Spot & Stalk
Mar 25 2020
By Brian Strickland
As we rounded the hairpin turn on the closed logging road, a patch of chocolate hide caught our attention. He was barely a 100 yards away, and after hiking countless unnamed roads the past few days, I had gotten pretty good at spotting flashes of dark hide mixed in with the emerald-green foliage. Although this particular bear was not the biggest we had encountered, the after-noon sun had his dark chocolate-colored hide perfectly lit, causing it to glow with a reddish hue. Needless to say, I didn’t need a green light from the outfitter on this one and quickly developed a plan of attack.
As I inched closer to the brushy ditch I witnessed him ease into, I paid careful attention to both the wind and unwanted noise my size 13’s could possibly make. I had already blown a couple of stalks the day before because I didn’t fully take their exceptional hearing into account. And an-other bear’s supposed “poor” eyesight caught me shifting into an opening on the final approach the first day as well. The mistakes were stacking up and the bears were winning. I was quickly learning that this American icon was not the pushover some have opined.
As I slipped closer to my unsuspecting prize, his head emerged from the tangle of brush I initial-ly saw him feed into, and at 25 yards his dark chocolate-colored coat looked even more impres-sive than my initial assessment. Size does matter when it comes to bears, and he was average by British Columbia standards, but color-phase matters as well, and his impressive spring coat far surpassed anything I was initially hoping for.
With an arrow on the string, he emerged from the thick brush and paused, and it was clear to me that he felt something wasn’t quite right. As his head swiveled looking for danger, electric pulses surged through my body like a freight train. I can’t explain it, but as I’ve learned over the years sometimes it’s the animal’s sixth sense that keeps their blood pumping another day. Within a split second this once meandering bear kicked it into overdrive and left me with yet another memory from the spring bear woods.
I must say, bear hunting has climbed to the top of my to-do list each spring. Sure, turkeys are fun and the interaction they provide is outstanding, but there is something about matching wits with the icon of the Rocky Mountain West. With spring fast approaching it’s time to start making plans. Although some states are on a limited draw system and it may be too late to apply, there are some over-the-counter destinations that are worth noting.
Big Sky Country
Montana has clearly become a hotspot for hunters looking to stretch their legs, as well as their lungs in search of black bears. Unlike its neighbors to the east and west, baiting is off limits, as well as the use of hounds, so matching wits with Montana bruins requires lots of time behind the glass and the ability to shoot long distances in many cases. Montana FWP estimates there are over 15,000 black bears roaming the state, with the vast majority living in the northwest region. Although it’s not known to produce giant bears, since the mid-1990’s Montana’s annual black bear harvest has averaged 4th in the Lower 48, behind Washington, Oregon and Idaho. The key to locating bears is working a lot of country to eliminate bad areas while finding those isolated pots of gold. Concentrate you efforts on south facing open hillsides and closed logging roads. And for the first-timer, spend lots of time locating possible access points with the help of Google earth, or better yet OnX Maps (www.onxmaps.com). For the true western experience, it’s hard to beat what Montana offers.
The Gem State
For simple variety, no other state offers the opportunity that Idaho does. Hunting over bait is the primary method many hunters employ, but hounds can be used in many areas as well. For added adventure, floating some of Idaho’s rivers, like the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, while glassing hillsides can provide great spot-and-stalk action. With the vast majority of units offering over-the-counter tags at just $186 for the non-resident, and some northern units a second oppor-tunity because of the huge numbers of bears for just $41.75, Idaho is an absolute bargain for the non-resident. Although it’s not known for B&C toads, what it lacks in trophy heads it more than makes up in overall bear numbers, as well as a trophy experience in my opinion. With seasons running from April to June, and tons of public dirt, the opportunities are endless.
Grand Canyon Country
Arizona generally doesn’t even get a glance among bear hunters, especially non-residents. It of-fers both a general and archery season, with some tags being acquired in an annual draw, while most others are over-the-counter. The first hunt generally begins in late March and runs through early May in most cases, but some reach into July as well. The other season is a draw only ar-chery hunt and runs from early May through the end of July. I won’t lie to you, these are very difficult hunts and success rates tend to be low. However, with Arizona having excellent color phase opportunities, as well as trophy class bruins, this high desert country can pay huge divi-dends. The Grand Canyon State is also a top 10 B&C qualifier with about 140 pumpkin heads in the books. Among western states in the Lower 48 it ranks 3rd, behind California and Colorado respectively.
The Cowboy State
Last on the list is Wyoming but not because black bear opportunities are slim. With over-the-counter opportunities, it is an excellent destination if you are seeking a DIY baited hunt that pro-vides excellent opportunities at a giant bear. In 2017 the highest success rates came from the Si-erra Madre, Green River and Burgess Junction regions. Many hunters prefer baiting black bears in Wyoming but it also offers pretty good spot-and-stalk opportunities in the high country re-gions of the Wind River Range. Keep in mind as well that Wyoming’s bear season is based on a female harvest quota, and the seasons will close in each individual unit once the quota is reached. Also, bear in mind that grizzlies range the northwest region of the state. Because of this baiting is not allowed in areas 22, 25, 26, 32 and parts of 23 and 27. Baiting is also not allowed in wilder-ness areas throughout the state. Wyoming’s spring archery bear hunt runs from mid to late April, while the gun season starts in early May and runs through mid-June.