In the bear woods: A Montana guide's take on pursuing America's mightiest animal

In the bear woods: A Montana guide’s take on pursuing America’s mightiest animal

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There’s just something about bears. Something that draws us to them with our cameras in national parks, yet makes our hearts beat just a bit faster while walking through the woods. Just saying the word “bear” gets a reaction out of people. These stunning creatures seem to tug at our very ethos. Perhaps it’s because bears are one of the few game animals we hunt that could potentially hunt us back. Perhaps it’s some remembered value of the bear, left behind by our forebearers. A time when harvesting a fat bear was essential to surviving the winter. Or perhaps it’s because we recognize certain similarities between bears and ourselves. Regardless of the reasoning behind it, bears touch us on a deep, primal level.

Bears are often sidelined in mainstream hunting culture by the beloved whitetail and bugling elk that command the attention of most hunters. Yet bear hunting offers some of the most challenging and rewarding days in the woods. Whether you’re chasing grizzlies in the unending wilderness of Alaska or sitting in a tree stand on the lookout for black bears in the wooded suburbs of New Jersey, bear hunting can push a hunter to extremes. Bears live in rugged mountains and dense forests where few other game animals and often fewer hunters tread. They have powerful senses and are extremely wary of intruders. Read the wind wrong, place your foot on the wrong stick, and the bear is gone. Blunder through the woods into a bear’s bedding or feeding area, and your quarry will vanish to the other side of the country. Conversely, success in a bear hunt is incredibly special. The meat, the hide, the skull, the fat…every part of a bear is useful, and every part we use connects us more to the bear we have hunted.

There are numerous ways to hunt bears: with hounds, over bait, or simply waiting in a stand near a patch of berry bushes. For most bear hunters though, the preferred method of hunting bears is spotting and stalking. This is seen predominantly as a Western method of hunting but can be successfully practiced on the East Coast as well. It seems like most bears shot on the East Coast are harvested with pure luck—i.e. you see a bear while deer hunting and take your opportunity as it comes. Spot and stalk is a way to actually target bears. Admittedly, challenging these creatures on their own ground lowers your odds of success. Yet spot and stalk hunting enables you to be more selective about the bear you take while giving you a chance to just chill out and watch bears being bears.

Spotting and stalking bears takes skill as well as a lot of luck. Generally, even in areas with dense bear populations, the animals are mostly nocturnal and generally most active in the early morning or late evening. This behavior gives hunters a short window for which to pursue the animal once it’s been spotted. But that only adds to the excitement. Rushing up a mountainside through thick brush while trying your best to silently approach within shooting range, before daylight fades, is one of the biggest thrills a hunter can experience.

Whether you’re hunting early spring bears eating grass on the barren snow-patched slopes of a western mountain, or punching your way through thick foliage during an eastern fall looking for blueberry-fat bruins, bear hunting is a special thing. It’s a way to connect yourself with a more rugged, ancient, and beautiful part of our outdoor world and one of the most awesome animals it contains.

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