Longer days, brisk mornings, and sunny afternoons usually have us outdoor enthusiasts longing for our next adventure. Most big game seasons have been closed for months and cabin fever is taking on an entirely new mutation. The excitement of planning your fall hunts has started with numerous western states big game application periods kicking off. However, those seasons are a long way off and not getting you out of the house any sooner. A great way to blow off the dust and start your big game season early is to participate in a spring black bear hunt. This helps you shed some of those winter pounds as well as learn a new hunt area, find some shed antlers, and possibly tag the trophy of a lifetime.
Many people think of a bear as a beast that is going to hunt you down and attack you and are completely different than other big game animals. The truth is that black bear are very similar to most other big game animals and attacks are very uncommon. I’m not saying that it is totally out of the question and I would recommend that you have a good deal of respect for these large animals. This should be the case whenever you are in the woods and hunting where bears live. The majority of attacks come when you get between a sow and her cubs. However, the majority of bear encounters are going to be with the bear wanting nothing to do with you. They have marginal eyesight, but their noses are second to none. I’ve seen bears pick up my scent cone at over a mile away and literally run for miles to get away. You always want to have the wind in your favor and be very cautious when in bear country.
There is a lot to know about these awesome big game animals and most importantly it’s another great hunting opportunity. Having an understanding of the different types of hunting for these guys will help you get on track. Spot-and-stalk is a technique used in several states, but if you want to do this type of hunting there needs to be a good number of bears around for you to have much of a chance at success. In states like Utah where there is a spot-and-stalk season as well as the ability to hunt with dogs, I find spotting to be a very difficult type of hunting. These hunts aren’t done at the same time, but a big bear that has been chased for years is a bit more skittish about being out in the open during legal shooting hours.
Baiting is another common type of hunting where it is legal. Make sure you check your state's current regulations to see the exact rules on this type of hunting. This is a great way to get the bears to come to you and usually gets you up close and personal, which is really a good way to judge a bear.
Hunting with hounds is another common practice in many states as well. Once again, make sure you check your state's regulations.
Bears are starting to come out of their dens during the longer spring days when food starts to become available. Your bigger males (boars) are usually the first ones out of the den and it’s a great time to do some scouting for these big bruisers. They tend to be fairly lazy when they first come out of the den. They often stay very close to the den when they initially come out of hibernation, and a streak of bad spring weather can push them back into the den pretty easily. They will stray further away as the days get longer and more predictable. Bears are opportunists and omnivores and will eat nearly anything. However, their spring diet consists of a lot of fresh sprouting grasses which come up along logging roads and sunny hillsides. Although they can be found in the morning, I often find that late afternoon and evening hunts tend to produce the best results for spot-and-stalk on mature bears. It’s not uncommon to see a big bear on the same hillside multiple days in a row. Later in the spring, the rut will kick in and you are likely to see some of the biggest bears in the area looking for a female. They will be covering a lot of ground and once you see one, you are going to need to be in good shape to catch up to him. Once he is with a hot sow, it isn’t uncommon for him to spend a couple of days with her. So, in your early season scouting, keep track of sows without cubs as there is a good chance, they will be visited by a mature boar sometime in the spring.
If you are in a unit that allows baiting, you can experience all of this right at your bait setup. As I said before, bears have great noses and can smell scent for miles. This works really great when you are setting up a bait site. Make sure you are putting it in an area that has good wind to spread this scent. You always need to be aware of the thermals in the area and what time they tend to switch during regular weather patterns. It doesn’t do you any good to have a great bait site that gets hit frequently when you can’t ever sit it in the evening because the wind is bad. Keeping your bait sites consistently full of food is another essential part of baiting bears. If they know that every time they show up, they can get a meal or a snack, they will frequent the bait more often. If it runs out for any length of time, you will see less activity. Your scent will also be around the bait barrel and the bears will start to consider this a scent they associate with something good instead of something bad. When I run a bait, I like to put some of the concoction on the ground mixed with honey, syrup, or grease. This gets on the bear's feet when they are at the site and carries this scent back up the mountain. As other bears come across this scent, it will lead them back to the baits. I will often do what I call a “burn” when I set up a bait. This consists of using my portable MSR stove and an old coffee can. I will mix a couple of large packs of strawberry Jello in the coffee can and boil this for several hours. This scent carries up the mountains extremely well and lets the bears know that something good to eat is around. I often melt marshmallows into this concoction or dump some cheap syrup into the can as I’m finishing the burn. I will often fill my barrel with cheap dog food and dump this over the kernels of food making sure to put plenty on the ground around my bait.
I like to have a trail camera or two set on my baits. Make sure you have them in a bear proof box as well. Something about the glow of the lens attracts the bears to the camera and I have several with holes in the lenses from a long canine tooth. I like having these cameras taking pictures from an area that helps me judge the size of the bear. If his back is close to the top of a 55 gallon drum, I know that this bear is a whopper and I want to do everything I can to not spook this bear out of the country and get an arrow into him.
If you are hunting with hounds, chances are that you are hunting with a guide or someone who is already familiar with these tactics. So, I won’t share any of their tricks I’ve learned when riding along. That would be a good way to get shot.
Spring black bear hunt opportunities are plentiful and affordable even when crossing state lines. This article spells out the opportunities to make it painfully easy for you to put down the remote and get back into the field. Let’s kick this off with an easy to follow breakdown of the states that have spring bear hunt opportunities. Some of these states are by drawing which usually means limited opportunities, but it will give you an idea of what some of these states offer. The great over-the-counter opportunities in states like Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana give you a great start on your bear hunting career. We’ll finish it up with some eastern states that have some great summer and fall hunts that can extend your new passion for bear!
There are over-the-counter and draw units in Alaska. When looking at some of the places known for big bear like Prince of Whales Island, you need to apply nearly a year-and-a-half in advance to draw one of these tags. The deadline to apply is around December 15th and that is for the fall of the following year and the spring of the year after. If you are hunting a guided hunt this isn’t usually the case. There is an abundance of black bears in Alaska with over-the-counter tag opportunities where you don’t need a guide. Alaska spring bear hunting is second to none, but logistically it’s a bit more difficult. Dogs and bait are allowed in most regions, but travel and time off work makes these hunts a little tougher to book for many of us 8-5ers (especially if you used up all you vacation last fall and over the holidays). We had to mention Alaska, but we’ll focus our details on the lower 48 opportunities that aren’t so obvious.
Spring bear hunting in Oregon is by draw only and had the deadline on February 10th of 2020 with results posted on February 20th, 2020. No bait and no dogs can be used, but this makes for some excellent spot-and-stalk if you can find those closed logging roads in the timber and concentrate on the small openings in the dense forest bottoms containing water and forage. Do some research, hunt below the snow line and in river valleys for spring bruins. Although the spring hunts are a controlled draw, many units have excellent first-year draw potential for residents. You can be licensed and tagged for just under $200 as an out-of-state hunter but focus on units like SW 722A for better draw odds.
Spring bear hunting in Washington is by draw only and it takes roughly 3-5 bonus points to eventually draw, but be patient, that’s not many points if you remember your fall premium elk and deer yearly applications. The deadline to apply is the end of February. Again, no bait or dogs are allowed for Washington bear hunts, but that means you have opportunity on public land without fear of private operations drawing all the bears away. Also, with no dogs allowed, black bears aren’t pushed out of their favorite feeding valleys and timber hide-outs. Expect to find bears where they like to be. A nonresident discounted hunting license and a bear tag is going to cost you $318.80 for 2020 if you are lucky enough to draw.
Over-the-counter nonresident tags are available ($350) and plenty of public land. Just this first tidbit of info makes Montana my favorite spring bear opportunity. Arguably the best spot-and-stalk black bear hunting in the lower 48. No bait or dogs allowed, so hike 'til your boot leather wears thin, glass till your eyeballs bleed, and take advantage of the high success rate in Montana. The northwest corner of the state has the denser bear population so you can’t go wrong there, but if you’re looking for big bruins, don’t pass by Fergus County without some boot and glass time. The one thing that you do need to be aware of when hunting Montana is that some of the state is occupied by another type of bear; the Grizzly, which is a lot bigger and is also protected. These bears haven’t been hunted in nearly 6 decades and their attitude shows it. They are overpopulated and can be very aggressive. So make sure you carry your bear spray readily accessible.
Spring black bear has both over-the-counter and some limited entry draw hunts. A limited entry unit might get you a bit less pressure. Area 22 had some of the best draw odds which was just above 30 percent last year for residents and nonresidents alike. Other areas hovered around 9-11 percent. There are no bonus points, so you don’t have a line to stand in for years to play the game. You have the same draw odds as the next guy. Your deadline for these tags is February 15th. Over the counter units are very good producers, but you are going to need to get away from the roads a bit or get some private property access. Both baiting and dogs are allowed in Idaho. You will need to purchase an additional baiting permit from the Idaho Game and Fish if you are intending on baiting which will cost you $31.75. You are allowed to have 3 different bait sites, but make sure you read the regulations thoroughly as to where you can put them and when they can be set up as well as the need to be removed. I would recommend that you have a wolf tag in your pocket on these hunts as long as season is open in your target unit. It isn’t uncommon to spot them from a distance or have them show up on one of your baits. Hint: sleep in, and glass afternoons and evening. With an 8 to 9-mile home range, Idaho bears need to be found; racking up back country miles, finding a high point, and glassing down into lowlands with marshes and deep timber open pockets shouldn’t be ignored.
Arizona has spring bear opportunities for resident and nonresidents, but this state should be considered carefully. The state is very limited where there is a huntable population of bears and the tags are in limited quantities. There are what they call “Permit Tags” which means by drawing and there are also “Non-Permit” tags or over-the-counter opportunities. These tags are limited by number and once the quota of females has been taken, the season is shut down regardless of whether your tag is filled or not. There have been some great bears taken out of Arizona, but if you aren’t familiar with the specific regions, it could be a very tough hunt. No bait is allowed at any time, dogs are legal to hunt bears in Arizona during the fall seasons, but not the spring. If you draw an Arizona bear tag, it would be wise to consider using a local outfitter and possibly one with dogs to increase your chance of success.
Recent changes to Utah’s bear hunts increased the opportunity, but that is mostly for residents. There are only 20 spring limited entry bear tags for nonresidents available state-wide. If you are a resident, you are in a much better position. Southeastern Utah holds the highest population of black bears. It is satisfyingly remote in the southeastern area of the state. If you can get there, you will have plenty of public land with great access. You can go days without seeing anyone if you are off the beaten paths and jeep trails. Even if you do run into people, they are more than likely not hunting black bears and hunt pressure is seemingly nonexistent, especially if you use your boots and a day pack the way they were meant to be used.
Over-the-counter tags for residents and nonresidents make Wyoming a great opportunity for spring black bear. The northwest portion of Wyoming and Areas 1-4, which encompass the Blackhorn Mountains are the areas to focus on for this state. The population of black bears in Wyoming is somewhat of a mystery, but it is generally agreed that the population has continued a steady rise with a huntable population and plenty of public lands. No dogs are allowed but you can register a bait site legally. If you have the time to spend setting up a bait site, or if you prefer glassing mixed with spot-and-stalk, north and northwest Wyoming is a good option. This state also has a good grizzly population like Montana.
FALL BLACK BEAR – TWO EASTERN STATES TO CONSIDER
Eastern states don’t allow any Spring black bear hunting opportunities, but here is a breakdown of a couple states that make getting into a black bear hunt later in the year with no pain.
Pennsylvania does not allow bait or dogs. This is very helpful for nonresident hunters who are the DIY type. The Pennsylvania State Game Commission has an excellent website with downloadable PDF maps of public hunting areas with high detail and access/parking areas. With the expanses of private land in this state, these maps can soften the blow and get you a good location with simple free downloads. There is a consistent record of huge bruins taken in this state and it is shockingly inexpensive. For a nonresident tag you are in the game for under $40. Residents can tag-up for under $20.
North Carolina black bear hunting is much different than Pennsylvania. Bait and dogs are both allowed. More than half the state holds a huntable bear population. Big bruins are not uncommon to North Carolina. The cost is higher for nonresidents for license and tag. If you are in one of several neighboring states, the nonresident license fee is cheaper and varies. You can save around $100 if you only intend to hunt within a 10-day window. There are limited privilege licenses available. North Carolina Wildlife Commission has an excellent website for public hunting areas in high detail. Public land availability has to be mentioned, it can be a daunting task to understand these areas especially if you are from the Western states and not used to eastern hunting.