Bear hunting comes in all shapes and sizes and ranges from the southeastern most points of the lower 48 all the way to the grass covered beaches of Alaska and beyond. Being that their distribution rivals that of the White-tailed deer, they offer spring and fall hunting opportunities all over the North American continent. Often overlooked and in my opinion underappreciated, the mountain hunting opportunities in my home state of Montana provide some of the most rugged, scenic and demanding hunts in the rocky mountain west. You are bound to encounter steep and cliff littered terrain, wild swings in weather, and potentially the bigger brother to the black bear, the grizzly bear.
On the forefront of the spring bear season, like I would do in preparation for the fall big game seasons, I scour maps and E-scout for drainages that I want to add to my arsenal of spring bear spots. Once you have spent some time repeating this process of scouting and subsequently hunting, you will find that you can be extremely effective at finding bear hunting spots electronically. Bears are very predictable creatures in the early season and become increasingly less predictable as the season progresses and rut activity ensues.
This spring, my hunting partner, Zack Boughton and myself set out to pioneer some new spots, see new country and with any luck, turn up mature boars in places that we had overlooked in seasons prior. While we can appreciate finding bears in easy to get to spots, we were bound and determined to load our Stone Glacier packs, hike countless miles and sleep under the stars in pursuit of our quarry. That is precisely what we did.
There were several spots between three basins that we felt had bear potential. The most effective way to hunt this area was to park two trucks at separate drainages and do a through hike with camp on our backs. The night prior to Zack arriving at camp, I hiked a seven-mile loop to the best adjacent vantage point that I could find. I hiked in, glassed all evening and turned up four bears, one with potential. The following morning, I spent a few hours behind the glass and bailed off the mountain to meet up with Zack and establish a plan for the next few days. I showed up being the bearer of good news, no pun intended. The drainage was holding bears, and more importantly had the quintessential bear habitat that we seek.
That evening we started what would be a sixteen-mile loop, tailgate to tailgate. We hiked to within striking distance and tried to put eyes on the bear from the night before, to no avail. In doing so, we burned up the daylight and decided to make camp instead of making the mandatory crossing of a south-facing hillside that was likely to hold bears. The following morning our friend Brandon Purcell met us at our camp spot just before first light. We packed camp and glassed before pressing on. Our confidence levels were high and we were optimistic but we had failed to relocate, which often is the case during spring bear hunts in the mountains, the bears that I had scouted.
We spent the morning of the second day scaling downfall and glassing hillsides, only to come up short. No bear sightings. We were left with two options, gain 1,500+ vertical feet and cross the saddle into the next basin or hike to a vantage that had mediocre views of both basins. The group consensus was of the mindset that nothing ventured, nothing gained. We chose the former.
Upon arrival at the saddle we were all wide eyed and utterly impressed by the country we had just stumbled into. It was big bear country. As we began to shed our packs, set up tripods and reach for water, Purcell spoke the magic and highly anticipated words “I’ve got a bear”. We trained our optics on the jet-black boar who possessed all the qualities of a big bear. We knew we had found the one we were looking for. Our glassing session was over before it began. We bombed off the mountain and began our descent into the downfall laden, rotten snow-covered north face. We had two miles as the crow flies, and nearly 4,000 vertical feet to lose and gain in order to put ourselves in position to harvest this bear. Four hours of bush whacking later we had crested the last hill, which put us 800 yards from the bears last known location. The bear was nowhere to be found.
We hastily layered up and attached our optics to their respective tripods, anticipating a wait for the bear to reappear. No sooner, and with the naked eye, I caught movement in the creek bottom. “I GOT EM” I said, as loudly as I could mutter under my breathe. We had the wind and the cover that we needed to make the final move. It was time to close the distance. I yanked my rifle out of my quick release sling, slung my pack and started to close the distance. In no time flat, we had cut off 350 yards and found a flat shooting spot. 450 yards, a perfect shooting position and little to no wind made for a comfortable situation. Brandon and Zack set up optics while I ranged, dialed my turret and built a rear rest. The bear eventually came into the open, turned broadside and then slightly quartering away. All systems go. I acquired the sight picture I had been visualizing, leveled my rifle and started to apply pressure to the trigger. The rifle barked, recoiled and I watched through the scope as the bullet found its mark. That bear made it 30 yards on a dead run before expiring and coming to rest a few hundred yards downhill.
We celebrated the against the odds success and made our way over to the bruin. He was awesome, mature and had a distinct white patch on his chest. We took photos and proceeded to skin and quarter the bear, as a team. Many hands make light work. We loaded our Stone Glacier packs and bee lined for the truck. We arrived at the second truck just after dark, dumped our heavy packs and soaked in the spring bear season success.