Had I not taken my sweet time getting my camera together back at the truck I’d have been right there with them instead of scrambling through the sandy, cactus-laden desert, trying to avoid a fall while keeping an eye out for any sign, some hint of a trail that would lead me toward the two. The sight of my boots, which were pincushions, settled the debate on which was the more important task.
I could hear the dogs somewhere above me. They weren’t far. Their baying signaled urgency, and I knew Brett and Duane were probably getting close. My chances at filming this ordeal as it unfolded were dwindling. You see, I had already killed my bear and was intent on capturing Brett’s hunt. But it was already day two of this particular chase, and the situation necessitated a quick exit from the vehicle and a fast-paced jaunt the half-mile or so to the dogs. Telling them to go on ahead, I was sure I could catch up. The reality was we were high in the mountains of New Mexico, and the elevation was whooping this East Coaster’s tail. As I neared the rocky outcrop towering overhead and saw Brett and Duane cresting the peak, I knew I had missed my chance to be in the heart of the action. I contended to do what I could from the bottom and continued to holler up to them.
“What do you mean nothing?” I asked. “Can you still see the tracks … What are the dogs barking at?”
One of the hounds, the tan one with the gentle demeanor, had made its way off the ridge somehow and was now at my side.
“Worthless mutt,” I muttered. I wasn’t sure of his name, but in my head it was “Bear Snacks.” A nice dog, perhaps better suited for the family room. Lacking fight, he obviously felt no desire to tangle up on those rocks and seemed more interested in the stick beneath my boots. At any rate, I cursed the stupid dog. “The bear’s up there.”
The rest of my hunting party, real dogs included, were about 50 feet above me walking around in circles, scratching their heads. I could see the occasional liver-colored snout peak over the cliff and I could hear muffled conversation between Brett and Duane, but I couldn’t make out the words. Something wasn’t right, yet the dogs were still baying at the top, bouncing off the rocks near the lone tree.
“Yeah,” replied Brett, “we’re following the tracks.”
The two hunters were now standing at the edge of the cliff looking down at me.
“Well, where do they lead?”
“Right here,” Brett replied, pointing off the cliff.
“Look by your feet,” he said.
I did, and I suddenly felt very foolish. There I was, on a bear hunt, holding a camera instead of my rifle, standing at the bottom of a 50-foot cliff, where a large creature, more than likely a very angry and now possibly injured bear, had landed. The closest gun was 50 feet above me in the hands of a man I had known for only two days. I humbly looked toward the dog … Bear Snacks.
I met Brett Throckmorton, who handles public relations for Barnes Bullets, for the first time two days before as I walked through the small Durango airport. He had invited me on this trip to test out the latest offering for the .300 AAC Blackout, a cartridge loaded with the new 120-grain TAC-TX bullet. We would be headed to the Jicarilla Apache Nation, he said, going after black bear with ARs.
The Jicarilla Apache Reservation, located near the small north-central town of Dulce, N.M., is 850,000 acres of rugged mountains, thick Ponderosa jungle and sprawling sage flats. Historically, the Jicarilla Apache Nation stretched some 50 million acres between New Mexico, Colorado and Oklahoma. The diversity of this large area sculpted the Jicarilla people into two distinct groups: the plains people, or Llaneros, and the Mountain Valley People, the Olleros.
Today, both cultures are cherished and gather at Stone Lake each year during the annual Go-Jii Ya Feast for a celebration of culture and the ceremonial foot race between the two clans. Families erect camps and tents all around Stone Lake during the two-day festival as the brown landscape blossoms for one weekend with bright colors, the aroma of traditional dishes and the sounds of ceremonial song and dance.
Hunting on the reservation is under sole jurisdiction of the Jicarilla Apache Nation. Managed by the Jicarilla Game and Fish Department, this sprawling pine paradise is host to black bears of almost every color phase, man-sized mountain lions, more Merriam’s turkeys than I could count, and trophy-class elk and mule deer. The department has a number of tribal guides permitted to hunt the reservation, and a list—including phone numbers—is available on its website, jicarillahunt.com.
While this was my first experience chasing bears, Brett had been here the year before and was confident in Duane’s ability to work the dogs and find bears.
“Duane Callado is one of only two guys who run dogs on the reservation,” Brett told me as we drove through the small dusty town of Dulce. “And I think the other guy just got into it recently.”
Bears are not the trophy most hunters go after on the Jicarilla. As we passed a lone airstrip Brett informed me, “That’s where the muley hunters fly into, mostly rich guys in private jets.” Mule deer on the Jicarilla average in the 200-class but get much bigger, and hunter success is around 100 percent. The minimum bid for the lone archery mule deer hunt is $30,000.
“Bait site is just ahead,” said Duane the next morning as we pulled up a steep bank.
I had already loaded the magazine of the rifle from Advanced Armament Corporation (AAC) as I sat in the rear seat of the pickup. This was my first opportunity to hunt with the AR platform. I am familiar and comfortable with the system, but had always assumed I’d chase pigs for my first black rifle hunt. Knowing the reality—that I’d be going after something that bites back—made me smile as I slammed the 10, .30-caliber rounds into the well of the rifle. We definitely brought enough gun.
The dogs had been going crazy from the instant we crossed onto the dirt road leading into the hunt area. Now that the truck had stopped they seemed about to burst through the walls of the large wooden dog box Duane had fashioned in the bed.
We exited the truck, and I followed the group as they walked toward a tipped-over barrel chained to a small clump of trees. The bait site was nothing like I imagined. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Having no preconceived notions on what a bear bait site is supposed to look like, I guess it was probably par for the course, but I was taken aback nonetheless. It looked like a fat kid had been locked overnight in a grocery store and had just gone nuts. There was a buffet of rotten apples that had appeared to have doubled as a Barcalounger. Pieces of half-eaten animal fat that I would later learn were from sheep were strewn about like a dog’s demolished chew toy. And I’m not sure where one obtains such a large piece of hard candy, but a dirt- and hair-covered Jolly Rancher the size of a cinder block sat at the epicenter of this glutton’s paradise.
“There was definitely a big bear here,” commented Duane as he pointed to the ground. The large prints were clearly visible in the damp, muddy earth.
“How long ago?” I asked.
“Probably took off as it heard us pull up,” he answered.
Duane knew this because he baited this site, as he does all his sites, late the night before the hunt. Unlike other guides, Duane prefers to bait late at night. If he comes across a site in the morning that looks as if it was hit, he can be sure it was hit within the last few hours and scent will be fresh.
The dogs came screaming out of the box two at a time and exploded onto the scene with noses to the ground. For a few minutes it was chaos. Barking and baying pounded my eardrums as I tried to keep tabs on each dog, a fruitless effort. Duane’s pack consisted of five dogs that day, and if it wasn’t for his reassurance that things were going as planned, I’d have thought these hounds were more interested in chasing tail than hunting bear.
“Bones has got the scent,” said Duane, pointing to an older, black-and-white dog now baying and bounding away from the bait pile. All around ears perked, and like a swarm of hornets, the remaining dogs ditched whatever enticing scent they had been investigating and raced to join the lead dog. The chase was on.
At Brett’s encouragement, I took some time in the months before the hunt to prepare myself for some serious hiking by trekking the steepest terrain I could find in Northern Virginia. Unfortunately, it seems even the most treacherous of suburban trails is no match for the high mesas of the Jicarilla. We chased GPS signals all morning as we tried to home in on the pack of collared dogs. We’d race down dirt roads in the truck, stopping and sometimes backtracking each time a “treed” signal appeared on Duane’s device. Once Duane decided we’d gotten as close as we could, we’d all bail out and make the final push on foot.
This method seemed simple enough. Duane’s estimate of “only a couple hundred yards” was music to my ears. A quick hike and we’d be looking at a treed bear. That, of course, was the best-case scenario. It wasn’t until the third time we poured out of the truck, after 2 miles of brutal climbing through the same valley we had come out of only an hour before, that I mustered the courage to question my guide.
“What do you think is going on?” I asked as I settled the rifle on my pack. The GPS had signaled “treed bear” at least three times so far.
“He’s moving slow, but he’s still moving,” replied Duane, “which means he’s big.”
“How can you tell?”
“Big bears don’t tree.”
And this bear didn’t. After the fourth and final trek through the thick pine forest, we finally came within a hundred yards of what the GPS labeled a “treed bear.” At 80 yards I picked him out from the shadows and flashes of hound. The big boy was resting on a rock, doing his best to ignore the pack of hounds that bit at his toes. I was able to get a shot into his chest and two more as he tumbled down the ravine, finally calling it quits in a thick tangle of underbrush only a few yards away.
Our first bear-treeing success came early the next morning. The dogs got on trail quick, and it was only minutes before we were looking at a sow and two cubs trying to disappear within the bows of a tall tree. A short time later, Brett passed on another nice specimen, a beautiful cinnamon-phase bear that just didn’t quite meet his specs. I almost wished I still had my tag.
We were debating our next move when Duane’s phone rang. After a quick conversation, he fired up the truck and sped off, telling us of the tip he had just received. It seems a big bear had been spotted gorging on the carcass of a bull elk.
“We’ll just look for the circling magpies,” instructed Duane as we spread out to search the area.
Though the bear was closest to me, it was Brett who spotted him first. I know this because I watched Brett sprint by me, quietly but urgently yelling “bear, bear, bear” and pointing to a plot only yards in front of me. Neither of us had a gun—didn’t need one for a dead elk—so I followed in hot pursuit.
We regrouped at the truck, kicked ourselves a bit, and with rifles in hand cautiously made our way back to where Brett had seen the bear. There, lying in the shadow of a tall pine was the carcass of a large 6x6 bull elk. Its hindquarters had been ripped open, a recent event as not much flesh had been eaten. Upon further inspection, we found a single arrow protruding from the animal’s gut. As we admired its rack, manipulating it for photo opportunities, we noticed visible claw marks on its snout and throat. While the elk was no doubt wounded, we deduced that the bear had brought it down for good.
“That’s another big bear,” commented Duane. “Let’s set the dogs on him.”
We chased that bear all afternoon and collected dogs well into the night. How he managed to scatter the pack like he did was beyond me. It was day two when I found myself staring up the cliff at Brett and Duane, sure that at any moment that same large, and possibly injured, bear would charge out from behind any number of sage brush hideouts and large boulders that dotted the sandy landscape.
“I hope I was wrong about you, Bear Snacks,” I thought as I made a cautious retreat back to the truck and my rifle. “God I hope there is some fight in you.”
Though it would mean more hiking, I was darn happy to see the tracks leading back across the road and down the adjacent valley. With the sun falling by the minute, we gathered up the dogs and headed back to town. Tomorrow would be our last chance.
We set out that morning with a new sense of purpose and a score to settle. This bear had given us the slip for two days. He’d run us for more than 30 miles, and pulled a Houdini on the dogs and ditched them on the top of a cliff. He was toying with us, and we’d be damned if we’d let him do it again. We set the dogs loose again at the site of the elk carcass. Despite our torment and miles of chasing, that bear had taken the same escape route every morning and made its way back every night to feed. This time, though, we’d have him. Instead of waiting and watching for Duane’s GPS device to give us the golden signal, we took off in the truck to try to cut him off.
“Remember,” said Duane, “Big bears don’t tree, so you’re going to have to take a running shot.”
A quick glance at the GPS, and he slammed on the brakes. “Let’s go, let’s go!” he said as he bailed out of the still-moving truck. “They should be coming out from that valley any minute now. Get ready.”
We could hear the dogs’ barking getting louder as they closed the distance. Brett was posted, rifle at the ready, on the rear of the truck.
“There!” I shouted. The giant bear had burst from the brush about 100 yards away with a train of dogs in hot pursuit.
“Put a bullet in him,” shouted Duane, “but don’t shoot my dogs!”
I watched Brett as he followed the chase through his scope, hoping a shot would ring out. But the tightly bunched group made it all but impossible. As the bear disappeared over a ridge, Duane hollered, “Get back in the truck!”
We sped off once more, Duane watching the GPS more than the road. We skidded to a halt a mere 20 seconds later.
“Brett,” he commanded, “get out here and watch this road.”
We could still hear the dogs baying as Brett exited the vehicle.
“He should come right across here. When he does, shoot him.”
We continued another few yards. Duane stopped the truck once again, and we bailed out.
“Get ready,” said Duane.
Another glance at the GPS: “Here they come,” he yelled to Brett.
Just then, the large chocolate bruin tore through the brush adjacent to the dirt road with dogs in hot pursuit.
Three shots cracked out and Brett’s bear, which had lead us through miles of the Jicarilla Reservation in the last three days, thudded to the ground rather conveniently in the center of the dirt road. The dogs didn’t hesitate to start chewing on their hard-earned bear snack.