In this industry, we see a lot of fads come and go. The newest this and the latest that, all supposedly perfected to help each of us offset our “weaknesses” when we hunt. Products that cover our human scent, that will make any of us sound like the sexiest cow or toughest bull elk that ever walked the face of the planet, and others that will blend us into our surroundings. Products come and go from year to year, with few quality products actually becoming a mainstay in our hunting adventures. My recent bear hunt here in New Mexico further cemented the combination of the HECS system and Sitka Gear into my lifetime gear bag.
2011 has been a strange year here in New Mexico. Record low temperatures in February were followed by an early spring and an extremely hot and dry summer. We did not receive our first measurable rain here in the southwest part of the state until July, and by that time, the country was about to burn up. Monster fires consumed hundreds of thousands of acres of forest and grasslands from Texas across New Mexico and into Arizona. Those mid-summer days of bleak fire and drought reports did not put a hopeful outlook on the upcoming September hunts. However, by the grace of God, a late flurry of monsoon type rain activity livened up the country in late August, and by September 1st, our hunting areas in southwest New Mexico were once again fairly green. With a new found enthusiasm, we all took to the field for the elk, deer and bear archery hunts.
The Good Lord had blessed me early in the year with a tag for the second archery elk hunt in unit 23 along the New Mexico/Arizona border. This country does not hold a significant number of elk, but with plenty of hard work in your pre-season scouting effort, you can always find a few quality bulls in the unit. My wife and I began setting up trail cameras in early July and watched them through the archery season. Each time we checked them one thing was for sure, while the elk numbers seemed to be lower than normal on the cameras, the bear numbers were way up. What better way to get in some extra scouting in the weeks leading up to the elk hunt than to purchase an OTC bear tag and spend a couple of weekends prior to elk season hunting bears. With a bear tag purchased and in hand, we planned out a bear hunt starting in late August.
Based on what we had seen on the trail cameras, it appeared to be a slam dunk for getting a bear off of a water hole. 100 degree plus days and the limited rains had the bears hitting every water hole they could find. Of course, as things normally go on my hunts, the rains came just a few days before my first weekend of hunting.
My first day out had me sitting in a ground blind on a water hole that had been seeing two to four bears a day the previous week. That first day I did not have a single critter come into the water hole, and the only excitement the second day offered was when I came back to the same tank and found my blind flattened with muddy prints all over it and one of my trail cameras torn off of a tree by a bear that had come into the water in the middle of the night. I guess he was not impressed with my presence around his secluded swimming pool. Obviously, this strategy was not going to work until the temperatures got back up and the water in the creeks from the recent rains evaporated. The next weekend we would have to do something different.
The following weekend my wife and I returned to the ranch. The first morning we headed toward a spring that we had placed a camera on a few weekends before. About halfway into the spring as we rounded a corner in the bottom of the canyon, we spotted a large bear off of the west side of the trail. As the bear moved through the trees, I began to formulate a strategy to get into range for a shot. As we began to move toward the bear, a series of loud squalls broke the silence in a cluster of oak trees to the north of our location. In no more than a couple of seconds, the large sow ran back through the trees and woofed at her cub that was treed within a few feet of us. The cub quickly scampered down out of the tree and they headed over the mountain and out of sight. It was truly a blessing that the cub sounded off when he did and kept me from shooting that sow.
We did a lot of walking, spent some time calling and moved all across the ranch, spending almost the whole weekend getting rained on. We still had bears on every camera but due to the recent rains and the change in weather, they had gone back to being nocturnal and had become harder to locate. Not all was lost though, as I still had a deer tag and elk tag for that same unit and every minute out there was one more opportunity to scout for those hunts. We spotted numerous cow elk over the weekend, and even though we only saw one small bull, I was excited about the opportunities that I knew would come on the elk hunt. As we all know, when that rut kicks in, the bulls will find the cows.
The following weekend started my elk hunt. I left the cabin on opening morning with an elk, deer and bear tag all in my pack and a great enthusiasm for the next eight days of hunting. It is a rare occasion here in New Mexico where you actually have multiple tags at the same time. Some recent changes in archery hunting regulations and hunts had made it possible this year and I had been blessed. The primary focus for the eight days would be the elk tag, but, if I happened to come across a bruiser of a mule deer, he would get my attention. Also, based on my promise to the rancher who had given me access to the land to hunt, any bear would become immediate quarry.
On day two of the hunt I made a long and wide circle along some transition country from grassy meadows into timbered bedding areas. I had not seen or heard an elk since the hunt started, and the rains just continued to come. About mid-morning I got my first answer to a cow call. The quick and immediate second answer I got left no doubt, it was another hunter. Within two minutes he was right on top of me, and it was time for me to go elsewhere. I put my nose to the ground and headed in a straight line to the top of the highest peak I could see. I knew nobody else would be up there. Once I reached the top, I spent an hour glassing. Nothing but rain as far as the eye could see. Dejected, I headed straight off of the other side into the bottom of the canyon. I wanted to walk out through the bottom to see if there were any fresh tracks crossing from one ridgeline to the other.
Once in the bottom, I started slowly working my way down the canyon. About 300 yards into the canyon I hit a horrible smell. It was obviously rotting flesh, and based on all of the rain it had to be close for the smell to be this strong. I decided to have a good look around. If it turned out to be a bear or lion kill, it sure would be a good place to fill that bear tag!
I started walking up the small tributary draw the smell was coming from, looking all around for movement. The silence of the morning was soon shattered by the roar of a cinnamon bear coming out of the brush and headed out of the canyon. I walked to within 20 yards of him before he heard me. The brush was so thick and he was bedded down in an area where I could not see him until he jumped up. That sound sure will wake you up!
I continued to walk up the draw, and within a few feet found a rotting elk carcass. There were bear tracks all around it. I would have to come back to this spot!
I made my way back into the bottom of the canyon, and less than 100 yards from where I had jumped the first bear saw a second bear. This jet black bear was walking parallel to my course along the opposite side of the canyon. The bear had not noticed me, and a quick look around showed some cover and a chance to cut the distance between me and the bear fairly quickly. I started taking an angled course toward the bear, quickly cutting the distance from 100 yards to 70 yards. The trail the bear was walking would put a good size juniper tree between us shortly. I knew if I could cut 10 more yards off of the distance before the bear went behind that tree, the tree would give me ample cover to draw. I was out in the wide open at this point, yet still completely undetected by the bear.
The scenario continued. I cut the 10 yards, and the bear stepped behind the tree. I quickly ranged the spot I had picked for the shot – 60 yards. I drew my Alpine bow and waited…and waited…and waited. Finally I had to let down. I glassed the tree, looking for any hole that would show black and let me know the bear was still behind the tree. No such luck. What in the world could have happened? I started to slowly move backward, trying to figure out where the bear had gone. Then I noticed the trail going over the top of that small ridge. The trail had made a 90 degree turn behind that tree and never came out on the other side. I had been so intent on keeping my eyes on the bear that I had never noticed it. As I waited for the bear to come out on the west side of the tree, it had topped out to the south, completely concealed by the same tree. Two encounters with bears within 15 minutes of each other, something I had never been blessed with before. Maybe that bear tag would get filled after all.
I made the rest of the trek out. I saw one more bear at about 200 yards that was rimming out of the canyon. I also saw a number of elk tracks crossing the canyon and knew that this was movement from feeding to bedding areas. The next morning if I was in this canyon at sunrise I was sure a tag would get filled. I headed back to the high country for the evening elk hunt, all along planning ahead for the next morning.
In the cabin that night I replayed the day in my head. I had stalked that bear with very little cover, none what so ever the last 20 yards. The bear had never seen me, nor even acted like it had noticed that anything was going on around it. Not only that, but the first bear that I had darn near stepped on had not become alarmed until a twig snapped under foot while I was walking up the other draw. This was new territory for me. I have used Sitka Gear for a number of years now and I know that the patterns that Sitka uses have no equal. The Gore Optifade Concealment Open Country line which I use is utterly undetectable by big game animals. But they still have that sixth sense, that unfair advantage that comes from years of survival in the wild, that little voice in the back of their heads that tells them “RUN” when everything would appear to be all well. It was quite obvious that my new HECS suit had taken that advantage away from not only one but both bears. My HECS had changed the game and I was ready to play it a different way.
The next morning I headed back into the same canyon and worked my way up to the head waters without seeing anything. After a short break sitting on a hill glassing, I started back down the canyon. When I got to the place where I had seen the black bear the day before, I decided to head up the drainage it had come out of thinking there was a good chance I might find it along the trail. I started up the draw, working slowly and quietly, watching every opening along the trail. About a quarter of a mile up the draw, I spotted my bear. She was sitting between two trees in the shadows and I had not seen her until I was only 110 yards away from her. She had “seen” me, but had no idea what I was.
The combination of the HECS suit and my Sitka Open Country gear had completely and totally baffled her senses. There was not a single bush, tree or even a rock for me to use for cover. I had to cut 50 yards to be able to get a shot but my confidence in my HECS/Sitka dynamic duo was soaring at that time. I decided I would walk a straight line toward her and see just how good this combination was. Mind you, this would be my second stalk of this bear within 24 hours. If any little thing had given her even the slightest hesitation the day before, I would not have a chance!
It took me less than 3 minutes to cut the distance to 61.5 yards. The bear never moved. She continued to look my direction, noticing that something was there, but having no fear of what it was because she could not see anything solid and could not sense anything. She did not move until I stopped moving, and then it was a slow movement to her right, I assume attempting to get a better “look” and try to figure out what this thing she could “see” moving was. That turn, was just what I needed to open her up for the shot. As she got broadsided, I let my Gold Tip arrow topped with a VPA 3 Bladed Broadhead fly out of my Alpine F1 Fireball. The sound was unmistakable and the result quick and sure. I recovered the bear less than 30 yards from where I had hit her, the huge hole from the VPA Broadhead leaving a clear trail to the bear.
Three bear stalks in less than 24 hours, and a tag filled. I have hunted in bear country for over 30 years, seen and stalked tons of bears, and harvested plenty. However, never had I experienced the success in stalking bears like I had on this hunt. For 30 years I have tried every camo pattern and line of clothing on the market and know that I have never had success that equals Sitka Gear and the Gore Optifade Concealment Open Country line to offset their sense of sight. The gear makes animals sight a non-factor in my hunts. The HECS took away the extra sense, their “sixth sense” they have that we have never had a defense against – it truly changed the game!
My bag is already packed for my next hunt, and right on top is my HECS suit and my Sitka Gear. It is kind of like that commercial says, I definitely will never “Leave home without them”.
God Bless each of you in your days in the wonderful outdoors He so graciously gave to us.
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