By Tyler Ferris, March 2016
If you’re a savvy opportunistic hunter like me, then you understand the feeling where you’re always striving to fill that void by finding the next season or species to chase. I was fortunate enough to live in the land of opportunity, having spent most of my young adult life exploring the vast landscapes of northwest Montana where the possibilities were endless. I was not like most teenage kids, sitting around the house, waiting for better things to come my way. I spent every spare moment I could manage maximizing my time in the mountains, so, naturally, chasing black bears in the spring quickly became a highly-regarded pastime. What better way to shake off the wintertime blues? Every spring, I look forward to working on honing my skills while trying to somewhat maintain my physical conditioning in order to be prepared for the fast-approaching fall.
If you’re looking for a fun, inexpensive hunt to get you out there this spring, then pick up your bow or gun, go purchase a tag, and hit the gorgeous Montana mountains. This will not only help get you back in the swing of things, but it’s also an adventure that puts a nice rug on the wall and meat in the freezer. Here is a quick rundown on several springtime tactics and areas to focus on while hunting in Montana this spring.
By the end of April, black bears should start to emerge from their dens to recharge on the abundant spring greens and remnants of last fall’s berry patches or carrion. During this time of year, food sources should be your main focus for locating bears. Look for areas that have sufficient forage base, water, and dense cover. There are several options available to help aid in narrowing down a region and area to hunt. Start off by spending time scouring topographic maps and Google Earth, looking for areas that will most likely produce the greenest grass the quickest, which is typically along streams, rivers, logging roads, or on south-facing clear-cuts, avalanche chutes, or grassy sage-covered slopes.
You can count on doing one thing more often than not when it comes to spring bear hunting, and that is sitting for hours on end with your eyes glued to either your binoculars or spotting scope, covering country. Therefore, having quality optics and a cozy butt pad is essential. The toughest part of bear hunting is finding an area that holds bears regularly, while actually spotting these hungry bears once they are there is usually the easiest part. You are basically looking for black, brown, and/or blond spots that are out of place in the environment. Once you’ve located a suitable bear from a vantage point, they will often stay on the good food source for an hour or sometimes longer, giving you ample time to stalk into position. Some things to keep in the back of your mind before bombing off after a bear are to pay attention to wind direction, try to memorize key landmarks, and take note on which direction the bear was feeding when you last saw him. Bears are known for their bad vision, but their senses of smell and hearing are beyond anything we can fathom. After you have a game plan, you have several options to choose from to seal the deal. Once you have a weapon of choice, you can either stalk all the way in for either a bow or rifle shot or set up for a calling session for a pulse-pounding experience.
In the beginning of my bear hunting career, I had my doubts on the effectiveness of predator calling for bears, but that was put to rest quite a few years ago when I was hunting with a good friend over an extended weekend in June in the northern Big Hole valley of southwest Montana. The first evening, we had spotted several bears frequenting a steep south-facing sage slope. It was covered in green grasses, so the next day we had planned on setting up and testing out a short calling session. We climbed up, situated ourselves about halfway up the slope, tucked ourselves into some sagebrush, and waited a few moments for things to calm down. I then proceeded to hit a calf elk distress call with a mouth reed. It was about two hours after daylight, and within a minute into the session, a nice color-phased bear popped out into the meadow and came running right to us, stopping a mere 20' away, popping his jaw. It was an intense, in-your-face experience, and that is now a favorite tactic of mine. I am a fan of adrenaline, though, and this tactic isn’t for everyone. It can get intense really fast. After several years of experimenting, I have found that it doesn’t always happen quickly, so having major patience is required. It can take some serious time to convince a big old bruin to respond favorably. However, when they finally commit, be ready because they’re coming to you for dinner.
The biggest aspect people struggle with is field judging bears. In Montana, bears can be found in a wide variety of color phases, the main phase being black, but there are plenty that are blond, yellow, tan, brown, or even reddish cinnamon, which are among the most common color phases. Sometimes coloration can make it tough to judge. As a quick reference when determining if a bruin is worth going after, try to look for ears that sit on the side of their head rather than on top and look for a defined crease on the forehead. If all you have is their broadside profile, typically a trophy bear will have a low-hanging belly and will appear to have a side-to-side waddle.