Surefire spring bear hunting tactics
As I peer outside and see the snow-laden mountains stretching from top to bottom, I reassure myself that spring is here. I mean, it is here, right? This year's snowfall has been significant. Whether that's a good or bad thing is a matter of perspective. Nevertheless, the snow will eventually melt and the monarchs of spring will re-emerge from their hibernation, signaling the mountain's transformation into a vibrant landscape bursting with life. One of my favorite aspects of spring is witnessing the hillsides come alive with fresh greenery, followed closely by the arrival of bears.
I have a confession to make: spring bear hunting has honestly become my second favorite hunting activity of the year. This might sound crazy to some (sorry, Corey Jacobsen; sorry, Jason Phelps), but spring bear has now eked out even elk hunting as one of my most anticipated hunts of the year. But let's be real: it’ll never surpass my love of a good old fashioned high country mule deer hunt as mule deer will alway and forever intrigue me more than any other big game animal. Yet, I absolutely adore my time in the mountains each spring while seeking out old pumpkin-headed boars.
Over the past few seasons, I’ve noticed a new wave of folks looking to take on a spring bear hunt or two. It's been my opinion for years that spring bear hunting has been an overlooked and dare I say under-appreciated hunting opportunity.
Why a spring bear hunt
Currently, there are around eight western states that provide opportunities for spring bear hunting seasons. Learn how to quickly find those spring bear opportunities here. The positive aspect of this is that both residents and nonresidents have a considerable chance of obtaining tags as there are several over-the-counter (OTC) options accessible in multiple states. Additionally, these tags are reasonably priced, typically ranging from $40 to $450.
Spring bear hunting offers various approaches depending on your hunting style and the terrain you're exploring. Some hunters prefer a simpler approach, such as walking past gates on old logging roads or glassing bear country from the comfort of their truck, which can still yield successful results. I see folks in my home state of Montana find success each and every year with these approaches. However, if you crave a more adventurous and challenging experience, trekking miles and miles on foot through remote and rugged terrain is an excellent option. This approach allows you to explore intensely remote locations, providing a real sense of satisfaction when you finally spot a bear. Personally, I find this approach to be the most thrilling and rewarding when it comes to spring bear hunting.
The great thing about spring bear hunting is that it can be tailored to your individual level of intensity. You can take it to the extreme or make it a much easier, less physical type hunt. I’ve glassed up bears next to cows in the low country and glassed up bears with mountain goats literally in the same periphery of my 12 power binoculars. If adventure is what you're after, I’d definitely suggest hunting the more remote mountain goat type environments.
When considering reasons to try spring bear hunting, the exceptional quality of bear meat cannot be overlooked. It is a delicacy that is often underrated and unfairly stigmatized. I urge those who have not tried it to reserve judgment until they have experienced it for themselves. While some may have been told that bear meat is not worth eating, I have found that in most states where mountain bears reside, the meat is exceptional. It can be prepared in a variety of ways, including grilled, canned, smoked or simply ground and used to compliment a wide array of dishes. My personal favorite is the sous vide method. I set the heater to a temperature of 140 and let it go for around 4 hours, followed by a quick sear in a cast iron skillet. Viola: the meat is always amazing. It is important to ensure that the temperature of at least 140 is maintained for this duration to eliminate the threat of trichinosis. Trichinosis is easily dealt with and, in my opinion, should not discourage anyone from enjoying the delicious taste of bear meat.
What to expect
Spring bears, especially of the mature variety, aren't always all that easy to find. Bear numbers aren't nearly that of deer and elk numbers so expectations need to be tempered if you are new to bear hunting. Some days, a bear or two picked up in your optics is all you get, then there are other days where it seems every mountain looked upon has a big old bear feeding on it. Those days can be few and far between, but when conditions are perfect, it can definitely be the case. I have had some amazing bear hunting experiences on days when a midday rainstorm clears up, and the sun comes out to heat up the mountains. A post storm, sun filled day can be magical on an early spring bear hunt. With the vegetation literally steaming from the sun's heat, I’ve found bears to be on their feet and much more active, making them much more visible.
It’s important to understand the timing of the emergence of bears from hibernation, which varies based on elevation and weather conditions. Typically, bears start emerging sometime in April and often into the first or second week of May as the weather warms and snow levels recede. As a general rule, I’ve found most bears to be out wandering by the end of the first week in May. Again, this is specific to where I hunt, but have found this to be the case in many different western states.
My absolute favorite time of year to hunt the older most mature boars is early in the season when they are right out of the den. Typically, the older boars appear first, followed by the younger bears and then the sows with cubs. I’ve noticed the sows often denning up a bit higher on the hill than the boars, hence, arriving on the scene a bit later than the larger boars.
I’d say the majority of den sites fall between 3,000’ and 6000’ of elevation and generally tend to lie on north and northeast facing slopes. The slopes also generally fall in that 20 to 50 degree slope angle.
After hibernating for months, bears require a diet rich in fibrous greens to help eliminate the mucous plug that has accumulated and obstructed their digestive system. This is why feeding on grasses is crucial for them during the initial phase of coming out of hibernation. They particularly enjoy chowing down avalanche lilies, balsam leaves and pretty much any green grasses or succulents they can find.
During the green wave of vegetation that rushes up the mountain, their digestive tract adapts accordingly. While they continue to consume greens, they also begin flipping rocks and digging around for larvae, insects and even ground squirrels. Often by mid to late May, elk calves and deer fawns start to drop, providing the bears with some fresh meat to add to their diet. This can be a great time to be on the mountain with a distress call in hand. Calling in bears can prove to be a highly effective way to pull an older bear in close not to mention the adrenaline rush that comes with it. One thing I'll caution you on is if in grizzly bear country, you might want to be extra cautious and very strategic when and where you start ripping on that distress call.
Where to look
Each spring, I generally start my search by looking for open south-facing slopes that receive the most sun exposure and experience the most snowmelt, leading to the growth of those lime green (chartreuse) patches that bears crave. I’ve also found that around 750’ to 1000’ below the snow line has been a hot zone for bears early on as the snow is just receding.
Personally, I seek out areas far away from roads. While it’s not necessary, these places offer a better experience in my opinion. Steep-sided river drainages with moss filled cliffs, ledges and south faced openings where the sun can work its magic by growing some fast green vegetation are also great places to look. These type drainages are a seasoned spring bear hunters dream when located.
When searching for bears, it's generally about finding areas with lush greenery. Keep an eye out for avalanche shoots, semi open south-facing slopes, sparsely timbered hillsides or areas that have been burnt off. Even areas with beetle-killed timber can offer excellent lush vegetation as the sparse forest canopy allows just enough sunlight to penetrate through, attracting not just bears, but also other animals like elk and deer that are often calving by late spring. These animals provide a valuable food source that bears will absolutely target later on.
When it comes to bear hunting, the general rule of thumb is that 95% of the time is spent searching for bears while only 5% is dedicated to actually observing and stalking them. In my experience, one of the most effective tactics is to strategically perch myself on high vantage points that offer expansive views of areas I’ve determined to be good quality bear terrain. Patience and overall endurance in your ability to stay in your glass is often what separates those who find consistent success year after year on bears. High quality binoculars combined with a quality spotting scope are an absolute must. Most of my days are spent scanning not only what’s in front of me, but often hillsides miles off in the distance. I can't tell you how many times I’ve glassed up bears miles away to then position myself for a shot the following day. This strategy has worked well for me early in the season when bears typically aren't moving around the mountain quite as much.
Later in the season, as the green wave of vegetation has permeated into even the timbered areas, my tactics then change. During this time, I search for areas that are more suitable for calling bears. It is beneficial to take note (drop pins on your GOHUNT Maps) of the locations where you have spotted deer and cow elk feeding. By mid to late May, these areas can be excellent spots to use calf or fawn distress calls to attract bears. I’ve observed a big shift in bear behavior around late May when deer fawns and elk calves start dropping; they then become much more responsive to calls.
Having hunted bears for more than two decades now, I'm grateful that the learning never ends. Each new mountain range, elevation and phase of spring presents a unique challenge and the tactics continue to evolve. I am passionate about spring bear hunting because it offers an incredible challenge in rugged mountain terrain with a combination of physical and mental hurdles. Days can go from 0 to 90 mpg in the blink of an eye once a desired bear is spotted. If you're up for it, I highly recommend trying your hand at getting into the mountains this spring as bear hunting might just be the adventure you’re after. Remember that the difficulty level is entirely up to you and it can be as easy or as challenging as you make it.