Mike North: Waiting on hunt is taxing

Sun-Star reporter Mike North poses with a female black bear harvested in Plumas County in 2008.
SUBMITTED PHOTO Sun-Star reporter Mike North poses with a female black bear harvested in Plumas County in 2008. Merced Sun-Star

It's hard to sit still in one spot for hours on end, but it can pay off, especially when bear hunting.

With a little luck and a lot of tracking two years ago, it was patience that got me my first bear, and a close encounter with another.

The 2008 season was rough on me. I missed three bucks in one weekend and couldn't finish a six-pointer my buddy ended up harvesting.

Though they were all tough shots, I was mad at myself and started looking for another place to hunt where I could redeem my season.

I discovered the Plumas National Forest, about 40 miles northeast of Chico, and after some research discovered it has one of the largest bear populations in the state.

California itself has become a hot spot for bears -- the population has grown by about 15,000 through the past 25 years, according to the Department of Fish and Game. There are about 25,000 to 30,000 in the state.

Hunting bear in California hasn't slowed the population growth -- that number is still climbing.

Studies show about 8 percent of bears are harvested in California every year, according to the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife.

I've been bear hunting since I was 13 years old. I'd seen a handful of bears, but decided they were too small and passed on them all.

However, with 30,000 bears in the state, I was bound to stumble onto a sizable one eventually, and it happened in 2008.

Not knowing where I was going, I ventured into the Plumas mountains, and after bottoming-out my truck a couple times, I found a promising hunting area and followed some bear sign to the top of a mountain.

On the second to the last day of my hunt, I left camp early one morning and headed down into a canyon.

When I got into some thick manzanita brush taller than I was, I could tell there was something else in there with me. After hearing the loud snapping of a limb, I knew it was a bear.

It was headed for a narrow opening, so I waited and anticipated the shot.

I looked down for a moment to adjust my scope, looked back up and the bear had already gone through the opening, all I could see was its big, round, cinnamon-colored butt. I didn't have a clean shot.

It took off running -- so did I. But there was no hope of catching up to an animal that's built for mountainous terrain.

Disappointed, I went back into the canyon where I'd started the hunt and sat for a few hours. I didn't see anything, but heard something around the mountain side.

I moved, and again sat for as long as I could in the bitter cold. I was huddled up trying to stay warm in a small outcrop of rocks where I had a clear view of the other side of the canyon.

After deciding there was nothing there, I stood up to stretch and move on. Then to my disbelief, a bear was standing broadside across the canyon.

Shaking from the cold, I leaned over a boulder and steadied myself before squeezing off a 200-yard shot. That's all it took -- the bear went down.

Impressed with this new spot I'd found, I went back for another trip last season. I sat in that same spot for 10 hours every day for three days and saw two does, nothing else. The next weekend, again I sat for 10 hours a day for three days and didn't bring back anything to show for it.

Before going back for a third weekend, my dad decided to go with me. After packing all the comforts of home and enough food to keep a family fed all winter, we were finally ready to head into the mountains with our truck, looking like something out of "The Beverly Hillbillies."

Not my style of hunting, but it was nice having steak and soda for dinner instead of my usual meal of bread and water.

I started the weekend how I usually would -- sitting in my spot for hours on end. Within the first hour, a group of nine deer went across the other side of the canyon where I had shot my bear just a year ago. They kept me interested, but nothing else made its way across for a couple days after.

I thought I was doing something wrong, and decided to change it up.

On the last day, I abandoned my spot and went off to other areas.

As the sun started to set, I was feeling satisfied. I had seen seven more deer that day, which is better than bird watching.

Without much shooting light left in the trip, I went back to my canyon, sat and watched for a half-hour, this time from the opposite side.

I was quickly snapped out of a daydream when I saw a big brown mass of fluff across the way.

It was a bear, probably 300 pounds, and it was coming right out from the spot where I had been sitting for hours upon hours for so many days.

I ripped off my pack to get out my rangefinder -- 360 yards across the canyon.

I laid in the prone position over a granite rock and took my first shot. It was a clean miss, as was the second -- my shots were dropping too low out of my Remington .270 bolt action.

Now not only was the bear hundreds of yards away, it was running too.

Holding 30 inches high, the third shot made him stop for a moment, but he soon kept moving. Then a fourth shot, fifth shot and a sixth shot rang through the canyon before the bear went into some brush and didn't come back out.

Then my dad came on the radio.

"Mike? Was that you?" he asked.

I told him it was me. I didn't know he was just up the hillside watching the bear as I shot at it. Like me, he had lost his patience and wasn't paying close attention.

"I think you hit him on the third shot," he said.

We looked for any sign that the bear was down until it got dark. We searched up and down the canyon side, through the manzanita and down every gully, but to no avail.

He got away clean.

It was a frustrating way to end to the season -- not because I let the big one get away, but because I ran out of patience.

Had I spent the last day sitting in the spot I'd occupied for so many hours before, I would have been able to harvest that bear without a doubt.

Though all six of my shots couldn't bring it down, I still came away with something -- more patience.

It's hard to understand just how important patience is until you blow it. You let that one opportunity slip through your fingers, and you can't take it back no matter how much you wish you could.

Sometimes, you just have to believe it's going to happen, have faith and don't get too eager.

Hopefully, that big boy will be back in a couple weeks for Round 2. I know I will.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsun-star.com.