By Jake Horton
Spring bear hunting has become a prevalent time to chase bruins on public land throughout different parts of the United States. At least nine states offer a variety of spring bear hunts, including Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Arizona, Alaska, and Maine. This time of year can be some of the highest opportunities to harvest a bear in these difficult-to-hunt states comprised of thick mountains and dense timber. During this time, you will find bears out and about during daylight hours more than at any other time of year. These bears are out of their winter den and search for food and a mate at all costs. This makes them more susceptible to being hunted as they feed on grasses, forbs, insects, and any dead or alive animals they can get their paws on. With these favorable conditions, you would think that every Do It Yourself (DIY) hunter can go out and harvest a bear; however, this is so not true. Below are four common mistakes that keep a lot of bear hunters, especially new public land spring bear hunters, from filling their tag. If you can avoid making these mistakes, your chances of harvesting a bear have already increased.
WRONG ELEVATION FOR THE TIME OF YOU ARE THERE
Many new hunters do not know that bears start denning at different times of the year, depending on various factors, including weather, food scarcity, hormonal changes, and decreased daylight. Depending on these same factors, they also emerge from their den every year at different times. Typically the higher up in elevation, the earlier a bear dens, and the later it will emerge from its den in the spring. Many new bear hunters find themselves honing in on a particular area in the spring only to find no bears, while another hunter in the same unit or area is into bears every day. This is not always because one hunter picked a good spot and another did not but instead, because the bears might not be out of their den at that elevation or have been out for over a month already and are primarily nocturnal again. Understanding that bears living at different elevations have different schedules is crucial to planning and hunting.
It is always suggested that a prospective hunter hone in on different areas at different elevations to counter this problem. This will give a hunter multiple options if an area is still snowed in or not accessible, which may cause a hunter to chase bears at a lower elevation. On the contrary, a hunter may find a bear sign in an area that is weeks old and have to move to hunt higher elevation. An adaptable bear hunter is a successful bear hunter.
PICKING POOR GLASSING/SHOOTING POINTS
Bears live in some of the thickest and nastiest parts of the mountains, and finding glassing points can be a difficult but crucial challenge. No matter how many times you mark out a spot, tilt your 3D map to determine your vantage, and try to assess shooting lanes, it is always tricky. A mistake is that many DIY hunters pick poor glassing or shooting points. When selecting glassing points, it is crucial to think about what you will be able to see from that location- Is it enough terrain or too much? Can you shoot from that position, or will you have to move once you spot a bear? It is also vital to consider thermals, which carry wind up and down a mountain, as well as the prevailing wind since bears will spook very quickly if they smell your scent. Do not forget to consider the direction of the sunrise and sunsets. Ensure you are not trying to glass directly into the east in the morning or west in the evening. If you don’t consider this, you might not be able to see a bear that emerges at first or last light because of the sun's glare. Overall selecting a glassing or shooting point is super important, but it is something that many DIY hunters do not do or simply do wrong. Pay attention to the little details, and you will be better off for it.
OVER-ESTIMATING SHOOTING ABILITY.
Most hunters, especially non-mountain hunters, have a huge problem that keeps them from notching their tag. This issue is that they overestimate their shooting ability when planning a hunt or when in the field. It is a widespread mistake for a hunter to pick a back basin that looks prime for spring bears, then arrive at their shooting point only to glass their bear up at over a mile away with no way to get closer.
This problem starts with planning. When you are e-scouting, you need to understand the distance between your shooting areas and your bear habitat. Most online hunting maps like goHUNT Maps, onX Maps, and others have a way to measure straight line, or shooting distance across a valley. This can be highly beneficial if you are trying to see if your gun and skill level have the ability to shoot across a valley before you get there. Once you are at a shooting position, there is the second problem that I know many DIY hunters struggle with. They often have long-range rifles that can shoot a thousand yards, but they are not practiced or skilled enough to do so. Do not overestimate your ability when planning or hunting, but instead find a way to close the distance and make an ethical shot on your bear. As a rule of thumb, remember that most basins seem bigger in real life than they look on a map.
POOR SHOT PLACEMENT
So you found a unit with bears, found the correct elevation, and even picked a good glassing and shooting location only to have a bear come out in the open. Now all you have to do is shoot the bear, which should be a piece of cake, right? Wrong! In fact, many hunters make it this far only to come home empty-handed, but why? Black bears are notorious for being tough to kill over a long distance because their vital area can be hidden by long fur and extra fat. Most guides and hunters advise you to aim the center body vertically while 4 to 5 inches back from the shoulder. It would be best to only take a broadside shot on a bear to get two holes in the animal. Since they have a lot of fat and loose skin, it is possible that the entrance or exit holes could get plugged and the blood trail limited, making it hard to recover the animal. A well-hit bear will die quickly; however, a poorly hit animal can survive for days. Only take shots at distances that you have practiced and are confident at, and don't aim too low on the body, and you won’t make a mistake that many hunters do.
Overall, bears can be a blast to hunt, especially in the spring. They are out in full force, feeding or getting ready for the breeding season. This puts them out in the open for longer than any other time of year; however, it still can be a problematic hunt if you do not plan correctly. You need to avoid the mistakes of others and give yourself the best opportunity to harvest an animal. To do this, plan multiple different spots at different elevations, pick great glassing and shooting points, do not overestimate your shooting ability, and understand a bear's anatomy and shot placement. If you can do these four things correctly, your chances of taking home a bear in a week-long hunt are pretty good.