I heard about this hunt when I was turkey hunting last year in Des Moines, N. M., with Larry Zappanti of C Bar Z Outfitters. My guide was a young man named Kolten Cook. While hunting with him, we discussed, like all hunters do, what other animals and places we hunt. He told me about the elk, mule deer and lion hunting they do in New Mexico, Colorado and on another ranch in Wyoming where he guides.
We talked about the hunts that we do yearly. The topic of black bear came up. My wife and I have hunted in Cherryfield, Me., for black bear for the past three years for our anniversary. My friend and hunting buddy, Mike Rawson, has turned us on to hunting bears. Kolten told me that he guides color-phase black bear (a dream of mine since I started hunting) in Wyoming with Trophy Mountain Outfitters after the end of turkey season. I told him I was interested and to let me know how this year went and we would probably plan for a trip next spring, and of course, he did.
As outfitters do, he sent some great pictures of some great bears, and I was hooked (line and sinker). So as the year went on, Mike Rawson, my wife, Meagan, and I booked the hunt and started planning. However, when COVID-19 hit in February, all our spring trips came into question. An Aoudad hunt in Texas was the first to cancel, then a Texas turkey hunt. New Mexico with C Bar Z was up in the air for a while, then we got the all clear that we could still hunt, with restrictions. Along with that, we are self-employed, and our work had all but stopped. When we got to New Mexico, we discussed the bear hunt with Kolten. We had to tell him that the bear hunt wasn’t looking good; we would probably have to cancel but would stay in touch. But two weeks before the hunt, with Mike constantly egging me on and me resisting, the Lord provided. He softened my wife’s heart, because we are usually a trio, and she was not able to go, but she told me to go. We booked our tickets; sent Kolten a message and the plans were set.
Mike and I landed in Jackson Hole. We checked in at the hotel and went to a local sporting goods store for a sweatshirt for me. We spent a small fortune between the two of us and forgot the sweatshirt, but we came out with a new Tenzing pack and hard to find ammo. I get fussed at by Mike because that happens every trip. We met with Kolten to sign our paperwork for the outfitter and got lined out for the first hunt the next day.
We met up with our two guides, Nate Suter and Kolten. We jumped in the trucks and took off. Kolten and I got to our trail head, unloaded the horses, and got ready to roll. I am a large guy, 6-foot-3 and 330 pounds, so they had to pair me with a large, tall horse, a half-draft named Grizz.
Wyoming is such a beautiful state, especially that area. We rode through the creek bottoms, through the Aspen and pines across the creeks to where we tied up the horses. Kolten pointed up and said, “Let’s go.”
Remember my frame and that I’m also from South Louisiana and I haven’t even come close to acclimating to the altitude yet. I said “OK, how far?” He said, ”Oh, just a couple hundred yards.” I said, “OK.” We elk hunt in the Buena Vista, Colo., area and hike there a lot, so I thought “No problem.’”
Well it was a problem, because Kolten is part billy goat and takes no breaks. We did hike about 400 yards with a gain of 600 feet. I was soaking wet with sweat. It was raining. I was sitting on the ground just thankful to have not gone any higher.
We sat for eight hours and never saw a bear. I saw about 40 elk, about the same number of mule deer and one cow moose. It was a good hunt.
We got down and back within phone service range, and I got a text that Mike had killed a sow right at 7 p.m. The thing you must know about Mike is he isn’t picky at all. He shoots the first legal animal every hunt. He asked Nate how large the bear was, and before he answered, Mike shot and just about blew the binos out of Nate’s hand. Nate looked at him and said, “I don’t think you cared about the size.” Which Mike replied, “Nope.”
The next day, we checked the bear in with Kyle Lash, a great warden with a good sense of humor.
Back at the ranch Kolten, Nate and I loaded up and took off to the same spot I had gone the day before. It was already raining and nasty at the trail head. We tied up and headed back up; I still just about fell out when I got to the top. By that point, It was snowing. We sat for a few hours, the snow stopped, and we sat and waited. Nothing. I put my gun back down and wrapped the scope back in my jacket to keep it clear.
Suddenly, a bear ran up the hill in front of me. Kolten yelled and The bear, a yearling, stopped 8 feet away from me. I saw it coming up; but I couldn’t get my gun up before he could have had me. I always wonder how a hunter with a gun gets caught by a bear. Now I know. The bear never really knew we were there, turned and headed uphill, walking off. All while Nate was sleeping.
An hour or so later I was watching deer and elk feed and move around across the canyon when I spot a large blonde bear with a chocolate head and legs. I told Kolten to come look. I ranged him at 760 yards. I told Kolten I could shoot that, no problem. We got set up, Kolten on the Vortex spotter, Nate on my Leica binos and me on the Remington. The bear was moving around, feeding and taunting the deer. We changed distances on the Nightforce scope several times.
I finally got him locked down at 765. I shot, and the shot went high, about 2 inches over his shoulders. We tried to reset, but the bear was on the move, and we were unsuccessful. He was gone. I couldn’t figure what I had done wrong. Then I saw I had dialed the scope for 775 yards. We packed up, mounted up and rode the horses up the slide to verify a clean miss. We get there and the bear had come back, but it happened too fast to dismount and get a shot. He ran up the ridge and went out of sight. After checking the area for hair and blood we rode back.
After licking my wounds and dropping a gloating Mike off at the airport, I went to the range just south of town to double check my rifle. Started at 440 then 600 then 750. The gun was on, which really didn’t make me feel a whole lot better, but it did feel good to shoot.
I reported back to the ranch and away we went back to the same spot. There was a big black and a cool cinnamon bear on the bait we were seeing on the trail cameras; we felt we could get one. However, after sitting until dark again with no luck. However, I did make it up a lot easier than the other two days. That’s something.
I asked Kolten if my wife had a deal with him to make me lose weight while I was there.
Kolten got up early and went to check baits and cameras like he did every day. He went to the farthest bait they had, which had been set only a few days, just to see if the bears had found it. Three bears had. A very large blonde, another large black and a massive chocolate; only the black was on camera in the daylight. Kolten came down and texted me to meet him at the ranch. We needed to leave right away as it a long ride to get there in time.
We met at the ranch and caught Grizz, who by this time was sick of packing me. We got to the trailhead and headed out. Two hours later, after some of the steepest riding I have ever done and taking in some of the most beautiful scenery God has ever created, we hopped off and walked downhill to the spot we were going to hunt. Sitting down, we set up and took a break to reflect on the past few days and what I had just ridden up through. We sat a few hours and didn’t see anything but one cow elk.
The wind was swirling, mainly going straight to the bait. The sun was going down, and I was starting to get disheartened. Kolten was bracing for the ribbing I was going to give him on the two-hour ride down. I said a little prayer for the next few minutes, asking God for anything legal to walk out. I promise, I wasn’t picky anymore. I will be thankful for anything. About 20 minutes later, we heard the sound of a stick breaking. Kolten told me to get ready.
I had high hopes but had my doubts he was going to show in the next few minutes of daylight. Looking and not moving an inch, we saw an area darken. Kolten said he was coming out, to get ready. I watched him through my scope; he was looking and sniffing in our direction, and I thought he was fixing to bolt. He took two steps, and I pulled the trigger. He flipped, slid down the hill and died. “Thank you, Lord,” I said. Kolten screamed that was a monster.
I had no idea. I shot him for a 250-pound, solid-black bear, and he ended up being a 7-foot, 450-pounds-plus chocolate with a brown muzzle and a white patch on his chest. What a moment to remember in my hunting life. I finally got my color-phased black bear, and it was a monster.
We are both so pumped up we take some pictures. Then the work began with the Outdoor Edge. We finished processing and skinning the bear at 11 p.m. We gathered the horses, loaded the bear, and headed down the mountain reflecting and taking in the clear starry night. I got to bed about 1:30, however it was closer to four before falling asleep.
We got up, got some breakfast, and headed off to find the warden to check in the bear. We met up with wardens James Hobbs and Kyle Lash. We dropped the tailgate for Hobbs, and he said, “Wow, that’s a big bear!” Lash stopped shoeing horses and came over. “Wow, that’s a big bear!” he said.
After checking him in and doing the paperwork, we started talking, and both wardens said that is the biggest bear that either of them had ever checked in. I was really getting excited. Dustin Child, the owner of Trophy Mountain Outfitters, came and got pictures, and we went to the taxidermist to get him prepped to mail home.
We get there, and he had the same reaction: “That’s a big bear!” I asked if he could remove the skull while we are there so we could get the measurements to see if he is a record-book bear. He went right to work. After cleaning him up, he got out his measuring tools, and the skull measured 21 inches. Our jaws dropped. The Boone & Crockett Club’s record awards start at 20 inches, and the all-time record book starts at 21 inches. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would harvest a record bear. Thank you, Lord. I promised I wasn’t going to be picky.
Ben Fabre – Slaughter, La.
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