I believe that one of the most underrated western hunts is for black bears. Most hunters I talk to think bear hunting is easy, which is a misconception. I have both guided and hunted for bears in the spring and fall seasons and can assure you that taking a trophy bear is more difficult than most give it credit for. Black bear populations continue to rise as there are believed to be more than 700,000 black bears in the U.S.
There are currently 34 states that offer some type of black bear hunt, and of those 34, only 8 hold a spring and fall season. The remaining 26 states only offer fall hunting. Spot and stalk, baiting, and running hounds are the three ways hunters can pursue bears, depending on the state rules and regulations. Most states require successful hunters to check their bear in at a regional office or with a game warden. Talking to a local biologist and marking up a map or dropping pins on Google Earth are very beneficial when planning a bear hunt out west.
Every year, one of the hunts I look forward to the most is spring bear. It is a hunt that often gets overlooked or disregarded by hunters, but for me, it’s a great time to get into the mountains to explore new areas and maybe find some sheds. The mountains seem to come to life in early spring as snow melts off, exposing fresh grasses, blooming flowers, and an abundance of birds and wildlife that can relax after winter has taken its toll on them. In most states, this is a great time to gain a little elevation and perch up on vantage points to glass high alpine basins, avalanche chutes, burns, old logging roads, or rocky slopes in search of an emerging bruin. In areas that do not receive as much snowfall, hillsides with the greenest grass or sprouting vegetation are where most bears will be found feeding.
It's always a good idea to have a bear tag in your pocket when you hit the mountains in the fall. In most states, bear season overlaps with portions of the deer and elk seasons and you never know when you might encounter a bear. Some of the biggest bears I’ve seen have been during the fall while I’m elk hunting, but I am usually without a tag so I’m not able to pursue them. Fall season is also a great time to find bears camped out in berry patches or other high food source areas as they are making the final push to put on the extra fat they will need to make it through hibernation. Bears can weigh up to 30%-40% more in the fall than the spring, and their hides can also be thicker as they prepare to den up. If you’re after a bear that weighs 300-400 pounds, then fall season is when you will want to hunt them.
This is the most common and accepted way to hunt bears out west. In most states, tags for spot and stalk black bear hunting can be purchased over-thecounter. Though it can be frustrating to find a big bear, it is very rewarding putting the time and work into notching your tag. Timing and location is key. Bears can be found just about anywhere roaming around, but if you want a successful hunt, whether it’s in the spring or fall, you need to find their main food source and start glassing. The most effective way is to find a good vantage point and spend a lot of time looking for a bear. Once a bear is located, you can make your move. Bears have poor eyesight, which allows hunters to get away with some movement. However, if the wind is not in your favor, you might as well head back to the truck. It often takes more than one failed attempt to get everything right to seal the deal. If you enjoy the challenge of looking over new areas and spending a lot of time glassing various terrain, then you might consider a spot and stalk hunt.
Baiting for black bears can be frowned upon, but it is a very effective way of managing bear numbers. When it is done correctly, it can be very successful and allows hunters to be selective about their harvest. Anyone who says baiting bears is easy or cheating has obviously never fully experienced it. The amount of time and work that goes into running a successful bait line is insane. The main keys to a successful bait site are location and food. You have to be in an area that has good bear habitat and you also have to restock your bait sites regularly to keep the bears happy and coming back. If you find a good area, it seems that it gets better with time as the young bears grow up knowing about it and will come back year after year. This can result in great bear management as you can watch bears grow up and take them at a mature age. When hunting over bait, most hunters set up tree stands or ground blinds and are able to experience up-close interaction. If you want a cool experience or you are thinking of filming your hunt, then hunting over bait might be a good choice.
There are only a handful of states in the West that allow hunters to use hounds to hunt bears. Unlike spot and stalk or even baiting where it is easier to do it on your own, most hunts involving hounds are done through outfitters. These hunts start by driving miles of gravel roads with dogs on top of the box smelling for scent or by walking dogs into bait sites where bears regularly visit and turning the dogs loose on a fresh scent trail. More often than not, hunters are unsure of the size of the bear they are turning out on. It may take multiple runs before the dogs tree a mature bear, so be ready for a physically demanding hunt.
Most hound hunters run GPS collars on their dogs so they can track where they are going and find the easiest, fastest route to get to them once they tree the bear. It is a misconception that hound hunting is very anti-climactic. I assure you that the adrenaline will start pumping when the dogs start sounding off and you know the chase is on. A hound hunt should be on everyone’s list. It will give you a new understanding and respect for the houndsmen and their dogs.
Alaska offers more opportunity than any other state when it comes to the best black bear hunting in the U.S. Boasting an estimated population exceeding 100,000 bears with very liberal bag limits and lengthy seasons, the 49th state should be at the top of your list when you are thinking about chasing bruins. There are no guide restrictions for non-residents, making this a great self-guided opportunity in a state that boasts more public land access than all of the other western states combined.
Alaska is a ridiculously large landmass consisting of over 663,000 square miles of varying terrain broken down into 26 Game Management Units (GMUs). Of those 26 GMUs, 23 of them offer some type of black bear season and hunting opportunity and 18 of them have a year-round, no closed season with a three bear bag limit. GMUs 19 and 25 have subunit areas where you can take up to five black bears in a single season. That is why no other state offers more opportunities when it comes to hunting black bears than Alaska.
Trophy potential is as vast as the state itself. Although the chance to kill a big bear exists in any of the units, if trophy size is a priority, concentrate your efforts in the southern regions of the state. In these areas, the winters tend to be milder or shorter and the bears have access to fish as a food source. Overall, these units will produce larger bears than those with longer denning cycles and no salmon runs. Look to the GMUs in regions one, two, and four to have a better shot at a book quality bear. The best units with bears sporting the largest skulls are in the far southeast part of the state. Like any true trophy-managed unit, some of these areas have limited-entry draw tags, so check the local regulations for these restrictions. These tags must be put in for through the state draw application system, which generally opens mid- November and closes mid-December of the calendar year prior with results announced in February.
Even with the many year-round opportunities, hunting is broken down into two seasons, spring and fall. Generally speaking, most spring hunts are conducted over bait or open, grassy hillsides as bears exit their wintery slumber. Fall hunts are conducted over berries or fish, when and where available, as bears are putting on weight prior to denning. As the general rule of thumb, Alaska allows hunters to operate up to two bait sites. Hunters must first pass an online baiting course and register their bait sites with the Department of Fish and Game. The state has a very comprehensive hunting regulations booklet and website that breaks these detailed regulations down for you.
If the “Last Frontier” has any negative aspects, they are the cost and logistics to hunt there. In addition to the added travel time and logistics, Alaska doubled all of its non-resident license and tag fees for 2017. To help maximize the adventure and costs involved in hunting in the great north, look to add a black bear as a multi-species combo hunt with other animals, such as caribou or moose. You only live once, so can you really put a price tag on an Alaskan adventure?
Arizona offers a unique opportunity for bear hunters who are looking for a spot and stalk hunt. With spring and fall seasons available and a majority of tags sold over-the-counter, hunters can plan a great hunt. In most units, the spring season opens in March and the fall season opens between August and September. Bears are mostly scattered throughout the eastern half of the state, with the highest densities around the San Carlos Indian Reservation. Spending a lot of time glassing canyon rims and brush-scattered hillsides looking for feeding bears is the method most hunters find success with. Though bears can be hunted in the spring, the most popular time to find them is in the fall when they are spending a lot of time feeding on prickly pear cactus and other fruits and berries. It can be a difficult hunt, but there are big bears to be found. Hunts are based on a female harvest quota that is set for each unit. Once the harvest quota is filled, the season will close.
Arizona is in the top three for Boone and Crockett entries in the lower 48. Good optics and patience are a must when you are looking at hunting Arizona. Spending time locating high food source areas will also be key to a successful hunt. Be sure to look over Arizona’s bear regulations for exact season dates and rules.
California is arguably the most underrated state for hunting big black bears. If you want to hunt bears in the Golden State, you will have to wait until the fall. California does not have a spring bear season and does not allow bears to be baited or hunted with hounds. Since 2012 when they banned hound hunting, the quota has not been filled. Currently, the bear harvest quota is set at 1,700 and the total population across the state is roughly 30,000 bears. In 2016, hunters harvested 1,071 bears.
Close to half of the statewide bear population is found along the northern coast and into the Cascades. Most of the bear habitat lies within areas owned by the public or private timber companies. The highest specific densities are in northwest California in the Klamath National Forest, the Marble Mountain Wilderness, and the Trinity Alps. This is big country, and hunters should prepare for a backpack style hunt. The Sierra Nevada mountain range is also a great place to look for high bear numbers. Hunters should pay particular attention to the Tahoe National Forest and the Plumas National Forest. These areas are higher in elevation and range between 4,000 and 8,000 feet. In the fall, the best food sources for bears include acorns, Manzanita berries, and apples. In some areas, bears feed on spawned out salmon. Looking for high food source areas will be beneficial during the fall months.
There have been more Boone and Crockett bears harvested in California than any other state in the West in the past 10 years. If you are looking for a great adventure and you want a big bear, researching California should be at the top of your list.
Idaho is a great state to look at for opportunity hunts for all hunters. In some units, you can bait or hunt bears with hounds. They also offer hunters the opportunity to buy multiple tags for as little as $41.75 plus the cost of your license. You may also use your deer or elk tag on a bear if you do not have a bear permit. Bears are scattered throughout the state, which allows hunters to utilize different styles to hunt wildly different terrain. Boating or floating some of Idaho’s popular rivers while glassing big, open hillsides in the central portion of the state can make for a fun spot and stalk hunt. If you are looking for an exciting baited hunt or to experience hound hunting, the timbered mountains of northern Idaho are the place to go.
Idaho has the longest spring and fall season dates out of any of the states, which allows hunters to plan a good hunt. The game-rich state is not known for a high percentage of Boone & Crockett size bears, but they offer great opportunity for an overall successful hunt. Most of the state offers general over-the-counter permits, excluding BMUs 1, 22, and 32 which are controlled hunts that must be applied for in the draw.
Be sure to thoroughly read Idaho’s black bear regulations to find season dates, tag fees, and rules and restrictions. Idaho Fish and Game has some of the best online hunt tools available to the public, from harvest reports to advanced mapping, they cover it all.
Montana offers some of the finest spot and stalk bear hunts in the West. In 2016, Montana FWP estimated there were 15,000+ black bears throughout the state, with the majority of the population found in the northwest region. Montana may not be at the top of the list for Boone & Crockett harvests, but they are at the front of the line for overall hunter success. Hunters may purchase one permit a year that is valid for any legal black bear and can be used in either the spring or fall season. You must take and pass a “black bear identification test” before purchasing a black bear hunting license, and you must present a certificate of completion issued by FWP at the time of purchase. The test is available at http://fwp.mt.gov/ education/hunter/bearID/. If you purchase a permit after the season has started, you must wait 24 hours before hunting.
Spring season is gaining popularity as it gives hunters a chance to get out hunting while other seasons aren’t overlapping. This time of year, you will want to spend a lot of time glassing grassy hillsides or old logging roads to try to locate a bear that has emerged from the den and is looking for highly nutritional food. The fall season overlaps with deer and elk season, so it’s always a good idea to purchase a bear tag to have on hand in case you locate a bruin. A majority of bears in the fall will be found close to high food source areas. Bears often graze over berry patches or bushes and spend a lot of time flipping rocks or stumps to find protein-rich bugs.
Be sure to look over the regulations for different season dates when planning your hunt. Picking up some maps or looking over Google Earth will be very beneficial when deciding on where to look for bears.
Utah does not offer many tags in their limited-entry hunts to nonresidents, so the best place to start if you are interested in bear hunting in Utah is with a harvest-objective hunt. These can be hard hunts, but the units offered in the harvest-objective hunts hold some big bears. A lot of glassing and hiking will better your odds of finding a good bear. Most of these units are spring hunts except for the Nine Mile unit which offers both spring and fall seasons. Baiting is not allowed on these hunts, but hounds may be used in any of the spring hunts. Hunting with hounds can help you be successful and is a popular way to harvest a bear.
If you are wanting to hunt Utah’s limitedentry bear hunts, you should start building points because it may take a few years to draw a better tag. Be sure to read Utah’s black bear hunting guide for current rules and regulations. Looking over unit maps and/or finding someone with hounds will be the keys to success during these hunts.
Wyoming is a great state to look at if you are interested in a baited hunt that could produce a monster. Overall, bear numbers are doing very well across the state. The two bear management units that had the highest success rates in 2016 were Grey’s River and the Bighorns.
Bears can be hunted and baited in the spring and fall in the Cowboy State with tags available over-the-counter. Wyoming’s bear season is based on a female harvest quota, and the seasons will close in each individual unit once the quota is reached. If you are hunting in the northwest portion of the state, you will be in grizzly territory, so be sure you know the difference between a black bear and a grizzly. Wyoming Fish and Game offers a voluntary bear identification test that we recommend hunters take before they head into the mountains. No bait permits are required in order to bait, but you must go to a field office in person to show on the map where you plan to establish your bait site.
Wyoming is a great state for a high-country spot and stalk hunt. Much like Montana, successful hunters spend a lot of time in the spring glassing grassy hillsides as the snow melts, exposing fresh feed, and keeping a close eye on high food source areas in the fall. A high number of bears harvested each year are color phased. Be sure to put in an appropriate amount of research when planning the hunt for better odds of harvesting a mature bear.
If you are interested in a relatively inexpensive guided hunt that usually has a high success rate or you just want to spend time in the mountains scouting new areas with a tag in your pocket, start planning a black bear hunt. There are plenty of opportunities and styles of bear hunting that should cater to all hunters. If you have any questions regarding specifics about bear hunting, we would love to talk to you about it. Open Google Earth, order some maps, and start making some phone calls to prepare for your next adventure in the bear woods.