Spring is in the air, turkeys are gobbling, and bears are starting to emerge from their dens in search of food, and—more importantly—a mate. After a long winter, springtime is welcomed by many sportsmen across the country.
While the temperature may still be cold in the Rockies, snow has started to melt, and new life is starting to bloom from the forest floor. Calves and fawns are dropping, velvet is starting to push from the pedicles of many ungulate species, and bears are once again moving through the mountains.
I welcome spring every year, it is one of my favorite times to be in the woods. I start my spring with gobblin’ toms in late March and early April. I try my hardest to outwit the dumbest smart bird out there and, usually, they come out victorious. I try my hand at shed hunting from time to time, but I tend to get distracted by the owners of the horn rather than the bone laying on the ground ripe for the picking. But my favorite pursuit in West’s spring months has to be chasing the elusive bears that call this rugged country home. I won’t lie, many times bear hunting is grueling, and it is easy to get worn down and want to end your season early. Finding bears is tough, getting a shot is even harder. I found the following, albeit is not gospel truth, to work for me and my hunting partners and I have found great success following this strategy.
Follow the Snowline
This is the best practice for early-season hunts. As spring beats away the cold hand of winter, snow starts to recede from the mountain faces, making way for lush, green meadows—a desired food source for bruins.
This is where you are going to start your hunt. Take Montana for example: Bear season opens April 15th but much of the the mountains are still snow packed and impassable until early May. I have watched countless times—I am guilty of this as well—as hunters make their way to the high country in waist deep snow in pursuit of bears. Simply put, this just doesn’t work. While you may get lucky and catch a big bruin cruising a pass or emerging from his den, this isn’t the place where bears want to be.
Focus your efforts on where the snow isn’t. You will find more bears, have more opportunity, and you won’t wear your body down at the beginning of the season. Open meadows and avalanche chutes will yield most of the bears in early season—or if your area has retired logging roads, focus on those. The reason is simple: these meadows and chutes are the first places on the mountain that the snow will melt away allowing the sun to warm the soil and fresh green grasses to grow.
When bears first wake up from hibernation they are in much need of food and the new growth found in the meadows is one of their favorite meals. Post up in a good glassing spot get comfortable and glass until you can’t anymore. When bears are in the meadows, they are easy to see, avalanche chutes could have debris which hides bears, but usually you can catch them moving through to feed. Remember to heavily glass the edges of both areas to catch a warry bear who won’t feed out into the open.
Follow the Elk
As your season progresses, snow melts under the trees and new growth starts popping up throughout the woods. This makes glassing bears even more difficult because they don’t need to come into the open to feed. While the same strategy as before still holds true, I found that following the elk herds will often yield bears.
Once bears have had their fill of ruffage they start looking for fresh meat or carrion. They are opportunistic feeders and won’t shy away from an easy meal. Freshly dropped elk calves often provide an easy meal for a lurking predator.
During the 2020 season in Montana, I sat on a glassing knob for hours watching cow elk tend to their newly dropped calves. After some waiting, a bear made an appearance near the herd and I quickly made my way to a shoot position. I made a good shot at 375 yards on the bruin, punching my tag for the season.
Patience Behind Glass
The biggest key to finding bears is being patient and finding a good vantage point to glass from. Most of the time you will see bears moving in early morning or the mid to late afternoon. I have found the times between prime movement hours to be slow and oftentimes boring. You can fill your time looking for sheds or foraging for mushrooms, but make sure to not wander too far, as you still need to be mindful that you’re hunting.
I am lucky enough to live in an area where I can access my hunting grounds in the early afternoon, so I focus most of my hunts in the afternoon. I hike in around 2 p.m. and hike out as last light fades, which is usually around 10 p.m. Regardless of your hunt times, spending time behind your glass will lead to success. Scan different areas, look at different faces, look under trees, in the open, and around prey animals. If you spend enough time looking a bear will present itself.
Getting a Shot
The easy part of a bear hunt is finding one. The real work begins on the stalk. Bears in the West inhabit some of the steepest nastiest terrain that I hunt. Oftentimes, in the early season, you will find bears foraging on cliff bands. These steep faces lose snow first and the warm spring sun brings around fresh growth.
The downtime I described earlier is a perfect time to be planning stalks. I have found that I can pinpoint different areas that are likely to have a bear present. Take time while behind your glass to plan a stalking route. You will be glad you did when a big bruin steps out as you will quickly be able to find a shooting position.
Look for gentle terrain that can be easily and—much more importantly—safely navigated. Just last year while on a stalk, a good friend of mine took a nasty tumble as he was navigating a band of cliffs. Luckily, he was able to arrest his slip-up before falling off the edge. This would have been easily avoidable if we had spent a little more time studying our approach.
I always look for trees, foliage and even drainages. Most of the time, these things mean—albeit steep—a slope, rather than a cliff. A great tool to help navigate the gnarly terrain is a trekking pole. I was always too stubborn to use them, but now that I have, I will never leave them at home.
Another tool that is often overlooked by hunters is your rangefinder. I am constantly ranging from glassing point. Finding ranges allows you to have a great understanding of the terrain that you will be covering and just how far you have to go before you are within an ethical distance.
I start by ranging the face I believe a bear will come out at. Then, I range the tree line closest to me, or a rock outcropping that I believe would offer a good vantage for a shot. I will range cliff faces and various points along my stalk. This helps me build a mental map of the area for when I am racing to get in position for a shot. As my crosshairs pass certain landmarks, I know where I am and just how much further I need to go.
Your plan doesn’t always work out, and the terrain may be different when you get there, so always make sure you take the safe route. If you think it’s dangerous, it’s not worth it.
After the Shot
If your plan goes well and you get into position—and you’ve practiced with your rifle—you’ll likely end up with a bruin on the ground. Now, I know a lot of people don’t like eating bears and many will say they are inedible. To put it simply, they’re wrong. Bear meat is delicious, and it is imperative to care for it properly, so you have wonderful meat for months to come.
Just as with other animals, it is imperative to field dress your bear as quick as possible to allow the meat to cool. Don’t age your bear meat, bear fat is a volatile substance and will sour quickly. Once quartered and packed out, begin butchering immediately. Spring bears will likely not have much fat on them, but sometimes you get lucky. Last year, I shot a spring bear that had a solid 2 inches of fat covering his entire body.
Remove the external layer of fat from the meat first and get it in the freezer. You can return to it at a later time for rendering. Want to learn more about rendering bear fat? Check out our article on Why Great Grandma Loved Bear Lard.
Once the fat is removed, proceed with your processing just as you would with any other game animal. You can set aside specific cuts however you want. Keep in mind that you need to cook bear meat to 165 degrees to kill the trichinella roundworms that can cause trichinosis—a parasitic disease that causes severe abdominal pain and diarrhea. When cooked thoroughly the meat poses no risk, you just won’t be eating a nice medium-rare steak off your bruin. I prefer focusing on sausage and roasts, anything that accommodates the low-and-slow cooking methods. For some killer bear recipes, check out our Top 5 Bear Meat Recipes.
Bear hunting is a blast, and they make delicious table fare. Make sure to get out this season and try your hand at chasing a bruin. You won’t regret it.