Updated: Jul 20, 2021
By Brett Benton, of Bear Country Outdoors
When me, James and our videographer Josh set out at 4AM on a chilly mid-week May morning, we were surprisingly in good spirits despite the lack of sleep and the prior day’s travel. We were headed out for a spring bear hunt that James got drawn for here in Washington, Josh had flown up from Florida the day before, and we knew that in a day’s time Doug and Hartsock would be joining us at our destination and we would let the good times roll.
Excitement and the Black Rifle Coffee were the two main things that were really driving us that first morning, the Tundra being only a steel vessel to get us where we were going. Deep down we knew that there was a good chance that this hunt could be tough compared to fall but as many of us hunters know there is a certain feeling of hopefulness that is hard to set aside when it comes to getting after animals. This was especially true for us when, on our way to our unit, we saw one bear on the side of the road within “slapping ass” distance, and not even 10 minutes later glassed another big boar in a steep canyon flipping rocks into oblivion in search of any protein he could find. Fate would have it that we were still over 4 hours from our designated unit, so we took off - more hopeful than ever - after a little mountain window shopping.
There were a lot of reasons I was personally excited for the trip - one of them being that this would be our first official hunt on behalf of our new company Bear Country Outdoors. We have had countless hunts, but this time we were loaded down with our Eberlestock gear and BRCC coffee and camera equipment. And while we have hunted together in one combination or another, for this trip we were all together, which was new for all of us. And that brings us to Josh - much of my excitement took place in having him there to witness and document it. We grew up together down in Florida and he is one of my best friends, and I can recall many times we had to encourage each other while we were growing our businesses (mine being music before BCO) and going through the pains that come with it. Our career paths had crossed before and while it felt familiar working with him, in a way it was a new territory for both of us. It also isn’t often I get the chance to take a non-hunter into the timber - especially a “hippie from the flat-land” as he would put it - and knowing just how talented he is behind the lens I had a feeling that he would capture the toughness and realness of what we were about to do. Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, my excitement was also firmly rooted in the fact that this was my first ever spring bear hunt. I have worked hard over the years and been fortunate enough to fill the freezer most years during my short time in the West, bears included, but admittedly I am still relatively new to western hunting. Having grown up in the southeastern US we mainly hunted wild hogs and hunted whitetails from a tree stand, with the occasional squirrel or rabbit to switch it up. Once I started hunting out here I *very* quickly became obsessed with all things bruin, and going on a spring bear hunt was finally getting crossed off my personal “bear list” on this trip - even without getting drawn for my own tag. This place we were headed to is wild and full of adventure, complete with a healthy variety of big game, and many memorable experiences like emergency evacuations last year due to wildfires, James’ brother shooting his first bear in my brand new running Nikes, and so much more. Even so, the many successful fall bear hunts I had been on at this point did not really prepare me for what was in store.
We arrived at the cabin, situated in not only one of my favorite places in the world but my absolute favorite place in our geographically diverse state of Washington. Doug and Hartsock were en-route and arriving within the next 24 hours or so. But we soon realized that our excitement and hopefulness was somewhat naive - in a place that is normally full of bears in the fall, we had seen nothing but scarce sign after many days. We tried everything we could think of - hiked, glassed, drove, hunted the high country, hunted the low country, hunted thick timber, open faces, burns… you get the idea. And we found lush green grass just about everywhere we looked, which only added to the confusion and frustration. The days were particularly long with the Summer Solstice just under a month away, the bears weren’t quite in the rut yet, Doug would have to leave for work not long after arriving, and Hartsock wasn’t far behind and had his own tag to fill. Josh could only film so much of us NOT seeing any bears every day to no avail. James and I were becoming concerned because our fears of having our first hunt as a new company be “unsuccessful” with new partnerships and new eyes on us were seemingly materializing - and this was a mental place we were not very comfortable with, since we fully understand that having an unsuccessful hunt is just how it goes sometimes. My concerns over this matter were being shared with someone who has taken many bears over many years and had been on many spring bear hunts, which had me especially worried. James would even mention in the days ahead that he had probably never had to hunt so hard for a bear. But the pressure was on, and we’d be damned if our first “official” hunt would come up empty handed, so we put these concerns in the back of our minds and carried on…
…which brings us to day 4. On this particular afternoon after another slow morning we were really feeling the pressure of needing to “get it done” and with not a lot of time left. We set out without Josh, reluctantly, but he had to stay behind and dump footage onto the hard drives, designating me as the camera guy for James and Hartsock since I didn’t have a tag. We headed out for one last spot that we hadn’t been to yet, and they even decided to wear their “lucky hats” since at this point we would try damn near anything to help our situation. I can vividly remember when we set off I had that deep down feeling in my chest and in my gut that something was about to happen. Normally it’s a relatively good feeling, but something was different about that feeling this time, a sort of quiet and unfamiliar dread that was getting just a little louder as we pressed on - and a feeling I decided to keep to myself.
We hiked up the mountain quite a ways and Hartsock stayed to glass a spot with abundant fresh sign and healthy green grass that looked better than my own yard, while James and I pressed on following the trail of scat just a few hours old. We were glassing something that LOOKED like a bear when out of the corner of my eye I caught a black head with white chest patch pop over the hill facing us at about 30 yards and when I went to tell James, he had seen it at the same time. In an odd but somewhat comical turn of events, HE was holding the camera while I was using my binos, leaving his binos on the ground for whatever reason, as he shoved the camera in my hands and we took off running after this bear that had also spun around in a similar “oh shit!” fashion. It was too quick to process in the moment, but in hindsight I see it as an almost hilarious moment that we had all 3 shared, like something out of a cartoon. James grabbed his rifle out of the scabbard mid run and when he took the shot we saw it spin and bite at the wound, like bears do, and it proceeded to take cover into a thick, dark, and just flat out unpleasant looking patch of timber. He felt good about the shot placement and knowing this is your typical “dying place” for bears, we waited it out as we heard it thrashing around, quietly rejoicing that we managed to get a bear down. In about 40 seconds our very tired, discouraging trip had given way to a very tired relief, one that many hunters are familiar with. Things had gone silent in the timber patch, but when we walked up about 10 minutes later and heard branches crack, the heaviness set in that this ordeal wasn’t over which is a situation no hunter ever wants to go through. It was also something that I had been fortunate enough to NOT experience yet when it comes to bears, so when James drew his pistol from his bino harness I followed suit. I can’t and will never forget the sound of the teeth clacking, jaw popping, huffing bear moving around as we were moving in and with pistol in one hand and camera in the other, I could see the bear standing up and starting to charge. As I saw it running through the trees I very nervously and loudly whispered ”f*ck he got up James! He got up he f*ucking- “
And the shots rang out through the forest. James later told me that even at under 10 feet away, the white blaze “V” patch on its chest was the only way he knew where to shoot it at because the timber was so dark. All I could see in the blowdown and branches was the silhouette of an animal that had had enough of us not letting it die in peace, getting up to make its last stand. Not to mention there was the slight disbelief I felt in that I managed to keep the camera rolling on James, standing right behind him, and ready to shoot a pissed off bear with the pistol in my other hand if it came down to it. It almost felt irresponsible in a way (although necessary) and before we left for this trip, James’ family *very* adamantly felt that they needed to pray for us and we now knew why, not that we would have ever guessed it. I’m sure the lucky hats had something to do with the whole ordeal. Hartsock had heard the initial shot from the rifle and came to see what all the racket was, and I couldn’t help but laugh hearing him yell, in his true character, “you dropped your binos!”
There is a saying that “persistence pays” and while hunters know this or should know this especially well, there is really so much more to it. Among the many things I learned on this trip, a new kind of trust was one of them. Someone told me once that you should only hunt with people that you would trust with your life. The unspoken code of “I got you if it shit hits the fan” is sacred on the mountain, although not exclusive to it, and I am now an experienced believer in that. I also have a renewed trust in our ability as a collective group of hunters and as a team, although it never really quite faltered. Honestly, we are all really out there first and foremost to fill our freezers but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t out there for the adventure too. My first spring bear hunt was an eye opening one for many other reasons besides getting charged by a bear, even though it does stand out for obvious reasons, but I would expect nothing less from a group of guys who always seem to find ourselves in the middle of adventure. We are those kind of people who can not only rally but get rowdy - and especially in wild country.