Roger & The Red Bear
Roger had seen the bear from the road. We were driving north on Wildhorse on our way to a baited blind deep in a side canyon when he suddenly slapped on the brakes. The old truck shuddered to a halt. He pointed out the side window with his chin, injun style, “bear down there’, he said, reverting to the brevity of Indian palaver. He always did that when things got tight. He could speak English as well as anyone but the Indian always came out when excitement loomed, even though he was as much Irish as Indian.
We were hunting black bear on the Ute Reservation in Northern Utah, except not many of the bear were black. They came in all colors. Roger had been raised on the reservation. the ‘Res” he called it.. He was born there 30 odd years before. In fact, I had delivered him and was the first to see his grinning face and spank his little butt. I didn’t know it then, but he was to become a son-in-law later in life after he and my daughter Sara found each other in Jr High. He lost his Irish father when he was less than two years old and had been raised by his mother’s father, Franklin McCook. Frank was a near full blooded old-time Indian despite the Irish name. He had spent his young life before WWI living a semi- nomadic life with his parents and family on the huge Ute reservation in northern Utah. He had come to know the critters and country like the back of his hand. In time, he passed that knowledge and experience on to Roger as they buddied together during Rogers childhood and young manhood.
Roger had become a studious and ardent hunter. If he had studied in school as hard as he did in the mountains he would have made straight A’s. As it was, he and school had not mixed very well but he and the wild country of the reservation certainly had. He could call in a bull elk as easily as you and I call our kids in for supper. They would come in with a rush. He could cluck like a sage hen and squeal like the scardest rabbit in kingdom come. The coyotes must have thought he was dinner as they rushed in to his calls. He knew where the biggest rams hung out and where the elk cows went to calve, where the big cats denned and where the bear hibernated. He could leg trap a beaver slick as any mountain man and pop a rabbit on the run with his 22 easy as Butch Cassidy blew up trains. He could climb a mountain at near a dead run and keep up a slow run all day. He could run circles around any hunter he ever took out, including me. His motto was ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’. He was the best hunter that I have ever known, and I know a bunch.
Roger spent a good deal of his time flying with Helicopter Capture Services. He had started out as a jumper but had later graduated to gunner, becoming expert at shooting the net-gun over a fleeing animal. He had captured sheep, elk, bear, wolves and even buffalo, usually working with state fish and wildlife agencies in the US and Canada. He spent summers working with Ute Tribe Fish and Wildlife but each spring and fall would break free for a time, running his own guiding service on the reservation. I had taken advantage of that service, signing on in the spring of 2001 for a Spring bear hunt.
This wasn’t the first bear that I had ever hunted. I had taken several black bear with muzzleloading rifles in Utah, Alaska and Canada. The first was a brown phase bear that I ran into in the primitive area of northern Utah in the early 1970’s while flintlocking for mule deer. The biggest was a 7 footer that came into a bait on an island in the Land O’ the Lakes country of southern Canada. That one fell to an inline muzzleloading rifle of my own design, a White Super-91. Although I do surgery and endoscopy for a living, I design and build muzzleloading rifles and systems for fun, and sometimes profit. The White brand muzzleloading rifles that you can find on your dealers shelf are a product of my design engineering.
I had also taken a good Brown bear with the very first 504 caliber Super-91 to come out of the White Systems shop in 1992. I had put the gun together just the night before and flew into King Salmon having never shot the thing. Nevertheless, it had performed well, with a gorgeous blond bear falling to the rifle and its 600 grain bullet.
I was carrying a similar rifle now, newer, but very much the same, the White Model 98 Elite Hunter. It had been modified from the older Super-91 with a few minor changes meant to ease production, lower costs and increase quality. It was also 504 caliber, (White chooses to list its calibers in three numbers rather than the usual two for the sake of accuracy), with a 24 inch barrel and a 1:24 twist to its .0035 deep rifling. I was shooting a load similar to that which I used on the big Brown, the White 600 grain PowerPunch slip-fit bullet loaded over 120 grains of Pyrodex P. ‘Slip-fit’ means that the bullet is .001 smaller than the land diameter of the rifling, what we used to call ‘a mechanics fit’. It loads easily, and yet is accurate because it bellies out into the rifling on the shot. Best of all, second shots are quick, if needed.
This load throws the heavy bullet at 1350 FPS at the muzzle with well over 2400 ft lbs of energy and a TKO factor higher than that of a 375 Magnum. The BC of the bullet is .33, which means the bullet loses velocity slowly, resulting in more than 1600 ft lbs of energy left at 200 yards. It was also superbly accurate, with 2 ½ inch groups at 200 yards. I had equipped it with a Burris 3X9 power scope, as my old eyes find open sights a tough proposition.
The Northern Ute Reservation occupies about a million acres in north-eastern Utah. It was originally established by Present Lincoln in 1864 and was much larger in the beginning, taking up almost the whole of that quarter of Utah. About the turn of the century, Congress reduced the size of the Reservation to its current boundaries, thereby generating an infinite number of boundary disputes and guaranteeing a good living for lots of lawyers.
Most of the Reservation is wilderness, or passes for it. There are no large towns, only the villages of Fort Duchesne, where the US military was once quartered, and Whiterocks, and only a few roads cross its surface. None of them are paved except HiWay 40. The trip from Roosevelt, which lies just outside the Reservation, to bear country takes about three hours of the roughest pick-up ride this side of Hell. We made the trip in my daughter Sara’s new white GMC truck. She was really pleased. She didn’t know, but we were going to hunt using Roger’s old Chevy pickup. The new truck was just for easy transport.
Camp was an older camp trailer parked in the cedars of the Hill Crick country. Despite its age, it was well stocked with food, water and goodies. Roger turned out to be a passable cook, something I’ll bet Sara knows nothing about. The evening was brilliant with a red Utah sunset and brilliant later in the night with myriads of stars in a cloudless sky. The air was crisp but dry, about 40 degrees, just right for the hunt.
We spent the evening sitting outside, gazing at the stars and telling stories. He told me about his last hunts the past fall, taking giant 6 and 7 point elk scoring well up past 390 B&C. We talked about his ambition to be a full time guide and get out of the Helicopter Capture Service. I told him about his Celtic ancestors (mine, too) who swept out of northern England down on the Romans, painted blue and swinging giant broadswords. They were never defeated. He was tickled to learn that his Irish blood on the one side was every bit as wild as the Indian blood on the other.
We were up before light, grabbing a fast bite then heading out to check baits and set up on a bear. Roger knew of a large black that was hitting a bait in a deep canyon to the south. We would go there first.
I popped a couple of caps on my White M98, then followed with a squib load, firing it into the air. We were a long way from the bear bait so had no worry about spooking anything. Then I loaded 120 grains of Pyrodex P and a 600 gain PowerPunch bullet, making sure it was compacted snugly on the powder. I didn’t put a musket cap on the nipple, we had a long ride ahead of us. I would do that at the last minute using the capper hung around my neck. I f I got a shot and needed a fast reload I would use the speed loaders in the butt-stock mounted elastic shotshell carrier on the rifle. I had a few more speed loaders in my pockets.
It took an hour bumping over the heavily rutted roads to reach the bait. It was just daylight when we got there. We stalked up to it slowly and found nothing there, the bears last visit had been the day before.
Roger re-rigged the bait. He had a haunch of horse in the pickup, It was quite stinky and full of maggots. “Just right for a bear”, he said, tying it up securely with baling wire. He squirted some right nasty smelling stuff around, then lit a handful of honey-laced bacon with a torch. The breeze was out of the northwest, as usual, and the smock and stench drifted downhill to the south and east.
Roger pointed with his chin, “Bear’ll come from downhill, he commented, “always do” He turned and looked uphill to the north, “We’ll make a blind up there. Best hurry, he may not be far away”
We set a blind up the hill about 40 yards from the bait. We had mountain mahogany to hide behind, and draped camo netting across the brush to further disguise our giveaway human forms. We were also dressing in sagebrush camo, perfect for a ground blind.
Roger put his finger to his lips, “Shhh” he whispered, then said no more the rest of the morning. We sat quietly, waiting for the bear to appear, He never did. Finally, at midmorning, Roger stood up and strode downhill, cutting the trail we expected he bear to come from. I followed closely. We found the bear’s big tracks down and around the corner to the west about 40-45 yards away. He had come in, stopped, turned this way and that, then turned around and strolled away. No hurry in this one. His nose was just too good.
“That’s why he likes this place ” said Roger,” the breeze cuts around enough to give him good warning of danger” “It’s good bears can’t see as well as they can smell”, He said.
After lunch in the shade, we found a set up that looked like it had been hit the evening before. We set up as before, stinky stuff and all. Roger placed the blind a good 100 yards away. The area was quite open with big cottonwoods and low brush. He commented that the bear were very cautious coming into this set up.
We waited quietly until dark. Three bear came in, a black, a brown and a big gray. None were big enough for me. We let them go, watching them through the binoculars and practicing shots on them. We got back to camp well after dark.
We spent the next few days checking baits, setting up, seeing a few bear but none that I wanted to shoot. I knew that a 7 ½ footer had come out of this area the year before and wanted his grandpa. None of the ones we saw came close. It took a long day to check a few baits, re-bait then set up morning and evening. We rarely visited the same bait twice.
We were traveling the Wildhorse country when Roger saw the red bear. this was one of the few baits that could be seen from the track. It was a good 800 yards away. Roger had eyes like an eagle. I couldn’t even see him without ten power glasses After he pointed it out, I could see a small reddish dot way down the canyon. It moved and turned out to be a red bear in the binoculars. We had been on our way to another bait further down canyon.
“Yu’ want?” questioned Roger, “bear in hand’s better’n a bear in the bush.” I wanted, at least to look. The bear was so red that he was attractive. Roger swung the truck off the track and we dismounted. We decided to try a sneak even though it was starting to get dark. I grabbed my muzzleloader and walking stick, (I have a bad knee and can’t get across the street without a walking stick). He grabbed his pack. My fanny pack was already cinched around my waist. We headed down canyon into the dusk.
Roger took us on a route out of sight of the bait and red bear. We made 700 yards pretty quick, then slowed as we came around a hill that opened into the bait. As we rounded the corner, the bear was in plain view, red as an apple, or almost so. I had never seen one quite so red before. Too bad, but he wasn’t very big, about a 5 footer. We stood and watched from 40 yards as the bear attempted to feed from the bait. There was the ever present haunch of horse high on a cottonwood, but the bear was short enough not to be able to reach it.
Suddenly the bear stopped his busy activity and stared to the right into the aspen. After a short wait, he turned and ambled off to the left. He didn’t d seem to be in any hurry. I raised an eyebrow at Roger as if to ask, “Why did he leave. ? There’s plenty of bait left.”
“Nother bear comin”, said Roger, falling into Indian dialect. He always did when he got excited. ‘Course, he didn’t look excited, he was too much of a pro to betray any excitement. He touched my arm, a gesture of reassurance, “Don’t move,” he whispered, ” Bear’s in the trees.”
A short time later a blonde head appeared in the Quakies, followed by a blonde bear. Blonde as Marilyn Monroe and nearly as pretty but with darker legs. This bear was also larger than the first one. Taller, too. He could reach the horse haunch. He tugged hard on it but couldn’t pull it down.
He ripped off a big chunk and dropped down to tear at it, holding it down with his feet and biting off smaller bits. He ate ravenously, wolfing down the meat. Suddenly he jumped back, haunches low and head high, whirled around three times then charged almost directly at us.
I whipped my rifle up, but to no need. The blonde was looking back over his shoulder at the trees, not at us. He passed about ten feet to the right, huffing and popping his teeth as he passed.
“Hey”, said Roger, dropping his prepositions again, Indian style, (Ute doesn’t have any), “Nother bear comin’. Even bigger.” And out walked a big black bear, far bigger than the other two. He had just a little patch of white on his chest. I figured that’s where I would plant the bullet. This bear was big enough that he walked up to the bait, stood up, grabbed the haunch with his teeth and jerked the whole thing down, breaking the wire cleanly. He carried it a few feet then dropped it on the ground and tore off a big chunk.””Good bear” whispered Roger, his whisper guttural in the dusk, ” that horse leg weighs better’n 125 pounds. Get ready!”
I threw up the rifle, scope set low on three power to accommodate the poor light. The bear loomed large in the glass but offered a shot only at his big wide butt. I hesitated, waiting for a better shot. I wanted to do it right, the bear was close and I would have only the one shot without a fast reload.. Roger had neglected to bring along his 7mm Magnum.
It was a good thing that I waited, because the bear suddenly stood up, facing into the trees, paws up like a boxer’s. He woofed – and another bear woofed back!. The new bear was back in the trees a ways, but we could see them standing, the two bears waving their paws and woofing at each other as if inviting a fight. The bear in the trees dropped to all fours with a final woof and came in. The big black bear woofed a last time and ran off to the right, huffing and puffing in frustration. Glory, the last bear was red as a stop sign and even bigger than the black. His body was a big as the bait barrel and his head looked small with tiny ears. This was a BIG bear, probably all of seven feet.
It was getting awfully dark and I knew I would have to shoot quick. The bear stepped up, front paws on a log, facing us. I centered the chest and pulled the trigger. Yeah, pulled it. I didn’t squeeze. No time to squeeze. I had forgotten what a huge blast of fire comes from a muzzleloader. We were instantly night blinded. I fumbled for a reload in the dark. I could hear the bear’s teeth grinding and popping together. “He’s mad,” said Roger, taking a step forward as if to protect me from the bear.”RELOAD QUICK!!”
Meantime I was scattering powder and bullets all over Hill Crick, trying to get the muzzleloader reloaded. It was good that I’d practiced reloading at least once or twice in the dark.. About the time I did get the rifle reloaded, the bear had stopped the tooth clacking and all was quiet.
“Got yer flashlight?,” I asked. “Forgot my flashlight,” replied Roger. We looked at each other in the dark, white-eyed, then turned and walked together towards the bear.
We found the bear behind the log the bear had been standing on, stone cold dead. He had a big head, a bigger body and small ears, 4 inch fur that was nearly the color of Maureen O’Hara’s hair over his back fading to a reddish chocolate in the legs. He looked to weigh about as much as me and Roger put together. “I’ll be cussed,’’ I commented,” looking from the fine red coat on the bear up to Roger, “an Irish bear and an Irish Indian.”
We spent the rest of the night getting the bear skinned and cared for, salting the hide carefully so it could be mounted later. We took a few pictures to remember the event, some few in the night and more the next morning., then headed for home and family. Roger always was a family man. Rough and tough he might have been, but he sure loved his wife and kids and was always glad to get home to them. Me, too. I love the outdoors and the hunt. Both take me back to an earleir time, especially if I can hunt with a muzzleloader, even one as technologically advanced as a White rifle. For a brief time, I can live a life that blows the frustrations and worries of my life into shreds of nothingness. But when its over, that hot shower and soft bed are sure inviting. It’s always nice to et back home, even after an exciting hunt like this one.Sad to relate, Roger was killed the following December, when the ‘chopper he was in crashed while trying to rescue moose from the steep valleys just outside of Salt Lake City. He always liked his adventure in big doses. He remains the best hunter I have ever known, bar none. I cannot say enough about his intuitiveness and skill.