Spot & Stalk
By Johnny Mack | @thesoulfulhunterpodcast
There is little else that challenges a person’s soul quite like setting off into the great unknown of the backcountry in search of adventure and ultimately a black bear. When you do, it will be more addicting than you ever thought possible, and you will find yourself craving it more and more. The challenges along with the knowledge and skills necessary to succeed come down to one’s courage and determination to overcome. It is in our DNA as humans to set off in search of something greater. Manifest Destiny is our calling, and for hunters, the backcountry is our frontier.
Year after year, hunters continue to head into the mountains in search of a mature bull elk or even an old, salty mule deer. But if you want to get familiar and acquainted with backcountry hunting, nothing is going to get you hooked more than packing into the mountains in the months of August and September. The wild flowers are in bloom, the weather is great and nothing beats the heat quicker than a plunge in an alpine lake or stream. To top it all off, you can gather a collection of huckleberries to bring home for baking.
It is also during these months that one is more likely to encounter non-hunters, which should be considered as an opportunity to be an ambassador for hunting. Through talking to fellow outdoor enthusiasts, we are able to help educate, promote a positive image of hunters and attest to the many benefits of black bear hunting. Some native tribes preferred bears over other game animals for all of their resources they provided. This is often forgotten and lost within mainstream culture.
One of the most beneficial things about hunting black bears out west is that the length of seasons are generally very relaxed. In the state of Washington, for example, a hunter has from August 1st until November 15th to shoot two black bears statewide. These liberal seasons provide great mentorship opportunities for new and/or inexperienced hunters, along with those who are looking at exploring new hunting opportunities and terrain. It is easier to mentor someone when you are not pressed for time on your own tag and know that time spent looking for bears is also a double dip of goodness scouting for antlered animals. Take all of the positives previously mentioned and throw in a lack of competition and it is a win-win; bear hunting is more often the target of opportunity rather than the specific target.
Even though hunting bears can be different from hunting ungulates, it is a great opportunity to practice your skills as a hunter. When you are in the backcountry, you will find that thermals are predominantly predictive (up in the morning and down in the evening) and once you find a bear's food source, stay put and let your eyes do the work. Stay quiet and play the wind. They are bound to show up, just give it time.
Being an adult-onset hunter, I found my calling and cut my teeth in the mountains. Not as a hunter, but as a backpacker. Every August I spent the first two weeks on a trail in the alpine, oblivious to the possibilities of hunting. The beauty of the backcountry appealed to me on multiple levels. The fresh mountain air combined with the pursuit of adventure, solitude and a sense of invincibility were only the tip of the iceberg that called to my soul.
The irony of my story lies within the sad truth that I was afraid of bears in the woods. Every time I set foot in the woods, I was constantly struck with an overwhelming sense of fright that a bear was going to attack. Pure terror would haunt my dreams. So when my desire turned towards hunting, my naturally preferred first big game animal to hunt was deer. Bear was completely off of my radar. However, I was a schoolteacher and football coach, so free time in the fall was hard to come by.
Digging into my state's regulations, I found that black bear season was open before I was expected to return back to work from the summer. It wasn’t until 2017 that I learned that the same trails that are used for backpackers could also be great throughways as hopping-off points for hunting. Being rocked with the knowledge and concept of public lands, I quickly realized that if I wanted to have an extended hunt and still pursue my backpacking passion, then backcountry bear hunting was going to have to be the answer. My soul called for the mountains and so I set off to come face to face with my fears.
The beauty of backcountry hunting is now popularized thanks to YouTube sensations such as Born and Raised Outdoors, who have showcased their three month long elk hunt in which they backpack-hunted the West, resulting in an abundance of popularity in backcountry hunting. If you are someone whose interest has perked to the idea of hunting from a backpack, there are a few things to know.
Backpack hunting is one of the most challenging and memorable hunting opportunities you will ever experience. The memories that you make as you challenge your mental fortitude and physical body are just the beginning. Hunting in the backcountry will only deepen your resolve in who you are and why you hunt. More often than not, you are in a place with no outside communication and no distractions to take you away from your specific goal. The challenge is real but the reward is greater than anything else you can experience.
Before you set off on your first backcountry experience chasing black bears, there are a few basics to cover on how to hunt bears and what makes an enjoyable hunt. Backcountry hunting is a lot of fun. Having proper gear and some basics can really benefit you and help reduce the suck factor.
The first two items are crucial to enjoyment in the backcountry. A good supportive pair of boots that can handle side hilling very steep terrain in the early hot months of August and September (for me I really like and recommend the Crispi Lapponias). Second, a comfortable backpack that is going to carry all of your essentials and is large enough for the length of time you will be spending in the backcountry (3500 cu. in. packs are recommended for 3-5 days while 5500 cu. in. and larger for extended hunts).
Beyond those two items, you will need to make sure you bring with you a sleep system (i.e. shelter, sleeping pad & sleeping bag), water purification system (i.e. iodine pills or filter), cook system (i.e. Jetboil), the remaining items of the ten essentials (i.e. navigation, headlamp, sun protection, first aid supplies, a knife, ability to start a fire, extra food and extra clothes), along with your kill kit, optics, extra ammo and any other items you typically bring on your hunts.
A few things to remember when packing is that ounces matter in the backcountry and they add up very quickly. Knowing this, be very conscious of how you pack and what you bring. A general rule of thumb for backpacking is if an item does not have more than one use, it should be left at home. There are always exceptions to every rule and you can use it as a guideline for how to pack.
When e-scouting the backcountry for places to hunt black bears in August and September, it is crucial to focus on south facing slopes as these will have berries that ripen sooner. When scouting, search for areas that have little tree cover and look like meadows from Google Earth. Those areas will be covered with small shrubs that produce a lot of berries that bears love. One thing to mention is that bears will still munch on berries even before they have fully ripened.
A helpful hint that I use to confirm my scouting locations is by looking at local hiking trail reports. I will read the previous years reports for the time in which I plan on going and use their first hand knowledge of whether the berries are ripe, burnt out, or even if they encountered any wildlife. Once you have your location chosen and have also located some possible glassing spots, it’s time to find how to get there. More often than not, I will read up on the difficulty of the trail and its popularity.
When glassing for black bears, it is important to stay patient. Alpine berry patches can be taller than you would expect and bears can show up out of nowhere. Think of bears as fish in a pond. You won’t see a fish until it jumps out of the water. If it is a very hot day, black bears will typically be more active in the mornings and evenings. This allows you time to enjoy other aspects of the mountains.
Lastly, be prepared to shoot at further distances than you might take in the lowlands. It is not uncommon to take a shot on a bear upwards to 500-yards in the mountains. One helpful tool will be a 9”-13” bipod to shoot off of. In my experience that length is ample for being able to shoot uphill or downhill comfortably.
A few questions about backcountry hunting that arise often surround meat care and how long you can hang meat without it spoiling in the summer heat. You can hang meat longer than you would think as long as you hang it out of the sun and under a tree on a ridgeline where winds and thermals are strong or in creek bottoms where there is always a constant cool breeze. Be prepared to make multiple trips in order to get all of the meat out along with your entire camp.
Challenging yourself to try something new and to expand your horizons on hunting opportunities will lead toward an adventure you will never forget. Be careful though, hunting black bears in the backcountry can be quite addicting! Happy hunting.