“Obviously, there’s an adrenaline rush when you hunt,” Neil Rico said.
“That’s why I choose archery. It’s a lot more challenging.”
And on Sept. 25, the Chehalis, Washington, hunter also got the blood flowing when a 500-pound grizzly bear sow charged him near Livingston, Montana.
“In all my years hunting as a kid, I’ve never had any kind of a close call,” Rico said. “I’ve never had any kind of a threat from any kind of animal until this one time.”
Rico was bowhunting in the high country with a couple of friends, but they had separated.
Rico hadn’t seen any signs of bears as he looked for a prize bull elk to bring home, he said.
“I was looking up the hill for a clear path, so I could get onto those elk again. And that’s what I heard it was kind of a huffing from her breathing, I guess you’d say, coming from the timber,” Rico said. “I’ve never seen an animal move so fast in my life.”
Rico said he started to yell, but the bear kept on coming.
“About 6-7 feet away is when she finally did her lunge. Jumped up and that’s when I stuck this arm right here – more or less sacrificing this arm here to keep her off my throat, my neck, back of my head,” he said. “Once she bit onto my arm, she plowed over the top of me, drove me into the ground.”
He was on his back with no chance to roll onto his belly and cover his neck with hands to protect vital areas, as recommended by experts.
“At that point, I was totally at her mercy,” he said.
“When she bit onto me, they have so much force when they bite that it was almost like somebody was chewing on a chicken bone. And you could hear every crunch.”
For the next one to two minutes, Rico said the grizzly bear went back and forth between attacking his left arm and his ribs. It felt like she was shaking him like a rag doll, he added.
Every so often, she’d stop to check on her two cubs nearby, he said.
“I was lying on my back looking at her. I thought ‘For sure, this is it. I’m gonna die right here. This bear is gonna rip my guts outta here, and I’m gonna lay here and watch.’” Rico said. “It felt like a lifetime. yeah, I didn’t think it was ever going to end until I either passed out or she got bored and full of me.”
Eventually, the bear let Rico go after her cubs got about 40 yards away, he said.
“Didn’t even give, like I said, the courtesy look back. Just rolled off, walked off, and walked away as if nothin’ happened,” Rico said.
That gave him the break he needed to pull out his .44 magnum handgun, which he had tucked into his backpack before the encounter.
“That’s about what cost me my life was doing that,” he said, noting that he’d had the handgun handy on his belly attached to his backpack hipbelt earlier in the hunt but took it off because it was in the way.
“It’s a mistake that I’ll never make again,” Rico said.
“After she got off of me, that’s when I pulled my pistol out of my pack. I cocked it back and had a choice: I could either shoot her and possibly wound her and have her come back to finish me off, or just let her go.”
He let her go.
Somehow, he was able to roll over and call his friend on the phone for help.
“He’s like ‘We already know, man. We heard the whole thing go down.’”
Rico said he made the mile-and-a-half walk down the mountain, where medics met him and took him to the hospital. Amazingly, he didn’t suffer any broken bones or internal injuries during the attack, he said. He was released from the hospital the next day.
“I appreciate life now more than I ever appreciated life,’ Rico said. “Every day is a blessing.”
Rico said what he went through will definitely make him more cautious of where he hunts in the future. He already has a few trips planned.
“I’m going to be preaching to hunters about taking bear country more seriously,” he said, noting that he was one of at least four elk hunters attacked by grizzlies in southwestern Montana this season.
Hunting in pairs could help, as well as having deterrents handy.
“If I’d have kept my pistol on my hip-belt I’d have been able to use it. However, if I’d have had a side-draw holster, I wouldn’t have been able to reach it.”
In future bear-country hunts, he plans to have both a handgun and bear spray ready to` use.
“I want to have a lethal and non-lethal option for defending myself,” he said. “When I was on the ground with a bear on top of me, bear spray wasn’t going to be my first choice.”
He noted that wounding a grizzly at close range with firearm also could have a bad outcome.
“When I was getting chewed on, I was wishing for the .500-caliber pistol and can of bear spray the size of a fire extinguisher,” he said.
Rico is still suffering pain and doesn’t have full range of his left arm yet, but said he is expected to eventually make a full recovery.
“I’ve been hunting my whole life. And no, this isn’t gonna stop me. Not one bit,” he said.
“Wasn’t really a religious man before this, but I definitely believe in a higher power. And somebody was definitely watching over me that day. I have a good idea who it was.”
Outdoors editor Rich Landers contributed to this story.
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