Whether you are an experienced bear hunter or a novice, there is always something to learn and skills to develop when hunting new states, especially the western states. Spring bear hunting in the West can be a blast from mid-April to mid-June and provide hunters with an unforgettable do-it-yourself experience whether they punch their tag or not. The mountains and sunrises are impressive, the weather is unpredictable but usually mild, and the bears are out and about in good numbers. There are many reasons to head to the western states and chase bears, and this article is not here to convince you to go; instead, this article is written as a step-by-step guide to hunting black bears in the West. From the moment you decide to go hunting, preparation is vital. If you are not living in a western state, spring bear hunting can seem overly complicated, with chances of getting a bear nearly impossible; however, the truth is that the chances for success during your first year are high. You can figure out excellent spots and have an opportunity to see multiple bears a week. You can do this hunt on a limited budget, and this hunt is my most enjoyable and stress-free hunt of the year. With some preparation, time off, and a good long-range rifle, spring bear season can be something you look forward to every year. 

Step 1: State Selection

There are around eight states that allow spring bear hunting in some form or another; however, for a novice western bear hunter, this number could be narrowed down to three top contenders. In my opinion, the best states to hunt for spring black bears are Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming. Of course, some of you are thinking, what about Oregon, Washington, or even Alaska? Yes, there are a lot more western states that allow you to hunt black bears in the spring, but, let's face it: you have a limited amount of time, so why not go where the bear numbers are highest, the travel there is not a headache (sorry Alaska), and you can get tags over the counter. You may be wondering why bear numbers are so high in these states. Well, that’s because these states have some of the nastiest, steepest, thickest country that exists in the United States, and bears thrive in this environment. Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming have over-the-counter (OTC) bear tags for specific units. Wyoming is the only one out of these states with a specific quota of female bears that can be harvested within each particular unit, and this information is available daily. Look at the season dates, the license costs, and your travel logistics, and pick one of these states to start your research because all of them could be great. The next step is to dive in and pick a specific unit within the state. 


Step 2: Unit or Wildlife Management Area Selection

Since Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming all have excellent bear populations; you cannot go wrong in selecting any of them. The real challenge starts as you try to narrow down the unit and then spots within the unit. To pick a good unit, you want an over-the-counter season, good bear harvest statistics, and a good amount of public land. In years past, I would get on the state’s website to try and find harvest data and compare it with a map of public land to see what might or might not be a good unit. To efficiently do this, I would print off statistics and highlight units with good numbers of bears harvested. This system worked for me; however, it was quite cumbersome and time-consuming. In recent years I discovered a fantastic tool that I would like to introduce to the readers of Bear Hunting Magazine, and that tool is goHUNT. GoHUNT is a western tool that allows subscribers to electronically filter the units within a state by available hunting data to find the best huntable units within the state. You can search by over-the-counter seasons, the number of bears harvested in the spring, harvest percentages, public land percentages, and goHUNT even provide some information about camping areas, access points, and bear activity within the unit. I used this technology to plan my 2021 spring bear hunt in Wyoming within ten minutes. This filtering technology allowed me to search for a Wyoming bear unit that provides over-the-counter opportunity, with greater than 50% public land and more than 15 bears killed last spring. Within seconds the GoHUNT Filter 2.0 displayed all options that met my criteria. From there, I reviewed my options and picked the unit I liked the most. 

For nearly five years, I have used GoHUNT to plan my deer and elk opportunities with success and recently discovered that they expanded to support bear hunting data, making planning bear hunts in new western states so much easier. Instead of pouring over the data for hours to pick a unit, you can make a knowledgeable and confident decision within minutes. GoHUNT is an annual subscription that gives subscribers access to the filter for all species in all western states as well, content, an incredible shop, mapping services, and monthly raffles. For a limited time, Bear Hunting Magazine subscribers can use the code “BEARMAG” when purchasing a GoHUNT subscription in order to get $50 to the goHUNT gear shop. 


Step 3: Spot Selection

Once you pick a state and a unit within that state, it is time to hone in on specific spots within that unit. Before we get into the nitty-gritty of what to look for in satellite imagery, it is essential to talk about spring bear behavior and what that means for your hunting spot selections. In the spring, bears leave their dens between March and June, depending on the snow line and weather. Every year will be different; however, you can bet that the lower the elevation a bear is denning, the sooner they will typically emerge. Bears tend to live and den in the dense forest, but they usually make a beeline towards food once they emerge from their den. The easiest and most accessible food for these omnivorous mammals to get are new blossoms, flowers, berries, tree buds, bugs, and grubs found on south-facing slopes, where the sun has allowed for earlier growth. If a bear emerges from its den at an elevation still covered in snow or that is lacking spring growth, it will naturally drop in elevation and seek out these green areas. This all is important because you can plan a hunt at any elevation; however, it is essential to have multiple elevations as backup plans because spring comes at different times in the West, depending on the elevation. It is possible that a mid-May hunt planned around 7,000 feet in elevation can be perfect conditions one year and under a foot of snow the year after. Successful western bear hunters will prepare for the unknown and adapt to the specific year’s conditions. Keeping all of this in mind, it is time to begin your online scouting and plan out some spots to sit for your hunt. 

Online scouting can be super beneficial during spring bear season in order to drastically increase your odds of spotting and harvesting a bear. Start by finding a reliable satellite imagery website with up-to-date images within the last five years. There are a lot of great mapping companies that can give you this information; however, I like to use Google Earth or goHUNT maps because they have great 3D features that allow you to tilt the map and get a great idea of the terrain. Then, search areas a mile or two from trails and roads and mark any open parks, two to five-year-old burns, avalanche shoots, controlled logging areas, or prominent logging roads near dense forests. These are the places that bears will be likely to feed once they emerge from their dens.

The next step is to see if there is a place to spot and shoot from within a decent distance from the bear feeding habitat. These potential shooting points can be either across, above, or below the location where a bear may appear while hunting. If there is no shooting area within my rifle’s range, then the spot is not a good one. Personally, I determine this by using Google Earth or goHUNT’s measurement tool to see how far the potential shot would be. With practice and good ammo, an average rifle today can shoot out to 400 yards, give or take. A long-range rifle can shoot much farther — even up to 600 to 700 yards for a skilled marksman. However, while scouting and hunting, it is important to be honest with yourself about your rifle and skill. It does you no good to hike back off the trail multiple miles and see a bear that is 2,000 yards away across a valley and not be able to take the shot or get any closer. It is equally as harmful to attempt to take a shot that is too far for you or your rifle and end up wounding one of these animals.

In my experience scouting, for every 20 perfect bear spots I find in a unit, only one has an opening to shoot from that I can make with my rifle. Keeping that in mind, if a spot is not perfect, move on and find another. Places like Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming seem to have endless open south-facing areas near dense timber if you look closely. It’s also important to note the elevation of the spots you are scouting and planning to hunt. I like to pick multiple hunting spots for every 1,000’ in elevation change from the valleys to the upper basins. As previously mentioned, depending on when you are hunting and what the winter was like that year, bears can emerge from their dens at different times of the spring, putting them in open areas at different times. The last thing you want is to come out to your glassing location in the middle of May only to find two feet of snow on the ground; trust me when I say it is not a good feeling.  


Step 4: The hunt  

After finding some good spots and entering them into your GPS, take some days off of work and go after some bears. Bears are typically out and about at first and last light, so you need to be at your shooting point for the first few hours of the morning and the last few hours of the day. Of course, you can plan on hunting all day, which is fine, but I usually find something to do besides bear hunting during the mid-day. This is why I feel that bear hunting is way less stressful than other hunts that keep you on your feet and pushing all day long. I usually like to plan for a morning and evening hunt and some fishing during the middle of the day. If you are deep in bivy camping, days can be long, so bring a hunting buddy or two along to help pass the time and to help you pack out when you finally pull the trigger. During the spring, bears can habitually feed in the same area for a few days to weeks in a row, so I would typically give a specific spot one to two sits before moving on to a different hunting spot. Constantly changing spots also keeps your morale up and allows you to see more beautiful spring country. If you are successful and harvest a bear, make sure to have a plan to get the meat to a butcher and the hide to a taxidermist, especially if you are out of town and want to get it back without spoilage.  

Spring bear hunting in the West can be a blast for a hunter of every experience level. Of course, it can be overwhelming, especially if you have never been to a western state or bear hunting; however, once you try it once, you will be hooked for life. It should go without saying, but there are a lot of bears out West and even grizzlies in these western states, so be bear-aware. This means that a sidearm is probably a great idea and when camping, store your food away from your camp suspended in the air between two trees. Bears are incredible animals, and hunting them can be the biggest excitement of your year, but be sure to do it safely. Good luck this spring and for the springs to come.