At a time of year when other big game seasons are all closed, spring bear hunting is a chance to dust off the hunting boots and enjoy some spring weather in the woods.
ODFW wildlife biologist Sam Dodenhoff enjoys bear hunting for all the usual reasons, but also because bears are challenging prey – wary and smart – and he likes beating them at their own game. This makes Sam an avid bear hunter, and here are his tips to help you become a successful bear hunter as well.
1) Watch conditions, not the calendar, for the start of the “season.”
Yes, the spring bear hunting season technically opens on April 1, but that doesn’t mean the bears are necessarily out and about. In fact, the best hunting is usually later in the season when more bears have emerged from their dens.
Bears will emerge from their dens when the weather gets sunny and warm enough for grasses to green up. This makes the early part of the season very patternable – bears will be focused on newly emerged grasses in open areas like clearcuts and meadows. Green up will start at lower elevations and move up as the season progresses.
2) Save the midday hours for lunch and napping.
Whether you’re scouting prior to the season or hunting during the season, bears will be the most active during the first and last hour of daylight. The rest of the time, they’re likely to be looking for shade and cover. Though bears can be found throughout the day, they are very wary and will retreat to cover if they sense human activity.
It’s easy for beginning bear hunters to get discouraged and think they’re doing something wrong, when maybe they’re just hunting during the most challenging time of the day.
3) Start your season with some early or pre-season scouting.
Start scouting just as the snow starts melting and and grass begins to grow in clearcuts and meadows. Warmer, south-facing slopes will generally green up first.
Find some likely spring bear habitat. First, locate potential denning areas (rocky outcroppings are popular with bears) near open clearcuts and meadow. When bears first emerge, they will immediately start looking for food. Then, set up on a vantage point where you can scan a couple of promising locations settle in and start glassing.
4) Start walking later in the season.
As the season progresses, bears will disperse from grassy meadows as more food sources become available. Some hunters switch from glassing open meadows to walking isolated forest roads with good grass growth on the edges.
Look for abandoned logging and skid roads with no vehicle traffic.
5) Consider calf and fawn distress calls.
As bears move from feeding in open meadows to forest cover, they’re harder to spot. Calling brings the bears to you. Once deer and elk fawning seasons begin, bears can be very responsive to distress calls.
Locate an area with good deer and elk populations, and set up in a location from which you can see a bear coming.
While both mouth and digital calls will attract bears, for safety reasons some hunters prefer digital calls when hunting predators. Setting up a digital call away from you will divert a bear’s focus from you to the source of the call.
6) Stay downwind.
Bears have amazing noses – always be conscious of the wind so they don’t catch a whiff of you.
7) Remember, it’s illegal to harvest bears less than 1 year of age, including sows with cubs less than 1 year of age, so err on the side of caution.
It’s easier the first two weeks or so of the season when most of the bears out and about will be boars. After that, if you’re not sure you can tell a boar from a sow make sure you watch the bear long enough to feel confident there aren’t any cubs in the area. Cubs are pretty active and will make their presence known eventually.
Watch bears feeding near timberline even longer (up to an hour), as any cubs could be well-hidden among the trees.
8) Take special care field dressing your bear.
Bear meat can make delicious table fare, but only if you take care of it immediately after harvest. Like most big game, you’ll want to skin and cool down the animal as soon as possible. But unlike deer and elk, which don’t carry as much fat as a bear, you’ll also want to remove all the fat you can from a bear.
Bear fat is dense and holds a lot of heat – something that can spoil the surrounding meat. If you’ve had bear that tasted greasy or rancid, it’s probably because it wasn’t cared for properly in the field.
9) Don’t forget to check in your bear at an ODFW office after your hunt.
To find out more about bear populations and hunting opportunities in your area, call your nearest ODFW office and ask to speak with the a wildlife biologist.