Accidental Bear Hunting

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black bear

A reader asked me to tell about being attacked by a bear. I’m in the throes of a fairly intricate magazine article at the moment, so I really haven’t time to do the story justice, but in meantime, what follows is an article about my bear-hunting misadventures, originally published in Texas Sporting Journal.

 

When I was sixteen I was attacked by a bear during a camping trip in the George Washington National Forest in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia. It was, as you might imagine, a memorable event, and it left me with a low opinion of park rangers, a high opinion of professional hunters, and a very high opinion of the dogs who twice saved me from serious damage. It also left me with a desire to hunt bear – not for revenge, but because it was, for a sixteen year-old boy, the pinnacle of adventure, and what is hunting if not a longing for adventure?

Unfortunately, circumstances intervened, and it was many years before I was able to hunt bear. When I did, it became an exercise in low comedy, a kind of vaudevillian slapstick routine where I was the butt of the joke.

My first bear hunt was in central New Hampshire. Days of following hounds over every damned mountain in that part of the state resulted finally in the successful treeing of a pine martin. But only a week or so after I returned home to California, the dogs awakened my wife and me in the middle of the night, roaring defiance at something in the back yard of our home in the southern Sierras. I went out onto the deck and could just barely make out two small forms scampering around among my apple trees. It was very dark, I was groggy with sleep, and I didn’t have my glasses on, so for some reason I got it into my head that they were elk calves, and I started down the steps to open the gate and drive them out. As I neared the bottom of the steps I heard a very distinctive “woof” from just outside the fence, and realized the two small shapes were bear cubs, cubs protected by a mother who might resent her offspring being chased around by a middle-aged man in striped pajamas. Bed seemed like a really good place to be just then, and I returned there promptly.

My next bear hunt was over bait in Canada. I spent days motionless in a tree – motionless largely because I was frozen solid – and never saw anything larger than a Labrador. But just a few weeks later, on a job in British Columbia, I found myself with some free time out in the country only a few miles north of Vancouver. I went for a walk down an abandoned railroad track, and had only gone about a mile when I came across a massive growth of wild blackberries. I was eating my way happily through the tangles when a bear stood up suddenly about twenty feet away. I know all the good advice about standing your ground and speaking authoritatively in a deep voice, but it slipped my mind just then, and I can tell you for a fact there is no truth to the old wives tale that a middle-aged man with bad knees can’t outrun a bear. In retrospect, I think I scared the bear almost as much as he did me, but I didn’t linger to find out.

Then I tried hunting bear in California. My hunting partner and I had gotten permission to deer hunt on a 60,000 acre ranch in our neck of the woods, and we saw so many bear, and so much sign, that we decided to take advantage of the situation. We bought bear tags, and chortled with glee over how easy this was going to be. We almost felt sorry for those bears. But apparently the California Department of Fish and Game notified the bear population because they promptly vanished. We never saw a single one from the moment we bought our tags until the season closed.

Two days after it closed my wife and I were having lunch in our home in the mountains. We had decided to sell our house and move to flatter land down in the valley to accommodate our growing horse population. Horses are like potato chips. You tell yourself you have the will-power and strength of character to stop at just one or two. The next thing you know, the bag is empty and you’re wondering what happened to the bottle of Tums and to your savings account.

I headed out to do some fixing and tidying around the house. I was in the mudroom, with my hand on the door to the garage, when one of our dogs insisted on being petted. As I straightened up I looked out the window in time to see a bear amble out of our garage. If I had walked in on him, it might have been embarrassing for both of us. He went up the front path, past the ‘For Sale’ sign, and up on to the deck. He walked slowly along the deck examining the house closely. I almost expected to see a real estate agent with him. At the far end of the deck he paused and then proceeded to prove that what a bear does in the woods he can also – and may – do elsewhere.

It just took the heart right out of me. I gave up bear hunting after that. Oh, I still bought a tag every year along with my deer tag, but it was more out of force of habit than out of any real sense of hope or expectation. I didn’t scout or make plans or contact an outfitter.

Then fate intervened, proving that Mother Nature has a very sick sense of humor.

My hunting partner’s son, who had tagged along with his father and me on many a deer hunt, finally reached legal hunting age, and in an effort to ensure his first hunt was a success, my partner asked me and another friend to help out.

We went to the 60,000 acre ranch and drove slowly up one of the many dirt roads that wind through it. The mountains in the southern Sierras are very steep and tend to grassland dotted with oak and pine on the south slopes, and impenetrable brush on the north slopes, and glassing across the canyons is the most effective way of finding deer.

There are six subspecies of mule deer in California, but with the exception of the blacktail and the Rocky Mountain mule deer the other four species are pretty hard to differentiate except by location. In the southern Sierras and Tehachapi mountains the subspecies is the California mule deer. It is not a species noted for the size of its rack, the most common configuration being two branches on either side which usually terminate in crab claws.

That was exactly what we spotted, with about an 18 to 20 inch spread, browsing slowly uphill on the far side of the canyon. Because of the prevailing westerly winds we had to backtrack as we worked our way down the canyon wall, dropping some eight hundred feet in elevation to a seasonal stream bed.

Predictably, the buck had vanished by the time we got to where we thought he should or might have been, but because he was down there somewhere the other gentleman and the boy decided to hunt their way along the canyon while my partner and I hiked back up the mountain to get our truck. Because of the elevation and the grade we were walking in silence, and when we rounded the last curve in the road, there was the truck, about twenty yards away, and near it, on the passenger side, stood two bears.

On average, East Coast black bears are larger than West Coast bears, with specimens in the east sometimes reaching 800 pounds or even more. Neither of these was in that range. The small one was probably only an honest 250 pounds, but the other…. The other looked like something out of Jurassic Park. The little one took off instantly. The big one just turned his head and stared at us. It was a stare in which warmth, human kindness, and Christian charity were noticeably absent. In their stead were contempt, annoyance, and an inclination to mayhem.

In the Secret Life of Jameson Parker, I deal with this sort of emergency all the time. I disarm gangs of sadistic Hell’s Angels. I coolly face down bloodthirsty Mexican drug cartels. And when faced with large carnivores saying unpleasant things about my mother, I quickly and calmly slip my rifle off my shoulder, jack a round into the chamber, dispatch the ferocious beast, and comfort the terrified girl at my side.

In real life, there was no girl at my side and I stood there with my mouth open and my rifle on my shoulder.

My hunting partner, who had no rifle, reacted first.

“Hey! Go on! Get out of here!”

The bear growled softly, like an enormous Rottweiler.

My partner, with tremendous courage, stepped quickly to the driver’s side of the truck, reached in the window, and honked the horn.

“Go on! Beat it!”

The bear growled again, and then he did something I didn’t know bears would do. He curled his lip, like an enormous rabid Rottweiler, and it was clear something was about to happen. Something I would prefer did not happen. Something unpleasant.

My partner glanced at me. “Did you get a bear tag this year?”

I finally snapped out of my trance.

I was carrying a 7mm Rem. Mag on a Mauser action, and the first coherent thought I had as I quickly, if not calmly, slipped the rifle off my shoulder and jacked a round into the chamber, was to wish I were carrying something a little bigger. I am a big fan of the 7mm magnum cartridge. It has good sectional density (which translates into bullet weight relative to diameter, and affects the bullet’s penetration) as well as a high ballistic coefficient and good aerodynamics, and with the right bullet you can take practically anything in North America. In my opinion it performs better at long distance relative to recoil than any other caliber. But at 20 yards, all those advantages were completely meaningless, and I would have preferred to have a .375 or .458, or possibly a bazooka. That bear was about to do something and there was no margin for error.

I held just behind the shoulder. The bear exploded forward at the shot, vanishing into a ravine, and I jacked another round into the chamber. My partner and I looked at each other. Then we went to the edge of the ravine and peered cautiously over. The bear was lying at the bottom, next to a dead cow he had been eating. For safety’s sake I put another round into him, but it wasn’t necessary.

It took all four of us over an hour to haul him up roughly 50 feet to the truck, and it took all four of us to get him in the bed of the truck. The local taxidermist had a scale that went up to 400 pounds and the bear maxed it out, so he was somewhere over that. For record-keeping purposes, however, it is the skull measurement (length and width) that counts, and after the drying out period he came in just a fraction under the Boone & Crockett minimum, but my taxidermist told me later it was the second largest bear taken in California that year.

Now I want to get a really giant mule deer, so I’m going to give up deer hunting.

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