I’ve wanted to hunt spring bear for the past several seasons and was ready to pull the trigger this year on a Canadian bear hunt over bait. Unfortunately, the border has not reopened since Covid started, so in January I began looking at a plan B. As this would be a solo DIY trip I elected to avoid grizzly country and bought an over-the-counter bear tag for Arizona. After two months of e-scouting on the computer, weighted pack workouts, and updating some of my gear, I headed west. On March 31st, I boarded a plane for Pheonix with my backpack and rifle.
My brother happens to be a wildland firefighter with the USDA in the Tonto National Forest based out of Payson, Arizona. This made picking a spot to hunt in Arizona easy as I would have access to some of his local knowledge about the terrain in addition to his generous offer to let me borrow his spare truck during my stay. The Tonto is a staggering 2.8 million-acre forest that mainly sits at the base of the Mogollon rim in Arizona. The Mogollon (pronounced “muggy-on”) rim is a 200-mile mountain range that reaches peaks of 8,000 feet in elevation and extends east to west across the middle of Arizona. The base of the rim is composed of Ponderosa pine forests, valleys, canyons, and mountain streams.
My plan going into the trip was to backpack several miles into the forest. I would spend my two weeks glassing up hillsides and valleys to try and locate a bear. Arriving in Arizona, I found that the area around the Tonto forest was in a heavy drought. Most of the rivers and streams near my area were bone dry. This helped narrow my choices of where to hunt as finding water would prove to be the key to finding wildlife. A second surprise was that the valley floors and flat sections of forest were so thick that glassing them proved difficult. There were definitely areas where I could hike up a thousand feet or so and be able to see for a few miles with my optics, but these spots were harder to find than I’d hoped.
The first full day after I arrived, I packed in about 4 miles to a remote section of the forest that sat at the base of a wilderness area and was bordered by a river. For the next three nights, I camped in my tent about a quarter-mile from the water. Around noon each day, I hiked a mile or so alongside the river and set up in a spot where I had decent visibility of some hillsides. I spent the afternoons and evenings studying the terrain through my binoculars looking for any sign of a bear. I found plenty of 2-3 day old bear sign on the ground but was not able to locate a bear moving during daylight. On day 4, I hiked back out to my truck and went back into town to regroup.
It’s hard to explain how big the Tonto forest actually is without seeing it for yourself. The sheer magnitude of the landscape makes it difficult to narrow down areas to hunt. Looking at maps and going off some tips I picked up from local forest rangers, I picked four different main areas that I wanted to get to and hunt. They all shared some common traits. They had fresh water, a remote location away from people, thick and nasty terrain and vegetation, and contained at least a few peaks that I could get up on to glass. I spent the next 10 days driving to these four different locations in the forest and camping out of my truck while hunting every single afternoon and evening. Being new to the area, I counted out hunting mornings. They tend to not be the most productive hunting time for spring bears. You also need to be super familiar with the area and trails to sneak in safely and remain undetected while you wait for the sun to rise.
I did not get a bear this trip. Planning the hunt, I knew that coming home with my bear was not guaranteed. Hunting a new area by myself in early April was a low percentage proposition. The bears are not fully out of hibernation yet. Also, the weather in Payson was unseasonably hot and hovered right around 80 degrees for the duration of my trip. This is about 15 degrees warmer than is typical for April there. Hot spring weather makes the bears even less likely to move around during daylight. However, my trip was definitely a successful one by every other measure. I learned a ton about a new area. Spending two weeks in the Tonto national forest allowed me to scout many different spots and begin to get familiar with the terrain. I’ve already begun planning a return this fall to fill my bear tag and spend more time in the beautiful rugged country that is the Tonto national forest.