May 24, 2023
By Joe Ferronato
Bears are abundant in Western states, and they offer an exceptionally fun hunt for anyone longing to get back in the mountains during the spring. Many areas allow different hunting techniques, and when you find success on an apex predator, regardless of your hunting method, the feeling of accomplishment is tremendous.
Whether you live out West and want to try something new, or you’re heading this way for a spring adventure, here’s what you need to know about hunting bears in the spring.
Getting a Tag
Throughout the west, there’s a plethora of over-the-counter bear tags available for nonresident hunters. So, if you’re traveling to hunt, you’re in luck, and usually these tags aren’t going to break the bank. Idaho, Montana and Wyoming offer OTC tags. These states also offer great hunting opportunity with myriad of public-land areas accessible to hunters, and in most areas bear populations are very healthy.
These states also allow hunters to partake in different styles of hunting. Montana is a great state for spot-and-stalk hunting and allows the use of hounds in specific units across the state—nonresidents are required to draw a houndsman permit to run with hounds if not with an outfitter. Idaho allows hunters to partake in both hound hunting and baiting for bears and Wyoming allows baiting. Note: Make sure to check regulations in the state you plan to hunt as rules, regulations and quotas change frequently.
Pick the style of hunt you want to do, buy a tag and make a plan.
Assuming most people coming West for bears will be spot-and-stalk hunting, here are a few key techniques to help you locate these cagey predators.
This time of year, bears are just waking up from a long sleep. Unlike other parts of the country, these bears live in areas that have been inundated with snow load, and they tend to sleep for a long time, meaning that when they wake up, they have one thing on their mind: food. They are looking for a plethora of calories that are easily digestible. In the early season, focus on the new growth that will be starting to grow lush below the snow line on south-facing slopes.
Later in the season as the snow disappears, the bears will be feeding in timber and their carnivore instincts set in as well. This time of year—usually mid- to late-May depending on the region—bruins will be following the calving elk herds in hopes of picking up a delicious freshly dropped snack. If you can find elk, there’s a good chance that there is a bear nearby.
Around this time, the bear rut starts to happen as well, so it is common to find boars cruising for a mate. It’s a great time of year to see bears, but also a very hard to time to get on them as they move through the terrain with unrestricted ease. Glass from a position where you can make moves quickly when a stalk opportunity arises. If the bear is working away from you, it may be better to just wait for another one to appear—be patient, it’ll happen. I’ve tried catching up with bears, and it hasn’t worked yet.
Don’t Be Afraid to Sleep In
Spring days are long in the Rocky Mountain West, sunlight sticks around, and it can wear you down quick. Hunting all day will increase your odds as bears can move any time they want, but the last few hours of light are arguably the best.
Primarily, I’ll hunt afternoons as I’ve always had better luck finding bears from three o’clock until sundown. Mornings can be productive but getting up at 4:30 a.m. and staying out until 10 p.m. makes for a long day, and with a long bit of waiting between the morning peak times and the evening, you can get burnt out quick.
Have the Right Gear
Being appropriately equipped is of utmost importance for any hunt, and your kit for any other hunt will mostly suffice for a bear hunt. Of course, a capable rifle in suitable caliber along with basic survival gear like a first-aid kit and rain gear is obvious. That said, there are a few key items that are often overlooked when heading West for bears. These five pieces have turned the tides for me while on bears hunts and will keep you comfortable and increase your efficiency and chances at success.
Vortex Viper 20-60x85
Your 10x42 binoculars are great for long glassing sessions and spotting quarry, but if I know one thing that is an insurmountable fact: bears are hard to judge, and good high-powered glass will save you from punching a tag on the wrong animal. The Vortex Viper 20-60x85 will enable you to spot features on a bruin that you won’t be able to otherwise. It features HD glass with fully multi-coated lenses for optimum light transmission and color fidelity even in lowlight situations. Though its heavier—76.6 ounces—you won’t regret having it when you’re looking across the canyon at a potential trophy. Available in both straight and angled versions.
$1,350 | vortexoptics.com
Javelin Pro Hunt Tac Bipod
When it comes time to take a shot, having a solid rest is paramount. Often in the West, your best shooting opportunity may come from backing up so being equipped with a good bipod will ensure you’re stable in the moment of truth. The Javelin Bipod is my go-to as it is easy to deploy and manipulate in the field. My favorite part: it attaches via magnets to your rifle, so you don’t have to have it attached over the duration of your hunt. The Pro Hunt Tac features one-hand operation of the legs, 15-degree cant either direction and comes in a short and long version offering 7-9.1 inches and 8.9-12.2 inches of ground clearance respectively.
$320 | javelinbipod.com
Kuiu Pro Hunting Pack Kit
A good pack should go without saying, but I’ll be the first to admit that I’m shocked at the number of people I see going afield with a cheap daypack. Kuiu’s Pro Hunting Pack Kit gives you everything you need to pack gear, food, water and, most importantly, pack out your bear when the time comes. At its core, the system has a carbon fiber frame that is strong, durable and moves with you under load. Match that with the Pro Suspension System, and you’re in for a comfortable, custom-fit pack job. Any bag will attach to the system and the company offers sizes ranging from 2,300 cubic inches up to 7,800 for long stays in the backcountry.
$539-$639 | kuiu.com
Kenetrek Mountain Extreme Boots
Hunting the West isn’t, for lack of a better description, a walk in the park. Bears especially will take you into some of the most rugged country around as they move through it with ease, and if you’re wearing boots that are equipped for the job, your feet will end your hunt in a hurry. Kenetrek’s Mountain Extreme boots are designed to keep you moving and hold up in the roughest of country. They feature a 10-inch upper made from 2.8mm premium, full-grain leather that has reinforced stitching in high-wear areas and a 7mm nylon midsole for extra support under load. They are waterproof and come uninsulated or with 400- or 1,000-gram Thinsulate. While these may have some sticker shock, as I always say “buy once, cry once,” and that statement holds true with these boots and they will last through many a season.
$500-$540 | kenetrek.com
Sawyer Permethrin Fabric Treatment
You may not be as squeamish as I am when it comes to ticks, but if you’re anything like me, you’ll want good bug spray to keep the bloodsuckers at bay. The best I’ve used is Sawyer’s Permethrin Fabric Treatment. Apply the spray to your clothes before the hunt and it will last for six weeks or through six washes. You can even spray your camp gear to ensure the invaders don’t crawl into your bed. What’s more, it’s 100% odorless after drying and it won’t harm any fabrics that it’s applied to.
$19 per 24-ounce bottle | sawyer.com
The Essentials Gear Box.
Our editors have hand-picked these essential pieces of gear to make you a more successful hunter when you hit the game trails this season.