In the Shadow of the Volcano
Great opportunities await for all fall bears
My son Trent is 14 and like many 14 year olds, he has a lot going on. He is trying to learn to juggle school, wrestling, friends and a lot of chores on the ranch. His chores include feeding horses, dogs, chickens, goats and an overweight pig while his two older brothers take care of the cows, farming and helping me guide clients at our outfitting business.
The boys have been around hunting all their lives, but I have always try not to push them into going hunting with me if they aren’t excited to go. This last fall Trent had a lot going on right before school started in August. I was half surprised when he responded with an enthusiastic yes when I asked him if he wanted to go on a bear hunt with the guys from Trophy Hunting Adventures in New Mexico. We have known the owner Dave for years and he always has some great areas to hunt. Dave’s son Mike and guide Dominic were going to be helping to see if we could get Trent a bear.
It was late August and we had antelope clients in but the other guides had me covered so I left to take Trent bear hunting. We were both excited as we made the short hour and a half drive to Dave’s camp in New Mexico. Camp was a beautiful ranch house tucked into a little canyon that held elk, deer, bear, and turkey.
Loaded for Bear
Trent was carrying my Rock River Arms AR chambered in .308. He is super proficient with that rifle and had been hitting 15” steel plates out to 600 yards all summer. It is topped with a Leupold 7X35 scope with a CDS -custom dial system. Basically, all he has to do is dial the exact yardage and hold dead on. I originally set this rifle up as a bench gun and not a hunting rifle since it has a bull barrel which makes it heavy and it’s fitted with the long range scope but it is super accurate and Trent was shooting it well and that is all that mattered to me. He had been practicing all year with the Hornady 155 grain Match bullets designed for target shooting and that’s what we decided to stick with. I know some may question that decision but we have had great luck in the past hunting with the Match bullets and since that is what the gun was shooting so well, that is what we decided to go with.
The first few days were fun even though we weren’t finding a ton of bear sign. The weather was unseasonably warm and the bear sign made it clear they were staying in the thick deep canyons where it was a little cooler. We spent hours glassing with both spotting scopes and binoculars trying to turn up a bear. Trent was having fun picking on me and guide Mike because he kept spotting all the game first. It didn’t matter if it was elk, deer or antelope Trent always seemed to spot the game before us at every place we went. He was having fun with it and we were having fun complaining about it.
Despite our best efforts we weren’t having much luck finding a bear. We did spot or actually I should say Trent spotted a sow and a cub but that was it.
Even though we had not seen a legal bear the first few days of our hunt, I felt bad for the guides as I understood as well as anyone that sometimes it doesn’t matter how good of a hunter or guide you are. Sometimes the weather, food sources or lack thereof or the moon phase are just some variables that cannot be overcome.
Despite our lack of bear sightings we were having a blast. Trent got to shoot pistols in the middle of the day with the guides and enjoyed being treated as an equal and not a kid. He had also earned a little respect with his ability to hike and spot game.
The Best Parts of Hunting
One of the places we were hunting was pretty close to the long dormant but still impressive looking Capulin volcano located in Northern New Mexico. I made a comment that we were basically hunting “in the shadow of the volcano” and I said it in my coolest sounding movie voice, so that became the big joke. Everything we did was referred to this way in a serious but mysterious voice. For example Mike would say something like, “ that looks like a good place to kill a bear” and then Trent or I would finish his sentence with, “in the shadow of the volcano”. We discussed in detail what a great movie title it could be. Like a murder mystery called, “Death awaits, In the shadow of the volcano” That is one of the best parts of hunting to me, the shared experiences, laughing and just cutting up.
A Change of Plans
I received a call that I was needed back at camp and so Michele “mom” came in to swap out places with me so she could be there with him if he got a bear. I left the next morning after a slow hunt with Trent. Mom showed up and traded off with me mid-day.
Of course as soon as I leave that first afternoon they go out to glass one of the big canyons we had glassed multiple times before. Michele, Trent and guides Mike and Dominic had just set up spotting scopes and all started looking for bears when Trent yelled out he had a bear spotted across the canyon. They all look and sure enough Trent had again made the spot. The guides confirmed it was a legal bear and was by itself and they called the range to Trent. The bear continued to move up the hill across the canyon and at about 250 yards Trent made a great shot after Mike stopped the bear using a hand held predator call. Trent had the rifle set up on a Bog Death Grip which is a large tripod that holds the gun and is a stable platform to shoot from. The bear dropped instantly as Trent took him through both shoulders. They had him follow up with two shots to make sure the bear was anchored because the bear was near the edge of a cliff.
A follow up investigation on shot placement showed Trent’s first shot did the job but he also connected on the other two shots as well. The best thing about the hunt was that it was a success before the bear was even encountered. I always base a hunts success on the size of the experience and the laughs shared and not the size of the animal if one is even taken.
What I was really pleased about besides Trent’s shooting and positive attitude was that the bear was at the end of its life and was a perfect bear to take. It was a really old boar whose teeth including canines were worn down to the gum line. The bear was just skin and bones and I seriously doubt the old battle scarred bear would have made the winter. It sported over a 20” skull and huge feet.
Despite this particular bears poor condition my favorite time to hunt bears is in the fall because that is when bears are usually in their best shape and are loaded with fat and so the meat is also at its best. The hair is also prime as they are preparing for winter so it’s also the best time to get a nice trophy for the wall as well.
Fortunately for hunters lots of states have great opportunities to hunt bears in the fall. The other plus to fall bears is that even if you aren’t after bears as your primary focus you can often purchase a bear tag so you can take one if you have the opportunity while after elk, deer or other species.
Bear populations are continuing to grow across the country and therefore tags in most western states are relatively easy to come by and can be purchased over the counter in many areas without even having to enter a draw or trying to draw the lucky lottery tag.
We chose to go with an outfitter on our hunt in New Mexico because bear hunting is usually relatively inexpensive as far as guided hunts go. Most range from 2,000 to 3,500 and it’s nice to have someone put in the scouting time if you can’t or don’t have time to. I also like to go to states that give me options on legal hunting methods or allow multiple weapon options. For example in New Mexico in the fall you can run bears with dogs if you want. I enjoy having that option available if I am with an Outfitter that has hounds. I also like states that allow me to use multiple weapons. That way I have the option to try up close with a bow but if I see an opportunity a few hundred yards away I can decide if I want to grab the boom stick.
I advise calling references on outfitters before booking with someone. I often throw in a curveball by asking for numbers and names of a few hunters that didn’t harvest an animal with the Outfitter I am looking at going with. If I get a good reference from someone that returned home without the animal they were after then that is usually who I book with. I will also often contact the local Game Warden and see if they have a suggestion.
The great thing about hunting black bears is that if you don’t have to hire an Outfitter if you want to do it on your own, there are millions of acres across the country loaded with bears. Some great bear hunting can be had for those willing to do a little hiking. Just a few months ago I killed a beautiful black bear with my recurve on public land in Georgia. Not really the first state that pops into my head when I think of bears but there is some great hunting there for those willing to do a little research. Wildlife biologists are a great source of information and will often point you to high density bear areas that can help reduce odds of you hunting in areas with little or no bears.
My point is that if you want to hunt fall black bears and haven’t been, the only thing holding you back is you. The added bonus besides an adventure is that if you’re successful you can enjoy some amazing meat and have a beautiful trophy.