May 19 2023

End Of An Era

Back when I first got into bear hunting, pursuing them with a bow was never something that was on the table for me. I always looked at them as a “rifle critter” for the sheer fact that they were, and still are, a predator that could eat me if they wanted. I know that sounds funny, but give me a break, I was just starting out. As my love for bear hunting grew more and more, so did my love of bowhunting. It took hold of my soul and nudged me in a direction I didn’t think I’d go. Soon I started applying for archery spring bear tags in my home state of Arizona. As luck would have it, I drew my first year back in 2015 and would officially be bear hunting with a bow the spring that followed. That very hunt planted a seed of addiction in me that has never stopped growing.

Since my first archery spring bear hunt in Arizona, I have applied every year since and drew every so often. It’s always been a fun hunt that I’ve looked forward to. So when I got the news in the fall of 2021 that I drew a 2022 spring bear tag, my excitement went through the roof. It was for a unit I had always wanted to hunt, but never had the chance. Sadly, it would be my last chance ever to pursue black bears on this tag, given the fact that Arizona recently cut this hunt from the regulations. It left me heartbroken, but I was ecstatic for one last opportunity.



This particular tag in Arizona runs from the beginning of May clear to the end of July, pending sow quota limits of course. Once a sow quota is met in a unit, that unit will shut down bear hunting the following Wednesday at sundown. Given the fact that this hunt has a 1% success rate, I wasn’t too worried about the sow limit being met.

There are two notable things happening during the span of this hunt. One is the bear rut. I’ve seen the best rutting during the last week of May and the first week of June. Another thing is the heat. Man, it’s hot and dry in Arizona that time of year, which exposes an achilles heel of the bear—water. Bears will be glued to it and so would my focus for scouting.

Right from the get go when I found out I drew the tag in November, I jumped into my onXmaps and started cataloging potential water sources in areas that said “bear” to me—areas that were steep and dense in vegetation. I’ve always found that bears seem to prefer steeper country. It offers them more security, and usually provides ample food along with water, of course, in the bottom. That, paired with a dense canopy for shade and even more security, is a recipe for bears.

My digital maps looked like a Christmas tree with how many waypoints I was dropping on potential areas. However, there was one spring in particular that really stood out to me. A pool of water surrounded by steep walls that made for a drainage choked in oak. It checked all of the boxes. With a packed schedule already, I wouldn’t get to step foot in the area until the hunt came. So, until then, I’d be fueled by my incessant e-scouting and vivid daydreaming.


Maiden Voyage

After an incredibly rugged spring hunt in Idaho that came with no shortage of inclement weather, I was beyond ready to return home to the desert for my Arizona spring tag. I blocked five days off of the calendar. My excitement was at an all time high, of course, but expectations were rather low. Along with it being a tough hunt, I just didn’t know the area well. I planned on exploring more than anything to learn as much as I could.


Tracks Everywhere

The immediate plan, once I got my camp set, was to go and check out as many water sources as I could. Thanks to all of the e-scouting I did, my list was a long one that would strip its fair share of rubber from my boots. My strategy in doing this was to play a process of elimination. I wanted to find the hot water sources for bears in the area—where they were and where they weren’t. It had been all of about ten minutes hiking down a decrepit two track when I looked down and saw a pad print. There it was. All of the scanning of maps I had done led me right to this area and I was now standing above a fresh bear track. I hadn’t even reached the first water source yet and it seemed like I was on the right track already. Literally.

The further I went down the trail, the more and more bear tracks I saw. And the water? Yeah, all of them had bear tracks adorning their muddy edges. Thanks to an unexpected encounter with a buddy and his OHV, I was able to check out way more water sources than I had originally planned on as well. This helped immensely and really narrowed my focus to a few different areas.


Two Ships in the Dark

For the next few days I’d sit at a stock tank that had multiple sets of an impressive track. I assumed it was from a solid boar in the area. Despite the track imprinted in my mind, I came up empty those few days. Even with that said, I was still seeing fresh tracks popping up on the two track I was hiking along every morning and evening. The bears were there and I knew it. We were just two ships, or even ten, passing in the dark. With time we were bound to meet up eventually. How much time was a question I didn’t have an answer for.


“The Spot”

Remember that all too perfect water source I mentioned at the beginning of this article? Once my excitement for the stock tank fizzled, I decided to go check out the spring that I had been staring at for what seemed like ages. As I worked down the game trail that led to the water, I noticed some imperfections in the pine needles. Drag marks about six inches or so wide with no hoof prints beneath. I knew this was a bear, and a good sized one at that.

Once I arrived at the spring, it was everything I hoped it would be: shaded, lush, and plenty of water for a bear to get a drink and even take a dip if they wanted. Not to mention finding those bear tracks on the way in made for good vibes all around. This is where I needed to be. It just made the most sense out of any other place I had been. For days I sat in this perfect spring. I saw turkeys and a fox, but no bears. At this point in my trip, it was time for me to pack up and head home for a little bit. While this leg was indeed over, my mind was racing and trying to answer the question of why. Why did I not see a bear in this oasis? It was perfect. The sign was there. After staring at my maps more and more, I started to wonder if it was the wind direction in relation to where I now believed the bears were moving to and from. It put a solid idea in my head about how to play the wind in this spot. I’d have to wait until my follow up trip to find out if it held any weight, though.


Back At It

Coming home from a hunt is always something I look forward to. I love seeing my wife and daughter and being away eats away at me. Even so, I had a burning drive to get back out into the mountains to test out my new wind theory. I concluded that my wind was blowing up into where I believed the bears to be bedding. So in order to get around that, I’d scale up the other side of drainage to set up. Here the directional might still blow towards the bedding, but because I was elevated the thermal would push my scent over the bears. And when it would drop, the directional changed in my favor as well. It was the perfect setup.

Hour after hour went by. I had probably ranged the spring from my post 100 times and every tree around it. The wind was great too, just as I had hoped. When it did blow towards the bedding, it was pulling my scent over the top of it. Hidden in a rock crevice, sheltered from the beating sun, my hopes were soaring. Things just felt right. But as good as the whole day felt, the sun was now descending behind the mountain and still no bears. Thoughts of a hot dinner back at camp started invading my thoughts. With about 15 minutes of light left, I began to slowly get my stuff together in preparation to leave. While doing so, I actually tripped and a rock went tumbling down the hill. “What a clutz,” I thought. At that moment though, I heard something down beneath me. It wasn’t the rock that went tumbling either.

Through the dense vegetation I saw a large black figure floating through the bottom of the drainage towards the spring. Once it stepped out into the only opening I had for a shooting lane, I confirmed that this was not only a good sized bear, but a boar. With no hesitation I grabbed my bow off of the tree. The ghost I had been chasing the whole hunt stood at 30 yards. I came to full draw, settled, and buried my pin on the bear. Time slowed down here. All of the practice I had put in throughout the year was washing over me. The good habits I made took over and the shot broke. My arrow hit right behind my pin. Perfect.


End of an Era

After gathering myself and my gear, I made my way down the water and found my arrow drenched in red. It fully passed through the bear just as I’d hoped. With it still getting cool at night, I opted to leave the bear until morning. Even though the shot looked perfect, I didn’t want to risk bumping a wounded bear in the dark in the dense forest I was hunting. I’d return at first light instead.

My excitement paired with the adrenaline fought off any good sleep I hoped to get. So when my alarm went off dark and early, I was more than ready to get going. Right at daybreak is when I made it to where I was hunting and just 20 yards away from the spring, my bear laid motionless. That was it. I had become the 1% to successfully harvest a bear on this hunt. Overjoyed, proud, and grateful are the three best words to describe how I felt then.

After a beautiful morning taking care of my bear, it really started to hit me. The heavy weight in my backpack was the last I’d feel this time of year in Arizona. There wouldn’t be any more long spring days sitting above a pool of water. No more anticipation racing through me among the May flowers. The nostalgia from past Arizona  spring bear hunts hit me like a runaway semi-truck. Every step I took was one step closer to this all being over. My last memory was officially in the making. I didn’t, and still don’t, want it to be true. Despite the aching in my heart, it was the end of an era. I’ll embrace this nostalgia until the end of time.