As the wind swirled on the plateau I caught the smell of death. With the smell’s strength wavering between faint and nauseating, I kept working into the wind in the thick timber to locate its source. My eye caught movement directly in front of me about 20 yards into the brush and my hand dropped to the grip of my pistol as my brain registered what my eyes were seeing. A chocolate color phased black bear, gaining speed straight towards me.
Let me start from the beginning. The date is August 31, 2021. My client has been with me since the opening day of archery season and has hunted with a bow a long time. He was born in 1947 and has never killed a big bull elk— we are working on making that happen. Over the past couple of days, he has had some good opportunities but hasn’t let an arrow off its leash— waiting for the perfect shot.
On this morning, he is sitting a stand over a wallow by himself. The wind stays steady and elk come through the wallow in small groups until a mature six-point hits the water alone. The bow is drawn and the arrow released. My client texts me on his Garmin InReach and tells me he’s shot and it was a good hit. As soon as I get the message I start gearing up.
My tracking kit includes two GPS’s, a radio, flagging, binoculars, some hydrogen peroxide in a spray bottle, and a gun. Back in 2017 in this same part of the woods, an elderly client was following his guide who was blood trailing an elk when the hunter felt something was behind him. He turned to see a bear also following the blood trail and was able to get an arrow knocked, drawn, and fired into the bear. While mountain lions, bears, and wayward humans are not a common threat, I still consider it a responsibility to carry a gun while in the woods. I might need to shoot something.
Typically I bring a Marlin 45-70 with 400-grain hard cast gas checks. The rifle has a ghost ring peep sight and a section of rail attached to the side of the barrel near the end of the magazine tube where I have a 400-lumen Streamlight attached. The light is positioned in a way that it illuminates my front sight post in its halo, so if I have to shoot in the dark I at least know which way the gun is pointing.
But, I am not immune to making comfort-based decisions. Guiding early-season includes brutal hours. I am up by 0330 to prep gear, make coffee, wake up clients and get into the field well before shooting light. Evening hunts are followed by dinner and clean-up, and I’m not done until 2300 at night, even later if we kill an elk in the evening and need to get him packed out and hanging. As it happened, we had killed a big 6 point bull the night before and I was running on little sleep.
As I’m lacing up my boots I look at the gun options on the bench near the door of the lodge. I refer to them as casual, business, and emergency. Casual is my Sig P365 9mm. It is the standard P365 slide on the XL frame with a 12 round magazine. Emergency is the 45-70. Business is a P220 hunter in 10mm. Mine is a bit of a frankengun. The frame is finished in Kryptek while the slide is finished in First Lite. I wanted a slide that was cut for the new Romeo 2 red dot and this was the only one available. The Romeo2 is the only reflex sight from Sig that is enclosed and can survive the beating issued from the recoil of the 10mm. The enclosure makes it possible for outdoorsmen to actually use this sight, otherwise, a single drop of rain or a pine needle can block the red dot, making it useless.
Based on the information I have at the moment, a good shot has been made by an experienced hunter and I should just be going to recover an elk that didn’t go very far. So I choose my 10mm and head out the door.
Twenty yards from the wallow I find a single drop of blood mixed with the tracks of 100 head of elk. No arrow. No more blood. My apprentice guide, Aaron, the hunter, and I begin gridding. We find lung blood 200 yards later and start working hard on hands and knees, picking up a drop or two of blood every fifty yards or so. Mostly we track the bull by the extra weight he puts on his front right hoof.
Three hours into the trail I hear a raven and leave Aaron to work the trail while I go to investigate, hoping to get lucky. As I get closer I hear more ravens calling and start to pick up the sound of their wing beats and then smell the unmistakable odor of death.
I know this isn’t the bull I’ve been after, this is old stinky death. I still want to know what it was, and as I work my way into the wind I see the bear.
It’s hard to describe how it was moving. To begin with, it was popping up and down in a gallop and as it did so it appeared to be making up its mind to charge flat out. I drew my pistol and as soon as I saw the red dot with brown hair behind it I pulled the trigger. The bear stopped, roared, and spun as I fired again. At the impact of the second shot, it fell flat dead. The 180 grain V Crown had punched a hole through its heart.
I immediately started looking around for cubs or other threats as the adrenaline flooded. My breathing got heavy and my hands shook. I dead-checked the bear then went into the brush where it had come from and discovered a dead mature 5×6 bull elk with some of his velvet still on. My guess is he had died about 10 days earlier.
I had a fall bear tag in my pocket so I punched it. I called Aaron on the radio to let him know what was going on and we backed off the bull we had been tracking to give him more time. A few hours later we came back and found the elk who had been hit in one lung and died roughly 1/4 mile from where he had been shot. A beautiful 6×6 that was as full of character as the hunter who had killed him.
My thoughts on carrying a gun while bow hunting or guiding haven’t changed much since this bear charge, but rather have reinforced them.
First, carry a damn gun.
Secondly, there is a phrase in motorcycle riding regarding gear— “dress for the wreck.” This applies to backcountry carry as well. The gun you pick has to be convenient enough that you will bring it with you, but it also has to be capable of doing the job. The P365 has unmatched convenience, but once you are in a gunfight with a bear, do you want to have that or the heavier full-framed 10mm? I’m team 10mil on that one. Hindsight being what it is, I would still choose the 10mil over my 45-70 carbine for speed, and in this case, speed mattered. This bear died 8 yards away from me. They cover that distance in less than a second.
Third, get trained and keep training. I draw my pistol a lot. I have the same ammo struggles as everyone else so I can’t stand on the range and bang steel all day. The standard I train to is to be able to see a target, draw and have a good grip on the gun with the dot on the target in about 1 second. I practice that a couple of times every time I put the gun on. I owe a lot to Daniel Horner, who taught me grip and stance in a way that kept that bear from getting any closer.
Lastly, in selecting your carry pistol for hunting I suggest some additional criteria. Get a gun with a grip angle that matches your body. Carry it in a way you can access it quickly. Chest holsters are a great option when you are carrying a pack. If it’s inside your pack it might as well be a rock. Don’t stress about magazine capacity, it’s going to be over with before you get to the bottom of a single stack, one way or another. Carry the gun with a round in the chamber. I didn’t have time to rack the slide.
Stay vigilant out there folks. These animals aren’t civilized.