By Steven R. Lewis
With my truck completely packed, I began my trip at 4:30 in the morning. I had anxiously been awaiting this day for quite some time. A five-hour trip and I would be reunited with my hunting buddies. This year we are in a new area for opening deer season but two of our hunters have scouted the area and have hunted here before. After what seemed like ten hours, I rolled into camp just short of five hours. After hellos and handshakes, I unpacked my truck and set up my cot and gear in the large wall tent that was already set up. There was still hot coffee on the wood burning stove and some left over breakfast food to which I quickly indulged in. After eating, we began to discuss our hunting plans and decided to do some scouting first since we arrived three days before opening day. We spent the rest of the day scouting and gathering firewood.
THE NEXT DAY
The next morning we awoke at first light and began scouting again. We were amazed at the amount of deer tracks that we were finding. Surely this would be a successful hunt. Back at camp by 10:00, we cooked up some breakfast and talked about where we would hunt opening morning. We took a short drive around noon and spotted a bear and her cub crossing the road. She stopped as we did too, stared for a few seconds and then continued on into the woods. I have always been told that bears are just as scared of you as you are of them, but don't ever get between a mother and her cub or she may attack! Once they disappeared, we continued back to camp. Relaxing at camp, we heard several horses coming up the dirt road which was adjacent to our campsite. It turned out to be a professional cowboy who was returning from packing in supplies to a party that was ten miles into the woods. One of our hunters knew this cowboy (who happens to be the son of a famous retired baseball player and now a commentator), so he stopped into our camp. After introductions were complete, he accepted a cold drink and informed us that he had seen several deer in the area and it should be excellent deer hunting, however there was some bad news that went along with it. The Park System had relocated 22 problem bears from Yosemite and dropped them off in our immediate area. We all looked at each other in disbelief and couldn't believe what we were just told. What seemed to be a perfect season was now tarnished with a bear problem and possible threat to our success. We discussed our plans for opening day again and decided we wouldn't change anything- YET!
With a 4:00 am wake-up, we all arose from our sleeping bags, got dressed, made coffee, and rechecked our gear. We wanted to be in our hunting spots well before first light. The morning hunt was uneventful and we all returned to camp for lunch. We exchanged information and decided on an early afternoon hunt to see if there was any midday activity. At 3:30 PM a shot was fired, one of our hunters had shot a nice two by two forked-horn. We gutted him on the spot and then drug him to the truck which took about an hour. We had already prepared a meat pole so we quickly had him skinned and bagged. We were all quite proud as we now had one hanging'.
Again we set out early with high hopes. At about 9:30 AM, my partner and I started to move down the side of hill which was heavily wooded. Staying abreast of each other at about 100 feet, we arrived at the bottom where a dry creek bed was filled with brush. We decided to sit and glass this area for a while. We moved further apart to cover more area. Within ten minutes my partner fired a shot. He yelled that he had one down. I quickly moved towards his position. He had already started moving in the direction of the buck. I arrived only minutes after he did. There lay the biggest 3 by 4 I have ever seen in this part of California. Once again, we gutted it on the spot and took it back to camp. We sat in awe, as now there were two a hanging'. The rest of the day was unfruitful.
THE BEAR ENCOUNTER
With the same morning ritual, we were off to what surely would be a successful third day of hunting. I had positioned myself behind a fallen tree, which provided excellent concealment as well as a great rest for my rifle. The wind was to my face and I had almost a 180-degree field of view. I was quite confident that today was my day for bragging' rights. After two hours of no activity, I decided to move to another area just a few hundred yards away. I reached this spot and continued to glass the area. I was standing in a small thicket of trees that helped to conceal my position. After about 10 minutes I heard loud crunching noises coming from my left front. I knew that this was not a deer, it had to be a bear. I quickly weighed my options; sit still and hope it doesn't come towards me, or make some noise to let it know that I'm there in hopes that it will scurry away. Before I could make up my mind, the bear passed by me at 40 feet and didn't even look my way. It was a brown bear that weighed around 250 lbs. Within 15 seconds another bear appeared following the first one. This bear was huge and much darker. I would guess him to weigh 450 to 500 lbs. I froze with fright but he too passed without noticing me. Feeling relieved, I turned in the opposite direction for a moment and then back and was staring at a bear face to face at 25 feet. He was on all fours directly facing me. I knew not to do anything drastic, so I just stood there hoping the bear would see that I was not a threat and leave. He lunged two steps toward me and stopped. I was shaking with fear and slowly removed my rifle from my shoulder. Again he lunged a couple of steps toward me. I dropped to a kneeling position and sighted in on him and then yelled as a last resort to scare him away, it didn't work. Instead he charged me at full pace and at about 15 feet I pulled the trigger. The bear immediately turned 90 degrees and ran away. I thought to myself, did I hit or miss him. He was so close I couldn't have missed but he did run away! I then thought of the old cliché that says, "If you're going to shoot a bear, make sure you kill it because there's nothing more dangerous than a wounded bear". My fright level had now peaked and all I could think about was this bear, or possibly bears, coming back. I moved to an area that provided a clear view in 360 degrees and stayed there for an hour before I felt safe to move. I returned to the fallen tree where I was at earlier and decided to finish the morning hunt there. Not even thirty minutes had passed when I spotted another bear with her cub. I'm sure that it is the same pair we saw before opening day. They were about 150 to 200 feet from my position. I felt quite safe being that far away, that is, until they started to move in my direction. Slowly working their way up the hill, I became as frightened as the first encounter. I decided to stay behind the log and hope that they would stay clear of me. The last thing I wanted to do was to shoot a bear that had a cub, but if it came down to survival, I would. Fortunately, the two changed their direction and moved well away from me. Deciding that I had had enough excitement for the morning, I began the hike back to the truck. I reversed my course and walked back out the same way that I had walked in. I was quite shocked when I noticed bear tracks on top of my boot prints. These bears had either followed my scent or were just passing through woods the same way I did. I became distinctly aware of my surroundings as I continued back to the truck. Once there, I felt secure and relieved. Within the hour, two of my hunting partners returned to the truck. I wasted no time informing them of my bear encounters. We returned to camp.
THE REMAINING DAYS
Due to my frightening encounter with the bears, we decided to hunt in pairs without leaving the other's sight. We were also not so eager to walk into the woods before it got light. The remaining days of our hunt proved unsuccessful and after ten days we broke camp, said our good-byes, and returned to our homes. I learned a valuable lesson this hunting trip. The old adage that bears will leave you alone if you don't bother them is not always true. I can't speak for my hunting buddies but as for me, I now have a greater respect for that fur-bearing animal that appears on our California State Flag.