By: Bruce Speidel
Oftentimes when I head out in May to hunt bears, people turn their heads sideways and ask, “It’s bear season?!” Or else they wonder, “Where? Canada?”
…Nope! I hunt bears right here in Wyoming. Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho all offer spring bear hunting opportunities.
Wyoming and Idaho allow you to bait bears in specific locations and with certain restrictions. Spring bear season for me has been some of the best and by far the most adventurous hard work I have ever put into hunting. Up until ten years ago, I had never seen a black bear in the wild; now I have seen more than I can recount. The journey spring black bears have taken me on has taught me more than I ever thought it could.
Here in Wyoming, as I noted, hunters can bait bears, and having done it, I’ve realized it’s a far more difficult process than spot and stalk hunting. This spring, for instance, I hauled on my back into the backcountry more than 800lbs of bait. One of my baits took the bears weeks to find, and only one bear passed through and took a few nibbles of it. We were able to harvest one bear at the other bait site, but after that, only coyotes have been visiting.
This epic journey for baiting has taken me years to figure out. When we were new to the process, my friends and I registered for bait sites deep in the backcountry. All the good, easily accessible bait sites were already registered.
We did not realize at the time that we had just signed up for the second Lewis and Clark expedition. The first problem we faced was eight feet of snow and 27 miles to get to our bait sites. We found that snowmobiles are not made for hauling heavy loads of gear and bait and people in tight spots on un-groomed trails. A friend and I rode on the front of the snowmobile to keep the front down, because we were hauling a heavy sled full of bait behind the snowmobile. We were only run over by the snowmobile three or four times on the trip…
This method worked poorly, took loads of work, and was not safe. So one of my friends got a nice four-wheeler with a winch and lots of power. This system worked better, but the snow would heat up later in the day and turn soft, and we would sink through, digging and winching for hours.
After a couple years of such laborious efforts, my friend bought a set of tracks to put on his four-wheeler. AMAZING! This was the tool for the job! We had everything from no snow to ten feet of snow on the way to our bait sites. A four-wheeler with tracks is the only practical vehicle for the job.
Now, we had most of the pieces of the puzzle, but not all of them. Twenty-seven miles took a tank-and-a-half of fuel and four hours to navigate, one way, which meant more than eight hours of effort every time we re-stocked the bait barrels. A person should bait twice a week to keep bears satisfied and coming. Logistically, this technique wasn’t working. We did have trail cameras on our bait, and finally we had pictures of bears coming to eat, but we had spent so much time baiting that we didn’t have much time for hunting. So another year passed with no bears to show for all our hard work.
This year, with a change of regulations in registering bait sites, some easier-to-access country was going to be available, first come, first served on April 2. I showed up at the Wyoming Game and Fish office at 9:30 p.m. the day before and was already the fifth person in line! I was praying like crazy that the people ahead of me would not register the locations I wanted. God granted my prayer and I was able to register some great sections to bait in.
The right sections, the right equipment, the right time: We were ready!
I took my friend Steve with me to hunt my new section, and he was able to harvest a beautiful brown-colored black bear. It was such an exciting, satisfying moment to experience success after years of effort! After Steve harvested his bear, there were no more bears coming to the bait, but down in a deep canyon beyond the bait, I spotted a few bears. One bear we named “zoo bear” because he looked zoo fat and was “YUGE!” Steve and I went down into that hole to hunt zoo bear and saw a beauty of a sow and a cub.
The sow was across the canyon with her little one (10lbs or less), and it was playing and diving like Superman on top of its mother’s head. It was just plain enjoyable to watch. Then a bear came out below us! We thought it might be “zoo bear,” but it turned out to be a scuzzy little bear, maybe 100lbs, but probably smaller. He was constantly looking over his shoulder and was jumpy, acting as if he was guilty of poaching grass out of zoo bear’s meadow. Some elk smelled him and walked over, and he took off like the elk might eat him.
We also saw a beautiful brown sow that had a brown cub and a black cub with her. We ended up seeing more bears away from the bait than at the bait. The extra four-six days spent baiting could have been used for hunting, and so far, the trade-off seems to imply it’s better not to spend time baiting. I have not yet harvested a bear; I’m waiting for the right one, and my heart is full of experience and time in the woods with friends.
Am I going to pack hundreds of pounds of bait into the backcountry next year? That’s a good question I don’t yet know the answer to. Will I hunt a bear? Without a doubt!
An aside for those who are interested: My setup for hunting bears is a Browning A-Bolt 2 chambered in a 300 Win Mag, stabilized with a Harris 12-27” swivel bipod. I’m shooting a 165-grain Sierra Game King bullet at 3285fps, sighted in for a 200-yard zero with a Leupold CDS 3-9×50 scope. I use the Leica 1000R rangefinder. My binoculars are Leupold 12×50 BX-4 proguide HDs and a 12-40x compact Leupold spotting scope. This setup allows me to shoot proficiently across the big steep canyons bears and elk inhabit. It works wonderfully on elk, and I have no doubt about its capabilities on bears.
Bruce Speidel is a professional artist and hunting guide writing from Sundance, Wyoming. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or at www.brucespeidel.com.
Photo Credit: Bruce Speidel