Apr 29 2021

The Struggle: Lessons Learned

Seasons come and seasons go, but it’s often the lessons learned that mean the most.

            It was the last hour of the last day of our hunt when we spotted our first bear. After six long days of hunting Montana’s backcountry, my daughter Raegan and I had finally hit pay dirt. To this point, the Ursus americanus had been more like black ghosts, so needless to say we were elated about our find. At first glance from above his location the black spot feeding down the gated logging road looked a little on the small side as he moved in the opposite direction. However, after a quick look through the glass he was more mature than my initial perception.

            With a plan quickly developed and last-minute gear stowed in our packs, we quickly dropped down the steep slope with Nate and Colton from @backcountry_boneheads_406 and headed in the bruin’s direction. We had met them through a mutual friend and with our bear sightings few and far between, we welcomed a little local help.

            Since this would be Raegan’s first western bear, she would be behind the gun. The plan was simple, drop down the mountain and get on the same logging road as the bear and slip in the back door. Having seen the layout of the location from above, the bear should be feeding around the pinch of the next bend about 300 yards away.

            With Raegan leading the way, we eased down the road at a snail’s pace, dodging a couple piles of sticky-wet bear scat along the way. The closer we got to the bear’s last known location, the more we glassed hoping to see him from a distance. However, when it comes to stalking bruins on their terms, everything needs to fall into place. What they lack in perfect eyesight, they more than makeup for with their ears, nose and sixth sense. And with the thin mountain air cooling under the dropping sun, a capricious mountain breeze settled in. 

            When the cool breeze hit the back of my neck I knew deep down it was over. Although we never saw where the bruin retreated, it was apparent he had other plans once our scent whipped around the bend in his direction. As they say, “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry,” and ours certainly did.  

            Looking back at that hunt, as well as a second trip I made to the same area a week or so later that ended with similar results, there were several things I did wrong. As the title suggests, spot-and-stalk spring bear hunting is a struggle. Nevertheless, whether you hunt with modern ballistics and relish long-distance shooting, or you accept the challenge of sneaking close with the stick-and-string, success generally isn’t easy. When you throw a hunt together last minute, take shortcuts when you get there and don’t truly respect what you’re trying to accomplish, punching a tag, regardless of what it’s for, is not going to be easy.      

            In retrospect, there were several things I wish I would have done differently, and one of them would be to scout from the comforts of home. Honestly, I was relying on others to provide some direction and failed to have much of a backup plan. There’s nothing wrong with a little inside baseball from locals, but if you’re relying totally on that you can fall short sometimes.

            Ideally, I should have dove headlong into the scouting process from home and focused my attention on finding locations conducive to a bear’s seasonal behavior.

            As soon as a bear emerges from the den, they start searching for food. The easiest and most palatable foods are fresh green shoots, flowering blossoms, clover, berries, bugs, grubs and just about anything green that is accessible. Although these food sources can be located anywhere, they first start showing up on open hillsides, especially south-facing slopes. Needless to say, these are the areas bears start to visit, and they may spend several days in a specific area once they find what they are looking for.

            Elevation is also a factor when it comes to green up. Although the lower exposed country seems to open first in many cases, after visiting with a local biologist and witnessing first hand on my second visit, bears tend to seek the groceries higher in elevation if available, especially mature boars. They do this because those areas are closer to where they hibernate, the foods tend to have more protein and it’s more isolated.

            The best way to zero in on such areas is to do some online scouting using satellite imagery. Although Google Earth is a reliable place to start, I prefer OnX Maps (www.onxmaps.com) because of the additional features. Look for open areas around dense forests, burns, avalanche shoots, clearcuts and the green logging roads leading to them. Honestly, if I would have given online scouting more attention, I feel the outcome would have been different.

            My second mistake was my lack of patience. As the days slipped past with no bear sightings, I started to feel the pressure of an unsuccessful hunt. In haste, I started rushing the process and failed to thoroughly check an area out before moving to the next one. If I didn’t see anything fairly quick, I jumped back into my truck and headed to the next one. One evening I checked four different areas in just over two hours and ended up spending as much time driving as I did looking. I don’t care what you’re hunting for, if you don’t have patience your failures will far exceed your successes.

            What I should have done was find several locations conducive for glassing long hours instead of running from place to place trying to locate an “easy” bear. Virtually everyone I’ve talked to says spending long hours behind optics is the foundation to a successful bear hunt out west, especially if you’re looking to anchor a mature bruin. Sometimes this may mean glassing a location all day, or even several days before you locate the right bear.

            Lastly, and perhaps most important, I wish that I would have left my truck behind more. That’s not to say driving to locations with good vantage points to glass isn’t effective. In fact, I would bet most Montana bears are killed using this method and I’m perfectly fine with that. However, it’s frankly not my style of hunting. I’m a backpack hunter through and through and love going a little deeper to see what’s over the proverbial next ridge.

            Now, this doesn’t mean you need to hike miles into an area to find bears; however, getting off the roads and checking spots many hunters are unwilling to is the style of hunting I enjoy most. Not only do you generally find solitude, but game tends to be more prevalent as well. Even when doing baited bear hunts in Idaho over the years, I have found baits in more remote locations see far more activity than those just a few hundred yards off the road. Bears are solitary and secretive mammals by nature and you often need to work a little harder to locate the right bear.