By Clay Newcomb
As a Southern outdoorsman, hunting big game in the spring was a novel, but foreign idea. We chased big gobbling birds and caught crappie – both noble endeavors. In the spring of 2014, I went on my first spring bear hunt and I was hooked like a flathead on a trotline. What other big game animal can you hunt in April, May and June? What other beast inhabits such incredible wild places and have population numbers and meat like the black bear? Spring hunting opportunity abounds for both the do-it-yourself and folks looking for a guided hunt. Here are some answers about spring bear hunting that will get you headed toward success, adventure, and backstraps.
When to Hunt
May and June are the primary months for hunting spring bears. However, some Western states like Montana and Idaho open their seasons in April. In the Northern latitudes, where most spring hunting takes place, bears are hardly out of their dens by April, so May and June may be a better option for a traveling hunt. Weather patterns of individual springs dictate temperature, snowfall and vegetative growth, all of which have effect on when bears emerge from their dens. An early spring will mean bears are out and huntable by April 15th, but some years you may not get much snowmelt until the first week of May. For this reason, most Canadian outfitters don’t start hunting until the first or second week of May.
When hunting the spring you’re capitalizing on two biological happenings - a bear’s appetite after denning and the breeding period. It’s important to understand the timing of both. Fresh green vegetation, or a bait site, will be the first thing on the menu for hungry bruins. A bear’s appetite will be light when he first emerges, and you’ll see bears feeding for small periods of time and eating small amounts. After a few days or even weeks, their appetite will be full throttle and they’ll start to feed heavily. Here’s the advantage of hunting early – if you can find a bear he’ll be very patternable and won’t be traveling far. If you spot a bear in the morning in a green patch in late April, most likely he’ll be back that afternoon. He isn’t going long distances for food.
Secondly, boars emerge from dens earlier than sows; early hunts have a higher probability of producing boars. One of my favorite times to hunt on a spot and stalk hunt is early. Why? Green vegetation is limited and bears will be concentrated in places with fresh green stuff. Higher elevations may still be covered in snow, making it obvious that bears aren’t there. Limited food source is key for finding concentrations of bears. When the whole mountain is green, bears could be anywhere.
When going on a baited hunt I prefer mid-to-late May. Here’s why. By then, most black bears in North America are going to be feeding full throttle and responding heavily to bait. On a guided bear hunt over bait, I want to see a lot of bears. Early can be good, especially for mature boars, but you won’t see as many animals. The second biological factor, the breeding season, comes into play once you start getting into late May. By hunting this time period you get the feeding frenzy and the beginning stages of the rut. This is a great combination. The bear breeding period is an elongated rut that can span up to three months (or much longer), but the peak breeding will typically be around mid-June (based upon several studies). I like to compare the months of May and June to the months of October and November for whitetails. Late October is when bucks become more active and are looking for receptive does. In late May the exact thing is happening in the bear world. June is for boar bears what November is for bucks. The breeding period is in full swing and anything could happen. A boar might show up at any place, at any time. However, that also means that a big boar at a bait today may not be there tomorrow or you may have a brand new boar tomorrow come in with a hot sow.
The prime dates for most Canadian outfitters will be the last weeks of May and the first part of June. However, I’ve hunted Northern Saskatchewan for multiple years in the last week of June and had great success. The trend, however, is for bears to not respond to bait as well later in the spring because of natural food availability. On a spot-and-stalk hunt, the more options for the food, the more spread out the bears are, making it more difficult the later into the spring. The best hunting happens when food source is limited and the bears are concentrated in certain areas (or on a bait).
My top choice for a baited spring hunt would be the last week of May because you’ll still get the option for big boars on a predictable feeding pattern, but you’ll also be touching the beginning phases of the rut. On a spot-and-stalk hunt, I prefer early May. Bears are just starting to feed heavily and if you can find one he won’t be moving far. On a spot and stalk hunt it’s difficult to catch up with a cruising boar, so I don’t prefer the rut. This is just my opinion.
Where to Spring Bear Hunt in the United States
In the United States there are nine states that offer some type of spring bear hunts: Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Arizona, Alaska and Maine (only on certain tribal lands). Alaska, Idaho, Wyoming and Maine offer baited hunts, the others allow only spot-and-stalk hunting. Idaho and Alaska allow you to run bear with hounds in the spring (very few run hounds in Alaska). Several of our Bear Hunting Magazine partnering outfitters offer spring bear hunts in Maine. Be sure to check out Penobscot Guide Service, Mid-Maine Outfitters, Matagamon Wilderness Outfitters and Tomah Mountain Outfitters.
Canadian Spring Hunting & Crossing the Canadian Border
The provinces of British Columbia, Yukon, Northwest Territories, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario (pilot spring hunt), Quebec, Newfoundland, and New Brunswick offer spring black bear hunts. All the different provinces have their pros and cons, but Canada wants American hunters coming across their borders so they’ve made it affordable and relatively easy. To hunt in Canada all you’ll need is a valid passport and no serious criminal record. A simple non-resident firearms declaration form (RCMP 5589) is required to get firearms across the border. It’s a one-page document asking for the make and serial number of the gun, and it costs $25 USD to submit. You can fill this form out and pay at the border crossing, but it’s best to have it ready before you arrive. Usually, immigration doesn’t check your firearms, but they can. Be sure to keep your ammunition in the factory boxes and keep the ammo and gun separate. Remember, handguns aren’t allowed for non-residents in Canada, so don’t pack one in with your rifle. Archery equipment doesn’t require any forms. I’ve never had any trouble crossing the border; so don’t be nervous about it.
Can you eat spring bear meat?
Absolutely. Many claim that spring bear meat is better than fall meat because it’s leaner. However, I can’t personally vouch for the statement, because I can’t tell the difference between spring and fall meat once it’s cooked. Most fall bears will have a lot more fat, but it doesn’t seem to affect the meat.
When do spring bear hides get rubbed out?
As bears start to loose their denning coats (molt), they will rub their hides on trees, rocks or anything solid. This can produce bad looking hides. Typically, the later in the spring the more probable you’ll see rubbed bear hides. A rubbed hide looks thin and patchy. Early in the spring bears will have prime hides and long claws (been growing all winter without wear from use). The hair is at prime length and hasn’t been beat around by activity. However, here is my personal observation about rubbed spring bear hides – in all my spring hunts from early May until late June I’ve only seen a handful of bears that I wouldn’t shoot because their hides were rubbed. It just hasn’t been an issue on the hunts I’ve been on, so don’t be afraid to hunt later in the spring. However, regionally you may see some difference in the way bears rub out.
How do you get hides and meat back from Canada?
If you’re driving, this isn’t a problem, just bring ice chests. If the hunter is transporting the hide and meat, the tag acts as your permit to cross the border, all you need to do is declare it to United States Customs and fill out a simple form – no big deal. Talk with your outfitter, but often they’ll take the meat for you if you can’t manage it. Secondly, many provinces don’t require hunters to salvage the meat of spring bears. Check the regulations. If you choose to leave the hide in Canada for taxidermy you’ll work with the taxidermist to fill out a permit for shipping when it’s complete.
How do you travel with a hide and meat on an airplane? Buy ice chests once you get to Canada, freeze the meat before you leave camp, and ship it home. It won’t be cheap, but it’s not necessarily hard. I spent around $200 last time I shipped a hide and some meat. A frozen hide with the skull still in it usually weighs in the neighborhood of 50 pounds. Often we’ll freeze the hide solid and put in a plastic tote sealed with duct tape and ship it as baggage.