By Brian Strickland | @backcountry_brian
Although tough hunting adventures come and go, Montana black bears have certainly been my Achilles heel of late. I’ve climbed the mountains of northwest Montana the past three springs looking for black gold, even making the long trip twice in one season, and have ended up coming home with pocket change and memories. It’s not the bears’ fault or even mine most of the time.
I’ve seen my share, and those sightings have increased with each visit as I’ve learned the landscape better and how the local population of Ursus americanus lives. Looking back, it seems bad luck, fickle wind, enough time, and smart bears have generally been the culprits to the unsuccessful outcomes. But like anything else, we tend to learn the more we try, and if you can connect with someone else who knows the hills and has a passion for Montana’s spring black bears, that learning curve can be much shorter.
Montana resident Nate Peltier is one such individual, and after spending an afternoon with him chasing bears a few springs back, it was obvious he knew a thing or two on the subject. He is the quintessential Montana mountain man. He fights wildland fires in the summer, guides hunters in the spring and fall, and also chases mountain lions in the winter. In addition, he finds the time to sprinkle in taxidermy work and do other odd jobs when he’s not “busy.” Chasing spring black bears and elk in the fall are his passion, and with 20 elk to his credit—most of which came utilizing stick and string—and countless black bear successes, it’s easy to see why.
Needless to say, with my luck chasing Montana black bears, I was all ears when he shared his thoughts on how he finds, stalks, and ultimately kills a mature Montana black bear. It’s estimated that well over 15,000 black bears call the Treasure State home, and it’s by far the top destination in the Lower 48 for a DIY, spot-and-stalk spring black bear hunt. As I have learned, it’s not easy, but if there are elements you need to master to consistently find and kill Montana’s black bears, insists Nate, it’s having good glass and learning how to use them, being patient, and not wasting your time searching in less than ideal areas. It sounds simple enough, but everything looks good in Montana and as good as their black bear populations are, you still have to spend countless hours searching to find the right bear.
Nate says one of the first steps to locating spring black bears is to identify south-facing slopes. These are the first areas that green up and can be magnets for hungry bears. Although you can’t beat boots on the ground when it comes to scouting in any hunting situation, locating these potential bear magnets is certainly made easier with the help of satellite resources like OnX, Base Maps, Google Earth, etc. Generally speaking, mature boars are the first to emerge from winter’s slumber and they focus on the green to get their gears turning. Although Montana’s bear season opens the 15th of April and you can certainly find bears out then and even sooner some years, Nate tends to focus the bulk of his time searching during the month of May. The bigger boars are generally out by then, and if you can locate one he will usually stay in that general area
for a few weeks. However, once the rut starts to kick in later in May and into June, all bets are off when it comes to patterning a specific boar.
When it comes to locating bears, Nate resists the urge to glass large grassy areas that look appealing when searching for a mature boar. “Those areas are just a waste of time in my experience,” says Nate. Instead, he likes to focus his glassing efforts in higher, more remote, and rocky areas with smaller grassy areas close to cover. “Mature boars don’t like to be seen, so I often glass them up near the snow line in rocky areas most hunters overlook,” Nate explained. “The lush, south-facing grassy slopes and bottom country look good,” says Nate, “but the big boars aren’t usually there, especially early in the season.” These smaller, more isolated areas provide an element of security boars like.
Key in on areas that are less likely to see the crowds as well, says Nate. There are far fewer spring bear hunters to compete with than the typical fall crowd. But with bear license sales creeping up in recent years across the west, more guys are hiring the woods come spring. That said, escaping to more remote areas away from the easy glassing spots along roads is also important. Montana is full of gated forest service roads and those can be good places to start. Nate often utilizes a mountain bike to get back into isolated basins most hunters pass.
Another rule to follow when searching for the right bear is to glass more than you hunt. According to Nate, finding bears is seldom easy. Although there have been times when he has seen numerous bears in a single day, that’s generally not the rule. Two to three bears is a good day, and to find them you have to spend countless hours behind the glass in good areas dissecting the landscape. Grid search it, picking likely areas apart, and if nothing is seen, don’t write it off; glass the same slope again. If an area looks good and inspires confidence, spend the extra time searching it.
Keep in mind as well that 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 does the bear’s range—making it more difficult to pattern them. Glassing is still very important, and you’ll need to cover more ground as well. You’re likely to see a lot more bears as the season progresses, but you often need to make haste and put on a stalk before they move on to other areas. My daughter and I faced that challenge a few years ago with Nate. We located a bear less than an hour before last light and we had to bulldoze down a steep slope in the fading light to get to the gated logging road he was feeding on. Everything seemed perfect and we were closing in, but when I felt the capricious mountain breeze touch the back of my neck, the gig was up. The point is, you have to be more mobile and have the ability to reach a bear in an hour or less in many cases.
Lastly, Nate says to expect shot opportunities to be in the 200 to 400 yard range in most cases. Because they are smaller targets in general and the kill zone smaller than other traditional western game like 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 at the range.