In 2021, Missouri held its first bear season with 400 tag holders taking 12 bears out of a 40-bear quota. I only faintly remember hearing about this inaugural bear season since I was in Washington, D.C. in the Marine Corps, far away from the bear habitat of the Missouri plateaus of the Ozark range. In July, the sight of “2022 - Bear - BMZ1 - SUCCESSFUL” had me wasting no time, soon finding myself with sweat-drenched skin and a face full of spiderwebs as I navigated the steep Ozarks topography looking for bear sign.
On October 17th, I was southbound with a sleeping bag and 10 days of food tucked under the camper shell of my pickup, determined to get every minute out of my opportunity to experience a Missouri bear season. I stepped out of the truck to a brisk 20-degree morning. My certainty of a filled tag plummeted as the freeze had me shivering under layers of thick wool. Acorns fell like hail, bouncing off the top of my blind and leaving a thick layer of forage on top of last year’s leaves.
The bitter cold made it nearly impossible to keep myself entertained in the blind as I shakily tried turning the delicate pages of the good book in thick gloves. The truth of it is, stationary hunters fall into two categories – those who admit that at times hunting is incredibly boring and miserable and those who lie about their boredom and misery.
After a 19-degree night in the bed of the truck, the next day started the same as the first. Frigid temps kept my hands wrapped in wool, and reading was still a chore in and of itself. I was beginning to realize just how ridiculous it was to sit in a blind for 130 hours over a 10-day span, hoping a bear, who was now up to its ears in a pile of fresh acorns, would abandon his now unlimited food source to run in front of some dude sitting on one of the thousands of identical oak ridges in this county. I had made it through my review of the majority of Genesis, noting that although 9:3 states “every moving thing that liveth shall be meat for you,” one particular bear might be pardoned.
The second afternoon, however, the pages turned steadily without resistance. The bite of the first cold snap had subsided, and as it left, so did the thick wool that had shielded me from its effects. Through the window of my blind was a scene straight out of a Jack Paluh painting. The hillside on which I sat was ablaze with amber, pumpkin, and rust-colored leaves. It finally set in that I was hunting in the Ozarks again. Other than waterfowling during the 10 days of leave from the Marine Corps I would take every year at Christmas, I hadn’t pursued game in nearly four seasons. I hadn’t experienced
the complexity and beauty of the Ozarks color palette that we were blessed to have blanketing our landscape every autumn, and since my last few falls were spent staring at government and corporate buildings in D.C., the painting that was living in front of me was even prettier.
I was deeply engrossed in the beauty when I heard a stick break behind me. I anxiously listened for the inconsistent surges of crinkling leaves squirrels tend to leave in their path or the consistent steps of a whitetail purposefully making its way down a ridge. This sound was distinctly neither of those.
I clipped my release on my D-loop and made ready for the most nerve-wracking shot of my life, a black bear at 3 yards. The seconds felt like hours, as the creature slowly made its way further along the trail, now almost touching my blind and still making those indistinct footfalls. Just as I was sure this beast would never clear the window, it appeared. A gray squirrel. In my years of absence, I must have lost my ability to decipher their abnormal gait.
I decided to head back Thursday and stay on top of my college courses while using my breaks between classes to refresh my memory of the topography on the other property. I was lost in thought while strategizing on the top floor of a study hall at MSU when my phone rang. A family friend had contacted a landowner client of his in BMZ1, and I got the opportunity to pick his brain over bear movement as he had seen a handful on his property over the years. A conversation soon turned to hunting permission, and I made plans to hunt his property starting Sunday evening. I covered ground on a mix of public and private on Friday and Saturday morning and used Saturday night and Sunday morning to refit and restock physically, mentally, and spiritually before embarking on my final southbound drive of the season.
Sunday afternoon, I found myself pulling into one of the finest farms I’d ever set foot on in Missouri. I set out on a loop as my strategy had shifted to a still-hunting method and was immediately lost in a crowd of wildlife. Whitetails flushed out of the creek bottoms, and squirrels bounced across the forest floor. Active whitetail scrapes were found consistently along the logging road and trails, and buck rubs brought flashes of color to the dark tree trunks that reached above the hardwood ridges.
Nightfall drained the color from the fields and forests that surrounded my truck camp, and I saw the headlights of the landowner dance up the road. We quickly hit it off, both archery fanatics who loved the pursuit of game in Missouri as well as out west. We parted ways, and I got some reading done before getting all the sleep I could to rest up for the long day ahead.
I waited until there was plenty of light to see in every nook and cranny of the Ozarks hills before leaving the truck on the 24th as “bear country” started as soon as I stepped away from the truck with a bow in hand. Rain was supposed to set in at noon and last for nearly the remainder of the season, meaning this morning would likely be my last chance to hunt whether I ran into an Ozark’s bruin or not.
This farm simply had it all. In 10.1 miles of hiking that day, I encountered high fields, expansive oak ridges, wet weather creeks, and ample water sources even in the driest of summers. Each turn in the trail unveiled a whole new world, including countless dark stumps, rocks, and brush piles that locked me in my tracks like a pointer hitting the scent cone of a tucked-away covey of quail. Each time I threw up the binoculars to discover that the “bear” I had just laid my eyes on wasn’t a bear at all.
As the creek bottoms and oak ridges came to an end, I came across a pile of bear scat on my way to the truck. I’d like to think this taunt was the bear letting me know that it was, in fact, possible to run into one in these hills, but it wasn’t in the cards for me this year. Knowing I had very little time until the main mass of storms arrived, I decided to rewalk the ridge I covered the first evening at the farm.
Once again crossing paths with an array of game, I knew I would soon link up with the logging road at the end of the ridge, and the end of the ridge brought the end of my Missouri bear hunt. I gave the country one last glance as I stepped out onto the trail. I was satisfied with the effort I put into this tag, and I felt like I had done the tag justice, despite it going unnotched. As the thought of Missouri black bears left my mind, I glanced to the north.
Through an armored wall of brambles and saplings was a black mass clumped on the far side of a wet weather creek. I knew this couldn’t be a bear. None of the black objects I had laid eyes on yet were bears, but as I pulled up my binoculars and peered through the saplings, I made out ears and then a muzzle. My breath quickened.
The day’s rain had taken all the crinkle out of the leaves, and the droplets falling from the trees provided enough sound to cover my footfalls as I made my way towards the wet weather creek in hopes of finding a hole in the brush big enough to weave an arrow through. Forty-five yards quickly turned into 25. Just as I got into the clearest lane available to me, the bear rose to its front paws and assumed a sitting position while looking around to survey its surroundings. Just as it rose, I noticed a hole through the undergrowth about 5" in diameter that I believed would be centered on the lungs once the bear got on all fours. Maybe God was paying attention when I was fighting wool in order to read Genesis 9:3 on opening day after all. I drew my bow and settled my pin in the center of the gap. The bear rose to all fours as I watched the arc of my arrow find its way through the window of saplings.