I watched the big cinnamon bear blow out about 300 yards from the two orange dots working their way up the mountain.
“There goes that,” I said, peering at them through my spotter.
I waved a white game bag back and forth overhead until those little orange dots seemed to take notice and began descending back into the valley below. I was hunting with our MeatEater Community Coordinator Cory Calkins and my buddies Mike and Jenna from back East. Cory and Mike had gone after the bear as Jenna and I hung back, using a game bag and hand signals to help guide their stalk.
The knob we watched them from marked the confluence of two basins. By walking 50 yards from one side of the knob to the other, we could glass a recent burn carpeted in lush, new growth.
With an hour of shooting light left, Jenna and I decided to move the 50 yards and check the burn for a last-minute bruin. Just as I was about to slide my pack off, she grabbed my elbow in that universal way that says, “I see something, don’t move.”
Sure enough, across the valley some 800 yards away, a bear moved through the blackened trees trunks.
The Value of a Bear There may be no more pervasive misconception among the American public at large than the idea that bears are only hunted as trophies. While it’s hard to argue the beauty of a bearskin rug, bears are much more than their hides or skulls.
You’ll often hear folks debate the quality of bear meat, but dissenting attitudes are a more recent phenomenon. When I asked our resident bear enthusiast Clay Newcomb about it, he said, “The meat of the black bear was the fuel of the American frontier, particularly from the 1760s on. It was the preferred food source.”
While it’s true you must cook bear meat thoroughly in order to kill the parasites that cause trichinosis, and that a bear feasting on dead salmon will taste fishy, many of us find bears to be great eating. The flavor is remarkably similar to beef, and lends itself well to stews, chilis, BBQ, and other low-and-slow preparations.
Along with ducks, bears have some of the only truly desirable cooking fat found in game animals. Unlike the waxy fat found in ungulates, bear fat is renderable into a snow-white lard. This lard is clean, mild, and in the fall, can even be imparted with the taste of the berries bears gorge themselves on before hibernation. It’s often used as a medium- to low-temperature cooking oil or as the secret ingredient in a homemade pie crust.
“Pioneers used to render bear fat down into grease, and a tub of bear grease in those days was as good as cash money,” Clay said.
All that is to say, it’s strange to me that people consider killing a bear wasteful. When you consider the fat and hide, in my mind, a bear carcass sees more use than the average whitetail, mule deer, antelope, moose, or elk.
An Affordable, Accessible Big Game Hunt Nine states offer spring bear hunts, inlcuding Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Arizona, Alaska, and Maine. These opportunities are more common in Canada, occurring in the provinces of British Columbia, Yukon, Northwest Territories, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland, and New Brunswick.
For people who want to hunt big game in the West or North, the mountains are the least of their obstacles. More often, you’ll find it’s the sheer cost that puts a distant hunt out of reach. Elk and deer tags are expensive for non-residents, and the prices only seem to be going up.
Bear tags, on the other hand, are relatively affordable—most cost only a couple hundred bucks. For instance, a non-resident Wyoming bear tag cost less than $400. Compared to a Wyoming elk tag, which costs almost twice as much, it’s a steal. In Idaho, a licensed non-resident can pick up a reduced bear tag for as little as $42. Alaska gives away black bear tags for $450, much less than most species the state hosts.
While a Wyoming bear tag is comparable in price to a Wyoming deer tag, they have one major advantage—most bear tags are sold over the counter, meaning hunters don’t have to deal with the application process or point system barriers in order to go hunting. This makes a bear hunt a great place to start for hunters interested in hunting the West or North.
Another advantage for the DIY hunter—particularly out-of state-hunters—is where bears tend to live. In the West, Canada, and Alaska, the majority of public lands are mountainous. Bears, unlike elk and mule deer, tend to live in the mountains year round. They do not migrate (although they will follow the best food sources up and down the mountain as the season progresses) and are not typically drawn to agriculture-dominated private land. This means a higher concentration of game on public land, which translates into more opportunity for those without private access.
You Probably Have the Gear Bear hunting is relatively simple and doesn’t require advanced calling skills or much specialized equipment. If you’re a turkey hunter on the East Coast, dress like you would for early spring turkey, pack rain gear and a puffy jacket, a good pair of boots and a good pair of binos, swap your 12 gauge for a .270, and you’re more or less ready to roll. As with all big game hunts, a sturdy pack, game bags, and bear spray are musts.
One other item I’d suggest looking into is a quality spotting scope and tripod setup. Bear hunting is glassing-intensive, you often see bears from 1,000-plus-yards away, and bears are difficult to field judge, particularly at a distance. Before you start your stalk or take a shot at any bear, you always want to be sure of two things. First, you need to ensure the bear is not a sow with cubs, and then you must confirm it’s of the size you’re looking for. Shooting a sow with cubs is illegal in most states, and there isn’t a much more disappointing feeling than walking up on a black bear only to realize it’s smaller than a pronghorn. While I wouldn’t say a spotter setup is an absolute necessity, it’s awfully close. At the very least, a tripod with a binocular mount will get you by.
Break the Ice Jenna and I ended up killing that bear in the final minutes of shooting light. It was a dry sow, about 5 1/2 feet and 180 pounds. While I wish that Jenna and Mike could have ended their trip with a bear of their own, they seemed more than satisfied with the outcome.
In the end, it was less about killing a bear for them, and more about getting out West and just doing it. They accomplished what they set out to do: they broke the ice.
Since I moved out West, a lot of my friends from home have been asking the same question, “When can I get out there and hunt with you?”
I tell them all the same thing: If you want to come hunt elk or mule deer, you’ll have to apply for tags, which you likely won't draw. But if you want to hunt this season, you ought to think about spring bears.
Feature image via Sam Lungren