Western Black Bear Hunting Opportunities
By Robert Hanneman
The fall hunting season is a long time from now. If you are like me, that is too long to wait for my next hunt. Lucky for me, it is only 3 months until I will be hunting spring bears in Montana and Idaho. I have a grand spring bear hunt planned that will one day find me hunting bears in five different states. Unfortunately it will not happen this spring. For all who know me, I love to research all types of hunts, and Black bear opportunities are always in the back of my mind. A lot of things change, and it is my job to keep Huntin’ Fool members as informed as possible to all of the Black bear hunting opportunities available. For this spring, I plan on running bear baits in northern Idaho and doing the classic spot and stalk spring bear hunt in Montana. Last year on the last day of Montana’s spring bear season I found a really big cinnamon-colored bear but was unable to close the distance before dark. I can promise you I will be after him again this spring.
If you are thinking of doing a bear hunt this year, check out the 11 Huntin’ Fool members with their bears harvested in 11 different states. After looking at the pictures and reading about each state’s bear hunting opportunities, pick the state that sounds good and fits your schedule, and go for it!
Arizona has great genetics for having bears with really big skulls. It is tied with Colorado for second place when it comes to record book Black bears. The area around Globe and the San Carlos Indian Reservation has some of the highest bear densities in the state. One popular strategy to hunt bears in eastern Arizona during the fall is to hunt them over the prickly pear cactus. Bears come from miles around to eat the fruit of the cactus. Arizona manages the Black bear hunts on a female harvest quota. If the female quota is met, the season will be closed. The San Carlos Indian Reservation is another opportunity for a hunter to hunt giant bears. Contact the reservation for more information.
California sets a harvest quota and then sells unlimited tags for the fall season. Since they no longer allow bears to be hunted with hounds, I doubt California will ever reach their harvest quota of 1,700 again. California has entered more bears into the Boone and Crockett record books than any other state in the West. For hunters wanting to hunt California’s big bears, the Sierra Mountains along the Nevada border are a good place to start. Some of highest Black bear densities can be found in the Klamath National Forest.
Colorado only allows Black bears to be hunted in the fall. If Colorado ever opens a spring season, it could be your best chance to kill a giant bear. In my opinion, your best chance of killing a big bear now is at the beginning of September when the fruits of serviceberry and chokecherry are ripe. Also check out the nut producing trees like Gambel oak and pinyon pine. During this time of year, bears spend the majority of their time feeding in preparation for winter. If you are interested in hunting Black bear in Colorado this fall, make sure you apply there for a tag, unless you plan on hunting an over-the-counter unit.
Idaho is a great state to hunt bears in. For the most part Idaho does not harvest giant Black bears, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in opportunities. Idaho is the only state where you can buy multiple tags and hunt with hounds or over bait. It also has the longest Black bear seasons in the West. Idaho has reduced non-resident bear tags to only $31.75 in areas of northern Idaho. Another great thing about baiting bears in Idaho is that they allow you to shoot wolves off of your bear baits as long as you have a wolf tag. If you are hunting in Idaho, be aware that some areas of the state have Grizzly bears.
Montana offers a great bear hunt for someone who really enjoys glassing. Most hunters will be glassing avalanche chutes in the spring or walking gated roads looking for bears that are eating the new green grass that grows first on the roads. Montana is much like Idaho in regards to having average size bears. The average bear harvest in Montana will weigh around 180 pounds with a few bears going over 300 pounds. Bears can be found anywhere in western Montana with some of the highest densities found around Seeley Lake. As with Idaho and Wyoming, Montana has a large population of Grizzly bears. Montana requires you to pass a bear identification class before purchasing a license.
New Mexico is divided into 14 bear management zones. Each zone has two harvest quotas — one is for the female quota, and the other is an overall harvest quota. Whichever is filled first will close the season. Historically the biggest scoring bears have come from the Gila Wilderness country that borders Arizona. For older age class boars, hunt the more remote country in the Gila Wilderness. Like Arizona, you may find bears anywhere in New Mexico where you find big patches of prickly pear cactus growing. Northern New Mexico produces some big body bears because of all the feed available. In the northern areas hunters concentrate on hunting bears over feed sources, like chokecherries, raspberries, and oaks. A high number of bears are killed by archery hunters sitting over water in September, but the most popular method for hunting bears is using hounds.
Nevada is new to the bear hunting world, and this last fall was only the third season ever held. All of Nevada’s bear tags are issued through the draw. Of all the bears harvested in Nevada, about 1/2 were taken with hounds and the rest were taken spot and stalk. If you can draw a bear tag in Nevada, I truly feel you will have your best chance at putting a bear into the Boone and Crockett record books. A few of the bears harvested have tipped the scales at 500+ pounds. A good friend of mine drew a tag, and I was able to go along. I was amazed at the size of the bears in the area. This is one tag I really want to draw!
Oregon does have some giant bears, but they live in the jungle. The easiest time to hunt bears in Oregon is in August when all of the blackberries are ripe. Most hunters still hunt roads this time of year. The only problem with this is that most of the bears’ hides are in really poor shape in August. In the spring you can find the bears on the south facing slopes and clear-cuts. Oregon does allow hunters to harvest up to three bears a year. The area of southern Oregon has one of the highest concentrations of color phase bears. If Oregon ever allowed baiting, I think we would all be amazed at the number of truly giant bears that would be harvested.
Utah’s highest densities of Black bears can be found in the Book Cliffs, La Sal Mountains, and San Juan. Baiting is only allowed for archery hunters, and they can run no more than two baits. Hunting bears with hounds is probably the most popular method of taking bears in Utah. The largest Black bear ever entered into the B&C record book was from Utah. The skull was picked up in 1975 and still holds the number one slot today. If you ever want to hunt bears in Utah, you should start building points so that when you are ready to travel there you have the points to draw the tag.
Washington has over-the-counter licenses for the fall, but you must draw for a spring bear license. Two bears may be taken in the same year, but only one may be taken from eastern Washington. Western Washington’s bear hunting is much the same as Oregon’s. Eastern Washington is similar to Montana and Idaho with the more mountainous, glassable terrain. Since 1996 Washington has not allowed the use of hounds or baiting. Most bears are found feeding on berries in the early fall. In eastern Washington bears may be found around the state’s many apple orchards. During the spring season bears can be found in the south facing slopes and avalanche chutes. Eastern Washington has a lot of color phase bears. The coastal bears in western Washington are usually mostly black in color.
Wyoming’s bear population may be at its highest number in recent history. With the high population, Wyoming has been increasing the Black bear quota. Most of the successful bear hunters are running baits. Wyoming manages their Black bear season based on a female harvest quota. Once the female quota is met the season will be closed. If you are hunting anywhere in northwestern Wyoming, there is always the potential to run into Grizzly bears. The areas around Jackson and the Greys River drainage have high populations, and hunters have been taking some really big bears over bait.
If you get a bad case of cabin fever like I do, the best cure could be a Black bear hunt this spring! All of the states covered above offer good hunts for a self-guided hunter. If you want to go on a guided Black bear hunt, give us a call as we work with some of the best outfitters available!