Spot & Stalk
May 22 2019
By Brian Strickland
As seen in the Jan/Feb 2018 Issue of Bear Hunting Magazine!
Besides having the opportunity to spend a lot of time in the outdoors giving chase to fur, bone, fin and feather, another perk of being involved is the outdoor media are the people you get to meet. It’s hard to beat hanging out with other like-minded, successful hunters and conservationists who are truly passionate about the gift the Creator spilled out for us to enjoy. I’ve had the opportunity to meet many of these guys over the years, but when I had the chance to talk bears and western bear hunting with another passionate western hunter, I jumped at the chance.
I’ve been a fan of Jason Matzinger and his work for a long time. He is an award winning film maker, television producer and the host of the popular tv show, “Into High Country,” which airs on the Sportsman Channel. One of his latest projects, “This Is Hunting…” is captivating to watch and he uses the sounds of the hunt, as well as Mother Nature, to tell the story.
Born and raised in Montana, Jason has hunted bears ever since he can remember, and it’s a big part of his hunting heritage. “Spring bear hunting is something that has gotten into my blood over the years,” explained Jason. “It really started at a very early age when I would hunt bears with my family, and has grown since.” Although Jason loves hunting elk and mule deer in the fall as seen by his films, when spring rolls around in Montana’s high country it’s time to hunt bears, and Jason loves every minute if it.
It’s estimated that over 15,000 black bears call the Treasure State home, and it’s by far the top destination in the Lower 48 for a spot-and-stalk spring black bear hunt. That being said, don’t mistake a Grizzly for a black bear because you won’t like the consequences, and keep the bait piles, hounds and electronic calls at home as well; they are illegal. However, for the hunter looking to pull the trigger on a western, public land, do-it-yourself black bear hunt you really can’t beat Montana. Don’t kid yourself, it won’t be easy, as Jason will attest. It takes a lot of hard work and persistence in order to settle the crosshairs on the right bear.
Jason has killed nearly a dozen Montana bears with both the gun and bow, with his biggest squaring 7-foot and a skull measuring 19 1/2-inches. Also, having been along for the ride with other successful hunters, it’s fair to say Jason has some great advise for the guy looking to embark on this type of adventure.
According to Jason, the first step is identifying specific areas to hunt. Bear densities are obviously not like deer and elk; and although virtually all of Montana’s mountainous regions will have black bears, some are better than others. Calling local biologists can be a great source of information when it comes to narrowing down specific areas, as well as networking with other hunters who are passionate about bears. Conservation organizations like the Western Bear Foundation (www.westernbearfoundation.org) would be a great place to start.
Once you’ve narrowed down areas, it’s time to do some more homework and identify south and southwest facing slopes, and a lot of this can be tackled with Google Earth. These are the first areas where green-up occurs, according to Jason, and are where boars start feeding when they emerge from their winter dens. Generally speaking, mature boars are the first to emerge and the first places they head are the lush grassy south facing slopes. Because of this, Jason prefers to hunt as early in the season as possible. For him, it’s not about killing a bear, but killing the right one, which generally means a mature boar.
When identifying south facing slopes, look for areas that offer smaller openings in the timber, not areas where the complete slope is exposed. Boars are secretive by nature and are less likely to venture into those areas during daylight hours. Smaller openings not only provide an element of security, but because it’s early in the season and spring green-up is limited, it forces them to hit the same opening several days in a row. Keep in mind, when hunting early you’re not likely going to see as many bears as you would later, but with the limited food sources you are able to pattern a specific bear.
Jason says to key in on areas that are less likely to see the crowds as well. Although there are far fewer bear hunters than those who chase deer and elk, bear hunting has seen an uptick in popularity in recent years. Generally, escaping a mile or so away from roads is enough to leave most hide-seekers behind.
Also, “glass more than you hunt,” insists Jason. As previously explained, bear densities in a given area are pretty small, and you have to search really hard to find that black or brown dot that could be two or three miles away. Jason spends about 85 percent of his time glassing and the rest actually hunting. And don’t just glass a slope once and move on to the next one. Grid search it, picking likely areas apart, and if nothing is seen, glass the same slope again. Because of the distances you often have to glass, a spotting scope is a must as well, says Jason. Last spring he saw 67 bears looking for the right one and most were from behind optics.
Keep in mind as well, most of the time you’re only going to see bears during the early morning and late evening hours, and they may be two miles away when you spot them. It may take several hours to reach the area they were feeding in so this is where patterning a specific bear comes into play. Knowing there’s a good chance he will show himself the next night allows you to get into position long before he arrives.
As the season progresses and the feeding opportunities expand, so do the bears and patterning them much tougher, explains Jason. Glassing is still very important, and you’re likely to see a lot more bears in the process, but you need to be much closer to the action. You have to be more mobile and have the ability to reach a bear in an hour or less in many cases. Still hunting across canyons is a great tactic to employ as well. This gives you the ability to still glass plenty of country and get closer for a shot if needed, or shoot across the canyon if necessary.
Lastly, expect shot opportunities to be in the 200 to 400 yard range in many cases. Because they are smaller targets in general and the kill zone much narrower than the traditional deer or elk, precision is a must. Chances are you’ve worked hard to get to this point so don’t blow the only opportunity you may have by failing to be prepared.