Montana is known for excellent black bear hunting, but only hardcore hunters see the old bears. An average day bear hunting to Mike Eslick is sheer madness to many hunters. In the spring of 2020, it took a hardcore hunter like Mike to outsmart an old black bear in northwest Montana’s backcountry.
Just 5 miles south of the Canadian border in northwest Montana, the spring of 2020 had been particularly harsh. It became apparent to Mike that his diesel truck was too heavy for the amount of snow he needed to get through. He picked up a 1998 Chevy truck that was light enough to get over the snow, but it left him stranded on more than one occasion.
Not deterred, Mike fought through the water pump, fuel line, and radiator problems to get to his beloved backcountry. Bear sign was great there, and with little hunting pressure from other hunters, he knew he would eventually see a giant. It would not come easy, though, and it seemed like the hunting gods would challenge every decision he made this year. If it wasn’t his diesel truck getting stuck, it was the Chevy breaking down. If that wasn’t enough, the early-season snowfall forced him to use his snowmobile when his vehicles could go no further. He would often drive the truck until stuck in the snow, unload the snowmobile and continue until it was stuck, then walk on foot. It takes a lot for hardcore hunters to call it a day.
On one hunt, the brakes on the snowmobile caught on fire, and he had to chip snow to put the fire out. Once the fire was out, he had to walk 2 miles back to the truck to get tools and 2 miles back to fix his snowmobile. This season he would earn everything he got.
Getting stranded can be risky for hunters in the backwoods of Montana. There is no cell service to call for help. If you are stranded, cell service may not be your biggest worry. There had been five grizzly maulings in the last five weeks. If all that is still not enough, the grizzly and wolves all know that it’s dinner time when a shot rings out. They often try to scare hunters away from their quarry if not outright attack. To hardcore hunters, this is all part of it.
With several spring hunting trips behind him, the days Mike had left to hunt slowly slipped away. It was May, 24th and the last day Mike could hunt. It was now or never. The snow was getting sparse, making the hiking much more manageable. With just this one day left to hunt, he headed to his honey hole, a burned-out clear cut that had all the sign of an elusive old black bear. At 6,000 feet, this is thick gnarly country.
Mike crept through the thick brush. As he got closer to his honey hole, he slowed his stalk. Knowing the chances of spotting an old bear before it spotted you is not easy. He stood at the edge of a southeast-facing slope of clear cut, slowly scanning back and forth. All at once, there she was, a big sow grazing in the middle of the burn. Mike knew she was big and looked old, but it was not until later that he knew just how old. As all ancient bear do, she knew something wasn’t right, and simultaneously their eyes locked on each other.
Knowing the gig was up, she started trotting away, occasionally checking to see if Mike was still there. Mike knew what she was up to, and he quietly slipped out, working quickly to gain the high ground and keep her from catching his wind. As he worked his way up and back into view of the clearing, his heart sank. Where did this old matriarch go, was this how the season would end, and how did she vanish? All these thoughts raced through his mind as he scanned back and forth, hoping for one more glimpse. Finally, she made her first and final mistake; she moved ever so slightly and hardcore hunter Mike Eslick, caught it. She was behind a burned and charred stump with her paws wrapped around each side. Her black fur and brown nose blended in perfectly, and if not for her peeking around the stump to see if danger was still present, he would have never seen her.
Mike slowly raised his meticulously built AR10 bear killer and carefully picked his spot. The Noreen Firearms .308 barked, and it was over. The old girl made her first and last mistake of the season.
After a few minutes to gather himself, Mike fought through the brush to recover the big sow. He soon realized how old this bear was. The barren old sow was dry, her teeth worn off, and he doubted she would have made it through another winter. He was pleased to see her hide was still in great shape and estimated she would weigh around 250 pounds. She was an impressive old bear whose skull would measure 11 ¾ inches long and 6.5 inches wide.
As the sun began to sink and Mike began the half-mile drag to the truck, he couldn’t help but respect the old girl’s wisdom. If it not been for the ever so slight movement, he would have never noticed the perfectly camouflaged old black bear. Surely this was not the first time she had used a burnt-out old stump to blend in and elude a hunter. On this day, though, she could not elude hardcore bear hunter Mike Eslick.
By Todd Davis.