Spring Bear Hunting out West Unguided
Spring Bear Hunting out West Unguided
Why you might wanna trade spurs for claws!
-Dan Staton | ElkShape.com | @Elk Shape
Put the deer sheds and grey light gobbles on ice - self guided spring bear hunting is not only doable, you can find success without breaking the bank.
We are talking about hugging the receding snow line somewhere out west and glassing up bears daily. It doesn’t cost a fortune and you will find yourself smack dab in the middle of God’s mountain country. Sure, like any hunt you’ll have some careful planning to do, but I promise it will be well worth a few days of burned vacation.
I fell in love with spring bear hunting several years ago and it’s quickly become my second favorite pursuit of the year next to September elk. By the time old man winter has retired, the bears are coming out of their winter slumber and we’re getting a handful of stalks on public land. My bear hunting addiction has dimmed the light on turkey hunting to the point I hardly even consider locating turkeys on the roost. Now, my time is dedicated to traversing the public land mountains of Idaho and Montana with my backpack and bow. It’s the perfect excuse to have your broadheads tuned and test your latest backcountry gear upgrades before the fall. Did I mention you might also find some participation trophies or brown gold in the form of elk sheds.
My favorite way to hunt bear is simply getting into high country where fresh green grass sprouts are beginning their journey. Bears know where to find the green up and you will too if you follow the receding snow line in the mountains. Bears enjoy hanging out near their dens for several weeks until they’re ready to find greener pastures. As most know, they need to get their metabolism and GI tract back into gear so they forge on brand new grasses and vegetation for several weeks coming out of hibernation. We find bears near dark timber and water, often times their feeding in interval sessions and this is where a bowhunter can take advantage. Finding a bears is not the challenge, it is simply a formula of getting to the bear with the wind in your favor before they slip back into cover. Our system is to find vantage points where we can glass in several directions looking over multiple drainages. We glass in the same spot for most of the day, the more you look the more you see. Bears can materialize out of nowhere so you have to keep rescanning the country until you find the right bear in the right location. Then it is up to you to navigate your way to the bear and formulate the proper stalk. It is not uncommon to get a stalk a day when you’re in good bear country.
Another strategy to employ is to find older out-of-service logging roads that are littered with grass. These old gated roads see very little spring human traffic and a bowhunter can walk these roads out for many many many miles keeping the wind in their face. This form of still hunting is extremely viable as long as you have the right wind and locate concentrated bear sign. Spring bear sign comes down to torn up stumps, dug out roots and multiple piles of steaming bear poop. I have now found several places that I can use my eBike to travel quietly on deserted logging roads and cover more ground and remain stealthy. Make sure you know the rules and regulations if you’re going to utilize the eBike, otherwise bring your mountain bike.
I’m going to cut down your homework load and tell you right now that the three states to have on your bear hunting radar is Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Time is of the essence so I’m going to direct you to the best densities of bear in country that’s conducive to us bowhunters. These states have legit mountains and steep features that host desirable bear habitat, this will be a physical hunt to some degree, but we’ll touch on that in a bit.
Wyoming and Idaho definitely allow baiting for black bears, but not across the state. Double check your regulations to know if it’s legal in the unit(s) you’ve selected. Generally speaking I don’t think a week is enough time to properly set up a bait stations and attract get bears regularly. Often times, it takes several weeks and a lot of sweat equity to develop such locations which is why I am going to discourage this tactic for folks who are traveling great distances to hunt spring black bear. If you’re hellbent on baiting then go ahead and do that, but spend the majority of daylight hours glassing for bears and reserve only the last hour of the day to sitting your bait station with a good wind. We could write an entire article on the nuances of proper bear baiting but that’s not entirely the best direction when coming from out of town. Your best bet is simply to find pockets of bear and get in tight with your bow.
Due Diligence - Do your homework, pick up the phone and network with some experienced bear hunters.
Once you have a unit or two picked out in the state of your choice, you should make some calls to the local game wardens. I prefer them over biologist and other local officials because they are the ones who are in the field and checking successful hunters. For example in Idaho, hunters have to take out the hide and skull of their harvested bear and get them checked and sealed. They have 10 days to do that upon harvest, there are several places throughout Idaho to have your bear checked so make darn sure you know your options and consider calling ahead of time to find out historical harvest data. Sometimes it is a small town gas station that does the bear checks, not just Fish and Game agencies. Regardless, most game wardens check bears and literally write down on the report the drainage of where the bear was harvested, this is awesome intel. They can also let you know about when the bears typically come out of hibernation. It can change from year to year depending on snowpack. Speaking of snowpack, some roads will be open during the spring season and some will not. More often than not, the local intel will be able to speak on bear density in their area and roads that get drifts and reman closed until summer.
Then there’s social media, anybody and everybody is a direct message away from helping you along your journey. Most die hard bear hunters I know want you to be successful, you can help carefully manage bear populations all the while help out the ungulate herds. Yes, bears are undoubtedly efficient predators in the spring, especially during calving seasons which coincide with the spring bear rut. Bears are opportunistic creatures so getting more folks up in the mountains during spring bear is a win for conservation. Reach out to other hunters but make sure you’ve done your homework so you can ask intelligent questions and get intelligent answers. Bears are not the only predators so check with your state agency and see If there’s a coinciding wolf season, you never know what you might encounter and nonresident wolf tags are generally very affordable. Just last spring I was taking my daughter shed hunting in bear and wolf country and would have had a 40 yard bow or rifle shot but failed to have either with me besides a pistol. Don’t make my mistake and purchase a wolf tag and consider packing a rifle as well where applicable.
Online e-scouting is also very important to some degree. Before you open up Good Earth Pro, make sure you understand that bears come out at different times due to the snow line. Every spring is different so it’s part of the allure and challenge. Once they emerge from their dens and get their feet wet, you will find them searching for open hillsides that are generally south facing. The most nutrient dense plants are the ones closest to the snow line, that’s where the bears will be. Once you’ve pulled up Google Earth on your desktop, search for thick forest stretches about a mile or two from trails and roads while marking up small parks and meadows. Use historical fire data from onXhunt to locate burns that are relatively new (3-4 years old), rocky canyon country with nearby chutes and of course my favorite logging areas that are just a couple years old. Many times logging companies will seed their road systems to detour erosion and are laid-off from work until the Forest Service deems the roads drivable. This can mean that high traffic logging jobs are void of humans until May or in some wet years all the way to June, making it awesome country to hunt and void of human activity. While scouting look for terrific vantage points to do your daylong glassing sessions from. Tilt that screen to insure your selected glassing spots give you an undeniable advantage in several directions. Then work through your range locating openings, cover, water, and how you can cover large tracts of earth to get into position when a bear pops out. Knowing and understanding trails, topography and road systems is just as critical as finding places to glass from. Choose several locations for 500 - 1,000 feet in elevation change. We’re talking 3,000 to 9,000 feet in some instances. Having a multitude of hunt plans is pivotal to a fluid bear hunt.
I think if you can muster a full week of bear hunting you get a true economical adventure. If you’re a day’s drive away from the previously mentioned states then start making plans now. Find a buddy or two to help off-set expenses and get more eyeballs on the mountain. Work as a team to locate and stalk bears and you guys will be living the dream. I personally encourage anyone in a position to carve out time to go ahead put your name in the spring bear hunting hat. It’s a worthy adversary packed full of mountain adventure in wild landscapes. I’m here to help you sort things out as well, so feel free to reach out. We’ll finish with some critical FAQ
Do you eat bear meat - Absolutely! Treat it like you would any big game animal, get the meat cooled as soon as possible and follow protocol when it comes to preparing your harvest by cooking it at the appropriate temperature. Spring bear meat is awesome and you don’t deal with much bear fat.
Weather Concerns - spring showers are the norm, pack rain gear and gaiters and be ready to rock as soon as a storm breaks.
Quotas - Wyoming has quotas in place for each individual unit, Montana and Idaho not nearly as much. Do your homework and find units with general tags and high densities. Here's a link to check on Montana's status in season.
Field Judging - I think field judging bears is challenging. Bears come in all different sizes and shapes so it can be tricky. If you’re looking for a boar, key in on blocky shoulders and narrow hips. Big ears are a definite sign of an immature bear. Males usually have a little more attitude and can be found away from sows and cubs until the rut kicks in. I have been fooled before on big bears that were actually females without cubs. This will take spring bear reps to become proficient.
Bear Rut - generally speaking you will find males searching for love mid May through Mid June. I’m not sure why some years it’s an early start and others it seems to be delayed. It can also change from canyon to canyon. I prefer to hunt before the rut when bears are not traveling so far and can hangout in a niche little area for weeks on end. If you are in the rut then keep an eye on ridge lines as boars will be cruising along and wind checking for future girlfriends.
Arrow Placement - So this can be controversial so I will just give you my opinion. I prefer a broadside shot on a bear and I like to get as close as possible. Once I am in range I locate the middle of the middle on the bear’s body, then I aim a few inches towards the shoulder. It’s definitely not where I would aim on a whitetail, let me just say that. I really try to avoid quartering towards or away shots on bears, I need two holes and will get that when I use a sharp fixed broadhead. Blood trailing bears can be challenging as their hair is long and soaks up blood readily. It is imperative that you make a high percentage shot on bears or you could be spending a lot of time searching and when you’re with a team, you’re burning their hunting time as well.
Wyoming Recommendations - Checkout the Bighorn range which is supposedly void of grizzlies. Archers get a two week head start generally speaking and success rates are good. After bears emerge from their dens, they'll be on the prowl for fresh grasses along rock faces and the snow line. Make sure you have your valid bear license with the archery stamp.
Montana Recommendations - There’s out of this world bear hunting south of Bozeman, but you will be in Grizzly country so because of that, I would exercise great caution. If 'G' bears are a great concern, consider northwest Montana logging country. If you live in Montana don’t be mad, just know there’s plenty of bears for everyone and you need to know that there are grizzlies there too, just not as dense.
Idaho Recommendations - Idaho has units that are draw only, these controlled areas are usually near Hell’s canyon and are definitely worth putting in for next year. The draw has already taken place so put a reminder in your phone for next year. If you want to hunt in Idaho where there’s no baiting to compete with, then look into the very north portion. There are grizzlies there too just so you know. Idaho has a lot of amazing hound hunters so understand you need to get away from roads to avoid competition. The most northern section of Idaho is chalked full of black bears and it’s no secret. Idaho requires an archery stamp as well.
Fitness Requirements - Prior to your arrival make sure you’re hiking with a weighted pack on several miles a week. Simply start getting familiar with a 30# pack on your shoulders and hips and go out and ruck, even if it’s in your neighborhood. Wear your boots and put on my podcast where we’ve done bear hunting episodes. Take the family or dog, find some stairs and hills and put in a solid hour or two a few times a week. Bear hunting is physical when you hike in to your glassing knobs and when you’re hustling across broken country to get into position for a stalk. The rest of the time you should be parked on your rear looking into your glass.
Gearing Up - A solid backpack is a must, one that can carry your necessary gear, I will leave you with a condensed list of must have items to consider. When it comes to glassing I pack 10x42 binos and keep them on a tripod for long glassing sessions. I always pack a spotting scope that’s at least a 65mm and some sort of digitscoping attachment to get footage of bears. The other item I am very serious about is my eBike. I can get 40 miles a day in steep country and I pack an extra battery. I simply charge batteries at night with my generator.
Best Time of Day - Spring hunting is made for long days. Lots of daylight hours which means is you can stay focused your odds go way up. Obviously bear activity is the highest right at first light and right at last light. However, if you have yourself an overcast day that’s fairly cool, you should be able to find multiple bears if you’re in the right area. My worst days of midday bear hunting land on the dry and unseasonable hot spring days which is out of your control. This is not the norm but I would stay real close to dark timber and water sources on days like that. If you want to sleep in on bear hunting that’s fine, it’s a low key hunt that’s built around having fun and seeing beautiful country. I will say though, you get what you put in when it comes to bear hunting so do your best to put yourself in a position to get several stalks throughout the hunt
Wind - Bears smell better than almost any animal including bloodhounds. You won’t fool their noses but you can fool their eyesight. I believe bears can hear and see better than some folks want give them credit for. So my advice is to make your movements slow once you’re getting into bow range and don’t make noise. Slip on stalking shoes or take your boots off when getting in tight. Respect their sense of smell and understand this, bears move a lot when feeding so go fast when you can and go slow when you have to.
Dan’s Equipment List:
Multiple Day Backpack - Exo Mountain Gear 4800 K3 Frame
Mountain Boots - Kenetrek Boots Mountain Guides Non-Insulated
Gaiters - Kenetrek Gaiters
Trekking Poles - Leki
Tripod - Outdoorsman’s
Binos - Vortex Razor UHD 10x42’s
Spotter Vortex Razor 65mm Angle
Digitscoping - Phoneskope for iPhone
Layering System - Sitka Gear Core Lightweight Hoodie, Timberline Pant, Kelvin Vest, Kelvin Puffy, Downpour Jacket
eBike or Mountain Bike Bakcou eBike MULE, plus extra battery | Discount Code ElkShape400 LINK
Synthetic Game Bags - Black Ovis Kill Kit | Discount Code ElkShape for 20% off
Sharp Knife - Havalon