Story and Photos by: Austin Legg
Hunting bears is often misunderstood by non-hunters and even some members of the hunting community.
If you were to ask a group of bear hunters why they bear hunt, you'll most likely get a variety of answers such as:
"It's just good to get out after being cooped up all winter."
"I chase bears with my hounds because my family has been doing it for generations."
"We have to control the predator population because it helps the ungulate population."
"Bear meat gets a bad rap. I actually like eating it."
The list of reasons people hunt bears goes on and on. While many may not understand it, spring bears can be a ton of fun to chase. With the right recipe, bear meat can also be excellent eating as well. So this spring, try something new and use these five tips to increase your chances for a successful bear hunt.
1. Find Food
In the spring, bears need to slowly restart their digestive system after coming out of hibernation. They start this by eating the lush green grasses that pop up just as the snow melts. Bears have to eat the new grasses before they can hit bait sites, skunk cabbage, wild onions and other food sources.
I tend to start looking for bears at around 4,000 feet elevation and then slowly work my way higher and higher throughout the season as the snow melts and the grass grows in. Good places to find green grass - and hopefully bears - are clear cuts and along logging roads where the sun has the ability to hit the grass, causing it to grow sooner. I also tend to pay attention to south facing slopes where the snow melts first and the grass gets more sun and grows faster than other areas.
Using Google Earth to try and pinpoint a good area will only get you so far. At some point you need to get out and scout for yourself. When you get boots on the ground you can find obvious signs of bears such as tracks and scat. Also, look for overturned rocks and claw marks on trees or stumps. Bears turn over rocks to eat ants and other insects underneath and use their claws to pull apart logs and stumps where they are looking for food. If you see these signs, you’re likely in bear country.
2. Get Steep and Deep
I tend to find bears in steep, rocky, remote places; places where there is limited foot traffic and no motorized traffic. I often find bears around big rocky outcroppings where grass is growing around them. It's almost like nothing is too steep for bears. A good rule of thumb is if there is grass growing on it, it isn't too steep for a bear. There also has to be water nearby. I've jumped more bears coming up out of creeks than any other place. Bears consume a lot of water in the spring. Make sure your area has a good water source.
Bears rut in late spring. Right out of the den, they need to eat and get their energy level up before their attention turns to the opposite sex. That’s why grassy hillsides are best during early spring. However, once the rut kicks in, I tend to find a lot more bears in “travel mode” rather than just out eating. The boars will travel for miles in search of a hot sow. When I see a boar traveling across the mountain, I rarely even attempt to close the distance and position myself for a shot. They are just too unpredictable in their travel and cover too much ground, too quickly.
I made the mistake early on in bear hunting of trying to go after every solo bear I saw. After several failed attempts, I have learned to be much more patient. It is important to obviously find bears, but your success will go up exponentially if you wait for the right bear. If you find a boar and a sow together, they will usually stay generally in one location while he tries to breed her. This is best case scenario if you are trying to move in for a shot.
3. Get Good Gear
The weather during springtime bear hunts can be a roller coaster. You never know what the weather will do in May. It could snow one day and be 80 degrees the next, so you need to be prepared for all types of weather. One thing is certain in the mountains, spring weather will change quickly and without warning. I have seen plenty of beautiful sunny days replaced by hail and thunderstorms in a matter of minutes. On spring hunts, I always pack my Kryptek Rain Gear in my pack as well as a backpack rain cover. Gloves, hat, extra socks and a puffy coat are also always in my pack. You just never know what nature is going to throw at you. I think the Kryptek Altitude gear is perfect for spring hunts. It covers all the bases and the pattern matches perfectly with spring vegetation.
A few pieces of Kryptek gear I highly recommend for spring hunts include:
- Shahikot Alpha Jacket
- Sentinel Pants
- Arma Hoodie
- Valhalla Pant
- Takur Rain Jacket and Pants
- Kilsia Sleeping Bag
4. Use Your Time Wisely
Bears can appear out of nowhere and any time of the day. I once killed a bear at noon during the hottest part of the day. But for the most part, the last hour or so just before dark is prime time to spot bears. Bear activity seams to increase as the temperature drops and the shadows lengthen. If you work a job with limited time off, don’t worry too much. At least in the northern states, daylight runs long in the spring and there is usually plenty of time after work to get a bear glassing spot. There is no need to take a full week off of work to hunt bear if you live reasonably close to your hunting location.
The key is to find a bear hunting spot close to home where you can go after work. I have killed a few bears by just running up to the mountains after work during the week. With so much daylight after work, you can be very productive glassing those last two hours of the day.
The key to spotting bears is being patient. Part of using your time wisely means glassing with patience. Bears appear and disappear easily in mountain brush. The key is to be watching when they step out. If you sit in a drainage and only glass for ten minutes before hiking to the next one, you're going to miss more bears than you see. I will often sit in one place and glass the entire day. I find my odds go up if I sit and focus on one area the entire time.
5. Learn Bear Body Anatomy
A bear's anatomy is different than ungulates. I have seen way more bears than I'd like to admit run off after being shot with both a bow and a rifle and ultimately not recovered. A bad hit on a bear is completely unforgiving! Bears don't bleed like other animals, so following a blood trail can be tough. If they have a lot of fat and fur at the time, it may plug the wound cavity and you might not have a blood trail to follow. For this reason, it is critical you know bear anatomy so you can make a good shot and recover your trophy!
My favorite shot on a bear is broadside. Slightly quartering away isn’t bad, but broadside is best. I would avoid taking a quartering toward shot. A good rule of thumb I’ve always heard is, “middle of the middle.” This means if you look at a bear from nose to tail, your aiming point should be in the middle of the bear. Typically, this would be a few inches higher, and a few inches back from where you would shoot an ungulate. I try to avoid the front shoulder when I can and obviously don’t want to be too far back in the guts. The “middle of the middle” mantra should give you a high likelihood of passing through with a double lung shot and a larger margin for error.
If you have never seen a bear’s anatomy, please go and look at multiple illustrations online. The traditional shot placement on a deer is not ideal on a bear. A well hit bear will die quickly. A poorly hit bear will run through the thickest, nastiest, brushiest stuff it can find until it can crawl into a hole and die where you will never find it. Before you pull the trigger, be 100% confident in your shot placement.
Hopefully you can use these five brief tips to not only find more bears, but also increase your shot opportunities. Spring bear hunting can be a lot of work, but also a ton of fun! There are some great bear hunting opportunities out there. It is not too late to get out there this year.