Spring Bear: An Off-Season Adventure Opportunity
By Craig Gillock
The first hint of spring in western Pennsylvania will cause most outdoorsmen to turn their thoughts to cold, clear trout streams and dense hardwood ridges booming with the echoing gobble of eastern thunder chickens. But I’ve never been much for turkey hunting and, while I do enjoy casting a fly into the waters of the Laurel Mountains or Allegheny National Forest, the greening of the grass and the budding of the trees sends my mind in a more westerly direction.
Growing up in rural Pennsylvania, black bears held a place of awe in my psyche. They were the biggest predators in our woods and just seeing one gave you months of bragging rights with your friends. So, when I went on my first spring bear hunt I did so with a sense of adventure that I had only read about on the pages of Outdoor Life, Field & Stream, or whatever other hunting magazine I’d pick out of the rack at Don Lux’s barber shop while waiting to get a haircut with my grandfather.
That hunt didn’t disappoint and neither have any of the many bear hunts I’ve been on since. I’ve shot them from a distance with my rifle and I’ve stalked to within a few yards to take them with my bow. And every time I’m fortunate enough to harvest one of these creatures I’m still filled with the same wonder and respect I experienced on that first trip.
One of the best things about spring bear hunting for me is the opportunity for adventure that it provides during what is typically considered to be hunting’s off-season. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy all types of hunting, but there is something about needing a float plane to get to your hunting area or packing in your entire camp to a remote wilderness site that gets my blood pumping. When embarking on a hunt like this, it’s cliched but it’s true, the reward is the journey, not the kill. Coming home with a trophy is icing on the cake.
Now that I have successfully convinced you that spring bear hunting is the greatest thing since the invention of the wheel, you’re probably wondering where and how you go about getting yourself one of these life-altering hunts. I’m glad you asked. There are two basic questions you will need to ask yourself before you proceed any further: 1.) Do you want to go on a guided hunt or are you looking to fly DIY style? And 2.) Are you okay with baited hunts, using dogs, or do you want pure spot and stalk? The answers to these questions will influence your decisions more than any others that will come up in the planning process.
The answer to the first question is more about finances and experience than it is anything else. Deciding to employ the services of a professional guide or outfitter is almost always more expensive than hunting on your own. The trade off is, when using an outfitter, you are paying for their expertise, access to hunting areas, and tools or services that could be very costly to buy on your own. If you are new to bear hunting or have limited experience, or even if you’re a seasoned bear hunter in a new area, I recommend using an outfitter. They know the territory, they have the proper equipment, and most importantly, they know where the bears are likely to be. Remember, this is how they make their living. If their clients don’t feel safe, don’t have a good time, or don’t get the OPPORTUNITY to be successful, that client isn’t likely to become a repeat customer or recommend the outfitter to his friends. Notice I stressed the word “opportunity” in the preceding sentence. A good outfitter will give his clients opportunities to be successful, but if the client misses, doesn’t have the proper gear, or is unprepared that’s not the outfitter’s fault. He did his job; you didn’t do yours.
Planning and venturing out on your own bear hunt is also an exciting and very viable option. DIY hunts are becoming increasingly popular. As I mentioned earlier, they tend to be more budget friendly and, if you know how to properly plan your application strategy and travel logistics, it is something you can do every year. There is also a growing movement within the hunting community that favors a return to DIY hunting on public lands. Proponents of this movement would argue that there is a greater sense of accomplishment in this style of hunting. I would argue that, if you are acting in an ethical manner and no laws are being broken, both styles of hunting should be shown equal respect and afforded the proper cause for celebration. Hunters face enough hardship and ridicule from anti’s, we don’t need it from each other. Keep in mind also, some places, like British Columbia, require non-resident hunters to have a guide. It is a provincial law, and you don’t have a choice.
The second question you need to answer, what method of hunting do you want to utilize, presents even more options to choose from. As of the start of 2022 there are nine U.S. states and ten Canadian provinces that offer some type of spring bear hunting. Each has its own set of laws regarding method of hunting, harvest numbers, license application, and so on. In the U.S. Idaho, Alaska, Montana, Arizona, Wyoming, Utah, Oregon, Washington, and Maine all have spring seasons. Alaska, Idaho, Wyoming, and Maine allow baited hunts, the others require spot and stalk. If you want to hunt with hounds, you will need to look at Idaho or Alaska. Maine brings its own set of challenges to the table because it only allows bear to be hunted on certain tribal lands in the spring. You will want to double check all this once you start planning. Anti-hunters are over-zealous when it comes to trying to end bear hunting, causing states to change their laws on what seems to be a year-to-year basis.
Canada has historically been an affordable and easy place to hunt spring bear, but anti’s are starting to exert their influence there as well, so again I would advise double checking before you begin to plan. Currently, British Columbia, Yukon, Northwest Territories, Alberta, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Quebec, Newfoundland, and New Brunswick offer spring black bear hunts. Ontario is a pilot program so it may be more difficult to get a tag there.
Normally, all you would need to hunt Canada is a valid passport and no serious criminal record. A non-resident firearms declaration form is required and will cost you $25 to submit. However, the onset of Covid-19 has impacted regulations and you are now required to be vaccinated prior to crossing the border.
I know this is a lot of information to take in and the world’s current political and health climates make travel difficult, but I assure you, when you walk up and finally put your hands on one of these thick-furred monsters, you will feel a connection to something bigger than yourself, something primal. At that point you will forget about all the stress and the headaches and the money it took to get there. Besides, it wouldn’t be much of an adventure without a little struggle along the way.
Of the calibers we make here at Peterson Cartridge, the ones I recommend for black bear are:
- 7mm Rem Mag
- 7mm Wby Mag
- 28 Nosler
- .270 Wby Mag
- .300 Win Mag
- .300 Wby Mag
- .300 PRC
- .280 AI
Until next time, good luck, and happy hunting!