NOTICE: Certain links on this post may earn a commission for Western Hunter Magazine from Amazon or our other affiliate partners when you make a purchase. Thank you for your support.
Hunger for adventure leads to a duel with a monster Arizona bear
This spring, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity had my number, and it called it often. I was invited to hunt bears on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation in the White Mountains with Floyd Green of Outdoorsmans Outfitters, and soon after, I was invited to fish the coveted Christmas Tree Lake for Apache Trout. This isn’t your typical big bear story; in fact, this was the first spring I’ve ever hunted bear. This is a story just as much about the upside of being a “yes man” as it is about the breathtaking place that hosted the trophy-quality memories I made there.
I was born a yes man – welcoming almost any adventure or challenging opportunity that life puts in front of me. This spring, however, I was more like an anxious kid in the dugout with his helmet on and bat in hand, waiting to get the nod from the coach for an at-bat. In January, my wife Courtney and I were blessed with the news that we were expecting a baby girl in October. (This baby girl will be Chris Denham’s granddaughter. From here on out you can accurately refer to him as “Grandpa.”)
Among the life-changing realizations that came with being a new father was the awareness that new responsibilities would keep me tethered close to home this fall. The spring was my window to calm the angst that has very particular needs – cold mornings in the woods, game to chase, no cell service, and a tent to call home. As luck would have it, I got the nod. Ramping up for another season of guiding bear and lion hunts on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, Floyd and his partner Shane Sass invited me out to get a taste for hunting world-class bears with world-class hounds. Naturally, I said yes.
From the first time I stepped foot on the Reservation, my mind was racing with curiosity and anticipation. There was so much to learn about so many things – hunting with hounds, hunting spring bear, navigating sacred land, the history of this land, and the woodsmanship it requires to be successful and welcomed here. If I kept my eyes and ears open, I was in the right company to get a head start on knowledge that took Floyd and Shane decades to earn.
My first trip was a crash course in many facets of this operation – learning roads, mountains, and landmarks, reading soft-footed hounds in their first hunt of the season, understanding how and why bears utilized this landscape, and learning how to not only catch one but how to kill one.
While driving across this beautiful and intensely rugged terrain, Floyd and I had a lot of windshield time for me to ask a million questions and for discussion about the more nuanced, philosophical points of hound hunting. At one point, I commented on people’s general assumption that hunting with hounds ought to be much easier than without.
Even I was going into my first hunt with a large sense of advantage having the hounds on my team. Yet Floyd said that hunting with hounds is the hardest thing he’s ever done. Here's a man who’s flown helicopters, built and sold businesses, and built homes with his own hands, and he still believes this after over 40 years of chasing lions and bears with hounds.
I didn’t kill a bear on my first trip to the Fort Apache, but I left feeling high on the experience and full of information I was going to need two weeks later.
I arrived back in bear camp with 47.5 miles on my feet and many colorful daydreams about big old bears and wild country. During my time away from camp, I hiked the Rim-2-Rim-2-Rim of the Grand Canyon along with my father-in-law Chris Denham and Western Hunter’s own Dave Bond and Ben Britton. Over the course of those miles, I couldn’t stop thinking about the next time I got to hunt on the Fort Apache.
Since my last visit, I was invited to fish for Apache trout at a fish camp hosted and outfitted by the White Mountain Apache Tribe at Christmas Tree Lake – a fisherman’s dream. Naturally, I said yes. According to Floyd, spring bear activity had picked up measurably since I had left. As the days became warmer, more water sources were being used, more tracks sauntering down the road were showing up, and more mature boars were finding themselves on our trail cameras.
Watching Them Work
The first two days of this hunt were focused on new tracks from what appeared to be a giant bear, and it became difficult to focus on any other signs of activity. On the third day, Courtney arrived in camp to escape the Phoenix heat and enjoy the White Mountains for a couple of days. Our plan was to hunt one last morning before I needed to head out to Christmas Tree Lake.
The alarm went off at 4:30 AM sharp. There was one drainage we hadn’t checked the day prior that also happened to be the only place this big bear had been seen weeks before. Our game plan was decided. We loaded the dogs and headed out. Knowing we needed to get on a bear early, we made our way there quickly. As we approached, Shane’s hounds blew up with explosive howls and barks while still in the dog boxes – Shane calls this “riggin’.”
One of the most mind-blowing things to witness – these hounds will catch the scent of a bear while moving in a truck if a bear has recently been through that area. Confident in their noses, I jumped out of the truck, hustled to the cameras, and threw the first card in the reader. There he was – a giant unit of a bear with the mass and stature living up to the magnitude of his tracks. Better yet, the last picture of him was taken just a little over an hour before we got there. He wasn’t far.
Shane’s hounds are the most experienced and gifted bear dogs I believe I will ever meet. Veterans of the pack such as Money, Sally, Gracie, and Ina have treed hundreds of bears and lions across the West. But it was Trouble, the nine-month-old phenom of the bunch, who finally started the rest of the pack on the most recent course of this bear. The first obstacle of any hound chase is determining the most recent tracks and direction of the bear or lion.
Once they did that, their intensity hit a new gear, and it wasn’t but a few minutes before the dogs were several miles from us, making steep jagged mountains look like speed bumps. This began the “race” we were in with this bear for the next five and a half hours. Pretty quickly, the hounds caught up to the bear and kept the pressure on him in hopes of him climbing up a tree. Getting a bear treed is really the quintessential moment for both the dogs and the houndsman, but this bear had no intention of climbing any one of the 1,500 perfectly suitable pine trees he ran past. This bear was tough and seasoned.
This was when the decades of hound hunting experience in this group began to shine. The understanding of the pack, as well as each individual dog, knowledge of bear behavior and tendencies, and awareness of the landscape were all being deployed simultaneously. Clear communication and thoughtful decision-making were the only way we were going to catch up to this bear who was far tougher and knew these woods far better than all of us combined.
It became evident this bear was not going to be treed, and if we were going to kill it, it was going to take teamwork to shoot it on the ground. Several times we got into position where we thought the bear’s path would cross the range of my rifle, only to have him change course which kept the race going.
After four and a half hours of chasing dogs and scrambling over rough country, Shane and I dropped a few hundred yards into a basin loaded with thick pine and oak trees, getting into position for the bear’s path to cross ours. Hearing the barks and howls of the hounds moving toward us, I rested my rifle in the Y of a branch and studied the shooting lanes below me. We finally spotted the bear, only 50 yards below us, with the dogs in close pursuit. I waited for a clear shooting lane and pulled the trigger, hitting the bear well. The bear and dogs continued running down the basin and out of sight.
Over the next 30 minutes, we followed and watched the dogs’ movement on the GPS units, hoping to see them stop and gather on what should be a dead bear. Evidently, this bear wasn’t going down with one shot. We repositioned at the bottom of a road where we thought the dogs would push him. Several of the dogs had dropped out of the pursuit at this point. The heat, terrain, and sheer distance they had covered were staggering. As Floyd climbed up the backside of a peak to wrangle the tired dogs, the bear changed direction with only Sally and Money on his heels.
Shane and I hastily marched the steep rocky road below the bear, hoping he would give me another shot when he crossed in front of us. As we paralleled the bear, he winded us and picked up speed. Shane told me not to wait and haul ass to the top of the road. I began running up the road, racing the bear to an old Indian corral that was at the confluence of the road he was on and the road I was on.
As my lungs began to burn and I neared the top, I caught the orange of Money’s collar out of the corner of my eye, the bear not 10 feet in front of her, loping across the open pasture. I went into tunnel vision over the next six seconds as I saw this giant cinnamon-colored bear running in my shaky scope 60 yards away. I hit him well again, sending him rolling in a huge cloud of dust.
In a fluid motion, he bounded back up and kept running. I shot him once more in the center mass of his body before he disappeared down a steep ravine. With nuclear adrenaline coursing my veins, I walked to the edge of the pasture and looked down to see the hounds face to face with the badly wounded bear. A fourth and final shot was needed to bring this king of the woods to rest.
After scaling the loose shale and cactus-covered cliffside to get down to the bear, I couldn’t believe the magnitude of this animal. His forearm was the diameter of my quad, his head weighed a metric ton, and the length of him more closely resembled a grizzly bear than any black bear I had seen. Without time to waste, we took our pictures and got to cutting. I still had to break camp and make a 3.5-hour drive to Christmas Tree Lake through the remote White Mountains.
When this hunt was all said and done, I was left with visions and memories that extend far beyond the size of this bear. I have a profound respect for the land, its history, and the animals that grow old and wild there. Now, three months later, I still get a rush of adrenaline just writing this story. I’m very blessed to have been in this position, and I’m grateful for Floyd, Shane, every one of his amazing hounds, my family, and the White Mountain Apache Tribe who made this experience possible.
There were many opportunities throughout this Spring season for me to say “no.” No to leaving the house at 2 AM, no to the extra work so I could take the time off, no to staying in the hunt of this bear when the odds became desperately slim that I would be successful. I suppose I’m doubling down on being a yes man because I’ll never win a race I don’t show up for. (For those of you wondering just how big this bear was – his skull green scored 20 7/16, and his length was 8 ft on the nose.)
To read part two of this adventure that took me to Christmas Tree Lake to fish for Apache Trout, go to Westernhunter.net. With bald eagles, 38 fish caught in one day, and the sound of wolves howling at night, there’s even more wilderness in this part, as well as information on how you can experience it for yourself.