James Davis’ 2005 elk hunting experience in Wyoming can be summed up in one word.
“Knowing what to do ahead of time and actually doing it when it happens are two different things,” Davis told Cowboy Sate Daily on Thursday while described being attacked by a grizzly bear in the remote Thorofare region.
“But I was able to get into a ball and cover up my head and neck with my arms and hands,” added Davis, who is from Robinson, Texas.
About a month later, he returned, determined to fill his elk tag.
No Stranger To Wyoming
Davis worked in the Wyoming oil fields from 1981-87. His wife Cathy is from Casper, and the couple still frequently visits family there.
He also loves hunting in Wyoming.
Davis began hunting remote areas in grizzly country near Yellowstone National Park in 1982. So, he was excited when he, his brother Bob and a few of their friends headed into the Thorofare in September 2005 to hunt mule deer and elk.
Davis recently contacted Cowboy State Daily, reporting he enjoyed a recent article about the Thorofare, which is widely regarded as the most remote region in the Lower 48.
He also agreed to share the story of his own harrowing adventure in the Thorofare.
‘I Must Have Startled Him’
On the morning of Sept. 11, 2005, Davis and a friend, Jon Irish, agreed to go retrieve a deer that another member of their party, Dean Brown, had killed the day before. It was about a half-mile from their camp.
Knowing that they were in grizzly country, Brown had intended to pack the buck’s carcass out the same day he shot it. However, the hunters ran out of time packing in an elk and a deer that others also had killed.
“Dean did everything right,” Davis said. “He quartered the carcass and hung everything up in trees, and then hidden the buck’s head under some logs.”
Even so, a grizzly managed to find and devour most of the carcass before Davis and Irish could return to the site.
Davis was moving through some nasty deadfall and was just rounding a lone-standing tree when he saw a huge grizzly coming for him.
“We later surmised that the bear had already eaten the deer and was bedded down by the time we got there,” Davis said. “I must have startled him when I came around that tree. He charged because of that, not because of the food.”
“All of this was happening so fast I can’t really tell you how long it took,” Davis said, describing the attack.
“I yelled ‘bear!’ back at Jon about five times,” he said. “I was just a little way up over the hill, so he couldn’t see me.”
He managed to step back around the tree before the bear was on him.
“It’s a good thing I was able to get back behind that one lone-standing tree,” he said. “If I had taken the full force of that charge head-on in the deadfall, it would have been bad. It probably would have broken my back or my neck.”
He managed to put the muzzle of his .300 Winchester Magnum rifle “into the fur” of the bear and fire a shot before dropping into a defensive position.
Davis to this day isn’t sure where his shot was, but he guesses that “it was probably far back on the bear, probably a gut shot.”
The bear bit Davis’ left wrist, barely missing a large artery. Then it sank its teeth into his right shoulder and lifted him up.
“He didn’t shake me,” Davis said. “The puncture wounds were ‘in-and-out’ holes. He didn’t rip anything.”
“I still have a depression from one of the puncture wounds near my clavicle that you can put your finger into,” he said.
The final wound Davis suffered was when the bear “put his paw on my back and then pushed off as he turned to move down the hill. His claws raked my back.”
‘Those Things Are Hard To Kill’
As the bear moved down the hill, Irish shot at it twice with his 7mm magnum rifle. He made at least one solid hit, probably through the bruin’s shoulder. The bear went down for a little while, but then got back up and continued down the hill. The men lost sight of it as it went into a small grove of trees.
“Those things are hard to kill,” Davis said. “Everybody asks me what sidearm to carry in bear county, but I tell them to get a big can of bear spray. I shot it point-blank with a .300 magnum and Jon shot it at least once, and it still kept going.”
Davis figures the bear probably died shortly afterward, but the party wasn’t able to find any sign of it.
“They did go back to where we saw it disappear, but it had snowed by then so they couldn’t find and tracks or blood.”
A Chopper Ride To Jackson
After determining Davis wasn’t in imminent danger of bleeding out from his wounds, he and Irish walked back to their camp. Since they were near the border of Yellowstone Park, they were lucky enough to find a backcountry park ranger with a two-way radio powerful enough to call for help.
A medical helicopter arrived shortly afterward.
“The Jackson flight crew must have been busy with something else that day, because they sent in a helicopter crew from Idaho,” Davis said.
He was taken to a hospital in Jackson and treated for his wounds.
“They put in a stint to drain the bad blood above the claw marks on my back,” he said. “That really helped.”
Determined To Go Back
Once he was home in Texas, all Davis could think about was getting back to Wyoming to fill his elk tag.
“Nobody was going to stop me,” he said.
He finally connected with an outfitter who had an open spot for a November backcountry hunt in Pilgrim’s Creek. That’s another remote area in grizzly country near Yellowstone’s southern border.
Davis, a guide and another hunter set off on horseback well before dawn to an area about 20 miles west of where the bear attack happened.
“The moonlight on the snow was bright, so we could see fairly well,” he said.
Even so, nobody noticed that the other hunter’s rifle had somehow fallen out of its scabbard on the way in.
“Usually, you flip a coin to see which hunter will get the first shot,” Davis said. “But since I agreed to let the other hunter use my rifle, we agreed that I would have the first shot.”
After getting into elk “a couple of times” with no good shot opportunities, Davis got his chance.
“It was a broadside shot at about 225 yards,” he said. “The bull just crumbled.”
The other hunter also got a large bull elk that day.
The rack from Davis’ bull measured out to 359 inches, according to the Boone and Crocket scoring system. That’s just 1 inch shy of the 360 inches needed to make it into the B&C record book.
But Davis wasn’t disappointed.
“I thought, ‘359 is good enough for me,’” he said.
A shoulder taxidermist’s mount of the bull’s head and antlers is “hanging right in our living room,” he said.
Not Done Hunting
Davis, now 67, still regularly hunts in southern Wyoming, as well as in New Mexico and Colorado.
“At this point for me it’s not really about killing any more elk for myself,” Davis said. “Me and my brother like to help friends and family who can’t afford an outfitter by taking them out hunting.”
Their Wyoming hunts now are in the southern part of the state, he said.
“I would like to go back into the bear country, but I can’t find anybody to go with me,” he said. “So, we haven’t gone back (to the Thorofare) since the year I was attacked.”
He also still enjoys hunting whitetail deer and feral hogs in his home state.
And, people still like hearing about his grizzly ordeal in Wyoming. He uses it as a cautionary tale for hunters who are thinking about going into places like the Thorofare.
In such remote wilderness, the sound of a hunter’s rifle shot is like a “dinner bell” for grizzlies hoping to find a fresh carcass or gut pile, he said.
“Everybody asks me if I got a picture of the bear,” he said. “And I say, ‘No, I don’t have a picture of the bear. I didn’t have time to get my camera out.’”