Gerald Almy: Glass, stalk western spring bears

Heaving ourselves to the ground after a 1,000 foot vertical climb up northwest Montana’s Cabinet Mountains, we struggled to catch our breath and then grabbed our optics. We had scaled the steep terrain shortly after dawn to get a good vantage point for glassing across and down into canyon side hills and benches for foraging spring bears.

And the first bear we saw, a thickly furred cinnamon-colored bruin, was 1,000 feet below us in a grassy meadow! When no other bears showed, we made the long, steep trek back down to look for that bear – only to find he had vanished in the thick woods.

Be prepared for some grueling – and sometimes frustrating – mountain climbing when you go after spring bears without the use of bait.

That was the start of my first high-adrenaline glass and stalk spring bear hunt years ago. The vast majority of bears in spring hunts in Canada and the western U.S. are shot over bait. But if you’re interested in a more active approach, there are plenty of opportunities in the western U.S. and Canada, with prime hunting running from April through June. The Rocky Mountain States, Alaska, British Columbia, and Alberta are the top destinations.

Because of the need to see long distances, areas with mountains and lots of open country are the best bets for this technique. Hillsides, bluffs, benches, avalanche slides, meadows in forests, logging trails, clear-cuts and wet, mossy openings are all potential hotspots in spring.

The very earliest bears will often be found high on hills near dens on north slopes where they move out tentatively to feed a bit as snows start to leave and the first grasses emerge. Once they completely abandon their dens, usually in April or early May, bears generally head for the low country just below the snow line.

From there they follow the receding snows up as spring green-up edges higher up the mountain each week. South and south-west-facing mountainsides become most productive at this time because they receive the most sun and green up the fastest.

Spring bears in mountains eat ants, grubs, fiddleheads, sedges, and roots and leaves of flowers such as trillium and glacier lily. They also consume lots of tender green grass and the odd winter-killed deer, elk, or beaver. Pinpoint these foods and you’ll find your quarry.

Locate good points on knolls or ridges where you can see a large amount of potential bear habitat and then glass the cover meticulously. I like 10- and 15-power binoculars. Use the 10’s for searching, and then switch to the 15’s or a low-power spotting scope for checking the hide and aging and sexing the bear.

Move with slow, horizontal sweeps of the binoculars, and then back across just below the section you scanned. Rest your eyes for a while then recheck the area in case you missed a bear or one just stepped out.

Start at dawn if you have the energy. But in spring that makes for an awfully long day. Most bears actually sleep late and don’t start roaming until around 9 a.m. You’ll do better to sleep in, too, and plan on hunting late into the evening, when most activity takes place.

When you spot a bear that looks to be mature, analyze the situation and make a realistic judgment as to whether you can get to the quarry before it disappears into dense cover. If it’s late in the day and far away, make a note of where the bear is and try to be there the next day. Or find a closer animal.

When planning your approach to a spotted bear, try to see if you can stalk to a point on an opposite hillside, then shoot across. This makes it easier to spot the animal and get a clear shot than if you were on the same hillside with it. The trajectory will be in a mostly straight line, and follow-up shots will be easier, too, because of the greater visibility across the canyon.

On the hunt described earlier in the mountains of western Montana’s Kootenai National Forest, success finally came my way on the third day. My guide and I had seen nine different bears, but I couldn’t have written a better script than to relocate and cleanly harvest the very first bear we’d seen on our wilderness adventure.

And that’s exactly what we did.

Award-winning outdoors writer Gerald Almy is a Maurertown resident.