Spring can be a dull season for big-game hunters. Although turkey hunting is incredibly fun and has its place, once a hunter’s tom is bagged, many solemnly put their guns away until the fall. But for hunters looking for a challenge and an adventure, there is another option—spring black bear hunting.
Hunting black bear in the spring is quite possibly one of the most challenging hunts one can undertake. Bears waking from their long hibernation are flighty and wary creatures that are almost impossible to pattern. They spend most of their time in the most rugged and inaccessible territory in the country. Yet, for the determined hunter willing to take up the challenge, a spring black bear hunt can be the perfect thing to shake off the winter doldrums while potentially resulting in some fresh meat for the freezer. Unlike fall black bear, which are often stacked with sometimes obnoxious amounts of fat, spring bears are leaner, hardier animals that can provide some of the best-tasting game meat in existence. Furthermore, hunting spring bears is a way to protect other big-game hunting in the area, as the bears have quite an impact on newborn calves and fawns of other game animals like elk, deer, and moose.
Preparing for the hunt
Hunting spring bear is about 90 percent looking for a bear and only 10 percent actively hunting them. To hunt them successfully you often have to cover a hell of a lot of territory, so the equipment you choose to hunt with has to be appropriate. Your main hunting clothes in the spring should be light enough for you to remain easily mobile, but still rugged and versatile enough to deal with the unpredictable spring weather.
Aside from your clothing, a downed black bear can make for a hefty pack-out. Along with the meat, you’ll want to carry out the hide and the skull as well, so you’ll need a light pack that you can carry comfortably all day, but that can still support a hefty load. Other things that will help your success are a great set of optics, as spring bear hunting requires a lot of spotting and stalking, and a rifle capable of taking down big animals at long ranges. (I’d recommend going with something chambered to .270 or larger for this, though certainly black bear have been successfully taken with less.) Additionally, things like cover scents and predator calls can help increase your odds.
The best places to start looking for a spring bear are up high. Black bears tend to bed up for the winter on higher, out-of-the-way mountain slopes. As they emerge, they slowly start to work their way down. During the early part of the season, bears are looking to start feeding as quickly as they can. Once the mountains begin to lose their snow, fresh green growth begins to quickly fill in the bare spots, providing the perfect early season forage.
Begin a spring hunt by finding these areas, concentrating your glassing efforts on steep, south-facing slopes, which will have the most sun exposure, as well as the earliest and most growth of grasses and small shrubs that spring bears love. Areas like this that are adjacent to dense thickets of timber are absolutely ideal. Even if you don’t spot a bear while glassing in these areas initially, they’re still important places to locate and to begin scouting.
It’s important to remember that you want to make as little of your presence known as possible. Blowing a bear out of an area often means that you will never see it again, so approach these spots as you would when actually hunting: moving cautiously and paying attention to the wind. Bears are most active during the early morning and late evening, so the best time to scout is during the early afternoon. Use cover scent on your boots and try to disturb as little of the area as possible. Start looking for bear tracks, bear scat, cropped grasses where a bear has been feeding, and most importantly, areas where a bear has been digging. These are all spots where a bear is likely to return, so once you find a good spot, plan out places to sit and wait in ambush for the bear to return. Figure out ways to approach the area quietly. Determine the most likely spots for a bear to enter and leave the area, and note them as places to concentrate your efforts when you come back. Once you find a good spot, go out and find another. The real key to success in spring black bear hunting is giving yourself as many options as possible.
Look for the ladies
As the season moves into late spring and the bears begin to put on a new layer of fat, the big boars that black-bear hunters are after start to shift their mentality away from food and toward breeding. The late spring is the time of the bear rut, when male bears start covering more and more territory looking to get lucky. It’s a behavior that bear hunters can capitalize upon.
During the bear breeding season, big boars are constantly on the move and will even remain active throughout the day. Their constant movement makes them easy to spot. In the late spring, bear hunters should seek out glassing spots that give them as wide a field of view as possible, where they can easily and quickly pick up the movement of a cruising boar and move in to intercept him. Even if the bear is traveling at such a clip that there doesn’t seem to be a way to close the distance on him, a bear hunter can still get in behind him and follow him for a bit. If he finds a sow, he’ll slow up enough to give you a shot.
Just as with deer hunting, where you spot does and know a buck is bound to show up, if you spot a sow, she’s worth keeping an eye on—a big boar is bound to come along eventually. Try to remember places where you’ve spotted sows in the past, because they will likely still be in the area feeding, and it is possible that a big boar will visit shortly.
If you’re not having a lot of luck spotting and stalking in the mountains, or simply can’t get up and down the ridges, there are some other really great places to explore where you’re likely to run into a spring bear. You just have to know where to look.
Still-hunting on logging roads in the early spring is a great way to run into a bruin. Logging companies have found that the removal of many trees in an area can have negative erosive effects on the soil. To combat this, most companies seed logging roads and landings after they leave with grasses such as ryegrass, clover, and others that have dense root bases to bind the soil. To bears this new growth is like candy; it will attract them from miles around. Hunting these roads is fairly easy. Simply walk down them slowly using whatever cover you can find and search the road margins and landings for feeding bears.
Creek and stream bottoms are another great option for spring bear hunters. I can’t count the number of times I’ve walked into a bruin while fishing for early spring trout. This is because when the snow begins to melt, all the runoff from the mountains flows down to these areas, bringing with it all the rotten vegetation and even the carcasses of winter-killed animals down to the creek bottoms, which in turn attracts bears. Furthermore, these creek bottoms have a lot of early growth vegetation as well as cattails, the roots of which are some of the earliest consistent forage for spring bears.
Old forest fire burns are another great place to look. The soaked and rotting logs are great places for bears to look for grubs and maggots, and the new growth of small shrubs and grasses after a fire provides a lot of food. Plus, mushrooms like the morel, which grow heavily in these areas, are considered a delicacy by bears (and humans) and will definitely bring them in.
No matter how or where you choose to hunt, a spring bear hunt is something that every hunter should try at least once in their life. It’s a great way to start off the hunting year, burn off some of that winter fat, and test out your equipment for the coming fall. What’s more, spring bear hunting provides a chance for hunters to experience the forests and fields at a time of rebirth, when the natural world is just waking up and is filled with the promise of adventure—and perhaps the trophy of a lifetime.