Tactical

A Wyoming Spring Bear Hunt Brings New Adventures

A deafening silence fell over the forest.  Adrenaline pumped through my body and began its slow dissipation. My breathing left the heaving stage, replaced by long, semi-controlled gasps. My ears strained for audible cues as I watched the bear finish its chaotic sprint while it fought off the inevitable to the best of its ability. I dared not move even though I was now some 50 yards away, still tucked up 20 feet or so in a treestand. I was out of danger for sure, but after the Tasmanian devil-like display during this Wyoming spring bear hunt, I wasn’t quite ready to climb down.

Wyoming Spring Bear Hunt for the Books

Then, I heard it, a sound that I’ve never experienced in my life and one that I’ll never forget. As the life left the beautiful color-phase bruin she laid down in contention and pulled her last breath. It was followed by a loud, disgruntled-sounding exhale. A loud moan of defeat— almost like a sound of frustration and disbelief that she could be in this situation. She was mad. Scared. And rightfully so. What a sobering moment. I didn’t celebrate as I thought I might.

I’m far from an experienced hunter. I’m still green, even after 10 or so hunts. But each hunt brings me closer and closer to where I hope to be. I learned much about myself during this Wyoming spring bear hunt—and I don’t know if I like me anymore. Not because of the harvest, I’m happy with it— a single shot from 28 yards with a Marlin 336 30-30 lever action. Hornady’s 150-graij American Whitetail  ammo completed its task thanks to a well-placed shot right behind the shoulder as the bear nearly quartered away from me. That’s right, 30-30. Seth Swerzyk with Hornady invited me on “a bear hunt”, and that’s really all I knew until I arrived in Wyoming, unfamiliar and nearly under prepared.

Out Of My Element

“Ok, stay here until you can’t see anymore,” Kody Glause, with Heart Spear Outfitters, told me after helping me get prepped in the treestand. On the inside, I blinked hard, shook my head, and looked at him sideways, “Say what? Did I just hear you say stay in this treestand, in bear country, by myself with absolutely no cell coverage—until it gets so dark that I can’t see well enough to take a shot?” Yes, that’s exactly what I’d heard. But on the outside I simply nodded and said “Ok.” My heart rate increased and my mind started its journey toward all-things-bad avenue, and I knew once it got there it would pace that street relentlessly. I won’t lie, there was a brief moment when I searched my mind for some reason, any reason to come down and head out with the guide.

I stared sheepishly as the guide checked the bait a final time before vanishing into the woods, headed toward the ATV. The engine started and I listened as the quad droned away into the distance. I clung to every decibel. Then it was just me, surrounded by tall trees and an overwhelming eery silence. It was roughly 3:45 PM. Last light wouldn’t come til 8:40 PM or so. This was going to be a long sit. The first of several.

Check List

I showed up in Casper, Wyoming, with all the gear for a nice late-spring hunt. Temps were going to be in the 80’s. What I didn’t realize is that we would be driving over an our and a half up to the hunting location, which was drastically cooler due to the 7,000-foot elevation. Some Wyoming thunderstorms would make their way through the otherwise mesmerizing landscape as well. By the time all was said and done, temps were roughly 55 degrees give or take.

We made it to the top of the ridge by pickup truck, then we’d stop and Kody would unload the ATV for the 15 minute-ish ride to the drop-off point in the forest. From there it was a 250-yard walk, if you came in from the northeast. A much longer walk was necessary from the southwest side of the hide. We came in from the northeast on all four days. We’d switch it up on the last evening, coming in from the south, and this would bring an interesting observation by the time this hunt was finished.

While the first stint in the treestand was uneventful, the next few nights would prove otherwise. My only challenge this night, was making sure I followed the proper line out of the dense trees to get to the road on which I’d walk out so that I could get cell signal and call in my ride. I noted the location of the bait—“Turn left from the bait, follow the water and the fallen trees.” I told myself.  It wasn’t hard, but the wrong angle would take me deeper into the woods. Not exactly where I wanted to be in the dark with bear around. 

The Marlin 336 is well-suited for hunting in the timber.

I roped my backpack down then proceeded to leave the stand with the goal of getting to the ground quickly and having the 30-30 at the ready. I was thankful for the red illuminated dot in the center of the Leupold VX-5HD 1-5x. At 1x power I felt good about any hasty shots I might need to take while exiting the feeding grounds. Once on the ground, my head was on a swivel. Cliche’ I know, but this is my life we’re talking about. Every movement was efficient and with purpose. Rope wound. Tuck in bag. Zip. Backpack on. Rifle up. Move.

I was thankful for the 5.11 headlamp that I brought with me. This baby is bright, with two led lamps to handle the darkest of scenarios. I turned it on and made my way out, my nerves on edge, tingling all over. For a brief second I considered that I might be overreacting. Let’s review the info we have: I’m in the woods. There is bait out for bears. I don’t know where I am. I have no cell signal. And I do have food in my pack. Not to mention I’m pretty good looking and I’m sure I’m pretty tasty at that. Nope. I’m not overreacting.

Once I got out of the woods and walked the “road” or path, I felt better. But in retrospect I was no safer there than in the trees. I was still in the woods and if anything, a bear had a better line of sight on me and a clearer path for a solid charge. I was never happier to see an ATV appear than this night…almost.

Man Enough

I’m sure there are several well-worn treestanders out there. Some of you guys can probably do 12 hours straight in one of those things without breaking a sweat and perhaps without even taking a pee. I’m not that guy. And while I pride myself on a relatively long attention span, I discovered it’s not so much. Five minute intervals became 30 minute battles of reverse time travel, or so it seemed. Every time I tried to relax and enjoy the moment, I remembered that I was supposed to be up there looking for bear and I technically had no idea of what to look for. I mean what does a bear look like when it’s walking through the forest? I’d never seen it before, so I didn’t know what to expect.

As this realization set in, I began to maneuver the Marlin around checking my movement limits while in the stand. Would I be able to shoot straight down or even behind me if a bear decided to do things his way? This was a real concern. After several exercises I realized as along as I saw the bear early I could (likely) move the rifle where it needed to be. One less worry.

In the treestand on a Wyoming spring bear hunt.

Blame it on the Rain

The second night would prove to be the toughest one in the stand. While I had brought a rain jacket and a hoodie, I had no rain pants. I assumed this would be a non-issue. Boy was I wrong. After being the stand for a short time, some ominous, dark clouds began to roll in. I whipped out a can of optimism, only for the big Wyoming skies to slap it out of my hand. A storm was imminent and inevitable. 

I was ok with some sprinkles. I pulled the Arcteryx Leaf rain jacket from my Eblerlestock backpack and got ready, wondering how long it would last. How bad would it be? Well, I found out. The winds blew relentlessly and the tree I was posted up in swayed quite a bit. It wasn’t awful, so I felt confident things would be fine. Then I honed in on sizable trees that were leaning against mine, held up only by the branches of the tree I was sitting in—directly above my seat. One more thing to worry about.

Lightning came, blitzing across the sky followed by claps of thunder. At this point elementary school training kicked in. I distinctly remember someone telling us that trees and lighting were bad. They never mentioned the part of the steel rifle in your hands at the same time though. I’m likely fine, I thought.

Soon after this, the rain fell. Big drops accompanied by hail. The hail was only pea-sized so I lucked out, but by now I was wet, cold, and nerve-wracked. I debated for many minutes then bowed out. As the storm picked up I descended from the stand and made my way to the pick up spot to make a call. Life-line activated! And I was not sorry for doing so.

I came better prepared for the remaining nights, with two pairs of pants on, and plastic bags from the hotel to cover my legs should it rain again. Ghetto-esue indeed, but it worked. I also had an extra hoodie along with the one I’d brought. It stormed the third night, but luckily before I got into the stand. I stayed warm, and toughed it out only to be bear-less one more time.

Using the Marlin 336 in .30-30 on spring bears.

Better Late Than Never

After three (ish) nights we still hadn’t seen a bear, so we went out early on the morning of the last day, thinking that the storms may have changed the bears’ patterns for some reason. A three- to four-hour morning session still uncovered nothing, and I had no more confidence that I’d get a bear. After all the stress, elements, and self-inflicted mind games, I was going home empty handed.

On the final evening we made our usual ATV ride to the woods. I was used to this two-up riding style, although it doesn’t make you feel very manly. As we approached the woods, Kody stopped and decided we should walk into the woods this time. He lead us in from south of the stand and bait. It was a beautiful trek and gave me an even greater appreciation for where I actually was as well as providing me more intel on my location in the woods.

I’d wised up over the past few nights and downloaded some podcasts, one of them being Hornady’s own. With phone in hand and Caldwell’s, E-max Shadows Pro hearing protection, I was ready for another long and uneventful night in the stand. The Caldwells are bluetooth earbud type units and feature great sound along with an ambient mode that amplifies the sound of your environment. These would prove to help me in the end.

After several hours in the stand, I still had nothing and last-light was rapidly approaching. I mentally prepared myself to leave the stand in another 20 minutes. While listening to the podcast I looked around again, down and behind the tree. There it was! A bear! I literally said to myself, “There’s a bear!” It’s amazing how the brain processes certain events. I recall thinking “it walks just like a bear on TV”

Now I don’t suffer from buck-fever, but a bear-fever is something entirely different. My heart pounded with veracity like I hadn’t felt in a long while. So much so that I questioned if I’d die of a heart attack before I shot this thing. I reached up and double tapped the Caldwell plugs, and the podcast silenced as the forest sounds came to life, blasting my senses and compounding the pressure of the moment.

Success on a Wyoming spring bear hunt.

I watched the bear, keeping all of  my attention on it. Then I nearly forgot why I was even there. Then it hit me: the bear approached from the same direction that we did. Was it on my scent? Was it going to come up to the tree I was occupying? I watched in anticipation as it slowed, sniffed the ground, then the air. “This is it,” I thought. “It’s coming to me. Please don’t come to this tree,” I thought.

I considered the urine that saturated the ground beneath me, the result of lots of fluids and cold weather. Then in an instant I was mad. “My pee is going to scare it off! Please Mr. Bear, don’t run off!” What a strange dichotomy. All this was crashing my cerebrum while I had a rifle in my hand. Oh yeah, the rifle. I’m here to hunt!

The bear was headed for my tree but then made a right-hand turn, trotting off behind some trees and a large rock, one that I hadn’t noticed the days prior. At this moment I managed to get my A-game queued up and turned on my Go Pro camera so that I could catch the action. I hit the record button and the red tally lights came to life—this was going to be epic. I talked myself to a calmer state and got into shooter-mode. Shooter-mode is my safe space when I hunt. When it’s time to do the harvesting I switch to shooter-mode and run through my process every time. It keeps my mind off of the animal and the buck fever.

I lost the bear for a second as it passed by the rock. For a second I thought it had taken off. But it soon popped up over the rock headed for the sweet bait just 28 yards from where I was sitting. Rifle up. Steady it out. Breathe…then it happened. The GoPro crapped the bed with 47% battery life left. It was at this moment that I wanted to smash everything within reach. Are you kidding me? I yelled in my head. But I knew not to make a sound, but this was almost more than I could take. I pressed that button at least three more times hoping something magical might happen. It didn’t. I was not going to capture this shot. So much for all the test runs I had done earlier that evening. I had some choice words for the Go Pro folks!

Wyoming Spring Bear Hunt Success

Nonetheless, I still had work to do. I pulled the Leupold VX to my eye with the red dot nearly blazing in the center of the reticle, and lined up the rifle. I cocked it slowly, pleading with myself to not disturb the bear. Then I checked the safety and watched the bear for another minute or so, waiting for it to line up properly. I remember looking at a picture of where to shoot a bear for maximum effect, and that’s where my attention was.

She moved around a lot, sniffing the bait bucket and preparing to enjoy all the goodies at her disposal. I took a deep breath, settled on the point of aim and sent the round with a solid follow through, knowing the shot was good. I ran the lever action quickly, preparing for another shot if needed, but I wasn’t fast enough. The bear was on her tirade and moving fast. A second shot wasn’t going to be possible nor necessary. The Hornady round had gone through from one side to the other

She jumped, ran, tumbled and crashed about before coming to rest in the tall, wet grass some 50 yards away. From there I could see her lung’s efforts to keep pace with the trauma. I continued to watch, mostly in disbelief, as her final moan brought the entire forest to silence.

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