Sometimes the tough ones are the most memorable
By Bernie Barringer
The closure of Canada to outsiders was disappointing to me on many levels. For several years I have done at least one spring bear hunt in Canada, and I travel to Ontario for fishing, camping, and generally spending time in the bush multiple times a year. In 2020, I exchanged my Canadian bear hunt for a Wyoming hunt, which was loads of fun and culminated with a nice chocolate bear. During the winter of 2021, it became clear that Canada wasn’t going to open the borders any time soon, so I began to scheme and plan about another spring bear hunting adventure—or two—in the US. I ended up settling on two hunts for May and June, one in Idaho and one in Maine. I’ll explain the unique spring Maine bear hunt in a later piece, but for now I want to relate the experiences I had in the mountains of Idaho, which would become a hunt fraught with difficulties and drama that you just can’t make up.
The drama started well before the hunt as I began researching areas and calling people I knew from Idaho and people who had hunted Idaho previously. I’d done a hound hunt about 10 years ago in the Idaho panhandle, but I’d never baited on my own in the state, so it was a real learning experience. One common theme that kept coming up was the issue of trails being blocked by snow slides in May. For this reason, I decided to choose lower elevations, which proved to be the right choice.
I also called Forest Service and Game & Fish personnel probing for information. In the end I settled on the Selway River area and called my South Dakota buddy, Virgil, to ask if he wanted to go along. He immediately agreed as expected, even though he had busted up his foot in a treestand accident and was still on crutches. He knew his mobility would be limited but he wanted to go and do what he could. He then asked if his son, Isaac, from Texas could come along, and I agreed.
Lots more research and I had the area dialed in, even choosing some good looking bait sites and the perfect camp spot based on what I had seen on aerial photos. In early May, I loaded up and hit the road with a bunch of bait, a Polaris Ranger, a truckload of camping gear, enough food to feed an army, and a lot of enthusiasm for the hunt. Virgil would be bringing his 4-wheeler, another side-by-side ATV, and his usual good attitude which is something I love about hunting with him. Isaac would fly into Missoula and rent a Jeep for the trip to the mountains.
My first indication that things were going haywire was when I arrived at the resort where we would buy our tags and found the store closed. It was only 7:30 a.m., but the guy who runs the store was hanging around the restaurant, so I asked him what time he would open the store. His answer was 10:00. I just needed a license, and he had the keys in his pocket, but despite my pleas he wouldn’t unlock the door and sell me one. I decided to go on down the road another three hours and set up camp. I eventually ended up going an hour and a half the other direction and bought a license at a small bait shop in a little town.
The second, third, and fourth roadblocks came in quick succession. I had rumbled down gravel roads for an hour looking forward to setting up camp at a place I had picked out when upon arrival, I found an outfitter set up there. He had several wall tents, ATVs, and a half-dozen hounds. Fortunately, I had a backup camp spot in mind (I always have a plan A and a plan B on these hunts). However, he also pointed at my Polaris Ranger and told me I couldn’t use it on any of the forest roads because they are all limited to ATVs less than 50 inches wide. Gulp. In all my conversations about bears, baits, and ATV use, you’d think one of the officials I talked to would have mentioned that. But no, we were limited to using the two side-by-sides on the main roads and all the backcountry trails we intended to use were limited to one 4-wheeler for three people.
Then he dropped the real bomb on me. Seems a whole lot of other people had decided to go hunting in Idaho because of the Canada border closure. The valley was full of bear hunters. The outfitter told me that he had baits on all the trails and I would later learn there were three other groups of hunters baiting in the area. Over the next week, we would find that just about anywhere you could pull off the trail and get far enough from a stream to legally set a bait, there would already be a bait.
I went ahead and set up camp a mile down the road, which turned out to be a fine place. When Virgil and Isaac arrived, I broke the bad news to them and we began to formulate a plan to get a leg up on all the other hunters. It went something like this; we would just outcompete them. Trail mix and pastries coupled with excellent calling scents such as Northwoods Gold Rush would give us an edge, plus we would set up as far from the other baits as we could and just try to offer something better to the bears than the stale breads and popcorn being used by the other hunters. I had learned from hunting these mountainous areas that once a bear finds the bait, he’s likely to hit the bait 2-3 times a day for the first couple days, then settle into a regular feeding pattern which would likely be right after dark. Because of this, we decided that as soon as the cameras showed that a bear had hit the bait, we would hang and hunt immediately.
Despite the fact that we had our licenses, we learned that you can’t get bait site tags at license vendors so we had to drive all the way across the state to Salmon and get them in person at a Game & Fish office. That one’s on me—I should have come across that in my research. Before we even got out of the valley we were camped in, Isaac’s rental Jeep got a flat tire, so we spent a couple extra hours in Salmon getting the tire fixed and dealing with the rental company.
We finally went to work locating good spots and putting out baits. It was incredibly difficult to find spots that were far enough from the road and far enough from water as required by Idaho law. Maybe a half-dozen times, I hiked up a drainage carrying everything required to put out a bait site, only to find there simply wasn’t a legal site available and had to walk all the way back out. This was steep country and we climbed mountainsides looking for good spots. By the end of the second day, we had only four baits out. We discovered that we simply had to work harder than the other hunters and go where most people aren’t willing to carry heavy buckets of bait and haul stands.
Over the next couple days, we checked baits and had a couple nighttime hits. Some of the other hunters left the area which gave us some optimism. We drove the 45 minutes out to a resort to buy some ice and they let us use their wifi to check emails and phone messages. I was stunned to find that my son had called and left a message that my wife had COVID and had been in and out of the ER three times in the past two days. She was not doing well at all.
Of course my first reaction was to pack up and go home. Could I leave Virgil and Isaac hanging? Almost all the equipment both for camping and hunting was my stuff, so I was in a real predicament. I called him and he said he was staying with her, that they had sent her home with a bunch of monitoring equipment, and I should stay and hunt. I tried to talk to her but she was barely able to complete a sentence.
That night I stared at the roof of the wall tent most of the night, trying to decide what to do. The next day I drove back and called again. He said she’s doing fine and he and my second son were both taking some time off work to stay with her. I went to the woods with a little bit more peace of mind. I had decided to explore another road that was quite a few miles from camp, but closer to the resort at the end of the road. I saw what appeared to be a great spot close to the road and walked in to have a look. About 100 yards from the road I heard ravens croaking, which was a bad sign. Sure enough, another bait.
The next stop was a mile up the road where I walked down the ridge off a point and there was a pullout on the forest road. Lo and behold, I found a spot that looked terrific and had no sign that anyone had hunted it. I was a little uneasy that the nearest stream was 500 yards down the slope and probably a drop-off of at least 1000 feet. But I baited it up, dumped some oil spiked with Gold Rush, gave it a good soaking with Northwoods Beaver Castor spray, and put a camera on it with optimism.
That evening, Isaac hunted a bait that had been hit but saw nothing other than a cow elk up close. Virgil stayed in camp and did a little exploring on the side-by-side. The following morning, I headed down the river for 45 minutes on rough gravel road to check on my wife again. She was a little better and able to talk on the phone with me. I asked her straight up, “Do you want me to come home? I will—just say the word.” Her answer just confirmed to me what I already knew when I won the wife lottery 42 years ago. “What could you do if you were here?” was her answer.
I headed back up the mountain with a sense of peace I hadn’t felt for a few days. Walking into the new bait on the ridge, I was surprised to find two piles of bear scat on the way in, then a bait that had been hit and two more piles of scat at the bait site, which were bigger than the other two. The camera showed one bear at the bait, then the bear turned and chomped on the camera so it was pointing the wrong way and didn’t get a photo of the second bear. Time to hang and hunt.
I arrived back at camp to gather my gear and chatted with the guys a little. Another bait had been hit by a small light-colored bear and Virgil wanted to hunt it for the evening. I decided to run up the mountain on Virgil’s 4-wheeler and check one more bait, in case we wanted to put someone there for the evening. This bait was way above camp on a series of switchbacks in a cool canyon with heavy cover. On previous days, the cameras had shown two yearling cubs using the bait, but I hoped that other bears would find it.
When I walked up to the bait, I was shocked to find it covered up with a huge mound of branches, sticks, grass, and leaves. I know what that means: Grizzly. I got an eerie feeling that I was being watched and my heart was hammering as I pulled the camera off the tree and bailed off that mountain as fast as I could run without pitching headlong into the dirt.
Once again, back at camp, the camera revealed that one of the bears had chomped on the camera and moved it. I was crushed that I didn’t get a photo. Next time, I am definitely taking bear safes to bolt the cameras to the trees.
I headed 14 miles down the river, turned back up the logging road, and parked near the bait on the ridge. I hung a stand on the bait and climbed in early. It was early afternoon and I was expecting a long sit. Considering the circumstances, I had decided that any legal bear was going home with me. This tough hunt was not a time to be selective. I knew there was one small bear on this bait and one a little bigger than him, but the one I was after was the first one.
And that first one showed up only a half hour later. I saw black moving through the bush about 200 yards down the slope from me. Over the next half hour, he slowly closed the distance using extreme caution. He was clearly terrified of something. I guess when you’re a small black bear living in grizzly country, you live on the edge of panic all the time. Eventually the bear came into range and I put an arrow through his heart. He bailed off the mountainside and piled up against a 30-inch log 75 yards away. Thank goodness for that log or the bear would still be rolling. The following evening, Virgil hunted that stand hoping the other bear would come, but mine turned out to be the only bear we would see during the week.
This was a memorable hunt because of the good company, amazing scenery, and the hard work that makes a guy want to eat well and hit the sack early. Plus, we had the added bonus that we learned a lot about hunting in steep country with loads of competition. I’m convinced that the strategy of hunting immediately upon finding a bait that’s been visited is the right tactic for these situations, and that’s the biggest takeaway from this hunt. Each time I do these DIY public land bear hunts in new country, I learn a little more. And that’s just as important to me as killing bears.