Editor’s Note: On Friday we dig through the Safari Club Archives and dust off a story from our past. This week we travel to the White Mountains of Northern Arizona for an exciting black bear hunt on the Apache reservation. This story first appeared in the January/February 1988 issue of Safari Magazine.
“Tell Howard to load his rifle and get down here quick. He’s bayed and he’s big!”
This was the first time I’d heard any emotion in Tom’s voice. David Lee and I piled into the 4×4 and worked our way to his vantage point near Christmas Tree Lake. Tom was standing across a wide, marshy meadow when we jumped out of the truck. I was trying to load the .338 mag, and by the time I managed to get the rifle loaded and on safe, then sprint across the meadow, the bear was gone. The three dogs had been thrashed so much, they couldn’t follow the trail.
For the sixth time in 15 years, a black bear had given me the slip. Words cannot describe how low I felt as we sloshed back to the truck.
I had decided to go after a black bear one last time after reading a column in a local Phoenix newspaper that described the high population of bears and the hunter success on Arizona’s Indian reservation. A license was $100, and hunters are required to hire a guide approved by the White Mountain Apache Reservation Game and Fish Department.
A phone call got me the list of approved guides, and I took a couple of weeks to call each of the nine guides on it. I finally settled on a three-day hunt with Summit Outfitters of Albuqerque, New Mexico. Tom David had impressed me with his quiet, confident manner and his slightly different approach to hunting on the reservation.
Other bear guides use horses to negotiate the steep mountains, and this means allowing the dogs to roam in search of a hot trail. After a fresh track is found, there’s a game of catch-up on the horses. If a hot trail isn’t cut early, both the dogs and the horses are tired by day’s end.
Tom’s approach is to put his strike dogs on an elevated platform on the back of his truck and drive the forest roads slowly. The strike dog picks up the scent if a bear is near the road. When a bear is found, the rest of the pack is turned out and one or two hunters start following on foot. Another stays with the truck and trys to circle ahead of the race to cut it off.
I met Tom the afternoon before our hunt. He already had picked up my permit and was waiting in the Game and Fish headquarters to show me the way to his camp upstream from the Achesay National Fish Hatchery, about 10 miles from Whiteriver, Arizona. He had a comfortable, well equipped trailer camp and that first night we dined on barbecued elk over rice that Tom’s wife had prepared. It was simply fantastic.
After a restless night, we were on our way to the high country by 4:30 the next morning. Even the dogs felt the anticipation, but they seemed to relax after we got them collared and loaded into their boxes. There were three of us crowded into the cab of the truck.
We had traveled about 30-40 minutes out of camp when Utah, a Walker strike dog, and B.J., a Pott hound, started yipping and sounding gamey. We let them sort the trail out for about 20 minutes, then loaded them up and headed for Hawley Lake.
There were several pine trees along the rutted logging road that had been completely stripped of bark up to about six feet. Bears do this to get to the pulp underneath. and it invariably kills the tree. For this reason. the reservation’s game department encourages bear hunting. A single bear can kill an acre of trees in just one spring.
As we pulled up to a small lake, a wild range horse bolted through the trees. It was not a good sign. If the horse was in the area, chances were that a bear was not, but we gave it a shot anyway. Tom took Utah around the five-acre lake while David and I stayed at the truck and swapped hunting stories. When Tom returned, we left to try another lake. By the time we reached it, it was 9:30 a.m.
Things started to head up just as we caught sight of Christmas Tree Lake. Utah, B.J. and Whizzer really cut loose.The trail was hot! Tom slammed the truck to a sliding stop and we all bailed out. By IV, all the dogs were putting in their two cents worth, and the memory of eight hounds screaming their lungs out is something that will stay with me for a long, long time. We had to shout at each other to be heard above the din. Even so, the weather is so warm that it was difficult for the dogs to strike the trail, even with the air full of scent. The bear must have been very close, and may have bolted as we drove up.
Tom, David and I spread out to try to find some sort of track. About 30-40 yards ahead of the truck, I found a print in the dusty road. It was very clear we had jumped a big bear. When I put my hand in the track, I decided then and there that if it took the entire three days, I wanted that bear. I’d even extend the hunt if needed, but I wanted that bear.
I called Tom. He grabbed Utah by the collar and pulled the dog over to the track Utah took one deep sniff, let out a long bawl and took off running. Two other dogs were right behind him.
Tom told David and I to wait at the truck while he followed a short distance to make certain we weren’t after a sow with cubs hidden somewhere. I’ve already described what happened next, and how dejected I felt.
I was beginning to wonder if I’d ever get a chance to see a bear in the wild, let a bag one. Tom and David were not going be put down so easily, though. They had me help load the dogs again and we circled the area where they’d lost the bear. We had gone only about 400 yards when the began singing out again.
This time, all the dogs were let out. It was going to be all or nothing now. Four of the hounds headed straight up the slope while the younger ones raced around not quite knowing what to do. David was running around, trying to gain control youngsters. Tom yelled for me to load the rifle and follow him on foot. The fight headed uphill, and Tom set a quick pace to follow.
As we were climbing, we could hear the bruin being brought to bay, then it would run off. I got one short glimpse through the brush as we closed in on the running fight, but it must have scented us because it was off in a second.
As we climbed, I got so tired that I couldn’t lift my feet high enough to clear he underbrush and the toes of my boots kept catching in tangles. Tom turned at one point and asked about my ability to breathe. I puffed that I was okay. Then he really took off, gaining ground on that mountain.
Just as I was beginning to worry about being able to keep up and being able to place a good shot if we did catch up, the bear turned.
We now were heading downhill and I was breathing easier. It was only a short run, because Tom kept moving in closer and closer. The dogs were fighting the bear less than 50 yards away now, but we couldn’t see a thing. At 30 yards, I caught sight of the pack moving around a black spot in the brush. It still was too thick to try a shot. Tom grabbed me by my sleeve and pulled me about 10 feet to the left. A window opened up in the brush and the full fight scene was clear now. My .338 was up and ready. My last clear memory was of the bear coming right for us at less than 30 yards. “Now, now, now,” Tom was hissing.
I feIt no recoil, nor did I hear the rifle, but I did see the bear rear up on its hind feet and fall on its back. Tom began running into the action with me just a couple feet behind him, ready with the .338 for another shot. There was no need for it.
There on its back lay a giant. The dogs were all over it, but the bear could not raise its head. Tom raised the barrel of my rifle. “He’s done,” he said. We stood in silence as the last breath escaped through the wound in the bear’s chest, then it was over. The 200-grain flatnosed bullet had hit high in the lungs, crossed just under the spine and exited the far shoulder. Everything had happened in less than 20 seconds from the time we first saw the bear.
It was hours later before we could finally get the bear off the mountain and get it to a set of scales. It almost bottomed out, but the dial stopped just at 400 pounds. Using the Arizona Game and Fish Department’s formula, its 57 1/2-inch girth would put it a little higher, about 450 pounds. The hide squared seven feet, three inches. Its skull was officially scored at 21 5/8 inches. I truly had a trophy of a lifetime.
A friend later said, “You’ve got nowhere to go but down from here.” Somehow I don’t really care. – Dwyane Howard Mullins