April 11, 2023
For the second evening in a row, the small, black spot appeared on the face of the distant cliff. Though calling it “small” is a bit misleading. Sure, from a mile way, the dot appeared diminutive, but upon closer inspection, via a spotting scope, it was clear this roving spot was, in fact, a very large black bear. And by showing himself on two consecutive days, at nearly the exact same time, it had unwittingly tipped its paw and given us a plan for the next evening’s hunt.
It was my friend and hunting partner Luke Thorkildsen who had first spotted the bear on the first day of our hunt. He and I, along with a few other friends, had packed into the Wyoming backcountry to a camp deep in the Bighorn Mountains. The camp, consisting of three wall tents and a corral of horses, was set by Ben Rogers of Stone Mountain Outfitters, who also lent his expertise in packing horses and baiting bears. Rogers had put Luke and me on a rock outcropping perched on a steep mountainside overlooking a bait site 300 yards downhill.
BAIT AND WAIT
Sitting over bait can be incredibly effective, especially in thick cover, but it’s not the most exciting way to hunt bears. Hunters spend evenings staring at a few bait-filled buckets, mentally willing a bear to appear from the surrounding timber. Depending on bear density, you might see a lot of bears coming and going, allowing the hunter to wait out a true trophy. Or you might go hours, or even days, without seeing a bear, and then be forced into fast action when a shooter bear does arrive.
The first day of the hunt definitely fell into the latter category. Action was slow. A lanky sow visited the bait briefly, before ghosting into the dark timber below. Not long after, a young black bear about the size of a bowling ball moved through the sage below us. From our rock, Luke and I had a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains. Though much of the country was out of range of my rifle, we alternated our focus from the bait to every meadow and opening we could see, no matter how small. And that’s when Luke first spotted the cliff-dwelling bear.
The shale-covered face was more than a mile distant, but the black spot was clearly visible without the need for optics. As the bear worked its way down, angling toward the timber at the base of the mountain, Luke and I discussed the many different ways to hunt the big bruin. We had no idea about the terrain leading up to the cliff or if getting within rifle range was even a possibility, but the strategy session gave us something to stave off the boredom so common when waiting for bears to visit a bait.
To say spring bear camp is slow-paced would be overselling the experience. Sitting over the bait is an evening affair, and during the months of May and June, sunsets stretch nearly to 9:00 p.m. That puts hunters back in camp late in the evening. After dinner is served and whiskey is poured while the hunts are relived, it’s well past midnight by the time you slip into the sleeping bag.
Luckily, there’s no need to wake up early. I’m naturally an early-riser, so the first few sleeps in any bear camp are always short. But soon, I fall into an easy-livin’ rhythm of a late breakfast around a smoldering campfire followed by an early afternoon nap. Because most bear camps are set faraway from any phone tower, there’s usually little to no service, which means no way to check in with life outside. It’s a great time to slow down with a good book and unwind from the worries of work.
On the third afternoon, Luke and I made plans to go after “Cliff Bear,” as the big bruin had come to be called. The bear had shown up two nights in a row in the exact same place at the exact same time, just after 7:00. Tonight, with any luck, we’d be there to greet the bear with a bullet.
Rogers packed us to a point along that trail that ran closest to the cliff face and gave us a general idea of the lay of the land from there to where the dense conifer forest gave way to shale. The first few hundred yards was an easy walk as the gentle ascent led to a series of stepped openings in the timber. Along with a plethora of elk and deer sign, we spotted bear scat, causing us to slow down our approach in the likelihood we’d bump into a bear along the way.
Just before the edge of the trees, the climb turned tough. Slick, loose shale was scattered along the route, and the timber was sparse. We tested each footstep and pulled ourselves along, reaching for each willowy branch to use as a handhold. We’d taken pictures of the cliff from afar and used those images as reference, but up close, everything looked different, so we took a rough guess that we were close to where the bear had appeared the two evenings before.
As the clock ticked closer to 7:00, our senses heightened. Every screeching call of a magpie could be an alert to a new predator on the landscape; every snap of a branch a signal giving away the bear’s approach. Just after the hour, a rattling of falling shale from above put me on high alert. I shoved gun into my shoulder and peered over the scope at the cliffs above. It was well after 8:00 when we called it, figuring our not-so- quiet climb had alerted the bear to our presence. We decided to hightail it downhill, hoping to reach our bait site before dark. Maybe the bear had skirted us and headed to the bait while we waited for him to appear. On our way down, a sizable pile of fresh bear scat quickened our pace as we figured the bear may be just ahead of us.
Sure enough, as we rounded a corner that put us within view of the bait, we spotted a large black bear coming out of the timber below. Whether or not it was Cliff Bear is still up for debate, but it was large enough that we hustled through the steep sage to get within range of a rifle shot. The speedy stalk put us 350 yards from the bear. Not an easy shot, considering the steep angle, but doable. I set up with the forend of the Weatherby locked into the V of my shooting sticks and shoved my pack into my armpit for support. Just as I found the bear in the scope, it walked behind the only tree in the opening. We had a 360-degree view of the surrounding hillside.
There was nowhere for this bear to go. Once he stepped out the other side of the tree, I’d center the crosshairs and slowly squeeze the trigger. We just had to wait for him to reappear. I’ve long maintained bears have a sixth sense, a way of knowing danger is near even when it can’t be seen, smelled, or heard. Perhaps that’s why bears were so revered by indigenous peoples. It’s the only way to explain how this particular bear disappeared on an open hillside. As we waited for the bear to reappear, twilight encroached. For 30 minutes we picked apart every inch of sagebrush we could see, until finally it was too dark to even make out the white bait buckets in the black night. Either there was a magic portal behind the tree or the bear simply had sat down to wait us out, even though there was no way it could have known we were there.
BACK TO THE BAIT
A bruin as big as Cliff Bear doesn’t grow to that size by being careless. We figured our foray into his hideout probably ruined the spot for good. So on the fourth afternoon we were back at the bait, overlooking the long, wide valley. Just like the first two days, the action was slow, which gave us plenty of opportunity to glass the far hillside as if we could will Cliff Bear back into existence.
Seven o’clock came and went, with no signs of the black bear, or any bear for that matter. Next 7:15 came and went, then 7:30 passed. Then suddenly, as if appearing from nowhere just as he had disappeared the night before, Cliff Bear was back in his usual spot. Luke and I debated a bombing run up the mountain, but light fades fast in the backcountry and we doubted we could get into position before dark. Even if we could, surely there was no way to quietly approach in the rugged cliffs.
ENTER STAGE RIGHT
As Luke and I were discussing our options, I glanced over his shoulder and spotted a bear ambling down the low ridge to our right. It was a good-sized bear, maybe a couple of hundred pounds with a long body and swaying belly. I guessed it to be a boar, though I couldn’t be 100 percent positive. It had a chocolate-colored fur set off by dark legs and a black face—definitely a trophy in my book.
The problem was Luke sat between me and the bear, and there was no way to maneuver into a safe shooting position without the bear spotting us. So we watched as he angled toward the bait, hoping it wouldn’t find the black hole the Cliff Bear has disappeared into the night before. Instead, it made a hard right and disappeared over the ridge into some thick brush. It seemed our bad luck with bears would continue.
Seconds later, the chocolate bear came back into the scene, on a course that took it directly behind the lone tree. I chuckled to myself, thinking surely it would reappear before dark. I may have said a brief prayer as well, which must have worked because the bear soon reappeared. It never stopped, however, and moved at a measured gait toward the tree line. By then I was in a better position, and when the big boar hesitated for just a second, I hovered the crosshairs high on its shoulder and touched off the shot. The bear hunched and rolled down the steep hill before disappearing into some thick brush.
The light was fading fast so we hustled down the hill, hoping we’d find the bear without having to blood trail it through the dark forest. The bullet had found its mark and the boar lay dead, not 20 yards from where it had paused in the sagebrush. As we skinned and quartered him, I glanced up at the high cliffs surrounding us. By then, it was too dark to see, but I imagined a big, black bear was overlooking the valley below, watching two hunters at work, waiting for us to leave so it could safely come down to scavenge the remains.