A One-and-Done Black Bear Hunt

A dog hunt for an Arizona black bear with a magnum wheelgun proves you can’t pack too big a punch.

by
posted on February 21, 2024
One And Done Black Bear Hunt Lead

There’s just something special about dog hunts. If you haven’t done it and you are in sufficient physical health, you owe yourself the experience, irrespective of the species you decide to hunt. Watching highly tuned canines do their job is remarkable and worth the price of admission. The staccato of the dogs in pursuit of game, rising to a fever pitch when closing in, the excitement taking over—the moment needs to be experienced at least once in your lifetime. Do it while you’re still breathing.

The last time I participated in a dog hunt, my preparation was impeccable. This time it was merely adequate. The hunt came together at the last minute, and given my limited time to prepare, I concentrated on my shooting more than my conditioning. Keep in mind, hunting with dogs in the West requires good cardio conditioning—unless you don’t want to enjoy your hunt as much as possible.

Hounds in kennel in back of pickup truck.

On the front end, everything conspired against allowing me to make it to the hunt in Alpine, Ariz. Hotels were unavailable in Phoenix (where I was to overnight) that weekend due to a NASCAR race (entirely my fault). A local airline wouldn’t allow firearms onboard, forcing a car rental and a longish drive. However, the stunning scenery, the abundance of game and the wholly satisfying, albeit difficult, hunt more than erased all the issues experienced with getting to this majestic destination.

As a handgun hunter, I am routinely faced with doubt (by others) about the efficacy of a revolver on big game. And like any and all firearms used in the pursuit of hunting, the terminal effectiveness is largely dependent upon the bullet (assuming good placement). This is even more critical when using a platform that is ballistically challenged as far as velocity production is concerned by the design limitations of the revolver. My plan from the start was to use my Custom Shop BFR in .460 Smith & Wesson Magnum. I already knew this was a lethal combination, as it has accounted for a number of species of game with aplomb. It’s accurate and very capable of collecting game irrespective of size. Taking into consideration the velocity potential of this hot-rodded, 65,000 psi .45, bullet quality and construction is of high importance. My choice was logical: Federal’s first-class 275-grain Barnes XPB load, an all-copper, tough expanding bullet pushed to nearly rifle-like velocities. This bullet will stay together no matter how much bone it comes into contact with on its path to the animal’s vitals. Someone at Federal clearly understands this importance, and that is why the company offers both Barnes XPB and Swift A-Frame loads, my two favorite expanding bullets. The cherry on top is the inherent accuracy across the board of Federal’s various loads. At the range, I was able to fire round after round into tight little groups.

We all want to put down our animals quickly, but when hunting with canines, putting the animal down quickly—the one equipped with teeth, claws and power—becomes even more crucial. Bears tend to take out their frustration on dogs when wounded. Having used XPBs on game in a variety of calibers in the past, to include mountain lion, I know they are capable of inflicting extraordinary tissue damage. Just what the doctor, er coroner, ordered.

Recall that I mentioned the importance of conditioning to better participate in one of these hunts. This is where I fell short. Given the high elevation (8,500 feet above sea level), getting winded multiple times was a guarantee. After all, the elevation of my home is a mere 800 feet above sea level.

My guides were young—real young. It would be a challenge keeping up. However, since something is broken in my thought process, I thrive on adversity. We can lick our wounds later.

Day one was cold and came early. We hunted Forest Service land, on dirt roads looking for tracks. We had two hounds on top of the dog box on high alert. (Lots of mountain lion tracks prompted us to procure a lion tag later that day while breaking for lunch in the event an opportunity presented itself.)

Eventually, we would get a hit, drop some dogs, then one of the guides would follow to look for tracks. We waited at the truck, suited up for word that would come over the radio to either pack in more dogs or help get the dogs back to the truck. As is typical with dog hunting, we performed this routine a number of times when the GPS indicated the dogs were together and all heading in the same direction. They were on a bear or lion, but then the chase would break and we would gather the dogs and head back to civilization for food, maybe a libation or two and much needed rest.

Handgun hunter resting revolver on tripod aiming at black bear in tree.When the author saw the boar clinging to the tree he picked a vantage, plopped down and set his BFR on sticks then began his trigger squeeze.

Day two started even earlier and colder, and we were optimistic. This day we tried a different block that has produced good bears in the past. We drove a road that ended with a stream crossing and a trail that winds up a valley. We pulled seven dogs out of the box, affixed their GPS collars, while one member of our team, Grady, grabbed his pack and radio and crossed the stream with dogs in tow. Clayson and I got our gear ready in anticipation. Thirty minutes had elapsed when the radio squawked. Grady excitedly informed us that the dogs were on a bear track and moving quickly. We hopped in the truck and drove in the direction of the dogs, anticipating their trajectory while monitoring the GPS. The plan, in theory, was to get ahead of the hunting party, and when necessary pack in more dogs. We drove quickly, eyes on the GPS and saw the dogs make an abrupt U-turn, going back in the direction we started. Consequently, we had turned around and were speeding back towards our starting point when the next directional change took place, prompting us to yet again turn around the truck.

Grady called us on the radio, imploring us to head back to where it all started as the bear had just run past him with dogs nipping on his considerable backside. He said the bear looked tired with his tongue hanging out—and so did the dogs. He thought the bruin would tree soon. As we made our way back in the vehicle, Grady informed us the bear had treed (finally, after a marathon run)—we should make our way to the dogs, the tree and the bear.

Now the fun part: trying to keep up with the other billy goat, Clayson. Let me just put this out here: These guides are 20-somethings, in the prime of life, in tip-top condition from leading regular expeditions into the mountainous wilderness of Arizona just like this dog hunt. Being as I am closer to 60 than 50, not in top shape, this part was going to suck a bit. (Remember the elevation?) Fortunately, Clayson was compassionate enough to periodically stop, enabling me to catch up. We did this dance repeatedly until we heard the cacophony of hounds growing increasingly louder.

Hunter posing with black bear holding bullet.One 275-grain Barnes XPB loaded by Federal Premium fired from the author’s Magnum Research Custom Shop BFR .460 S&W Magnum dropped the bruin.

My heartrate increased with each step the closer I got to the crime-scene-to-be. I broke into the opening and there he was, a jet-black boar clinging to a tree roughly 20 feet up. The dogs were taking turns shouting obscenities up the tree at the bear. Despite assurances that the bear would stay put and not vacate the tree for safer climes, I picked a good vantage point from which to shoot, giving me a clear path to the bear’s vitals. I set up my shooting sticks, parked myself on the ground and checked that my shooting lane was clear. I then pulled the hammer back on the big BFR, carefully lined up the crosshairs on the on-side shoulder then slowly applied pressure to the trigger. It broke at 2 pounds. The revolver roared, the bear went stiff and tilted back, tumbling out of the tree deader than a doornail. One and done. (What is a dead doornail anyhow?)

By now you likely know how I feel about hunting with hounds. It’s a must-do in the event you haven’t. Combine it with a handgun as your primary hunting tool and you’ve got an adventure for the books. Choose your outfitter wisely (this was my second adventure with Tyler Bowler Hunting for a reason), choose your bullet/load even more wisely and get into good shape. You don’t need to be in triathlon shape, just able to keep pace up and down multiple mountain ranges schlepping a firearm. Trust me when I say that once you do this, many other hunting opportunities will pale in comparison. What are you waiting for?


Meet the Monsters of Rock (Climbing)
Tyler Bowler Hunting came to me with high-praise recommendation a few years back. This is no-compromise, quality trophy game operation with great dogs. Tyler is a third-generation lion hunter based out of Veyo, Utah, who hunts primarily in Utah and Nevada, but also Arizona for mountain lion, elk, mule deer and black bear.

Male bear hunting guides in Arizona.

My aforementioned guides were Grady Lefebvre of Morristown, Ariz., and Clayson Goodwin of Benson, Ariz. Both of these gentlemen have been hound hunting since they were kids and possess abundant skills and experience that belies their youth. They hunt hard and deliver for their clients, period. Look no further.


Toolbox
I tried to keep my gear selection to a minimum given the nature of a Western dog hunt. I like traveling light in these cases.

Starting with my clothes, I went to Kryptek, a veteran-owned business, for their first-rate hunting clothes. Despite the coldish weather, since we weren’t going to be static, I went with a relatively lightweight line of clothing that still provided plenty of warmth. I chose Kryptek’s Arma Tech ½ Zip shirts, and a Njord jacket and pants, all in Kryptek’s Highlander pattern. This is really high-quality gear that is not only windproof but also waterproof.

Custom Magnum Research BFR.

My chosen firearm was a BFR from Magnum Research. This one was built for me by their talented Custom Shop. The BFR is a five-shot, stainless steel, single-action revolver that can be had in a variety of calibers from mild to really wild. Mine was built with their iteration of the Bisley grip frame wrapped in black Micarta. The revolver has a crisp, 2-pound trigger with zero creep, and is finished in a durable and killer looking black nitride. This one is chambered in .460 Smith & Wesson Magnum, so it’s the extended -frame version of the Biggest Finest Revolver. I topped it off with a 2X Burris handgun scope, mounted to the factory scope base (standard with each BFR) that has held up admirably over the last few years.

I carried my artillery piece in a leather chest holster made by Diamond D Custom Leather. Due to the optic and requisite mount, Diamond D made a small modification to their Guides Choice holster in the form of a relief cut on top to accommodate the longer scope mount. I cut off the nose of the mount (it served me no purpose) and it fit like a charm. It’s a very comfortable rig with a slide for five extra rounds. Lastly, I carried my Primos Hunting Trigger Sticks tripod shooting sticks for a field-expedient, steady rest.


A Bear Load from Federal
The first and most important item on my agenda after deciding which revolver/caliber combination I would use was deciding what load I would to press into service. From past handgun hunting experience, I know Federal Premium produces some of the highest quality ammunition available to the public. I have used a variety of Federal loads on a plethora of game over the years and it has never left me wanting. In this case, the deadly .460 Smith & Wesson Magnum got the nod, so I had two loads to choose from based on the bullets used: Federal’s 300-grain Swift A-Frame or the 275-grain Barnes XPB load. Ultimately, I chose the XPB load as I wanted a bullet that would expand violently, and maintain its integrity irrespective of bone impact.

Federal Premium .460 Smith and Wesson ammunition.

As is the norm with Federal, the ammunition proved very accurate in testing with fairly regular 1-1½-inch five-shot groups at 50 yards as long as I did my part. My shot on the bear went where I aimed, and the internal damage was impressive. Both lungs were reduced to the consistency of soup and the bullet exited the offside shoulder, breaking bone on its way north. The bruin was dead before hitting the ground and didn’t even twitch, the desired result when dogs are on the ground to keep the canines safe.       

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