When it comes to hunting in the spring, many minds immediately think about the woods waking up to the sound of turkeys gobbling. However, there is a spring big game animal that you should consider pursuing if you haven't already. This animal is the black bear.
It is a well-known fact that bears hibernate throughout the winter and wake up in the spring, hungry and ready to regain the pounds of fat they have lost throughout the winter. Once out of hibernation, the bears become very active and often quite visible during the daylight. Several western states have spring bear seasons with tags that are available over-the-counter or through a draw process. These bear hunts are a great way to get outdoors after your long winter slumber, and a fun way to kick off a new year of hunting.
If you are new to bear hunting, here are some helpful tips to get started chasing spring chasing bears.
Where to Hunt Spring Bears
The first thing I consider when picking a state to hunt bears is assessing any states that I already hold a hunting license for. If you have entered into any draws for big game tags out west, you may already have a base hunting license for a state that allows you to hunt spring bears. And since you already have the license, the cost of adding a bear tag can be very affordable.
Next, I assess bear populations and harvest statistics for that state. Montana, Wyoming, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington have excellent bear numbers and have spring bear seasons, so they are always high on my list.
With a state selected, then you can compare unit harvest statistics with tag availability. You can generally find an over-the-counter tag or a draw tag that provides reasonable odds. With a unit now chosen, it is time to get into the nitty-gritty and find bear habitat and spots to chase these spring monsters.
Bear Habitat for Spring Hunts
When you are in a unit that has a healthy population of bears it is important to understand the bears emerge from hibernation at different times, at different elevations.
As the snow melts and the weather gets warmer at lower elevations, bears hibernating at these elevations begin to move out of their dens and start searching for food. The exact timeline depends on the year — especially the snow levels, and how early mild Spring weather arrives — but bears typically start emerging from hibernation in April and into May. It is important to understand this timeline so that you can plan your hunt accordingly.
In your planning and e-scouting, do some research to understand "typical" snow levels at the time of year you are planning to hunt. And also identify a few huntable spots that have varying levels of elevation, giving you different options to hunt in different conditions.
Once you have narrowed your focus on an area where snow levels have receded and bears have hopefully emerged from hibernation, turn your attention to finding open south-facing slopes that are a mile, or more, away from the roads. Southern slopes receive the most sun exposure, which means they will experience the most snowmelt and also be where lush early spring vegetation grows first.
The fresh vegetation will attract bears who forge on the greenery. The vegetation will also attract other animals, such as elk. At this time of year, cow elk will be calving, and the predatory bears will target new calves as another food source. Additional features to look for on these slopes are avalanche shoots, logged timber, or burnt areas. Anywhere that looks green and is in proximity to some darker timber would be a good place to be glassing for bears during your hunt.
How to Hunt Bears in the Spring
Now that you have identified good bear habitat for your hunt, the question becomes — what are good tactics for actually hunting bears?
There are many ways to hunt bears in different places and at different times of the year. For spring bears in the western states, without the use of bait or dogs, my favorite tactic is to "run and gun" each day. Pick a slope that you can glass in the morning and evening from the top, bottom, or the adjacent ridge. If you are not successful at spotting any bears there, then pick a new location to watch the next day. Let your glass find bears, but also put some miles on the boots if you aren't spotting bear activity. Moving to a new spot will help you find that a pocket where the food source is just right and the bears are out feeding.
Keep in mind that it is not only important to find a bear, but that you also must be able to get a shot at them. To do this you, must either be able to shoot across the canyon or else get on the same side as the bear and sneak into your effective shooting range. And getting across the canyon may not be nearly as easy as you'd think.
When glassing from afar, the plant life on the southern slope may seem short, but it can be quite thick and difficult to maneuver and shoot through once you get on the same side as the bear. I am always trying to find a south-facing slope, in a steep valley, with an opening on the adjacent northern slope. As part of your e-scouting, make it a point to use a measuring tool and identify potential shooting positions that are within your capabilities.
Putting it All Together
Spring is a great time to be out chasing bears in the western states. The mountains are coming alive after a brutally cold winter and animals are popping out of the woodwork. Bears are hungry and in search of food, so they are more susceptible to being out in the opening feeding throughout the morning and before dark. Find a state that has a good bear population, find a unit within that state, and then find numerous southern-facing slopes that you feel you can shoot into.
Then get out into the mountains during the spring and adjust your plan as necessary. After a few days of hunting hard, you will hopefully have enough intel to understand what elevations bears are at and then be able to hone in your search on southern slopes at that same elevation. Then the final challenge is to get close enough for an ethical shot, and then make that shot count.
Remember, you are hunting bears so you are in bear country. Be bear aware and always take necessary precautions when hiking, camping, and sleeping to be sure that the bears do not hunt you! Good luck chasing bears this spring, and for many spring seasons to come.
Jake Horton grew up in rural Pennsylvania hunting deer, bears, turkeys, waterfowl, and everything in between. His annual western hunting trips were the highlight of his years, so upon graduating college he decided that Colorado would be a great place to live with his wife Gina and four daughters. Now he enjoys hunting, fishing, hiking, camping, and photographing wildlife just minutes from his home. He loves to share his passion for the outdoors with men and women who are just trying to get started in the western hunting world in order to help them be successful. If you want to follow along with Jake and his western hunting experiences, follow him on Instagram @wildernesspeak.