BILLINGS – There was no time for Russel Ferster to think, only to react – a series of snap judgments and muscle memory that in the end measured his life in a fraction of an inch.
The 24-year-old Absarokee native was archery hunting for elk with his 11-year-old brother, Lane, on Sept. 11 on the north side of the Crazy Mountains.
“We weren’t even 15 minutes out of the pickup and I decided to cow call twice,” Russel said.
It was one of the first archery outings for Lane. Russel, a 12-year veteran of the sport, was hoping to get his brother close to his first bull elk. But instead of an elk responding to the plaintive mewing sounds that Russel made to mimic a lovelorn cow elk, a black bear came busting out of the brush in an explosion of black fur.
When he first heard the brush moving, Russel thought he’d lucked into a bull and moved Lane off to the side so he could prepare to shoot; then the bear appeared.
“He was coming real fast with his head down and didn’t see us,” Russel said. “I’ve had bears come in to cow calls before. Usually when they see us they turn around.”
So Russel raised his hands over his head and shouted at the bear. It stopped about 15 feet away and then started to pounce up and down on its front paws and barred its teeth, as if agitated by the hunters’ deception.
It wasn’t until that moment that Russel realized he hadn’t brought along any bear spray or a handgun, which his father, Richard, always encourages him to carry.
“I grew up hunting in grizzly country,” Russel said. “It turns out it’s good to have them for black bears, too.
“It was a terrible mistake that I won’t make again.”
In fact, Russel said he quit hunting the Paradise Valley area because of all the grizzly bear activity. When the hunters would take horses into the backcountry of southwestern Montana, they would sometimes spend more time rounding up horses scared off by bears than they would searching for game.
“It’s not much fun,” he said. “You’re constantly worried.”
That worry couldn’t match the fear Russel felt when the black bear charged, though. Without the choice of a pistol or spray to use on the bear, he quickly loaded an arrow onto his bow and told Lane to get behind him. When Lane moved the bear surged ahead.
“He came at 100 miles an hour,” Russel said. “I had a split second to aim and hit him in the only place that would stop him in his tracks.”
Pulling back his BowTech BT-X compound bow, which can fire his Easton Axis Full Metal Jacket arrows tipped with a 100 grain Slick Trick broadhead at 350 feet per second, Russel fired.
“I hit him in the only place that would stop him in his tracks, just above the eye, and the broadhead managed to penetrate into the brain,” he said.
The bear crumpled so close to Russel’s feet that the opposite end of the arrow hit him in the leg.
“Even that close, it barely penetrated the bear’s skull,” he said.
When Russel took the bear to Don Keever at Anglers and Antlers Taxidermy in Billings, Keever had to believe the “crazy” tale. After all, the proof was right there – a bear skull with a broadhead stuck in it.
“I’ve heard a lot of crazy stories in this business,” Keever said. “I told him, ‘I don’t know if you’re a Christian or not, but God was looking out for you.’ ”
“The guy at Anglers and Antlers told me I’m lucky,” Russel said. “He said if that broadhead penetrated 1/16th of an inch less, it would not have put him down. That’s one of the thickest bones on their body.”
The bear encounter pumped so much adrenaline into Russel’s body that he had to lie down on the ground to collect himself after firing the fatal shot.
“Lane couldn’t talk about it for about a half hour,” he said.
After tagging and gutting the bear, Russel tied its front paws together so he could carry it on his back to the truck, the bear’s feet dragging on the ground. He estimated its live weight at more than 200 pounds.
“That was an odd feeling,” Russel said, having the bruin’s dead head resting on his shoulder.
Upon arriving at his parents’ home, the brothers recounted the story.
“I was just glad that they were OK,” the boys’ father, Richard, said. “We’ve run into bears a lot, but they don’t react like that.
“It was quite the adventure.”
“My mom is terrified of bears so it scared her to death,” Russel said.
Since then, Russel and Lane have been out hunting again, and both were a little nervous the first time they stepped back into the woods.
“I’ve hunted bears before,” Russel said. “I’ve taken one prior to that in the spring rifle season. This was my first archery bear – but we definitely weren’t bear hunting. We had no choice.”
Neither one of the brothers filled their elk tag during the archery season, but are planning more trips during the rifle season.
Even now, more than a month later, Russel said the entire incident keeps popping into his head like instant replay.
“It’s definitely kept me up at night,” wondering what else he could have done.
“Who’s to say it wasn’t a bluff charge? I’ve been in lots of situations with grizzlies where I’ve gotten bluff charged. But it was no bluff charge unless he was going to stop on top of us.”
If that had occurred, what then?
“The only backup plan I had was to use my knife until Lane got to the truck.”
Since the bear encounter, Russel said he has never forgotten to bring along bear spray and a handgun. For now, the black bear resides in Keever’s freezer where it will one day be tanned for display, a constant reminder of a harrowing encounter. The skull will be cleaned for display, a broadhead firmly stuck in its brow, just above the left eye.
“It was scary,” Russel said, “but it’s a pretty cool deal now that it’s over.”