Best Bear Hunts

Our hunting editor picks the five hottest spots for black bears this spring.
Outdoor Life Online Editor

Black bear hunting suffers from a peculiar paradox: While bears continue to maintain or increase their numbers across most parts of their range, seasons are becoming more restrictive. This is in part because of anti-hunting challenges over the last few years. Colorado lost its spring bear season a few years ago, thanks to a ballot-box referendum. In Ontario, spring bear hunts were eliminated-for reasons that remain obscure-as a result of money and pressure exerted by anti-hunters. In many states, bear units are now hunted in accordance with quotas. If a predetermined number of sows are taken, the season in that unit is closed. In some states, bear tags are issued by lottery; in others, bear tags must be purchased prior to a cutoff date.

So where do you go if you want to hunt bears this spring? Even without the season restrictions, bears can be incredibly elusive. Just seeing a bear in the wild is a major triumph for many hunters in places where the cover is thick and bears are essentially nocturnal. But there are places where bears are so plentiful you can see 20 or more in a day (honest).

Here are some of my favorite spots to hunt black bears in North America, either unguided or with an outfitter.

Go Solo in Montana
Northwestern Montana is one of my choices for top bear hunting in the Lower 48 if you’re looking for an economical, unguided hunt. Only spot-and-stalk hunting is allowed, but bears are so numerous that you can often see a half-dozen or more from your pickup. Of course, you can also see Venus from your pickup. The big question is whether or not you can physically get to a distant bear, and how much time you’ll have to get there before it ambles off into timber or you find yourself out of shooting light.

I’d look at the region north and west of Missoula, generally in the area east of the Idaho border. For an economical hunt, you can base out of a public campground in a national forest and hunt along hundreds of miles of logging roads, many of which are closed to traffic.

My favorite strategy is to park at a gate and hike the roads where there’s been recent logging activity. Bears are easier to spot in clear-cuts. If those logged-over areas are not fresh, however, clear-cuts quickly grow in, and visibility might be almost zero.

One word of caution: Hunting early in the season might not be productive if there are heavy lingering snows, since bears might delay their appearance from dens.

Bighorn Surprise
Wyoming’s Bighorn Mountains in the north-central part of the state support a sizable bear population. And this is one of the few places in the Lower 48 where baiting is still allowed, although strict rules govern both baits and bait sites. Spot-and-stalk hunting is possible here, though your chances of seeing a bear are not great. Baiting is definitely the best strategy, which means you’ll have to either establish and maintain a bait site yourself or hire an outfitter. Most outfitters have operated here a long time and produce high-success hunts. For information on outfitters who hunt the Bighorns, contact the Wyoming Outfitters and Guides Association (P.O. Box 2284, Cody, WY 82414; 307-527-7453).

Manitoba Monsters
For very high success in Canada, Manitoba would be my top choice. This province has an estimated 30,000 bears. Nonresidents must hire a guide in Manitoba, but many of them are established in bear-rich areas.

Spot-and-stalk is virtually impossible, since most of the country is heavily forested. Baiting is the only way to see a bear with any consistency. Last fall, a Manitoba black bear was struck and killed by a vehicle. It weighed 856 pounds when placed on scales, but because it had lost fluids from the time it was killed to the time it was officially weighed, biologists claim its live weight was probably 30 pounds more. This is one of the heavit black bears ever recorded in North America. For information on Manitoba hunting, contact the Manitoba Lodges and Outfitters Association (Box 399, Beausejour, Manitoba, Canada R0E 0C0; 204-268-1968).

Nothing Beats B.C.
If you want the best spot-and-stalk hunting in Canada, look no further than British Columbia, which supports about 150,000 bears. I’ve hunted bears from small boats along the coast, inland near the Montana border, in the region around Prince George and on Vancouver Island. The latter area gets my vote for the best hunting of all, and you should easily see at least a dozen bears a day, perhaps even twice that number. Thousands of miles of logging roads provide good access in this country. Most bears are spotted in clear-cuts or along the logging roads. Lumber companies typically reseed roads with grass and clover to prevent erosion, and bears love to forage along them. Not only are bears plentiful, but they’re big. It’s not uncommon for them to be six feet or better. Nonresidents must hunt with an outfitter. For information, contact the Guide Outfitters Association of British Columbia (Box 94675, Richmond, British Columbia, Canada V6Y 4A4; 604-278-2688).

Alaska’s Island Bears
Alaska has far more black bears than any other state or Canadian province, with up to a quarter-million animals roaming our largest state. My choice for a fun, economical hunt is to rent a vehicle on Prince of Wales Island, and spot-and-stalk bears along the island’s more than 2,000 miles of logging roads. This island, the third biggest in the U.S., offers diverse country, from rain forests to clear-cuts to open alpine country. Bears roam everywhere, and hunters typically have good success.Prince of Wales is receiving more interest from bear hunters and pressure is increasing every year, but there’s plenty of room and bears to go around. A number of B&Bs;, lodges and motels offer accommodations. You can ferry your vehicle over, but it’s cheaper to rent one on the island. For information, contact Prince of Wales Chamber of Commerce (P.O. Box 497, Craig, AK 99921; 907-826-3870).

[pagebreak] Top Spring Spots

Spring bear hunting is allowed in some Western states and in all the Canadian provinces except Ontario and Nova Scotia. In addition to spot-and-stalk hunting, some states and provinces also allow baiting, hunting with hounds or both. A few bears are called in with distress predator calls.

||||| |—|—|—|—| | State| Season Dates*| Baiting or Hounds?| Contact| | Alaska| Sept. 1 to June 30| Baiting and hounds| 907-465-4190; | | | | || | Arizona| March 22 to April 30| Hounds (fall only)| 602-942-3000; | | | | || | Idaho | April 15 to May 31| Baiting and hounds| 208-334-3700; | | | | || | Montana| April 15 to May 15| Neither| 406-444-3186; | | | | | | | Oregon | April 1 to June 23| Neither| 503-872-5268; | | | | | | | Utah | April 13 to May 27| Baiting and hounds| 801-538-4700; | | | | | | | Wyoming | May 1 to June 15 | Baiting| 307-777-4600; | | | | | | *Dates subject to change. Archery dates not included. Check updated Utah April 13 to May 27 Baiting and hounds 801-538-4700; Wyoming May 1 to June 15 Baiting 307-777-4600; *Dates subject to change. Archery dates not included. Check updated regulations.