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Big Sky Black Bear of Flathead Valley
In fading light and during the closing hour of Montana’s 2012 Spring Black Bear Season, David Morris whispered, “Can you take him from here?” It was now or never. At 125 yards the mature burgundy black boar was walking broadside, moving steadily right to left. He plodded along as if he was just passing through with another destination on his mind. David and I knelt beside a tall spruce in the meadow, our last bit of good cover. We had stalked as close as we dare try. My Sako A7 Tecomate .270 WSM was secured with fire in the hole on top of my Bog Pod. I braced my jittery right arm on my thigh and released the safety. David whistled! The big bear stopped and stared. I kissed the 140 grain Winchester Accubond goodbye! Kaaaa-whop! The best black bear I have ever seen in the wild swiftly disappeared into the gloomy Western Montana spruce forest - a thick forest with very limited visibility – a thick forest where grizzlies are more common than we cared for them to be at that moment.
I arrive at the Kalispell Montana airport on May 26th, 2012, for a late spring black bear hunt with my good friends and hunting companions David and Debbie Morris. David picked me up to begin my week-long introduction to one of the most spectacular and naturally delightful venues ever created by God, Western Montana’s Flathead Valley. Without mention, and within minutes of leaving the airport, I silently regretted living over 53 years without experiencing Kalispell’s Big Sky country. Bear or no bear, this would be a great week at the spectacular Morris family home and ranch. This was my first adventure in Western Montana. What a treat!
Our plan was to watch grizzlies all week and hopefully stalk a trophy black bear if the opportunity materialized. The Morris Ranch near Big Fork Montana is “bear central” of Flathead Valley. So far this spring only grizzlies had been observed at the Morris Ranch. Big grizzlies were present in big numbers. During the three weeks preceding my arrival David and Debbie had observed at least 10 different identifiable grizzlies. David explained when I arrived that he had yet to see any black bears at his ranch this season. But not to worry, “black bears always show up the last week of May”, Dave told me. David emailed Reconyx griz-pics almost daily before I arrived. And recent published news of a Montana spring black bear hunter being killed by a grizzly nearby certainly set the stage for an exciting week.
Montana’s Flathead Valley is a wildlife haven. Whitetails, mule deer, elk, moose, wild turkeys, coyotes, wolves, bears, and many more species abound in the forests and open meadows near David and Deb’s home. And it is likely that Flathead Valley and surrounding area holds the greatest concentration of grizzly bears anywhere in the lower forty-eight states. Plenty of wildlife was on hand in the meadow to entertain us the first evening as the four of us, which included the ever present and very personable “Caz”, the beloved family Shih Tzu, dined on a terrific home cooked meal prepared by Debbie. Surprisingly, no bears showed up in the meadow that first evening. The grizzlies had been regulars in the meadow each evening before I arrived. They were no-shows this evening. We needed to be up with the bears at 5:00 AM the next morning as dawn breaks early in Western Montana during the spring. So we all hit the hay for the night around 11:00 PM.
Three enjoyable days passed quickly in spite of dreary skies and persistent rain that fell almost continually. We had seen no bears, lots of everything else showed up, but no bears. Shortly after 7:00 PM on Wednesday May 29th, on the fourth evening of our Western Montana black bear quest, the light rain and low hanging grey clouds gave way to occasional windows of limitless blue with golden rays of sunlight streaming through to the valley. A vibrant rainbow pressed against the steep hillsides of the Bob Marshall Wilderness Area, which provided a panoramic mountainous backdrop to our evening bear lookout point. Conditions seemed perfect, and they were.
Finally we spotted the first bruin of the week at the edge of David’s Tecomate Monster Mix meadow. Approximately 250 yards away a mature grizzly made his abrupt appearance. But he never stopped to feed. Instead, as if late for an urgent appointment elsewhere, the massive hump-back beast steadily marched the length of the meadow before us in plain view. The mature grizzly strolled along at a pace that allowed us to enjoy his grandeur for only three or four minutes before he faded into the brush. We photographed and videoed. David and I felt as though this sighting could mark the beginning of show-time in the valley. However no more bear action was in store for us that day, or nearly the rest of the week for that matter. No need to worry though, black bears always shows up the last week of May – “always” according to David Morris, forever the optimist.
On Friday afternoon, May 31st, reality set in that our season and our bear hunt were simultaneously coming to close. Spring bear season would end at the conclusion of this day. Both David and I were scheduled to leave Montana the next day. David had to be at the airport at 5:30 AM the next morning for his flight to Texas. My flight to Florida was scheduled to depart Kalispell by mid-afternoon. I had thoroughly enjoyed my time with David and Deb. It was a blessing to have been invited to the Morris home for this relaxing adventure. Admittedly, I thought we were whipped late Friday afternoon as we continued to scan the now familiar bear-less meadow for movement. The bears of Flathead Valley simply had not cooperated this entire last week of May. That is until suddenly David exclaimed, “I think we’re in business. That’s a black bear! He’s good, let’s go after him! We’ve got to hurry!”
One brief glance to the back of the meadow through my Leupold 10 x 50 binoculars indeed revealed the presence of the mature trophy burgundy black bear that David had spotted. The bear stood motionless approximately 300 yards across the same meadow that we had watched over faithfully for an entire week. Immediately the stalk that we had hoped for ensued. We ran when we could and we crept when necessary to quickly close the gap on the great bear. The wind was in our favor. The bear had no idea we were present. This was a big old boar. David`s instinctive hunting talent closed the distance between us and the bear rapidly. Dave took advantage of the broken field cover to conceal our movement. I simply followed. I genuinely wanted this bear, not only for myself, but for my friends David and Debbie who had made this privilege and opportunity a cherished gift. Suddenly, as aforesaid, David and I found ourselves kneeling in the meadow after I shot, now wondering if my shot had hit pay dirt.
David felt as though the bear was solidly hit although the brute exhibited no sign of injury when he vanished. We were both confident that we had heard the telltale sound of the Winchester 140 grain Accubond striking the bear’s substantial bulk. We tracked the bear through thick wet grass in the meadow to the forest fringe where he took cover. Next we cautiously advanced, slowly into tight shadowy quarters, in an attempt to seek out and recover our prize. Visibility was never greater than 10 – 15 yards in the forest. Thoughts of the unpredictable grizzlies that were certainly nearby were forefront in my mind while we searched. And there was good chance that an angry wounded black bear might be lying in wait. The thick vegetative floor of the forest made it difficult to find any blood sign at all. We cautiously searched in the direction we believed that our bear had traveled. Was our bear down? We did not know. Was he hit? We were not absolutely positive. At one point David suggested that I may have to return to search the next morning after daylight rather than continue searching in the danger of waning daylight.
I was a mostly silent and anxious as we skulked along searching, until moments later when David yelled “here he is!” We approached our fallen trophy boar cautiously and made certain he had expired. My anxiety transformed to the intense elation that goes hand in hand with successful conclusions of my most exciting hunts. We celebrated! I had undergone a heavy dosing of adrenaline in a very short period of time, David too. We savored this moment. Our last day Big Sky trophy spring black bear lay before us. We admired his remarkable stature. We gave thanks to our Lord for good fortune afield and otherwise. Then we had one heck of a time getting our colossal trophy back to the edge of the meadow. This was a darn good bear, a big boar, with an excellent burgundy coat, many scars of battle, and a broad massive skull. We hiked back to get David’s tractor to transport the beast.
We spent our few remaining hours that night in Flathead Valley preparing the big bear for the table and the taxidermist. David took plenty of photos and he managed to snag a couple hours of sleep. We would leave for the Kalispell airport at 5:00 AM. The balance of my night was spent awake, replaying our exciting hunt over and over in my mind. I could sleep the next day on the plane. I was pleasantly shocked that we could be so close to being shut-out, yet still succeed in such grand fashion. My Big Sky black bear hunt with David and Debbie was as good as it gets! I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again now – never count David Morris out until the final bell rings loud and clear. And you can take this next statement to the bank if you hear it from David Morris - I heard it from him first and often. Black bears “always” show up the last week of May!