Featured Taking a Bear in the Idaho Wilds Rob Curtis March 10, 2017 Join the Conversation We all play a role in nature's order. During one week in May, 2015 I was one of Mother Nature's henchmen. Leaving the world of office politics, social media, and even family behind, I loaded everything that would matter for the coming week in the saddlebag of a mule and rode into the steep-walled mountain valleys of the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness in central eastern Idaho. The trail to camp was 8 miles that began at the concrete boat slip of Corn Creek Campground, but bloomed into a corridor of primal beauty that remains nearly unchanged since the summer days of 1805 when Meriwether Lewis and William Clark passed through Idaho. Myself and two other hunters were after black bears just waking from their winter hibernation. On the hunt with me was Sterling Becklin, one of the principals of Erathr3, and Derek McDonald, the chief marketing officer of Proof Research. Both are accomplished hunters. Provisions for camp and guides were provided by Horse Creek Outfitters, a Challis-based outfitter that supports permitted hunting in more than 300 square miles of public and private land in east central Idaho. Bear Facts Black bears are omnivores. They eat everything from nuts, berries, and insects to small deer, elk, and carrion. They are found all over North America with numbers ranging from 350,000 to 450,000 and scientists think their population is growing. That's a lot of bears. They typically live in forested areas at elevation away from human settlements, but quite often end up in backyards and campgrounds scavenging for food. In many communities, black bears are thought of as a nuisance. All of this means black bears aren't in any danger of dying out, even with tens of thousands of them killed each year by permitted hunters. In fact, their continued growth means there's a good chance you'll end up hitting one on a highway or finding one dining from your trash bin depending on where you live. Bears aren't typically violent, but they are fast and powerful animals weighing anywhere from 90 to 550 pounds and capable of running as fast as 20-30 mph. They have a strong sense of smell and their vision is thought to be on par with that of a human. This makes them tough to sneak up on. Nature gives us some advantage, however. Bears waking from hibernation stay pretty close to their dens for a couple weeks. They don't like to walk far because their footpads peel and regrow over the winter and their new pads are soft and feet sensitive. We also know that they'll be near water, and will forage from low areas in the morning moving to higher ground throughout the day following the sun and thermal drafts. Primal Legacy If you're like most people you're well removed from the source of your food. I posit this is an unnatural state of affairs. Humans have been hunting and slaughtering animals far longer than we've been shopping in supermarkets. Be it for sport or sustenance, there's something deeply primal about the hunt. Perhaps that explains why so many people enjoy the activity. The simplicity and serenity of seeking out a meal or defending a community from a threat is hard wired into us. Hunting and killing animals of all kinds goes back to the earliest members of the human species. Natural Communion For me, there's serenity in the hunt. It's found in between the sweating, the waiting, and the violence. It all comes down to one thing. Pursuit. The single objecting makes things easy. It's as if your EDC blade is Occam's razor. Every question is answered in terms of how the outcome affects the pursuit of the animal. That pursuit brings an unparalleled communion with nature. As you stalk an animal, you watch and learn in ways the Nature Channel cannot compete with. This isn't virtual reality, it's absolute reality — red in tooth and claw. Walking the same ground, as your prey, observing its habitat, and learning to anticipate its movement are experiences and skills a person can't develop in an artificial environment. Brass Tacks To hunt a black bear in Idaho, I needed to buy an out-of-state hunting license and a bear tag. The license costs $155 and the tag costs $184. Each tag allows the taking of a single black bear. The number of tags available per season is controlled by the Idaho Department of Fish and Game and is determined to best conserve the number of animals in the state. Incidentally, all of Idaho's funding for wildlife conservation comes from licensing, tags, and permits. It's the sportsmen that use them who pay for the maintenance of the animal population and protection of wild spaces. Packing in to base camp on horses and mules took a few hours. Riding in was a great way to see the terrain. The animal knows to follow the path, so I was free to look around as the pack string moved up the creekside trail. We were at the base of rising mountains on either side of Horse Creek. The valley walls were somewhere between 40 and 50 degrees. Hiking them in search of a bear was going to suck. As we rounded the last corner, a few tents appeared on a low, flat spot ahead of us. This was home for the next week. In addition to Adam Beaupre, co-owner of HCO and its lead guide, and Dalton Hall, HCO's wrangler, both of whom rode in with us, we met the other lead guide, Tom Martiny, Beaupre's wife, licensed guide and HCO's other co-owner, Sahra Beaupre and HCO's 26-year-old intern Megan Gould. The five of them would be responsible for keeping us happy and fed while helping us find our prey. The Importance of Seeing The first morning we woke after dawn and McDonald, myself, and guide Martiny hiked up to a nearby rise to begin the spotting stage of our spot and stalk hunt. We spent the entire day glassing for bears. Starting low and moving up every few hours, we sat on our haunches and scanned the other side of the valley with binos. I started with a set of Steiner T28 Tactical 10×28 compact binos. I quickly realized their field of view was a little too tight for effective scanning. I ended up borrowing a set of Swarovski Optik EL Range 10×42 WB binos that cost about 10 times my Steiners, but offered a huge improvement in clarity, color, and contrast with a slightly wider field of view and the ability to measure ranges at the push of a button. I was instantly sold on the merits of good glass. Spotting a black bear laying in the shadows was nearly impossible with my compact binos. There simply wasn't enough contrast to differentiate between shadow and bear. The other thing I learned was the importance of a tripod for spotting. Holding a magnified optic steady enough for detailed observation is tough. Even though the opposite valley wall was no more than 300 to 1,000 yards away, it was tough to see detail on the ground with the glass vibrating in my hands. I improvised, though, and placed the binos against the underside of the brim of my ball cap and held brim and binos as one unit. Martiny peered through his tripod mounted binos, scanning the opposite valley wall in a pattern. He was first to spot a bear. He talked us on and I saw my first black bear of the trip about halfway up the opposing slope, 600 yards away. Too far for a shot with the .308 Win we brought. We sat and watched the bear slowly lumber around the trees, looking for insects to eat. Spotting game is a lot harder than I thought. It takes a massive amount of concentration and discipline. Check out the photo of the mountainside on the adjacent page. Look closely and you'll see Becklin standing in the middle of the frame during the recovery of his bear described below. This photograph wasn't made with a wide angle lens. It was shot with a 105mm telephoto lens on a full frame DSLR. Peering 400 yards across the creek with a naked eye, it's nearly impossible to discern a bear from its shadowy, pockmarked environment. Even adding movement to the discovery process doesn't help all that much. A gusting breeze is all it takes to make tree shadows wiggle, further camouflaging a slow moving bear. We saw another bear, a sow according to Martiny, but she was also too high up to engage and moving higher. After 10 hours of slowly moving up our side of the valley and glassing across, we decided it was time to head back. Becklin's Bear As the three of us glassed south of camp, Becklin and Beaupre went north a few miles where they spotted a bear late in the day and shot it across the creek. When we all got back to camp for dinner, we found out that Becklin's bear was high up at the edge of a cliff on a tricky spit of land. He shot the bear as it neared the edge of an 800-foot cliff, thinking it would collapse and roll down the steep embankment and over the cliff edge where it would free fall to the creek below for an easy recovery. Not so. The bear rolled only about 20 feet before getting caught on a sapling that held it in a precarious location. Wednesday morning I watched the recovery operation from the opposite side of the creek. Becklin and Beaupre crossed the creek shimmying over the creek on a downed tree while carrying ropes to secure themselves and the bear as they processed it. I watched them duck in and out of sight as they hiked and climbed for about an hour through steeps, dense trees and exposed rocks to get to the bear Becklin shot the night before. At one point, they disappeared into the fold of a ravine and seconds later I watched a bear run out just behind them. It turns out they never saw it, nor could they hear my yells of warning. The bear ran up the hill and away. As I watched, I was dumbstruck at how small the pair appeared on the other side of the creek. They were out in the open no more than 450 yards away, but practically invisible because of the distance and impossible to hear because of the noise from the snow-melt-swollen creek below. Shooting the bear was the easy part of the hunt, I quickly realized as Becklin stuffed the bearskin in his pack and began the slow, treacherous hike back. Four hours after they started, Becklin and Beaupre crossed the log and we all headed back to camp with the skin and skull of his 200 pound, 5-foot bear. McDonalds Bear While we were recovering Becklin's Bear. McDonald spotted one of the bears we saw Tuesday and crossed the creek with Martiny to stalk it. It was too far to shoot from across the creek, so he decided to get up close and personal. They spent the entire day climbing the steeps and navigating a knife edge cliff to get into a position where they could creep up and shoot the bear from a few hundred yards away. They were high up, maybe 700 to 800 yards upslope when they got upwind and closed the deal. They processed the animal and hiked back down. It was close to the size of Becklin's bear. Average, if a little on the small side. My Bear Thursday, Adam Beaupre and I lit out on foot heading south as the sun rose. I had the Sherpa strapped to my Arc'teryx Khard 30 and the five-round mag in my pocket. We covered 2 miles in a little more than an hour on the creek trail and ascended a steep 100 feet to an area with a panoramic view of three valley walls and five peaks beyond them. We sat on opposite sides of the low hill and glassed for bear 'til lunchtime. Every once in a while, Beaupre would get radio contact with the other guides that were scanning two other areas along the valley. Dalton Hall, HCO's wrangler and guide-in-training told us he'd spotted a bear. Beaupre and I packed up and hiked the trail back through camp and another couple of miles up creek where we went off trail and climbed the 50-degree slope to a rock promontory. The climb was exhausting. Aside from steep, the ground was a mixture of loose dirt and ash left from a forest fire that ripped through the valley a few years prior. Walking in the doff was like walking in 4 inches of soft beach sand covered in a wisp of thin grass. Up on the rock, we sat and glassed again. After about an hour I spotted a slightly heaving shadow on a rock directly across and about 200 yards upslope from us. The bear was sleeping in the shade on a rock with just its butt exposed. For comparison, and because I had time to kill, I switched back and forth between my pocket Steiner binos and the Swarovski's. No contest. Looking through the Steiners, all I saw was a black blob while the Swaros revealed the subtle contrast between shadowy rock and furry bear. The bear was about 600 yards away, further than I wanted to shoot with the .308, so we sat and waited for a few hours for the bear to wake up and start moving with the hope that it might go against it's nature and move across and downhill. Adam said he was a biggish bear. Once it woke and began moving, he could tell by comparing the size of its head to his body. If a bear looked lanky at distance, it was likely small. This one was thick all the way around. As we watched the bear meander across the opposite valley face, he moved a little higher, but not much, and crossed into a gully and out of sight. The topography where the bear moved was like huge, gray rocky scabs sitting on a steep, green mountainside. The bear disappeared for a good hour. I repositioned to a slightly lower set of rocks that were about 100 yards to the left. The move brought a couple benefits. Moving left gave better visibility into the shallow gully the bear meandered into. I still couldn't see him, but we'd have a little more warning if he popped out on the rocky spine where the trees and underbrush gave up. Second, the lower position featured a 10×20-foot flat-topped rock ledge with big stone platform that was just about shoulder high when seated. While there wasn't room to prone out, the rock was practically a naturally formed shooting table. It took a few minutes to set the rifle in on the bipod and get into a comfortable shooting position. I had no idea how long I was going to spend sitting in the spot staring across the valley in search of a lumbering black dot. I did know it was getting past dinner and it was time to eat a granola bar. Pushy climbed up to join us and help observe. But, first, I had to get set up for a shot in case Bear popped up. I had limited DOPE on the gun because we decided earlier that shooting past 300 yards with an unfamiliar rifle and round was probably not a good idea. I didn't want to risk wounding an animal. But, the chance of this bear dropping down toward the creek this late in the day was slim. Bears follow the thermals, chasing the warmth of the sun. At 7 p.m., the long shadows of adjacent peaks cooled the base of the valley, inviting the bear to climb higher — further from my muzzle. The valley walls were so steep here that the distance to the same elevation point on the other side of the creek was only 300 yards away. I decided to work out the drop in case I needed to shoot 400 yards. I pulled out my Kestral with built-in Applied Ballistic computer and used it to measure the temperature and softly gusting wind and apply that data to the shooting solution it spit out based on the bullet and muzzle velocity I'd entered earlier in the trip. As I was messing with the computer, Beaupre tapped me and pointed. The bear had popped out low and practically right in front of us. I got on the gun, adjusted the magnification of the Schmidt & Bender 5-20×50 PM II Ultra Short out a bit so I had some room to track and lead the bear. Using the Kestral, the Ballistic app on my iPhone, and the rangefinder in the Swaros, I knew the shot was 328 yards, 5 degrees up, in about a 2 mph full value crosswind. I took a breath, slowly exhaled and began to control my breathing and heart rate as I tracked the bear right across the steep face. I couldn't have asked for a better shot. The bear was perpendicular to me and walking slowly. I blew out the remaining air in my lungs, put the aiming point on the bear's shoulder and let the Erathr3.308 Sherpa deliver its hate. The shot broke and the bear leapt up and forward as if it were shot in the ass. I came right back down and prepared for a follow up shot, thinking my poorly placed shot wounded the animal. Beaupre was watching through his binos and called it a good hit before I shot again. I watched the bear jog forward two steps and turn uphill. He slumped into the steep face head up and rolled backward. He went limp and picked up speed and reverse tomahawked down the mountainside for what must have been 900 feet. He stopped in a bunch of downed trees about 50 feet from the valley floor. I was still concerned I shot the bear in the ass and it now lay injured, wrapped around a tree, slowly dying in agony. I wanted to go after the bear, but Beaupre assured me the shot was clean and the bear was dead. It was late, the sun was behind the mountain, and there was no safe way to get to the bear at this point so I relented and we three headed back to camp. The Recovery The next morning we went a mile up river to the downed tree, crossed over and spent the next two hours sidehilling through thick saplings, brush, and unstable charred trees. It was exhausting and dangerous. Many points of the approach were on slopes so steep that they were a degree or two from being cliffs. When we got to the bear, I was relieved to find the shot was just behind the right shoulder. I probably could have led him 6 inches more, but there was no question from the location of the entry and exit wounds that the bear died quickly. We skinned the bear, took a large backstrap to eat, and left the rest for the wolves and other bears we knew were in the valley. He was about 300 pounds and 6 feet long. The author, covered in dirt, tree char, and sweat after side-hilling a few miles through thick brush to recover his bear. We got back to camp and Becklin cooked up some bear stroganoff. The bear was tasty and my first big game hunt was complete. Everyone was pretty happy. Becklin was stoked with the performance of his rifle. Three bullets, three bears. Not bad at all. I sat back and ruminated on the experience. I had killed a bear. Should I feel guilty? Did I snuff the life out of some furry animal that bore no malice to me? As I searched my soul, I did come up with one regret. I wish I had led the bear a little more to the right. Monday The Erathr3 Sherpa we shot came with three .308 AI mags, each personalized, numbered, and fitted to the gun. Getting the 8 miles from the last vestige of civilization to the hunting camp using horses and mules that know their way lets you admire the scenery instead of the trail. Anyone can learn the game and the terrain, but few can bring it to their clients with as much ease and charm as Horse Creek Outfitter's lead guide and co-owner, Adam Beaupre. No horse, no problem. Sterling Becklin chose to cover the ground under his own two legs. It may have been because the horses were scared of his stylish compression sock, but probably not. Tuesday HCO guide Tom Martiny watches for movement on the mountain across the valley. A keen pair of eyes, a methodical approach, and copious amounts of patience are only the bare essentials when it comes to glassing. Martiny and McDonald, move to higher elevation while looking for bears. The Horse Creek Valley burned a few years ago, scattering clearings around the mountainsides. These clearings allow line of sight from one side of the valley to the other. Binos are as important as guns when it comes to hunting. It didn't take long to appreciate the difference between inexpensive and premium optics. The Swarovski EL Range 10×42 WB binos and the Kestrel 4500 Applied Ballistics were tools weren't strictly needed on the hunt, but after using them, we'd feel naked without them. Wednesday The name Horse Creek is a bit deceiving. The waterway that splits the valley is a 40-foot wide torrent of snow melt that had to be respected and crossed a few times on the hunt. Thursday The Erathr3 Sherpa was used to dispatch all three bears on the hunt. Idaho allows the use of suppressors, and the 18-inch barreled Sherpa was a great host for the SilencerCo Omega. The author sets up for his shot on a rock table. When Mother Nature offers you a stable, comfortable shooting platform, you use it. Friday The Frank is a great place to watch nature take her course. The fire that burned through the area a few years back cleared the way for new growth. Harvesting the skin, skull and meat from a bear takes about an hour. Beaupre is holding a piece of backstrap that we'd use for dinner later that night. Downed trees provide access from one side of Horse Creek to the other every few miles. The slippery, wet logs were not place to test our balance. Sliding across on our asses was the safest way to go. Black Bear stroganoff, prepared by Becklin. The bacon was a stroke of genius. Sahra Beaupre, one of the HCO guides, did double duty taking care of camp chores and meals between bear and wolf scouting sessions. Saturday At the end of a successful three-for-three hunt, Beaupre leads the horse and mule string out of the valley. Horse Creek feeds in to the Salmon River near Shoupe, Idaho. The Pros Leading the hunt was Horse Creek Outfitters. Based out of Challis, Idaho, its licensed guides and permits let them range in more than 300 square miles of public and private land, including the area of The Frank we were hunting. Raised in the west and hunting since childhood, 33-year-old Adam Beaupre is co-owner of HCO and serves as lead guide. He left a successful career in commercial banking to buy HCO's permits from a retiring guide and start his own outfitting and guiding business. He began hunting and shooting when he was 14. His favorite gear is his Kenetrek Guide Boots, his Zeiss Victory 10×42 T* HT Binoculars, and his Havalon skinning knife. Thirty-year-old Tom Martiny is the other lead guide in the crew. He's been bow hunting for 18 years, and guiding for 12. He split time between guiding and the pro rodeo circuit until he gave up the rodeo six years ago to guide full time. His favorite gear is his Swarovski SLC 42 binos with Manfrotto tripod, his Kuiu ULTRA 6000 backpack, and although he's primarily a bow hunter, his favorite rifle is his Remington 722 in .257 Roberts. Sahra Beaupre, 32, is co-owner of HCO and earned her Idaho Guide License two years ago. She left a career as a schoolteacher to embrace the outdoors and has participated in all aspects of hunting for the past eight years and has a great eye for spotting, but has yet to take an animal herself. She is a fan or Petzl headlamps, Patagonia fleece, and First Light base layers. My Hunting Trip EDC, all carried in my Arc'teryx Khard 30 with room to spare. By Row, starting top left: Canon EOS 5DMk3 w/Canon 24-105 F/4 L 2x Camelbak .75L water bottles Row 2: Think Tank Card wallet w/ 4x Lexar 16Gb Memory Cards Steiner T28Binos Garmin GPSMap 62s Leatherman Wave multitool ZebraLight H30 Headlamp Garmin Tactix Wristop GPS Kestrel 4500 Applied Ballistics Row 3: Spare Canon Battery Exotac Firesleeve w/Bic Lighter Emergency Space Blanket Battle Systems Marker Panel MPIL Mk1 Storacell 18650 Battery Caddy w/ four AA batteries SOL Fire Lite and Tinder Quik Camelbak AllClear Idaho Hunting License and Permits Favorite Gear Make: Duckworth Model: Comet Crew MSRP: $90 URL: www.duckworthco.com The Comet crew was my woobie. I wore it pretty much five days straight. It was great underneath a vest in the cool mornings, and alone when things warmed up to the mid 60s. Its got a light Helle Rambouillet wool outer lined with an ultra-thin microfiber layer against the skin. The inner fabric wicks moisture from your skin into the absorbent wool outer layer. The result is a buttery crewneck that is amazingly comfortable across a broad range of temperatures. Make: Arc'teryx Model: Atom LT Vest MSRP: $169 URL: www.arcteryx.com Starting out in the mornings when the temps are in the low 40s demands something that maintains warmth, but takes up little room in your pack when temps rise. The Atom LT Vest is just that piece. It's enough insulation to keep your core warm, but doesn't bake you when your heart starts pumping. Its Coreloft 60 insulation lets the vest pack down to the size of a softball. Make: Beyond Clothing Model: A5- Brokk MS Pant MSRP: $334 URL: www.beyondclothing.com These are the best pants in the world. I realized these pants are also super durable and protective as I pushed through thorny brush and slid down and over rocks that shredded a competitor's pants worn by another person on the hunt. A perfect fit, articulated knees, the right number of pockets and even thigh vents combine with a casual appearance to make the toughest, most comfortable pant I've ever lived in for a week. When I got home and looked at how dirty and charred up they looked, I was sure they would never come clean. One shot in the washer and they returned to showroom appearance. Make: Arc'teryx Model: Khard 30 Pack MSRP: $359 URL: leaf.arcteryx.com Mountain travel through tightly spaced trees is a pain with a wide pack. The Khard 30 is short and narrow, but affords massive protection for its contents with a lightly padded structure that also helps the pack keep its shape; a bonus when sitting on it or shooting across it. The outer slash pockets are great for carrying water bottles and the load stabilizing straps work well to strap a rifle to the side. It's a great day pack for a hunt, though it was undersized for carrying the bear skin and skull. Make: Swarovski Optik Model: EL Range 10×42 WB MSRP: $3,632 URL: www.swarovskioptik.com I didn't know what I was missing 'til I put these things to my eyes. Massive improvement in contrast, sharpness and color over any other bino I've used. Add a laser rangefinder that fast and easy to activate without bumping the reticle off target and you've got a winner. If you can't afford them, don't try them. You won't be able to look through another bino without wishing for these again. Make: Battle Systems LLC Model: Marker Panel, Individual Lightweight Mk1 (Standard Colors) w/Compact Emergency Signal Mirror, Glass 2×2-inch ($18) MSRP: $22 URL: www.battlesystemsllc.com This thing didn't save my life on this trip, but it could have. I used it a few times to announce my position after our group got spread out on the mountainside. Without it, I'm pretty sure one of the people in the group would still be looking for us right now. Make: Goal Zero Model: Sherpa 50 Solar Kit MSRP: $400 URL: www.goalzero.com I wanted to love the Sherpa 50. It did so many things well. It charged my phone with a built-in USB charger and topped off my laptop and Canon DSLR batteries using the included DC inverter. It told me how much juice I had left with a nice little display. It's even got a little flashlight. But, getting it charged with the included solar panel was a non starter. I left it out for days, moving the panel to track the sun when I could, but leaving camp in the AM and getting back in the early PM meant the panel was not in ideal alignment for most of the day and recharging performance suffered accordingly. The panel works well with an open view of the sun, but be prepared for long recharge times if you aren't around to dote on the panel angles all day. Sources Horse Creek Outfitters: www.horsecrkoutfitters.com Idaho Department of Fish and Game: www.fishandgame.idaho.gov Erathr3: www.erathr3.com Explore RECOILweb:K20 Angled Grip from Seekins PrecisionNew Jersey Implements Even More Gun ControlPHLster Enigma: Concealed Carry, No Matter the WardrobeSemi Automatic Sweet 16 NEXT STEP: Download Your Free Target Pack from RECOILFor years, RECOIL magazine has treated its readers to a full-size (sometimes full color!) shooting target tucked into each big issue. Now we've compiled over 50 of our most popular targets into this one digital PDF download. From handgun drills to AR-15 practice, these 50+ targets have you covered. Print off as many as you like (ammo not included). Click here to get IMMEDIATE ACCESS to a digital PDF of this target pack!