Overcoming a slower start to this years big game hunting season.
Big game hunting season has arrived here in Washington, and it is off to a slower start for us in comparison to last year. With last year’s bear season being the best we have ever experienced, we all had high hopes for what was to come for the 2023 fall bear season. I always like to stress that the most important step to finding bears is finding their food source, and berries (mainly huckleberries) are their main diet during the months of August and September. Before the season even opened, which was on August 1st, we noticed something that was quite unusual. Berries were already starting to ripen, making them two to three weeks early.
Another factor that we have been dealing with is wildfires. There are multiple active fires in the Cascade Mountain range that have either blocked our way of travel to hunting spots, or they are too close to some of our favorite hunting spots resulting in those pieces of land to be closed to public access. There is always some sort of safety risk when it comes to hunting, but when it comes to wildfires we make sure to keep out of any active fire areas. Thankfully before these fires started to blow up, Jeff and his wife Janie were able to find some bear hunting success on opening weekend.
Find Berries, Find Bears
Typically, one of use takes a day off of work to hunt opening day, but this year we were all stuck at work. Jeff received a “Bear down!” text from our good buddy John that morning and it fired us up to get out that weekend. Jeff and his wife made their way to the east side of the Evergreen State Friday evening and were ready to go first thing Saturday morning. As the sun started to light up the sky, they slowly started making their way up a familiar trail with towering ridgelines filled with berries on either side of them. Both of them knew at any moment a bear could be found inhaling berries, and it didn’t take long to find one doing just that.
At just over 400 yards away, a mature boar (male bear) was having a huckleberry breakfast. They had plenty of time to get set up to make the perfect shot because all this bear was focused on was eating. During late summer and early fall, bears gorge themselves on berries to fatten up for the winter. If it is a good berry year, a bear can consume up to 30,000 berries in a day. Jeff has been practicing his marksmanship quite a bit leading up to this hunt, and was equipped with the new Aero Precision Solus Hunter rifle chambered in 7mm SAUM. A 160 grain Nosler Accubond was sent right through the bear’s heart, and the first tag of the 2023 big game hunting season was notched.
PNWild Team – Weekend Bear Hunt
The following weekend the whole PNWild team was able to get together for a hunt and we brought along a special guest, Samong Yang. Samong is another creator in the hunting industry who is consistently pumping out quality content in Washington State. He has taken us on multiple successful turkey hunts in his neck of the woods and it was our turn to return the favor. We set out on the trail before the sun was up and within thirty minutes of our glassing session Jeff spotted a nice chocolate color phase black bear. There was over two thousand feet in elevation that we had to drop, cross a river, and then climb another fifteen hundred feet to get to where this bear was.
Taking a Tough Shot
Once we got down to the river we took a little break to have a snack and fill up on water. I happened to glass up to the top of the ridge where we planned to hike up and over, and the bear was feeding its way down towards us. Instead of heading towards the bear, we set up not far from where we were taking a break and let the bear come to us. Jeff had a hard time getting into a comfortable shooting position due to the topography of where he was and where the bear was. His body and his rifle were making a V shape, if you will. He got as stable as he could and took a shot at 600 yards. The bullet sailed right over the bears back, missing it by a couple of inches at most.
A Verified Clean Miss
After verifying that it was a clean miss, we decided to take a nap in the mid-morning sun. I have never been a good napper so after laying there for a bit I decided to scan the ridge tops with my binos. Admittedly, I was hoping I would not spot a bear because I was glassing the top of a damn near vertical mountain face that would be dangerous to get to. And of course, I spot a bear at the very top. We waited around for an hour or so to see if the bear would start making its way down the mountain, but it had barely moved at all since first spotting it. I decided to go after this bear and Samong was willing to join me as Zack and Jeff stayed back to keep eyes on the bear.
Always Verify Before You Shoot
As steep as it was, it really did not take us all that long to get within shooting distance of this bear. The guys at the bottom were able to walk me into one hundred yards and when I looked through my scope, I quickly realized that we were fooled. This bear was maybe eighty five pounds and I decided to pass. The stalk that Samong and I made on that bear was so epic that I wasn’t even disappointed. I also couldn’t imagine having to pack a bear off of that steep rock face. Making our way back down the mountain turned out to be quite sketchy and took twice as long as it took to get up there. We ended up getting down safely, just in time to spot two bears only a few hundred yards from us and on the same elevation.
Lots of Berries, But No Notched Tags
It wasn’t even five minutes after Samong and I got back down to Zack and Jeff, when Samong was saying that he couldn’t believe there weren’t bears in the drainage we were in because the berries were so thick. While he was saying that, he spotted two bears walking on a log just three hundred and fifty yards across the river from us. We immediately got the camera setup and Zack and I played rock, paper, scissors for who was going to shoot the second bear, because we planned on doubling. It took a solid half hour before one of the bears presented a shot due to how thick the brush was where they were eating huckleberries. Once one of them turned broadside in an opening Samong touched off a round and the bear flipped over onto its back but then took off running into the brush.
From the way the bear reacted to the shot we all had a good feeling about it. Once we reviewed the shot on film it was definitely a little high, making us feel somewhat apprehensive. If you don’t hit a bear in the vital organs or spine, you are very likely going to have a long tracking session or lose that bear. They are incredibly tough animals and hard to kill. After Samong shot, Zack jumped on the rifle to try and get a shot at the second bear but it was nowhere to be found. We gave it some time and then made our way across the river to look for the bear. Unfortunately, all we found were pin drops of blood and no bear. If I had to guess, the shot went in between the lungs and spine, and the bear was able to get away. With that shot location the bear will almost certainly live as nothing vital was hit. There were a lot of opportunities that weekend, but no tags were notched.
A Shot at Redemption
The following weekend Jeff and Zack went back to the same drainage for redemption. On Friday evening before even getting to their destination they turned up two bears and had high hopes for the next morning. Why leave bears to find bears they thought, so they made a new plan, camped in a new spot and waited for morning. As soon as the sun came up, four bears were spotted. The closest bear was deemed too small and both of them chose to pass, while the other one was spotted miles away. A chocolate and a jet black that were both shooters became the two target bears. While they were moving in to make a play on the color phase, the bear snuck over the ridge and out of site and the black one presented a shot while feeding on berries. One well placed shot with Zack’s Aero Precision SOLUS Hunter chambered in 6.5 PRC from 390 yards and the bear was down within seconds.
In years past, Labor Day weekend has always proven to be the best and our favorite time to chase bears in the high country. Over the past couple of months, we made plans to bring our buddy Omar from Gohunt on a bear hunt. Dried up and non-existent alpine berry crops made hunting difficult, but Zack was still able to get Omar a great opportunity. The guys were able to find a nice bear feeding on one of the sparse ripe berry patches in the area. They snuck into 350 yards and Omar was able to take his time getting comfortable behind the rifle and Zack had the camera locked in on the bear.
The shot rang out and the bear took off into the brush. Omar felt great about the shot but after reviewing the footage, the bullet went way over the bears back. His rifle’s dope is linked up to his rangefinder, and in the heat of the moment read the angle degree rather than the MOA. After reading 12 degrees inside his rangefinder, he dialed 12MOA at 350 yards and shot way too high. Having only been hunting for a couple of years this was an easy mistake to make, and one that he will likely never make again. Zack and Omar had already been hunting for a couple of days before Jeff and I met them at the trailhead. With three whole days left to hunt, we still had high hopes of getting a bear.
One Last Shot
We all spent the next day and following morning in the high country only seeing two bears that were cruising country miles away in search of food. It was a unanimous decision to drop to lower elevation where we knew of a good food source that bears could possibly be feeding on. Once we got down to the area we wanted to hunt, we were blown away at the number of berries and rose hips that were around. There was no doubt in our minds that we would turn up a bear. It was just a matter of when one would come out of the thick brush and present a shot. The rest of that day was spent glassing without any bear sightings.
It wasn’t until the following morning (last day of the hunt) when we stopped to take a breather while hiking back to the truck, that I spotted a bear on the hillside up to my left. Without hesitation, Jeff gave me a range, Zack started filming through the spotter, and I dropped to the prone position and dialed my scope as Jeff let out a “muurrrrp” sound to stop the bear. At 550 yards I dialed my scope to 10 MOA and sent a 143 grain Hornady ELD-X out of my 6.5PRC Aero Precision SOLUS Hunter. By the way the bear reacted to the shot we all knew it was a confirmed hit as it spun around and ran into the brush. Without being positive that the bear was dead or not, we left Zack behind on his rifle as Jeff, Omar, and myself went out for the recovery.
As we got up to where we thought the bear was hit, we immediately found good blood and followed it over downed trees through an avalanche chute. The blood trail took us into some thick alders that led to a piled up beautiful chocolate color phase sow. Excitement and relief rushed over me as I walked up and put hands on my bear. It is moments like these that keep me returning to the mountains. I honestly had thoughts that I would not harvest a bear this year, and out of nowhere on the last day, it happened. Bear meat in the freezer for my family and I to enjoy this winter, predator management, funding that will go towards conservation from my tag and license sales, and memories made with good friends. This is bear hunting.