1½ times in feet what the front paw width is in inches. That’s over 8 feet! That only confirmed what I had seen the day before, that the bear population was doing well in that area of the woods.

I looked the rest of the tank over for elk sign and it looked well used so I assembled the blind and brushed it in like the last one and then hiked back to the truck for the camera. I had to document those tracks.

It took all of that morning to get those blinds up so after a hasty lunch I headed back to the valley with lots of news for Steve. He and I have run into bears during a number of elk and turkey hunts in that area and it is a little disconcerting to be working around a gut pile in the dark when you know they are around.

I had heard that AZG&F was going to allow archery hunters to carry non-hunting (less than 6”) handguns during archery hunts for personal protection but couldn’t find where I had read it. A call to their Phoenix office told me that even though the regs (R12-4-318 c 2, pp 69) only allow the possession of a bow and arrow during an archery hunt, their internal policy is to not cite archery hunters carrying a handgun for protection. That was good enough for me. I would be carrying my 4” .44Mag. Redhawk during the hunt.

Steve and I both drove up Thursday afternoon before the hunt and prepared camp. The elk were still bugling and excitement was in the air. Friday morning we left in the dark, Steve to sit his blind on the fenceline and I drove to my favorite spot south of camp to do some still hunting. Chasing the bugles I was able to sneak in close to 3 bulls but all were frustrated bachelors.

I was going after my fourth, sneaking through a nice dark area on the north end of a knoll when I spotted the white rump of an elk bedded 70 – 80 yards ahead of me. A quick check with the binocular revealed no horns, so I cautiously proceeded to close the distance doing my best to keep trees between me and her head. Although her body was facing away, her head was turned back facing me.

At 40 yards I could get no closer and I could not get a clear shot as there was a large sapling directly in front of the vitals. I stood there a long time contemplating what to do. I could take the shot which would be risky (and it was just the first morning of the hunt after all), I could try to sneak closer which was impossible with all the sticks and limbs on the ground or, I could sneak back out and try to come in from the right side above her. That was the plan.

I carefully backed out the way I had come in and made a large loop around the side of the hill to put me above her back. During that stalk the bull offered me several nice 40 yard broadside shots just to be nasty. When I finally got to the spot she was gone. Smart girl. I don’t know if I was winded or she saw me but she was gone. It was still really exciting. That’s my favorite kind of hunting.

Around 10:30 I went back to camp and Steve reported that no elk came by his blind. We took it easy until 3:00. That evening we both sat blinds on the tanks. He on Good Tank 1 and I on Tank 2. Nothing came in to either one. It is a nice time of solitude and except for the occasional drone of a quad once in a while it’s nice to enjoy the quiet.

Saturday morning we did the same thing. Steve went to his blind on the fence and I went back to the same area but before I could get to my favorite spot I heard a bull off to my right. I admit I was a little careless as I figured it was just another lone bull. I probably should have hidden and waited. I had nothing but time. It was only 6:00 in the morning. But I snuck toward the sound of the bull anyway.

At last, through the trees I could see two bodies. One I knew was the bull and the other had to be a cow. With their butts toward me I snuck closer. There must have been a second cow that saw me because all of a sudden they exploded out of there. RATS! That’s twice I had come close but no cigar. I followed them over two ridges but could not get close enough for a shot.

Steve had a bull come near his blind and heard some on the ridge back towards camp so he got out to hunt around for awhile. We both returned to camp with only stories to tell.

We decided to hunt together the next morning starting at his blind and working north. I love still hunting. As we were on the ridge approaching his blind we could see elk through the trees heading south toward the fence. If he had been in his blind earlier he might have had a shot. There was a bull with at least two cows and a small fork-horn. There was no way we could get there in time but I figured if we hurried we could circle to the south and wait for them.

We hustled south on the ridge and then cut across the draw but the elk disappeared. Not a sound, not a trace. They just evaporated. We worked our way back north across the fence as planned and headed around a large point when I spotted several elk on the ridge across from us traversing the side of the hill. Close inspection revealed a large bull, two cows and the smaller fork-horn we had seen earlier that morning. Once again we worked our way in the direction they were going and tried to get ahead of them, and once again they disappeared.

We explored some of the area on the other side of the ridge but found no elk, so we slowly worked our way back to camp, taking down Steve’s blind on the way. While he was taking the blind apart a nice bull came down the ridge, looked at us for a second and was gone.

We relaxed that day, me playing guitar and Steve reading and taking care of stuff around camp. That night we both went back to the “Good Tanks” and carried radios this time. No calls were to be made unless one of us shot an elk.

It was another beautiful evening. There was a bull that came near my tank bugling every couple minutes but he never came all the way in. He just stayed around that tank for over 2 hours. I sat in the blind and read my bible for awhile and then started reading a magazine when I caught movement out of my left eye. Sure enough, here was a small cow coming in over the berm from the west. She stopped on top of the berm and stared at the blind for a long time. She was obviously uncomfortable with it. I didn’t move. I’m just not sure what they can see through that netting.

Finally she relaxed and began walking toward the water. She had come in right next to a stick I had laser ranged at 25 yards. I slowly picked up the bow and drew. I took my time, split the distance between the 20 and 30 yard pins behind her shoulder and finally let the arrow go. The shot looked perfect, with the arrow disappearing right behind the shoulder. She ran off in the direction of the bull who was still bugling near the tank as if nothing had happened. The time was 6:15.

I called Steve on the radio and then went outside to look around. There was still half an hour before dark but it was now getting hard to see. I could find no blood and didn’t see the arrow either. We found later that the arrow went completely through and landed a considerable distance beyond the elk.

When Steve arrived we began looking in earnest for blood and finally found it heading northwest in the direction of Steve’s tank. There was very little blood and the farther we went the less there was. I made a large loop around in the direction she was headed while Steve followed the blood trail but I found nothing. I was getting discouraged as it looked like it was not the great shot I thought it was. What little sign we did find did not have bubbles in it and looked like it might be a muscle or liver shot. Steve is a great tracker but by 8:30 we could not find any more drops and so decided to call off the search until the next morning.

We were up at 4:30, on the road at 5:30 and on the blood trail before sunup. There was very little sign, sometimes only a small drop on the side of a pine needle and at times we were following tracks for 15 yards between drops.

After about two hours of looking the blood trail improved and we soon found the elk piled up next to a tree .26 miles from where we had started at the tank according to the GPS. Inspection revealed that the arrow had indeed gone through both lungs and been right where I wanted it to be. We can’t explain why she didn’t bleed more. The real bad news – a bear had beaten us to the elk, had eaten one whole shoulder and really messed up much of the rest of the meat.

I tagged and gutted the animal right away and then ran to get the 4Runner. It can go almost anywhere in the woods and has a winch that is great for pulling elk up in a tree for skinning. While the temperature had been in the mid-30s the night before, it was rapidly getting warm and we were concerned about the meat spoiling. We were also keeping an eye out for the bear in case he wanted to come back for seconds.

As it turns out, I have been told that because of the damage done by the bear, I did not legally have to use my tag on the animal and could have left the elk and hunted with it the rest of the season. The meat was a mess, much of it damaged due to being bloodshot and bruised by the bear so by the time we had it skinned, quartered, cleaned and in game bags it was after 11:00. It took another hour to pick up the blinds and get back to camp, two more to pick up camp and another two to get to the processor in Payson. By that time some of the meat had begun to spoil and much of it was unusable.

This was the disappointing part of the hunt. Normally from a cow this size we get about 180 lbs. of meat to the processor. In this case I had about 50. Some lessons learned?

1. If the meat is badly damaged by predators and there is still most of the hunt time left, leave it alone and keep the tag.

2. If you do decide to keep meat that was left overnight with the skin on, make all haste with the cleaning job the next morning and go directly to the processor. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200. Do not pick up camp. While most of the damage was done while the elk lay with the hide on all night, I might have been able to salvage more of the meat if I’d been faster to the processor. To his credit, Noah of Rim Country Processing did everything he could to salvage what good meat was left on the carcass.

3. Have confidence in your shot. If you know you shot the elk well, keep looking that night, all night if necessary. Yea, you might meet up with the elk AND the bear but that would make for an even better story.

The general bear season was scheduled to open in two weeks on the 6th. I was going to be in New York visiting my son for the first week but decided if the AZG&F harvest objective of 2 sows was not met, according to 1-800-BEAR, I would return to settle the score with Yogi on Sunday and Monday and I wouldn’t be bringing a bow. So I arrived back at the campsite on Sunday noon the 15th and took some time to verify my 45-70 Marlin was still sighted in from the March Texas hog hunt and then headed out to a spot equidistant from the two tanks and where my elk was found.

I used Bear Brawler, PC-2 and Circe Varmint mouth calls as well as an electronic call with the speaker set 100 feet away facing into the wind while I sat camouflaged behind a makeshift blind. When using predator calls you never know what might come in from a fox to a mountain lion so, with no one to watch my backside I was a little nervous especially as the light began to fade.

I called for three hours primarily using the mouth calls but used the electronic call to rest from time to time. It’s a lot more work than it looks. There was absolutely no action except for the crows and jays that seemed to enjoy my serenade.

I don’t know if it was due to the presence of the rifle hunters who came in after we archers left, the rain or the bear hunters with dogs but there was absolutely nothing walking those woods; no elk or fresh elk tracks, no bugling and no predators. It was spooky. I walked back to the truck in the dark and then headed home deciding that Monday would have been more of the same. Maybe next year.

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