Cole Stevens was hunting a familiar spot along Montana’s Rocky Mountain Front on the evening of September 10 when he spotted some tall tines poking through the shoulder-high grass up ahead of him. He stalked to within bow range, sank back into the grass, and waited an hour-and-a-half for the big Montana whitetail to emerge from its bed. When it did, he let loose a lethal shot as it quartered away at 20 yards.
He watched the deer run off and fall back beneath the grass then got up from his hide, found blood, and quickly found the buck. It was a beautiful main frame 6X6 with a split brow tine and few inch-long spikes at the base of its rack. But unbeknownst to Stevens, something else was equally interested in his trophy whitetail as he admired it there in the tall grass beneath the shadow of the Rocky Mountain Front. And it had been coming in on a string from the moment his arrow drew blood.
“I didn’t know it, but the bear was out in the same grassy field the whole time I was hunting that deer,” Stevens tells Field & Stream. “I went to get some pictures with him, and all of the sudden I was getting torn up by mosquitos. I think that was God’s hand at work trying to get me out of there.”
Stevens hightailed it back the his truck to grab a hoodie that he hoped would protect him from the swarming pests, but as he hiked back, he noticed a Montana Fish Wildlife & Parks employee eyeing him from a distance. It was a biologist working in the area who’d been observing Stevens’ hunt from afar. From his vantage, he could see a large grizzly bear stalking in on the hunter and his kill.
“I walked out to where my car was parked and he drove down there and he said, ‘Do you know you have a grizzly stalking you?’,” Stevens says. “I was just shocked.” The biologist told Stevens that another group of hunters had been watching as well, and they’d alerted FWP because they were concerned for his safety.
“They said that as soon as I shot that deer, the grizzly picked up his head. He must have smelled it immediately,” he recalls. “It started coming straight on a line for me. I was really lucky that I got out of there when I did.”
Stevens had left his bear spray at home that evening. He had a handgun, but it was just a 9mm. “I’ve become so comfortable with that area and have been hunting it so often,” he says. “I didn’t wanna carry my big .45 around with me because I didn’t think I’d really need it. In hindsight, I should have thought that through a little better.”
After Stevens got back to his truck and spoke to the FWP biologist, he pulled up his binos and glassed back over the area he’d just come from. “Sure enough that grizzly was already on the deer,” he recalls. “He looked like he was just gnawing at the ribs.”
The biologist called an adjacent landowner and got permission to drive through his private property. The two men got in his truck and drove toward the kill site, hoping the truck would scare the bear. “He ran out probably five or six hundred yards and just kind of watched us from there,” Stevens says. “Then we went in and quickly loaded it up and got out of there.”
The biologist later told Stevens that he thought the grizzly was a probably a three or four year old male. Luckily, it hadn’t been on the buck long enough to cause any substantial meat loss. “My broadhead made the initial big slice down the side as he was quartering away, but the bear opened the hide up pretty good,” he says. “He just ripped some meat off the ribs, but other than that, the deer was in good shape.”
With 15 scorable points, it was best the whitetail Stevens—originally from Hopkinsville, Kentucky—has ever taken in Montana. He says the incident was a jarring reminder of how critical it is to be prepared with protection in bear county, but it hasn’t damped his passion for hunting in the wild places that grizzly bears call home.
“I’ll definitely be packing bear spray and a bigger hand gun from now,” he says. “There are risks to everything. It’s important to know the risks and to be prepared, but I wouldn’t let this experience stop me from going out and hunting in grizzly country. It’s all just part of the experience that keeps me hunting.”