"Montana?" my friend Ron asked. "What kind of bear hunting do they have in Montana?"
"Pretty darn good from what I understand," I answered. Honestly, I'd thought the same thing after a friend invited me to Montana for a spot-and-stalk spring black bear hunt.
"You gonna use dogs, ain't ya?" Ron asked, half proclaimed, acting like the know-it-all hunter he considers himself.
"No. Spot-and-stalk," I replied with a look of confidence that I had to practice beforehand to ensure it was convincing.
"Yes, Montana, M-O-N-T-A-N-A." I knew he'd heard me, but I spelled it out just to make my point. Plus, I like to watch his forehead wrinkle.
Ron then turned and walked away while grunting something about me being gullible. Grunting and arguing are two things Ron does best. I didn't get to explain the concept to him like it was explained to me by my buddy, who'd agreed to let me accompany him in the spring of 2003 for a black bear hunt in the Big Sky State.
My friend Johnny Two-Fingers—he got that name because of his preferred use of his index fingers as a form of hearing protection—said we'd mostly hunt during the evenings and entirely on public land, which to the unknowing seems ludicrous in itself. But I trusted Johnny because he's lived most of his life in Montana, a good portion of which has been spent hunting.
Johnny's strategy was to hike approximately 2 mountainous miles past gated U.S. Forest Service roads in the southwest portion of the state to get beyond the "high water mark" set by most hunters. Two-Fingers says about mid-May the bears come out of their dens to replenish the energy they snore away over the winter. He says south-facing grassy meadows with a supply of water and good surrounding cover are excellent locations.
The part about high mountains and long walks convinced me carrying 6 pounds would be better than 9, so I selected a New Ultra Light Arms Model 20 in .358 Win. Melvin Forbes of New Ultra Light Arms had just re-chambered the rifle from .35 Rem. The cartridge change was a last minute thing, and I didn't have time to put a handload together before the hunt. Thankfully, factory 200-grain Silver Tips would shoot groups measuring less than an inch, but I wanted a bullet that was bigger so I chose Nosler 225-grain Partitions.
We glassed incredibly scenic open-mountain country the first evening. We didn't see any bears, but "Hawkeye," Two-Fingers' wife, located a nice bull elk with the foundation for a magnificent fall crown well under way. Eileen had earned the nickname Hawkeye for her ability to locate game animals before her husband or me.
Day No. 2 found us climbing higher than the day before to an elevation of approximately 7,000 feet. After an all-uphill trek of almost 3 miles and the rapid consumption of a half-gallon of water, the only thing that kept me going was the pile of bear scat we found on the road. Just after 5 p.m., we entered a meadow Johnny said always looked like a good place for bears, even though he'd never seen one there.
Based on all my previous bear hunting experience (none), I had to agree. The 20-acre meadow was situated so the sun spent most of the day warming it. Several small creeks lay in the bottom of shallow draws covered in lush grass. Water and sun fed the already brilliant green turf, and the entire meadow was surrounded by a thick stand of Douglas fir that continued up the slope to high outcroppings of rock. I couldn't imagine a better place for a bear to build up stamina to fuel itself through the spring.
We slipped through the shadows along the west edge of the meadow and when we reached a point that gave a good view of several drainages, I saw my first wild bear.
I was both smiling and trembling.
My efforts to verbally alert Two-Fingers to the bear's presence started as a whisper but gradually increased to just short of a yell that finally reached two sets of ears—one of which belonged to the bear. Not being a bear expert, I needed Two-Fingers to evaluate the critter and determine if it was a shooter.
"That's a good bear!" Johnny whispered as the bruin slipped into cover.
When I asked Johnny why he hadn't heard me yelling, he simply changed the subject. That's when I realized Johnny had exposed himself to quite a bit of shooting before he discovered God had given him built-in ear protection.
A Second Chance
We spent the next hour in the shade munching the sandwiches we had packed for our dinner and hoping the bear wouldn't be able to resist the grass along the edges of the stream. As I was wiping peanut butter from my moustache, the bear strolled out of the timber and into the meadow, just like a fat man walking to the dinner table.
"There he is Johnny!" I whispered before shouldering the Ultra Light and finding the bear in the scope.
The tip of the reticle found the spot as I waited for the bear to give me a clear shot. I was confident this was the same bruin we'd observed just an hour before, but my concentration was on making the shot. I'd let Two-Fingers judge the bear's hide and size later.
With the bear busy feasting, the only rush I was in was to get the shot off before my anxiety reached a point where accurate fire was questionable. So, I asked Johnny for the fourth time: "Should I take him?" Still no response from my companion.
I glanced over at Johnny to make sure he was in fact still there and hadn't suffered a stoke or embarked on a short, midday hibernation. Two-Fingers was intently focused on the bear with an index finger in each ear. That was all the confirmation I needed, so I sent the bullet on its 200-yard journey.
Moments later we were shaking hands over our bear, a nice boar with a perfect shiny black coat. The Nosler Partition had expanded as designed, busting a shoulder and taking out both lungs. We found the bullet under the hide on the far side. It had almost doubled in diameter and had retained 70 percent of its weight.
We skinned and dressed the bear, then wrapped the meat in a tarp. After covering the tarp with some logs, Two-Fingers graciously agreed to carry my less than 6-pound rifle so I could carry the bear's 50-pound head and hide. (True friends like that are few and far between.) The next morning we hiked back in and portaged the meat out on a two-wheeled cart.
When my plane touched down, I checked my watch and cognizant of the 2-hour time difference, realized it was "bear time" in Montana. I imagined Two-Fingers and Hawkeye at the edge of a high mountain meadow, distant snow-covered peaks towering over them as they set in the shadows of lodge-pole pine, concentrating on the two bear tags they still held.
Johnny would've picked the right spot and Eileen would have her rifle trained on a nice bear. She'd be asking John if this bear met his approval. Behind her, he'd be sitting with a finger poked into each ear wondering why it was taking his wife so long to shoot.