By Justin Spring
Director of Big Game Records for Boone and Crockett Club
I have never understood why spot and stalk bear hunting in the Pacific Northwest doesn't have a cult-like following similar to that of Coues' deer or big muley pursuits. Bears are prevalent on publicly accessible ground, and in most cases tags are available over the counter. The challenge of killing a big boar rivals the challenge of a book mule deer. Optics and hard work will result in sightings, and finally the table quality is not only delicious but also exotic to most. With many areas and in some cases full states allowing this tactic only for bear, the opportunities to become a spot-and-stalk hunter are endless and require far less commitment than setting and maintaining bait.
Spot & stalk hunting in the West requires lots of patience, mental toughness and great gear to keep you comfortable. Check out First Lite merrino wool and outwear for all types of active hunting. Also, check out Huskemaw optics for top-end custom turret rifle optics. Photo by Clay Newcomb
I grew up on the southern Oregon coast hunting black bears when no information on spot and stalk bear hunting could be found. Oregon had recently outlawed bait and dogs for bruins, so trial and error was my approach. I had an inside track on areas with high bear densities as my dad spent his career as a forester, but other than that I was on my own. Nearly twenty years later, I am still learning. What follows are the basics of a successful spot and stalk northwestern hunt in states such as Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and southeast Alaska.
The first key to finding a quality bear hunt is deciding whether you want to hunt them in the spring or fall. In spring, they are concentrated mainly on newly emerged plants, and the rut is in full swing. In the fall, other hunters are concentrating on archery seasons or scouting, yet bears are out feeding nearly constantly and are extremely visible and vulnerable. While spot and stalk bear hunting isn't nearly as popular as the pursuits of other game, you won't be alone and especially not in the spring. Generally fall seasons start anywhere from August to October, and in my experience, the earlier the better. As fall approaches, the bears could well have everything they need by October 1st in terms of being out in the open during daylight hours. Regardless of the year's conditions, though, bears will be feeding extensively in the beginning of August and generally into September. Sometimes they will feed later, but not always. In nearly all cases, spring seasons open before quality forage is available. The challenge becomes predicting when that is, what elevation the bears are located, and how to access these areas. Most states require check in, so a call to the area biologist will give you the statistical average of the harvest spikes in the spring, but each year is a little different.
Hunting in big wilderness country is what makes western spot and stalk hunting what it is. Photo by Clay Newcomb
The fall hunts in my opinion are the most underutilized in terms of opportunity and high likelihood of success. Certain locations will find bears hammering particular food sources such as streams harboring spawning salmon in Alaska or berry patches in the mountainous regions of the Cascades or Rockies. In those cases you know where the bears will be and you are basically hunting a bait. This is the same as finding the first emerging shoots in the spring. If you can plan your hunt to a tee, when a forage source fails, your opportunity for a giant bear goes up, in my opinion. A big boar has his routine that has given him age, and when that plan fails, he has to shoot from the hip. That is when they slip up in daytime hours and you may lay your hands on a 6 1/2 foot or better Northwest bear. When the bear's main forage source fails, he has to cruise looking for another. This means he has to cross ground you are watching instead of waiting until nightfall to hammer his berry patch. If a spring is late, it forces the big old boars down to areas they don't usually frequent, searching for new shoots as his current favorite spot is three feet under snow. A good forage year has the opposite effect; lots of food available means bears are spread out, and catching one in the open becomes exponentially harder.
Wilderness camping requires great gear and you'll never forget the experience. Photo by Clay Newcomb
Once you are getting in areas with bears, the next step is refining your search image for glassing. Spotting a bear feeding or cruising is easy, even in a burned over area where you are staring at a sea of brunt logs, stumps, and all other types of black and brown forms that could easily be a bear. Bear hide has a particular sheen that sticks out to the person who has seen them. As I mentioned, though spotting a moving bear easy, it's the bear that has wandered 20 yards off his food source and is napping that you need to look for as well. In the spring, bears will do this all day. Eat a bit, go nap a bit, maybe walk around a bit to get the digestive tract moving. In other words they aren't always cruising so you will have to pick a drainage apart with your glass. Remember not to look for a giant black bear, instead watch for anything that looks odd or is glistening more than the surroundings. Maybe you are seeing a leg or an eye. I have killed more than one bear after spotting him sleeping on a stump or next to a tree and moving in. Identify every shape, lump, and hole, and eventually, as you are staring intently, he will stand up and stretch and you will have your first bear to consider a stalk on.
Breathtaking views in Idaho - photo by Justin Spring
In terms of judging bears in a spot and stalk situation, you have two concerns: one is that you have something of known size to compare him to, and secondly is that it's a boar or at the minimum a sow without a cub. Never get too excited and shoot before you have had a good chance to observe a bear. If it's feeding along at a good clip and not really hesitating, that is a good sign. If there is thick brush or the bear seems preoccupied, show great restraint. Your best bet is to watch the bear and get in as close as possible before pulling out the shooting iron. By far the biggest mistake I see in spot and stalk is getting too eager. This results in a far smaller bear than the hunter has expected. Big bears look huge. If you think it is small, it is. Don't let yourself change your mind. All other tricks can be useful, such as head vs. ear size and length of legs vs. depth of belly. You want a bear that when you first spot it you think you've seen a cow.
Truthfully, once you have one spotted that you're interested in pursuing, the hard part is done. They are a predator, so unlike a deer or elk, they don't have to constantly worry about being eaten and as such are far more approachable. Watch your wind as their sense of smell is amazing, but even if you are making noise, they will be curious. They are also looking for food, so if you kick loose a rock, you may be a source of food to them and they may come investigate. Don't take this to mean that you can just walk up to one, but also don't take too long trying to approach as you would a bedded deer. If a bear is on the move with what appears to be a slow stroll, it is actually a speed that the most ardent mountain runner would have difficulty trying to mimic on similar terrain. Move smart, move quick, keep the wind in your face and nine times out of ten you will be able to close to either a position for a shot or to get a better look.
Western spot and stalk bear hunting offers hunters the opportunity to get out west, see new country, and kill a bear in a fashion very few have done let alone mastered. See you in the mountains.
Justin Spring is Director of Big Game Records for the Boone and Crockett Club.