Spot & Stalk
Jan 21 2021
By: Brian K. Strickland
I really wasn’t expecting much as I began making my way down the steep slope towards the remote bait site. After eight days of checking three different setups that I positioned in one of Idaho’s national forests, activity was slow to say the least. Although I would like to blame the inactivity on something tangible like the weather, hunting pressure or a regional downturn in overall bear numbers, there was just no evidence of that.
The weather had been perfect by my bear baiting standards; warm enough during the day to heat the baits up, but not too warm to keep activity at bay. Hunting pressure was virtually non-existent as well. I hadn’t seen another hunter all week. And as far as black bear numbers were concerned, according to the local biologist, this particular region had more bears than they knew what to do with. In fact, it’s because of Idaho’s bear numbers as a whole that I have spent so much time in this region the past few springs. However, other than a few trail camera photos showing a small blonde color phase sow, there was nothing. I was beginning to scratch my head in disbelief.
I’m always a little uneasy slipping into a bait site, regardless of the lack of activity it has been receiving. I know 99 percent of the time a negative encounter with a bear is not realistic; however, I always seem to dwell on that one percent the closer I get. Plus, it has been my experience that once a boar finds a bait, especially in late spring and even more so during the rut in early June, they’ll bed relatively close to keep tabs on the comings and goings. Because of this, I really try to slip in undetected and refresh the bait as quietly as I can. I’m well-aware you’re not going to fool a bear’s nose, and he’ll no doubt know I was there at some point dropping some bait. However, I’ve always felt smelling a passing scent is far less intrusive than actually seeing me. The only time I want them catching a glimpse of my six-and-a-half foot frame is when I’m about to release an arrow.
With less than 100 yards to go, I crested the ridge above the bait, but instead of seeing sign of a bear paying it a visit, I saw the next best thing, an impressive boar feeding at it. A centerfire rifle would have ended the hunt in a matter of seconds, but in my opinion, a baited black bear hunt requires a closer approach. His dark chocolate hide seemed to shimmer in the morning sun as I watched him feed, and I knew in an instant which bear this was. I had never actually laid eyes on him before, but the many trail camera photos from the previous spring told me it was him.
I spent several days hunting him last year, and he seemed to be one step ahead with each attempt. If I hunted the evening, he would show up in the morning and on morning hunts the opposite would occur. Even when I decided to hunt all day on one occasion, which I rarely do for bears, he decided to slip in under the cover of darkness. After a week of this cat-and-mouse experience, I had to admit his instincts were far better than mine and called it quits. I told myself as I was driving home, “maybe next spring,” and as I watched him with my binoculars feeding at the bait, I was hopeful that “next spring” was here.
As I slipped out, I began planning my evening hunt. Although I’ve never been one to target a particular bear—or whitetail for that matter—he was everything I came to the Gem State for. By Idaho standards he was big, pushing 300-plus pounds, and the fact that he carried a beautiful coat and was a mature boar made him even more appealing. With only two days left to hunt before I had to head home, it was make or break time.
Needless to say, the evening hunt couldn’t come faster. With the wind right and the evening thermals set to be perfect, I just knew he would come in. After setting up the video camera in hopes of getting the whole encounter captured for Bear Horizons, all I could do was wait.
It’s weird how your instincts kick in when your anticipation is high, and as I briefly looked to my right I saw a flash of chocolate hide move through a small opening less than 100 yards away. As if he was walking on a minefield, over the next 20 minutes he oozed in my direction, lifting his head to scent check along the way. I’ll have to admit, I was a little nervous. I had never killed a western bear this size with traditional tackle, nor had I had the pleasure of punching my tag on a color phase variety. But before I could completely appreciate my situation, everything changed.
Filming a hunt solo and trying to capture every aspect of the experience can be tough, and when you’re trying to get a shot off with a traditional bow as well, it makes the task even harder. Before I knew it, he was 23 yards away standing broadside, completely unaware I was there and well within my effective shooting range. But when you want to capture the event on video, you have to make sure he’s in the frame. With the sun starting to set behind me, a harsh glare appeared on the screen and I couldn’t see anything. It was as if the bear gods were shining down but definitely not in my favor.
Unable to make sudden moves I was frantic mentally. The more I tried to determine if he was in frame the worse the glare got. I could have shot and been completely happy with the outcome. But deep down I knew that if I didn’t capture the event completely, I would look back with some disappointment. Begrudgingly, I waited for him to turn and head to the bait.
I still think about that moment. In fact, it was exactly how I had envisioned it happening the instant I saw the first trail camera photo of him the previous spring. But sometimes things aren’t meant to be. He never did move to the bait. Instead he went and laid down just 40 yards away. A few minutes later a breath of wind hit the back of my neck and before I knew it, he was gone. In disbelief I sighed as he eased away and all I could do was tell myself once again, “Maybe next spring.”