Cowboy’s “Giant” Bear And Helpful Tips For Tracking In Impossible Conditions

Tips & Tricks

by Justin Webb

Had I completely lost my mind?

As I slithered through the darkness on my belly traversing the dog-hair thick entanglement of dried branches, two to four-inch diameter re-prod trees, old burnt stumps, underbrush, and snow patches, I wondered…“What in the world was I doing here? Had I completely lost my mind?” The .44 magnum Red-Hawk strapped to my hip would do very little if my greatest fear were to become a reality. Zero proof of a fatal hit, and no more than a secondhand briefing of a close range shot on a “giant black bear” had lead me into the darkness with my flashlight, a pistol, some flagging ribbon, and an instinctive desire to save a fellow friend and hunter from suffering the fate of going home knowing he had shot and lost a big game animal. Having experienced that scenario myself, I knew all too well the sinking, heart breaking, sickening feeling of leaving the mountain knowing I had injured an animal and failed to recover it. With no more than a single drop of bright-colored blood and a couple black hairs that could easily have been mistaken for moss, I tried to put myself in the shoes of my childhood friend, who had hastily shot a bear as it surprised him at 20 feet. Knowing rain was imminent, and trailing a bear in dense undergrowth was almost certainly futile, I had laid aside my better judgement and made the decision… I was going in after that bear. Years prior, I had the blessed experience of sharing one of my greatest passions with my childhood buddy whom I’ll refer to as “Cowboy”. Spring bear season is one of my all-time favorite hunts, and I had taken Cowboy on his first successful spring bear hunt four years prior. He and I learned together how “fun” it is to carry a bear out whole, while it swings from a log (as seen on television) that we struggled to hoist up onto our shoulders. Note: don’t ever do that. Bone it out. It will be much faster and easier. Cowboy is passionate man with a heart as big as they come. He had befriended me at the age of 10,a time in my life when I seemed to relate to, well…no one. While others were playing school sports, watching WWF wrestling on their big screen TV’s, listening to Beastie Boys rap music and trying to impress each other, all I wanted to do was go bass fishing and explore the mountains near my home. Cowboy and I quickly became friends and spent many afternoons riding double on an old dirt bike to get to our favorite fishing holes. Cowboy had a couple bear seasons under his belt now and although I knew he enjoyed hunting the particular ground I was in, I had no idea he was in the same area, much less the same drainage that afternoon. I wasn’t too serious about shooting anything yet as it was still early in the season. Although I figured I had a chance of seeing a bear, I was really out to enjoy the new life spring brings to the mountains. I was taking in the fresh new grass and clover, the new buds on all the trees and brush, the return of the Mountain Blue Birds, and the abundance of deer, elk, and moose that so readily show themselves this time of year. I had even thrown in a bag to collect mushrooms just in case I was lucky to stumble upon a good batch of Morels or Puffballs while I was out. Just before dark, across the canyon, but no more than 1,000 yards from me, a rifle shot rang out! I was startled by the shot, and even more surprised by the location from which it came. This area was known by very few and hunted by even fewer. I wondered to myself who it could have possibly been. I noted that whoever it was, they were about to have a harsh tracking job ahead of them if the bear hadn’t dropped in the open. That side of the hill was thick with re-prod, it was almost dark, and thunder clouds were building fast. I had no idea the harsh tracking job was about to include me. By the light of my headlamp, I quickly walked the three miles back to my truck, then began my decent down the mountain in my trusty ole pickup. I had just gotten back to cell coverage when my phone rang… “Well hey cowboy! I was just thinking about you. I’m just getting back from bear hunting, what are you up to?” Cowboy said “Oh really? Well, that’s actually while I’m calling. I kind of need some help…if you’re not too busy… where are you at?” He then proceeded to tell me how he had been walking this old skid road across the canyon from my favorite bear hunting spot, when a giant bear leaped into the roadway 20 feet from him. He said he “rushed the shot just a little.” He found no blood and only had a general direction the bear was traveling. This might have had something to do with forgetting to pay attention to the exact location the bear stood when the shot was taken… and the need to clean out his shorts! SLXL​​ We quickly devised a plan to meet up and ride his 4-wheeler to the closest point of entry and attempt to retrieve Cowboy’s “giant bear” before the incoming thunderstorm washed any sign away. After a great attempt to reconstruct the scene of the shot with as little disturbance as possible to the ground where the bear stood, we located and marked with ribbon the exact location Cowboy stood when the shot was taken. We then marked the “best guess” of the exact location the bear stood when the shot was taken. More flashlight investigation lead us to a single drop of bright red blood, blood-trails, and two black hairs that lay almost exactly where Cowboy said the bear stood when the shot was taken (only about 10 feet off). So, there I was doing my best to guide Cowboy in the most productive methods of trailing his wounded bear…on my belly, down through the thick re-prod patch, in the dark, armed with only a flashlight, a roll of yellow ribbon, and a revolver. Had it not been threatening to pour rain, I would have suggested backing out for the night, and commencing the search at the crack of dawn the next morning. As I crept along, slowly picking out broken twigs, scuff marks, bent leaves, and freshly broken branches, I began to play out nightmarish thoughts in my head of this bear suddenly charging me… intent on misconfiguring my body until I would be of little threat. Every noise made me jump. Each time Cowboy tried to push ahead or get out in front of me where he may disrupt the bear’s trail, I cautioned him on how fast a wounded bear could make short work of him This seemed to help keep him in check…far behind me. After 100 yards I began to feel rain drops stinging the back of my already itchy neck. I had pulled more ticks off myself that day then most hunters see in their lifetime.. Intently focused on the broken pine needles where this wounded bear’s last known foot track had been identified, I had paid little attention to Cowboy shining his light back and forth every few seconds in hopes of catching sight of the bear…the bear–I had convinced him–was imminently going to race into view and maul us both so quickly, neither of us would have time to pull our pistols. Suddenly, in a shrieking voice that almost convinced me we had been joined by a nine-year-old school girl, Cowboy yelled out “RIGHT THERE!” In about a tenth of a second, I found myself completely spun around in the feet first position, .44 red-hawk drawn and pointing toward a slight glimmer of light reflecting off a beady little eyeball not 20 feet away. Well what do you know… a dead bear’s eyeball does glow in the night when one shines a flashlight into it. After an overzealous amount of “being certain the bear was dead,” we had an intense stare-down with one beady little eyeball that momentarily had us convinced it would end our lives, which was followed by joking, laughter and congratulations. Tracking down and eventually packing that trophy of a 150lb “giant” bear out of the woods with my childhood friend, in a thunder storm, will forever grace my memory bank of successful hunts and most sacred memories. It was just one of those moments a person simply must have been there for, in order to fully understand the experience. I’m still unsure what that involuntary sound was that leapt from my vocal chords as I drew my pistol in that fierce moment of uncertainty… but I’m confident it reflected the true voice of the adolescent me during the peak of puberty. I still deny those sounds actually escaped my lips when I reflect on this memory, or when Cowboy and I share the story of his hunt with fellow hunters. I’m a manly bear hunter after all…and everyone knows manly bear hunters do not shriek.


As you venture through bear season this spring, keep in mind that shot placement on bears can be extremely critical. Often times they leave very little blood to follow and sometimes they travel great distances after the shot. Remember, not all animals react to a fatal hit the way you might expect. Be certain to make every attempt possible to recover any animal you decide to pull the trigger on… even if they appear untouched. Go into the woods well prepared. Take ribbon, flashlights, knives, meat bags, food and water, extra clothing layers, and a positive mindset. What you do after the shot, is just as important, if not more so, than what you do before it. Keep the wind in your face, the sun at your back, and a mushroom container in your hip pocket. Good luck out there!

Bear Trailing Tips

Oftentimes a hunter may be too excited to remember details about the shot, however, do your best to remember these few tips, and your trailing job will become a lot easier.
For me, blood trailing starts prior to me lowering my bow or rifle. In some cases, it can be very critical for animal recovery (especially on bears) to identify the exact location the animal stood, and the exact location the hunter stood when the shot was taken. I always do my best to take mental notes of my view beyond my target and my best estimate of the 2 above mentioned locations. I like to immediately mark my standing location with ribbon, and then after ample time has passed for that animal to expire, mark the standing location of the quarry I’ve shot while disturbing the ground as little as possible. Oftentimes, hair, meat, blood, bone chips, or even clear fluids can be found immediately beyond or at the location the bullet entered the animal. If I can locate this sign, (and all sign thereafter), I mark it with flagging ribbon. If later in the trailing process, I begin to struggle to find blood or other sign, I can use these ribbons to determine general direction of travel, elevation gain or loss, any tendency to veer toward water sources, whether or not the animal continues to travel in a straight line or is wandering around obviously seeking a place to bed down, or when or where the animal may have changed travel or behavior patterns. In many cases these ribbons have made the difference between the successful recovery of an animal, or the “I was just kicked in the nads” feeling that comes with losing an animal after a hunter has worked so hard to find one and get a shot. Fight the urge to jump ahead. If you don’t find blood, try hard to find foot or hoof prints prior to moving forward. I’ve located many a harvest by tracking foot prints, broken twigs, bent leaves, minor scuff marks on downed logs, etc. If you or anyone in your hunting party jumps ahead prior to locating the next foot track or blood sing, you risk disturbing the ground in the same area the animal traveled. This can lead to you losing the track all together. A bear often doesn’t bleed well externally due to fatty tissues sealing up the wound. I once tracked a bear for 200 yards with no blood, on dry ground, in pine needles and duff, by simply moving slowly, locating the placement of as many of the bears foot-steps as possible. I found a bone chip and one pencil eraser size piece of meat at the shot location, then nothing more than broken dry pine needles and a claw mark on a log until we located that 300lb boar three hours later. He had died completely hidden under a big red fir blow-down, 200 yards down the hill. Admittedly, there sometimes becomes a point when trailing blood, or even foot tracks, becomes futile and one must resort to other measures. Using your ribbon marks to determine a rout of travel can be very helpful when this happens. Try investigating the path of least resistance, looking at the location of the nearest water source (wounded critters often head toward water), or even searching in a pendulum motion back and forth covering the area of the general route of travel until further sign can be located. These are all options I resort to, but only after I’ve expired following blood and foot tracks first. Many animas have been lost due to an individual jumping ahead and disturbing the landscape and sign from a wounded animal. Be patient, keep your composure, take your time, and be diligent. Doing these things will greatly increase your odds of success in retrieving your trophy.

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