Like most people, spring is a time of year that I cherish. Temperatures start to climb, pushing the snow out of the valleys and slowly back up the mountains. For me, that means bear hunting is right around the corner. Chasing black bears in the mountains of most Western states is one of my favorite hunts and one of the most underrated by many serious big game hunters.
When I started hunting, I lived in a predator rich area of Western Montana and in my head if I was planning on taking a deer and elk every year I better do my part to help maintain a proper balance of predator and prey on the landscape. What I learned over the years and from being a part of 20+ bear kills is that this hunt has much, much more to offer than what we might first consider. From getting back into shape, testing and refining our gear, learning new areas, understanding bears and their impacts better, refining your skills as a hunter and just generally being in some beautiful country, black bear hunting is something every big game hunter should try their hand at. For those of you who are new and those of you who have some experience under your belt, I decided to discuss 5 key tips for finding success this spring chasing black bears in the Western US.
TIP #1 - LEARNING TO IDENTIFY IDEAL BEAR HABITAT
The old adage for any animal is that “you find them where you find them.” What that says is that animals will be found in areas that they like, where they feel comfortable, and where their needs are met. Bears are no different and the sooner you can decipher the landscape and identify areas that bears will naturally be drawn too the sooner you’ll be filling your tag each spring.
Ideal black bear habitat can and does look different depending on what part of North America you are hunting. For the purpose of this article the following is primarily focused on predominant bear habitat that one would find in states such as Montana, Idaho, Wyoming, and parts of Colorado, Washington, and Utah. The first thing I look for when hunting bears is quality feed. As bears emerge from their dens in early spring, their diets consist of primarily green grass as their stomachs can’t handle much more after a long winter hibernating. After a few weeks they can move on to other food sources but when I’m chasing spring bears I’m looking for that fresh, lush green grass. Bears are known gluttons so finding large areas of quality feed will also up your chances of putting eyes on a bear.
Early in the year you’ll often find grass showing up on south facing slopes as they receive the most sunlight and tend to hold the least amount of snow. Steep, rocky areas also burn off first and the melting snow will feed green grass that pops up amidst the cliffs long before other areas. Steep, rocky south faces with grassy shelves and strips are great areas to find bears in the early season I’ve found.
Now once you’ve determined where suitable feed might be I start considering some secondary factors that are very important to bears. These other pieces of the puzzle are water and heavy cover. Bears need water like any other animal and having a water source near prime grassy areas will help keep bears in the area. Heavy cover also is key as bears want to feel comfortable and safe in areas where they know they are exposing themselves. This cover provides safety where they can quickly disappear if danger presents itself and it also provides thermal regulation as bears will come out of the den with heavy winter coats. So for me, if I can find good open areas with green grass, water and cover nearby, and at least a mile or so from the nearest road or human access point then I feel like there’s a quality chance of seeing a bear there at some point.
TIP #2 - BE PATIENT AND GLASS A LOT
When it comes to locating bears you must be patient. Bears blend in amazingly well and often seem to appear out of nowhere. With the days getting longer and longer there’s a lot of daylight to burn and spending as much of it behind the glass helps locate and kill bears. Here’s 3 ways you can be patient and glass better this spring:
- Use Google Earth to find quality vantage points. Google Earth (GE) is still the top dog when it comes to seeing the lay of the land and trying to determine what you can see from high points. Use GE to locate areas that allow you to see as much quality bear habitat as possible. Mark those on your app of choice and also try to determine what the best route would be to access those vantages.
- Good bear glassing knobs vs. great bear glassing knobs. The main thing that differentiates these in my mind is the proximity to the bears you are hoping to see. Seeing bears and killing bears are two totally different things. If your glassing point puts you within 1500 yards of possible bears versus 2 miles then you have a higher likelihood on capitalizing on bears by being able to get within range before they slip back into heavy cover.
- Glass, glass, and glass more. The more time you can spend glassing the better your chances of seeing bears. That’s not rocket science I know but you’d be amazed at how quickly people lose interest on a glassing knob. First off make sure you can glass from a comfortable position. A comfortable butt pad or lightweight chair can help imensely. A quality tripod and a bino attachment will also help you stay behind the glass longer. If it’s prime time I will not get off the glass. I will just keep glassing the area over and over, alternating from quicker, broad scans to slower, more methodical observation. And usually snacks in between! So get settled in and more often than not your gut is right, so if an area feels very bear-y then it usually pays off to be there watching it at prime time.
TIP #3 - BRING THE RIGHT GEAR
The right gear is important on any hunt but spring bear has it’s own set of intricacies that determine what you should bring along. When it comes to gear most of your typical hunting kit will apply but there’s a few things that always make a bear hunt better or should be in your truck and/or pack. Here’s some of those key items:
- 2 Pair of waterproof boots. When it comes to spring bear hunting there’s an extremely high chance your feet will get wet. From long, rainy days to multiple creek crossings and saturated, wet snow, there’s a strong chance you’ll soak a pair of boots at some point. Having a second set waiting at the truck will keep your feet happy and in the game when that first pair gets soaked.
- Gaiters. This is a necessity on spring bear hunts. Chances are you’ll encounter water somewhere as snow is melting and literally pouring out of the mountains. From creek crossings to navigating old snow fields and bashing through brush, you’ll want the protection and extra water proofing a pair of quality gaiters provides. And they help keep ticks from crawling up the leg of your pant.
- Rain Gear. Yes it rains in the spring. If by now you haven’t caught on that spring bear hunts can get wet in a hurry here’s another reminder. Having a quality set of rain gear will help you stay on the mountain where the bears are and punching your tag.
- Quality Optics. Most spot-and-stalk spring bear hunting is a very optics heavy pursuit. A good spotting scope will help you judge bears and a pair of tripod mounted 10 or 12 power binos will help you cover large chunks of country. And don’t forget a butt pad as sitting on hard, cold rocks makes glassing for long periods of time much tougher.
- Phoneskope. I personally never hunt without my Phoneskope and this rings especially true on bear hunts. Being able to film bears goes a long ways in helping you determine bear sizes. Having footage of multiple bears to reference and review will help you hone in on determining the differences between small bears and big bears. Trust me almost every serious bear hunter has misjudged a bear at some point and this tool will help you get better much quicker.
- Snacks dude! If you’re going to stay on the mountain and behind the glass then an assortment of snacks is going to help big time. Some keys staples in my kit are fruit snacks (so yum), Big Sur bars (taste great and calorie heavy), trail mix (can eat super slow), and coffee or some other drink mix (warm liquids keep you warm when you’re sitting in once place).
- A good book. Staying awake on the glassing knob means you’ll see more bears. With long days there can be plenty of down time. Read five pages and then glass for five minutes. This helps break up the monotony of the day.
- Bug Spray. There’s two main culprits you’ll encounter on a spring bear hunt. Ticks and mosquitoes. While I don’t always spray for ticks I will always have mosquito spray with me, here’s why. Ticks you’re going to need to check for every day. Spraying for them can make you a bit lackadaisical about searching for them which I don’t like. Mosquitoes on the other hand can be pestering and quite annoying without spray. It makes sitting on a glassing knob or making a quiet stalk almost impossible so keeping these at bay is a huge asset on some spring bear hunts.
TIP #4 - PERSISTENCE IS DEADLY
Spring bear can present a variety of obstacles and these can often push you back to the truck, your tent, or even house. You need to be prepared to stay on the mountain, battle the weather and stay on the glass. If there’s a hunt where persistence most directly impacts success then I think a spring bear hunt would be up close to the top of the list. For me success is literally a metric of time in the field.
TIP #5 - HUNT ALL DAY
Now I agree that the best bear movement typically happens in the evenings. I have also killed most of my bears in the second half of the day but not hunting the mornings is a mistake. Every bear hunt I’ll go out in the mornings as I’ve seen many bears moving around as they finish up a night of feeding. Here’s why a morning hunt is a good idea:
- You can and will see bears in the mornings. This extra intel is huge when it comes to tagging a bear. Knowing where bears are at, what elevation and habitat type they are using, and where they are headed will help you convert on those key evening hunts. In that early season these bears will often show back up there in the evening giving you the intel you need to slip in back in and make a shot.
- This time out in the field gives you a chance to learn the lay of the land, learn where roads go, learn access routes to glassing knobs, and develop a gut feeling for an area. All of this means better and more efficient evening hunts.
- Boots on the ground scouting helps. Just being out in bear country will help give you an edge. Seeing fresh bear tracks in the mud or bear scat on or near roads/trails will help you know where bears have been and where to look for them during prime time. Both tracks and scat can also help you determine bear sizes.
I’m looking forward to another great spring chasing bears and hope this article will help you gain an edge on your hunts this spring. Good luck out there and if you want some extra motivation watch our bear film from last spring, Savage Access, below.