Story and photos by: James Nash
Bear hunting can be as easy or as difficult as you want to make it.
In states where baiting is allowed, the hard and technical work of selecting a bait site can be done by the strong backed and experienced hunters who can then provide a reliable opportunity for hunters with less time in the woods to shoot a bear. Bears can be pursued to bay or tree with hounds. Again, there is nothing easy about keeping and training dogs and then trying to keep up with them on a race through what inevitably ends up being steep and brushy country. The other popular option is spot and stalk, which is legal everywhere bear hunting is allowed.
It may seem obvious, but in order to spot a bear, you must first get to a place where you can see a bear. This is usually accomplished by driving and hiking. I take a different approach and hunt river canyons from boats. This isn’t the easiest, best or most effective way to get to bear country, but I like it.
The bad news about boat hunting for spring bears is, once you leave the boat, everywhere you go is uphill. Thermals start rising early in the morning in these river canyons and don’t start to descend until after dark, which means every bear above you can and will smell you. The way to defeat this is to hike up a ridge adjacent to the one you intend to glass. Most people I know who try to hunt bears from boats try it exactly once then resort to the top down approach afforded by pickups and ATV’s.
On the other hand, you can bring a really nice camp with you on a boat because they are so efficient at moving weight. If bear hunting isn’t working out, you can fish. One of the biggest advantages is you can access bear country earlier than you can from the top due to snowdrifts. Just make sure you aren’t pushing the limits of spring runoff, or else you might find yourself camped along a river that rises 10 feet over night - that gets scary.
The most expeditionary boat choice is a pack raft. This is loosely defined as a raft light enough that it can be carried on a bicycle around town without impeding you too much. I use one from Alpacka Rafts, weighing in at less than 10lbs with the kayak paddle I use for propulsion. I can fit one VERY close friend or my normal hunting kit, plus a bear. A pack raft allows you to go from one drainage to the next using the raft to float river sections or ferry creeks and tributaries.
The next step up for floating western rivers is a larger raft or drift boat. I have guided fisherman and whitewater in both crafts for many years. A raft is more stable, doesn’t take it personally when you hit a rock and can be repaired in the field if needed. Drift boats are sexier, more maneuverable in whitewater and will last a lifetime with minimal maintenance. Some rafts can have their frames disassembled in a way that you can fit the frame, rubber and your gear in an airplane and get flown into the section of river you want to start your float.
The trouble with floating rivers is you can only go one direction and only one speed. There are more rivers open to rafts and drift boats due to regulations and flow, but once you go past a certain canyon, it is in your past forever. A powerboat lets you go both up and downriver and also carries a lot of gear. I use a 23’ cargo jet from Riddle Marine. It can carry a couple thousand pounds of weight and will go through any whitewater I care to attempt. Big class III and straightforward class IV rapids are good to go. It will also run as shallow as eight inches, but as a rule, I prefer water so deep I can’t see the rocks. The major problem with jet boats is the cost — these things aren’t cheap to buy and there is always something going on with them requiring a check with a comma in it to fix. If you are smart, instead of buying a jet, get a friend who owns one or hire a licensed charter service to run a drop camp for you.
I run a luxurious camp from my jet boat that includes a Traeger grill, partner steel propane range, dutch ovens, kitchen table, dish washing basin and drying rack, dining table and chairs, fire pit, tipi with a cot and another chair, sleeping pad, blankets, pillow, etc. I can also bring a ton of fresh high quality food. I cook salmon, steaks, burgers, dutch oven pizzas, elaborate breakfasts and desserts. As a guide, I really enjoy trying to cook restaurant quality food in wild places and when I am hunting with buddies I do the same thing.
Now, when it comes time to actually leave camp and do some hunting, your move is to locate fresh green grass growing 500-750 vertical feet below the snow-line, and find some dense timber adjacent to that vegetation. This will be the type of place you can expect to see bears coming out and feeding. Elk occupy the same habitat as bears this time of year, so they are also a good indicator. Hike locations where you can see as much of this type of terrain as possible, get comfortable and start glassing.
Mornings can be colder than frost on a tombstone and afternoons hotter than hell in August, so it’s important to dress in layers. Ticks are prevalent in spring bear country. Contrary to popular myth, they do not fall from limbs and land on you. Ticks hold onto grass and brush low to the ground with their arms extended and grab onto you as you go past. Tight fitting gaiters help keep them out, as does repellent like permethrin. Stream crossings are common, and a tightly woven fabric will help keep water out of your boots. I wear the Kryptek Combat Operator V4 Pants. They are comfortable to hike in, tougher than hell, have pockets everywhere and excellent knee pads. For a top, I wear the Hyperion LS Zip, then the Cronos Hoodie, and then a puffy. With this basic kit, I can handle just about any temperature condition. In the case of rain or snow I am reaching for my Takur Jacket. The last item that goes with me everywhere is the Anorak jacket, it is the most comfortable and versatile piece of gear I own, period.
You are going to live in your glass. Stabilized binoculars like the Zulu 6 from Sig are going to make the difference between you finding a bear or not. Let your glass do the walking. As you glass, make assumptions about where you will see a bear and how you will get to a shooting position. Having those plans ahead of time gives you something to do and decreases the time required to act once you have a bear spotted. Bears in the spring may have to travel long distances to get to food as they don’t necessarily hibernate in the same area they want to feed in once they have emerged from their dens. Fun fact: bears don’t actually hibernate, they go into a state called torpor which slows metabolism, heart rate and breathing. They leave the den periodically throughout the winter.
Get in position, make sure it isn’t a sow with cubs and shoot the bear. You need to have studied bear anatomy as the shot placement is different than that of a deer or elk. Bear hide is pretty thin, so skin carefully but quickly. Remove the paws and skull and place a stick in the bear’s mouth which helps the biologist in removing a tooth, which is required in every state I’ve hunted bears in. Get the meat hanging in breathable bags in the shade and on ice as soon as possible. Don’t leave the fat behind, it renders into beautiful lard and is my favorite bear product.
Salting a fleshed hide will help keep the hair from slipping. I use a fine livestock salt that sells for about $12 for a 50lb bag. You will need a pound of salt for every pound of hide. Rub the salt into the hide and let it dry in the shade. Every day you’ll need to scrape that salt off and add fresh.
A final word on safety. Running rivers is dangerous. Both experienced and novice people die every year, and they do not die well. If you aren’t comfortable running the boat, don’t attempt the river. If you are unfamiliar with the river, consult with experts and stop to scout every hazard or rapid. As a guide, I commonly ran the same river over and over again, year after year, and I scouted the rapids every single time I floated. It slows you down, but it also keeps you alive.
If you have any questions about hunting bears from boats that I haven’t covered here feel free to contact me on instagram @6ranchoutfitters. Good luck to all of you this season!