Spot & Stalk
Sep 03 2020
By Bernie Barringer
I wasn’t really sure what to expect on my first bear spot & stalk bear hunt in British Columbia a few years ago. The first action of the first day with the outfitter was a walk up a hill. Let’s just say we don’t have much for hills like this in the Midwest. My young, long-legged guide and I headed up a steep skidder trail for the better part of a mile to an area where we could look over some clear-cuts.
Looking back on this, I think he was simply trying to gauge the stamina of his 54-year-old client by taking me on a really tough trek right out of the gate. Fortunately I have played basketball 3-4 times a week most of my life and ridden a bike 15-20 miles a couple times a week also. I must have passed his test because he took me on several more such lung burners. That was the first thing I learned about spot and stalk bowhunting in the mountains.
The second thing I learned was that I was quite limited if I wanted to shoot a bear with a bow. The first evening, we watched a gorgeous, mature cinnamon bear grazing on the other side of a raging creek at 65 yards. I practice to 55 regularly, but about 40-45 is my limit on bears. I resisted the temptation to take the guide’s rifle and bag this beautiful bear.
Those two topics would be the theme of the next six days of this hunt in which I would finally shoot the 42nd bear I saw on the final day at a distance of 45 yards.
Strategies for finding bear and stalking them in the West usually involves glassing while driving roads, then getting out and walking to good vantage points. Many times the walk will be to a point where you can look over an avalanche slide, one of the first, best places to find bears in the spring when the vegetation is starting to green up. You must be in good physical shape for this type of hunting.
When logging roads are deactivated and blocked to vehicle traffic, they tend to grow up into grass and clover. Simply walking these roads when the wind is in your favor, slowing down to peek over ridges and around corners, can be very effective. This is a little less athletic than some of the hikes, but very effective.
One of the reasons I saw 42 bears on that hunt yet didn’t shoot until the final day has a lot to do with how hard it is to find a bear in a position where he can’t use his eyes, ears and nose to detect you before you get within range. Don’t believe the myth that bears have poor eyesight. You will need to move only when his head is down feeding or he’s looking away. And you must watch your step carefully and use the wind to your advantage. Usually this means staying downhill of the bear in the evening when the thermals are carrying the air down-slope and staying uphill of the bear when the warming air is moving uphill during the main part of the day.
These winds and thermals mean you must be acutely aware of your arrow’s flight pattern at various shooting angles. Any fairly steep angle—either up or down--will significantly affect the arc of your arrow because gravity only affects the arrow across a level plane. I always thought of a rangefinder that calculates arc as a tool for treestand hunters, but next time I go on a hunt in the mountains, I’ll have one with me. And I will practice at these angles a lot more before I go.
There are a lot of spot & stalk opportunities along lakeshores, tidal flats and marshes in addition to hunting logging operations of the West. Bears are shot in the farm areas of Alberta and Saskatchewan by spotting them in the crop fields and sneaking within range. Bears love oats and some outfitters specialize in this type of hunting. Mostly they position themselves with a spotting scope in the evenings, then when a bear moves into the field, they move quickly to get within range of a shot. It’s a tough gig, but a high rewarding way to bag a bruin.
I haven’t seen it done, but I’ll bet there are areas of the eastern US states along the coast where these tactics might work well. Bears feed in crop fields and a savvy hunter may be able to adapt these tactics to the terrain found in the marshes of the Carolinas where some really big bears spend their lives unmolested by hunters.
In addition to a flat-shooting bow, you are going to need some additional equipment. A spotting scope with a window mount is necessary, as is a good pair of binoculars. Something along the lines of a 10x50 is about right because you can use it from a vantage point and then carry it with you to keep tabs on the bear as you make your approach.
I mentioned the use of an angle-compensating rangefinder, which is essential. Another tool that I found very valuable was a bow sling so I could keep both hands free not only to glass, but to move noisy things out of my way as I put the sneak on a bear. High-quality boots are essential; you will spend all day and walk a lot of miles in them. Buy the best you can afford and put on some fresh merino wool socks each morning.
I used a single-pin movable sight. I know there are people who are very loyal to sights with multiple pins but this type of hunting lends itself very well to the use of a single pin model. When setting up for the shot, you normally have time to take a range and move your pin to the exact range, which eliminates the chances of using the wrong sight pin. I have confidence in this system.
It goes without saying that any hunter should work hard to get in good physical conditioning and practice plenty with the bow before heading to a spot and stalk destination. You should practice shooting at those odd angles, and keep in mind that you may have to shoot from your knees so practice that as well. A spot and stalk hunt will challenge you but it’s a great experience that every bear hunter should undergo at least once.