Tighty Whitey Black Bear Retrieval
This was one of those years that lady luck was shining on me. The Colorado Division of Wildlife had instituted a new system for bear tags a couple of years prior - first come, first served with a cap. Well, when the clock struck nine o'clock (I think that was the kickoff) on that much anticipated morning, I was already on the internet just waiting to blaze through my computer's keyboard like a news reporter on a dry run who just stumbled across the story of the century. I had been practicing my 'hunt and peck' agility for the past several days and I would not be denied my prize. A few seconds later after some blistering moves that would make a running back envious, I got my black bear tag!
Fast forward to bow hunting season. In all the years of scouting my hunting area, I've come across several huge black bears in all sorts of colors. One of my preferred stands to hunt is over a small pond (back in Texas we call 'em tanks), which is also a local hangout for black bear and elk. At first I thought that if I were lucky enough to kill my elk first, I could then hunt over the gut pile; a good strategy for any bear hunter. Fate had its own time table and I ended up doing just the opposite.
I have a rule about bow hunting, but I guess it probably more falls under the category of spouting off hot air because I sometimes break my own rule. Here it is: once I draw blood from an animal, I'm done. Now in theory that sounds good, especially when you're sharing hunting stories with your buddies and you need to save face by circumventing the fact that you screwed up a perfectly good shot that grandma could have aced. But in practice, well, situations can change one's thinking during one of those weak moments, kinda like weaning yourself from chocolate when it appears in your hand without the wrapper. Well, earlier in the season, I had shot at a bear and he just took off like a thoroughbred with a train to catch. After a few hours of being on my hands and knees following an almost impossible trail to follow, he seemed to have vanished, all sign disappeared. No more blood spots; no more broken limbs of tender buck brush; no more unsettled and disturbed ground cover - everything looked perfectly in place, just like my children's rooms before they became teenagers. I was fairly upset, my black bear hunting season was over with, and I was now focused on filling my elk tag. Still in a funk, I pulled out my bear tag and was intent on cutting it up, but, for some reason, I got distracted and it found its way back into my pocket.
A few afternoons later was no different from the days prior, typical quintessential afternoon in the mountains of Colorado. The only addition to this perfect day was that I had partnered up with my eldest son who epitomizes the definition of hard-core bowhunter. We were sitting in a nature-made ground blind, which was a small clearing on a slightly elevated ridge that was covered with serviceberry bushes. Our position was perfectly level with the backside of the dam 50 yards away. Of course, experience had shown that most animals approach the pond from behind the dam, right below our position. Up until today, this had been the case.
About an hour before sundown, this hefty looking chocolate colored boar came flying out of the woods making a beeline right to the water. Contrary to black bear tradition, he came from the other side of the pond from where we were, completely ignoring my best-laid plans of attack. I guess he didn't read the memo or kept up with current events. Of course, I had no intent on shooting him. As far as I was concerned, my bear hunt was over and now I was just going to enjoy watching him plunge into the water doing what bears love to do. My son, on the other hand, had other thoughts. He immediately looked at me; his facial expression saying, "Why are you still here?" I quietly informed him of what I was doing and why. Well, that went over about as well as telling a super model that she is fat and ugly. We proceeded to have an hour long conversation in the span of about five seconds that covered topics such as: how long it takes to walk home; no more cooked meals; disinheritance; if you don't shoot that bear, I'll kick your butt; my mental state bordered insanity; and a myriad of otherwise persuasive comments. I finally gave in and said, "ok." Afterall, I like to eat, especially if someone else does the cooking!
My only problem was that the bear, now frolicking in the water like a kid at the pool during summer break, was at eye-level. Even though in his watery heaven, he was still wary of his surroundings, head bobbing, looking periodically over his shoulder forsaking perfect zen, giving to caution. Besides a distance of 50 yards to the dam, there was also a 10 foot deep ravine in between. As soon as he peered in the opposite direction, I leaped from my position dropping a few feet below line of sight - now my unseen presence was intact and the elusive stalk was all that remained. For someone who is almost legally deaf, that was no easy task - treading light and quiet as a mouse is about as foreign to me as having a million bucks.
Streaking the distance at the speed of light, I managed to sneak up right below the dam - black bear 10 yards away - ever so cautiously looking over the edge. I only needed a glimpse of his head to see which way he was facing. At the right moment, I took one step up, full draw, and released my broadhead at the water line, right between the shoulders. Grandma would have been proud!
Now, I have seen bowhunting shows where the animal drops right where he stood. I've always thought that maybe trick photography was involved or some kind of hanky-panky was going on because that has never happened to me or anyone else I know, in the whole world. Well, in an instant, history was about to reveal a new chapter in my life. My P&Y black bear didn't move an inch -- he didn't take off like a bolt of lightning -- he lay there -- floating -- in the middle of this freezing pond!
Reality finally set in when after a few minutes he was still there. I knew the pond wasn't real deep because I've seen lots of elk play in there over the years; I just didn't want to follow suit. I figured the best way to get er done was just to strip off everything, down to my tighty whiteys, and check out the possibilities. My hide would dry out but I really don't like hunting in wet socks, boots, and pants. There were plenty of broken limbs around, so anything that could extend my reach meant that other precious parts of my anatomy may get a reprieve from taking a cold dip.
Unbeknownst to me, my son was snapping pictures like a paparazzi stalking a super star. Ultimately, we had to trash most of them because my computer only has a terabyte of disk space - for you non-computer geeks, that's a million megabytes. Lucky for me and any possibilities at being a YouTube star.
As I slowly crept out into the pond, black goo was squishing between my toes and up to almost knee level. Pleasant to the touch, it was not! I finally reached what I considered my maximum distance from shore along with a decent stop-gap between the deep freeze and precious dry parts. Ever so cautiously reaching forward without sacrificing my balance, the limb I grabbed earlier was just long enough to reach my bear and pull him toward shore - a sigh of relief considering the alternative. I have never thought how much extra a wet bear weighs until that day; now I know.
A black bear floating on the water is one thing but hauling him out of his watery grave is another. It reminds me of an alaskan moose hunting show I saw awhile back - the guide specifically told the hunter to not shoot a moose in the water. Well, that's some good advice for obvious reasons. But, whoever listens to good advice while in the moment?
My son, who would never think of interfering with my struggles to pull the bear out, just kept on taking pictures. The sound of clicks was so frequent and continuous that I could time my heaving and pulling to its repetitive sound. I'm not sure how long it took me to drag my black bear completely out of the water, but I was sure Jesus was on his was back. Just like everything else, all good things must come to an end - he was finally on dry ground.
After a long break and rest, during which time the local critters had seen more human exposure than prior generations, I managed to clean up nicely and looked like a real hunter, again. Mr. Paparazzi's battery died on his camera from excessive abuse, so he and I managed to drag my black bear to a much better spot to do our field dressing.
After a couple of hours into the dark - we didn't have much prior experience with field dressing black bears - we managed to complete our task without messing up what turned out to be a beautiful chocolate-colored black bear rug. With packs full, we headed back up the hill to my jeep, and a nice warm bed later, with my trophy - and a slew of memorable pictures - in tow.