Spot & Stalk
Jun 25 2020
After a 24-hour road trip we arrived in the foothills of the Rocky Mountain West. My wife and I had been preparing for a five-day backpack hunt for black bear in a remote drainage owned by the United States government. Though I’d only seen the area on topographical maps, but I knew the steep drainage was chock-full of bruins, and it was my land. I had every right to use it. The philosophical genius of the forward thinkers of times past made it so. After a five-mile pack in with heavy loads of provisions we found a place to camp. The hunt was on.
This was my first true Western hunt and I wanted to get into the backcountry on foot to glass for spot-and-stalk bears. I would classify this hunt as a stationary backcountry hunt. Over the next five days we moved several times, but because of the travel limitations of being afoot we never went more than a few miles either direction. However, much to our chagrin, the bears just weren’t there. After five days we made the long trip back to Arkansas with two $350 bear tags riding in the glove box. We saw one legal bear in five days of non-stop hunting.
We learned a lot on this trip, and my idea of harvesting a backcountry bear away from the road system was still alive and well. Two years later I traveled back using the mules and horses of friend. The travel into the backcountry was easier, but we still maintained a similar approach to the hunt – setup and glass probable areas for long periods of time. We stayed in one large burn (giant clearing) for three full days and never saw a bear. With only three days left in our hunt we burned a full day in travel time and went to another area. Upon arrival we immediately saw two shooter boars. With only one day left to hunt, we set up on them, but they never returned. However, I learned something – movement produced bear sightings. I made a second 24-hour road trip home without a bear. This time I burned the tag in a ceremonial act of rebellion against the forces that kept us from our goals (I’m kidding. I didn’t actually do that).
Staying Mobile for Western Bear Hunting
I’ve had some great Western hunting coaches that have tutored me in bear hunting. They’re locals, living in the areas that I’m traveling 1,500 miles to hunt. Their advice was to not get so far back into the wilderness and lock myself into one area. As matter of fact, staying in a hotel and driving the roads seemed like what they were pointing me towards. What? “Most people here have success driving the roads and glassing cuts and burns in the evenings, and also walking gated roads with good grass,” they said. However, I didn’t want to kill a bear 200 yards from my truck. The allure of Western hunting was accessing backcountry and that was important to me. In 2019 I found way to combine my idealism and the effective strategies of staying mobile.
Bears are nomadic animals with large home ranges, most upwards of eight to twenty square miles. Compare this to deer and elk, which have much smaller home ranges. In bear hunting this means you could go to a “good area,” but the bears just aren’t there during the time you are. It makes sense to bounce around from area to area until you find a target bear or bears. Once you find them, stay as long as it takes to kill them.
On our 2019 hunt we used mules to access different areas every day until we found a drainage holding some bears. Every time we went back into these areas we carried enough supplies for one or two days of camping, just in case we found bears and didn’t want to leave. We learned to bring provisions after our first day of hunting, when after 10 miles of riding we found bears just before dark. We considered roughing it without tents or sleeping bags, but ended up making the long ride out. From then on we were ready for camping.
Have at Least Three Potential Areas to Hunt:
Going into a “traveling hunt,” it’s important have backup plans. I feel comfortable if I’ve got three solid areas to check out. I don’t even have to know much about them but just two things: how to access them and that they’ve got the type of terrain I’m looking for. When spring bear hunting, I’m looking for openings that grow green vegetation. You’ll have a first choice and after you stay there for a period of time, you can move if you don’t find what you like. Usually one of the three areas will have some type of unforeseeable negative feature, like hunting pressure, closed roads and perhaps a wildfire. These areas don’t have to be very far apart, just far enough that you aren’t hunting the same animals. Modern e-scouting apps on your phone are incredible resources for finding areas to hunt. I use OnXmaps.
Stay for Three Periods of Prime Activity:
Staying mobile doesn’t mean continually move. Bears aren’t active at all times during the day and you’ll need to give your spot a chance to produce. I like to stay in an area for three periods of prime activity, meaning a morning, evening and second morning or an evening, morning and a second evening. Find the best glassing points to cover the most terrain and stay there for as long as possible, even camp there if you can. I like to glass all day. Bears are active for periods of time all throughout the day, but are most active in the mornings and evenings, with evenings being the best. If you have a hunch after seeing a lot of fresh sign, but just no bears, you might commit more time to the area, but don’t waste your time hunting older sign. I always tell myself, “There’s a bear feeding right now in the wide open somewhere.” You’ve just got to find him.
Don’t be Afraid to Cull Areas
Don’t waste your time in a new area if it isn’t right. The allure and hype of a new spot can be overestimated. Once you get there and learn about something negative, don’t be afraid to cut your losses and get out of there. On the second day of our 2019 hunt we went to a new place and found it was much more timbered than we realized. It didn’t fit our agenda. Though we’d committed some time to get there, after analyzing the terrain on a two-mile mule ride, we turned around and went somewhere else. When you’ve got limited time in a new area you’ve got to be bold and confident on your decisions. Have a plan, but follow your gut!
When in Backcountry, Be Prepared to Stay
If you’re accessing backcountry, you’ll be committing some time getting back into these areas. This could be true even if it’s a truck-based hunt and you’re driving. You may find bears right at dark and want to be there at daylight the next day. Having the ability to just set up camp and stay can be a big plus for actually killing critters. This is of great usefulness in planning when accessing backcountry by foot or equines. Bring enough supplies for two days! It will require some work in packing, and you may be unpacking it that night back in the truck if you don’t stay, but it’s a powerful tool to have the option to stay the night.