Big game season here in Montana generally ends the last Sunday in November, and so begins my nearly five month wait for spring bear to open. Coyote hunting over the winter helps keep me in shape and spring gopher hunting is something Iíve looked forward to most of my life, but itís not the same as big game hunting. By April and May Iím ready to look for something larger and more interesting. Bears have the added excitement of going after dangerous game. Granted that might be a stretch, but itís about as good as it gets outside Africa or Alaska.
Clear-cut overlooking access road and forest area.
The standard advice on western bear hunting is to hike around and glass likely areas. The givers of advice then go on to describe the general topography, meadows, old clear-cuts or burned areas and add some discussion on rifles and the like. There are some basic questions that often go unanswered, the most important of which is ďIf I donít actually see a bear, how do I know if the area Iím hunting has any bear frequenting it?Ē
Access road leading to clear-cut and burned area.
The advice about old clear-cuts and burns is a very good place to start; the last two bears Iíve killed have been near just those types of terrain. Bears like roads and trails and I always walk all the roads in my prospective hunting area first. After Iíve walked the roads I start on any heavily used trials I find that might intersect those roads. So besides a live bear what do I look for? Bear tracks are notoriously difficult to spot because of their soft paws so I pay very close attention to any wet areas, such as where a seep spring comes across a road or trail. Bears will often stop to drink at those spots and will leave tracks. If you find a track in a wet area examine the area very carefully, never step on the tracks and look for other indications of bear activity nearby. Has the bear rubbed off some hair on a tree? How about scat? Is it fresh?
A 35 Whelen round gives a rough idea of size. This scat is composed entirely of grass and plant material. It was found on a open road bed that get only afternoon sun, though black it was still soft, perhaps only a day or two old.
In one area I hunted a few years ago a bear had left 17 piles of scat on an old logging road over a distance of about a mile and a half. The age of the scat ranged from a few hours to over a week. Itís very difficult to make any hard and fast rules about how old bear scat is because of the nature of late spring weather and the location of the scat relative to sun exposure. A reasonable generalization is if the scat is black itís been there a while. Bears eat large amounts of green vegetation in the spring and if the scat you find is some shade of green and still soft youíve found an area where a bear has been recently, probably that day or even within a few hours. If it still feels warm, granted that might be a bit over the top for some folks, even better. I guess you could say that if you push it around and it steams a bit youíve found bear hunting gold.
Freshly chewed off tree on overgrown logging road.
A bear completely tore the top off this tree. If you look closely youíll see that this is the second time the tree has been ďtoppedĒ. When I moved the tree top on the ground I found that the bear had flipped the rock over to look for insects.
If youíve found tracks and some scat you can look for some other sign that will give you a hint if the bear in your hunting area is a boar or a sow. Male bears like to leave ďcalling cardsĒ for other bears, male and female, in the area that they are moving through during the spring mating season. One of the most interesting of these is the ďtopped treeĒ. Iíve found more of these on old logging roads than anywhere else but I think that the bear is leaving these where it knows other bears will see it. As you can see in the accompanying photos the tree of choice is a young evergreen about 6 to 8 feet in height and about one to two inches in diameter at the point the bear chews it off. I think itís a safe assumption that the height at which the bear chews the top off is about head height when it is standing on its hind legs. Most of the ones Iíve found were topped about four and a half to five and a half feet off the ground. A tree chewed off six feet or more off the ground would be a great indication of a very large bear in the area. Iíve also found areas with larger trees that have been chewed on but not broken off as well. Large trees with partially healed bite marks or small trees with dead tops can be an excellent indicator that the area youíve found is frequented every year by the same or several boar bears looking for love.
A bear chewed on the stump from the last time it or some other bear chewed off the tree top.