By Al Raychard
For all practical purposes the Canadian border is now open. While it is now possible for fully vaccinated hunters to enter Canada, they should check if they are eligible and meet all requirements.
Most who have bear hunted north of the border in years past will attest the opportunities in terms of numbers of bears seen, shot options, quality of bears taken, outfitters, and overall experiences were world class. But after being unavailable to American and international hunters for a couple years there is little doubt bear hunting across Canada, at least in terms of bear populations and bear quality, is better than ever. While there is some provincial evidence resident hunters picked up some of the slack during the pandemic, overall harvest numbers in nearly every province and territory were down from what they were prior to the border closing. As a result, bear numbers have increased and the overall bear population has aged. Success rates at most hunting establishments—which were impressive prior to the border closing—will no doubt increase as more and more American hunters cross the border. The chances of taking a high quality bear in terms of weight and skull size may never be better.
One province hunters will be heading for in increasing numbers is Saskatchewan, and there are good reasons for it. Saskatchewan is one of Canada’s three Prairie Provinces. It sits almost smack in the middle of Canada and is one of two provinces that is completely landlocked: Alberta to the west is the other. Flying into Saskatoon (Saskatchewan’s largest city) as I have several times, the southern half of the province looks like a wide-open expanse with endless views to the horizon. Nearly half of Saskatchewan’s population lives in the city of Regina. There are other smaller population centers including Moose Jaw, Yorkton, Swift Current, North Bradford, and Lloydminster on the border with Alberta, but all are in the south. As you travel north the prairie-like terrain changes to aspen parkland. Prince Albert, also known as the “Gateway to the North” and Saskatchewan’s third largest city, is found there on the edge of a rugged Canadian Shield plateau. From there to the border with Northwest Territories there isn’t much; few roads, few settlements of size, just miles and miles of boreal forests broken only by rivers and most of Saskatchewan’s 100,000 lakes. This is where you’ll find Saskatchewan’s black bears.
It is to this vast wilderness you must go to hunt them, but it is well worth the effort. Available are outfitters offering a variety of accommodations from remote tents and cabins to what can be described as luxury lodges. All are secluded within exclusive territories, most covering several thousand square miles of prime bear habitat. Also available are some of the most experienced, knowledgeable, and helpful bear guides to be found anywhere. Guides like that always make a hunt memorable.
Because of the exclusiveness, outfitters can self-regulate their territories. Many have a management policy limiting the number of hunters per week, some per season to ensure a high quality hunting experience. Due to that policy, it is not unusual for hunters to see multiple bears each time they leave camp and have multiple shot opportunities daily. Many camps routinely report 95% harvest rates and 100% shot opportunities.
That conservative management policy also promotes quality bears. Many sightings will be bears of size—making you sit up, take notice, and carefully field gauge what you’re looking at once you get your breathing under control. On each of my hunts to different areas, I saw so many bears each day I found myself hesitant to pull the trigger or let an arrow fly. I even hesitated on what can be described as large bears just about anywhere else in fear something larger might appear at any moment, which is always possible. My personal experience is that hunters can be patient and choosy, even sit back and enjoy the show. But a decision has to be made at some point, so it pays to give each bear a careful onceover before filling tags.
There are other reasons to consider Saskatchewan for a bear hunt. For one, the province is home to lots of bears. Some unofficial estimates have put the number as high as 60,000 to 70,000 throughout the province, but the Ministry of Environment sets the figure at 43,000 to 45,000 based on the most recent habitat-based population model. Considering the lower number of bears killed during the pandemic and border closure the actual population could be higher, but whatever the case it can safely be said Saskatchewan has plenty of bears.
The province also has its share of color-phase bears if that’s your goal. Some outfitters advertise up to 40% of their annual bear take are color-phase, but after several personal hunts in different locations that report high potential for color bears it’s never been that high. There may be some specific areas with very high percentages of colored bears as there are in hotspots of Alberta, Manitoba, and the western states but overall, based on my experience, I’d say about 20-25% of the bears taken in Saskatchewan are most commonly colored with browns and chocolates (cinnamon-phase and blondes are less likely).
Whatever the case, patience and letting bears pass until a colored bear shows up is a key to success, which is hard to do when a monster black appears. If a color phase is your primary goal, I’ve found it helpful to inform your outfitter of that fact when booking a hunt. Most outfitters utilize trail cameras at their bait stations and know what bears are hitting where so they can place you accordingly.
All that said, Saskatchewan is a great place to hunt bears. It is near the top of my list of favorite destinations. I have no doubt it will be yours, too!
Estimated Black Bear Population: 43,000-45,000 +/-
Areas Open to Bear Hunting: Generally province-wide although primarily most hunting operations are in the northern half of the province.
Spring Season/Date*: Yes. Dates vary depending on area. Most Open April 15 and close May 31 or June 30.
Fall Season/Date*: Yes. WMZs open August 25 or September 10 and most close October 14.
Annual Limit: One bear of either sex.
Baiting Allowed: Yes. Nearly all hunts are over bait.
Outfitters Required for Non-Residents: Yes.
Legal Weapons: Centerfire rifle over .23 caliber, bows with draw weight of at least 40 pounds, crossbows with a minimum draw of 150-pounds, and shotguns.
License Fees/Availability: Resident bear license-$25, Non-resident bear license-$200 not including appropriate taxes. Required Wildlife Habitat Certificate-$15. Licenses are available from outfitters and venders as well as online and mail. Allow at least 10-days for delivery.
Color-phase Potential: Considered good to moderate in most areas.
Additional information: Vaccination requirements for crossing the border can be obtained by telephoning 1-(613)-957-2991 or 1-(800)-225-0707 or by visiting ca.usaembassy.gov/covid-19-information-canada-3 . Provincial and territorial outfitters may also have updated information.
*2021 dates. 2022 dates may vary slightly.