Bowhunting Spring Bears

Posted by: Dan Staton on Apr 30, 2014

Idaho spring bear hunting is near and dear to my heart. Public ground bruins roaming large tracts of rough country with limited access to the average hunter – perfect. The long winter adds to the anticipation for a weary cabin fever bowhunter like myself. I've been hunting bears seriously for the last six seasons cutting my teeth on the over-the-counter hunting opportunity. Each spring I have limited time so I spend most of my weekends pursing bear. All my precious vacation time is reserved for the fall elk hunts so when five o’clock Friday rolls around, I’m driving to Idaho from Washington.

A bowhunter with bear

Here’s my spot and stalk bear, one down on the ground and now it’s time to set-up baits for my second tag.

We hunt north Idaho which consists of millions of acres that predators and ungulates call home. The Idaho Fish and Game is doing their best to curve the population of cats, bears, and wolves so in the area I hunt you can buy two bear tags and in some units you are awarded an extra month of season. With two tags in my pocket my goal is to put a bear on the ground early on with spot and stalk tactics. I’ve done this in the past, and can you tell you that this is probably one of the most fun and challenging ways to get a bear with a bow. The first bit of due diligence is to find bear country, close to the melting snowline, with plenty of cover, green grasses and water. The most bear activity generally occurs in the evening, so you’re always fighting fading light. In fact, locating a shooter bear really isn’t as big a chore as getting yourself into position with enough shooting light.

Dirt bike in truck

A dirt bike can get you into some hard to reach places and saves time, it’s faster than an ATV and more mobile, always wear a helmet.

I take my dirt bike into nasty steep drainages away from loggers and hound hunters. If the snow is too high, then we rely on our ATV with tracks to get us into the right spots. Each year we learn more and more hot spots that produce bears. We set up our glassing station with 15x50 Vortex binos on a tripod. The rule of thumb is the longer you glass, the more bears you see. We bounce around gridding, and rechecking likely areas where a bear can be caught feeding on a green hillside or abandoned logging road.

Atv tracks

An ATV with tracks allows you to get past the snowline and find where the bears are coming out of their dens. Each spring is different so be prepared for different snow packs each year.

Last year, my wife and I got off work early on a late Friday in April so we drove up to our cabin that is nestled into some of Idaho’s best public ground for bear hunting. We unloaded our gear, gassed up our ATV, and headed out with about two hours of daylight. We rode in about 12 miles through mud and snow and starting checking some of my favorite bear roads. The snow pack wasn’t as severe so we were able to get into my favorite spots, which had never happened this early before.

My hunting cabin

Having a place close to bear country is a blessing. A warm meal, a hot shower, and a place to keep your gear stored.”

We shut off the ATV and started walking down a magical road with the wind in our face. What should have been a nice little walk turned into a fast and furious spot and stalk. I wasn’t wearing camo, didn’t bring a pack with the necessary gear, but luckily I brought my bow. Just 400 yards down the magical road was a beautiful chocolate bear mowing down the spring’s first grasses. Alicia, my wife, followed me with a video camera as we made the stalk in a matter of minutes. If you truly have the wind in your favor and some fairly quiet stalking conditions, you can close quickly. At 33 yards my bear, still completely unaware of our presence, turned broadside allowing me to get settled. The shot happened faster than I can remember, but I did get to see my orange fletching punch through the bear’s chest. Just three hours prior I had been working at my gym, now I was blood trailing a gorgeous spring bruin with my best friend and wife. This scouting mission turned into a hunt very fast, so learn from m….. always pack your game bags, knives, and rope when your bow is in your hand.

Hunter sees Bear

Here I am 33 yards away from this spring boar, wind in my face and ranging the final distance.”

The shot ended up being a liver and one lung hit. Although a fatal hit, this means a longer tracking job then desired. The boar made it about 400 yards after the hit and piled up in the bottom of a nearby drainage. Luckily, I was able to have my dad and some friends help pack the bear and meat out of the tangled mess of north Idaho brush. We used Mystery Ranch Nice Frame with the Nice Load Sling to haul the meat and hide. This was the earliest spring bow kill for me to date. We had a somewhat mild spring and warm temperatures in April which provided higher bear activity. Now that I had my spot and stalk bear meat in the freezer, it was time to set baits and wait for the June rut to kick in.

Hunter and bear

Quartering away feeding and unaware of my presence as I settle my second pin behind the shoulder.

Idaho allows 3 bait permits per person which you can pick up for less than $20 and it is a great way to trophy hunt. The second non-resident bear tag is around $30 – the best money you can spend. I was going to hold out for a big boar and knew that the rut was just around the corner. I set three baits about 4-5 miles apart, this allows you to re-bait in one shot versus driving all over several different road systems. This is key for me as I live about a100 miles away and can only hunt weekends.

Bait for bear

Find an outlet bread store for cheap high carbohydrate bear bait.

I buy shopping baskets of expired bread and donuts from a local bread store. I bait Wednesday nights after work, this is a 200 mile drive round trip and can make for a lot of work. It’s completely worth it walking up to your bait site in the dark with a headlamp on seeing your bait demolished and swapping out memory cards on the trail camera. Trail cameras need a lock box to secure the camera from bears because they seem to have an affinity for vandalizing cameras. Each year I bait, I usually have hound hunters intruding the bait site. It’s not their fault, the dogs seem to sniff them out so it’s vital to find spots away from roads via ATV or on foot.

bread and donuts

Bears cannot resist donuts and breads, try to get enough for two 5-gallon buckets each time you bait.

Baiting is hard work when you’re hauling in two 5 gallon buckets of bait, plus your stove, grease, honey, and liquid smoke. Once a bait sight is getting hit, the real work begins by keeping the bears in the neighborhood. By the time Friday rolls around, it’s time to bait again, which is also done in the dark after work. This means you’ve baited four times in one week assuming your sitting your stand and freshening up your bait each sit Saturday and Sunday. This formula has worked well for me throughout the years. The trail camera intelligence is crucial for learning what bears are in the area and learning their habits. The bigger bears mainly show up at night, so you have to be patient for the rut. Each bait site usually hosts a set or two of sow and cubs. These pesky cohorts eat the heck out of your bait, but also serve as a big boar attractant come June. Keep them fed.

Cutting Bear

Skinning a bear is real simple, but it’s an easier job if you have buddy to help.

I found a target bear in early June and it took four weeks of consistent baiting for this dude to show up. Consequently, all my videos and still images of him were at night. I could also tell when he showed up to the bait because he was the only bear to move the monster logs I had set as the frame for my bait station. You want only bears eating your bait so a lot of times I chainsaw huge logs in five foot sections to build the base of my baits. Then you have to cover up the bait to keep the birds and other animals out of the easy meal. The bears are used to hearing your truck or ATV show up, drop off food and then drive off. We use this to our advantage when it comes time to shoot a big bear. Once my big boar made an appearance at the bait during daylight hours we start sitting our baits.

Hunter carrying meat

Bears can expire in the worst places, we made short work on this meat haul with our Mystery Ranch backpacks.

I hunt about 20 feet up and about 20 yards away from the bait. Bears will generally circle you before coming, so paying attention to scent control is part of the program. My dad and I routinly team up on big bears. For example, he comes with me to the bait, we throw bait in, cover it up, and I climb into the stand. While I’m getting set up he does a quick honey burn for a few minutes filling the mountains with a sugary aroma. Then he heads back to the ATV and drives off. This is the bear’s dinner bell signaling that we left and that dinner is first come first serve. I generally sit for only 3-4 hours so the thermals are already heading down the mountain. This partner tactic works really well and can help train your bears to swarm your bait.

Hunter in mountains

Setting up and glassing the evening hours is extremely productive, the longer you glass, the more bears you will see.

I knew I had a sow in the area based on the camera, but I also knew that my big chocolate boar was now coming in during the last hour of daylight. Like clockwork, the sow and cubs showed within ten minutes of my dad driving off. The sow stood watch as the cubs tore into the food. They hung out for a couple of hours until each go their fill of bread and donuts. As soon as the sow changed her attitude from relaxed to on pins and needles, I knew to grab my bow. Without much notice the sow made a few growls, popped her jaws in the direction further down from the bait, and took off with her cubs running right past me. I stood and scanned below me as sticks and brush began to move below. This had to be my boar.

Bear on hill

Once this shooter showed up during daylight hours, I knew it was time to sit the bait. Trail cameras are an extremely valuable tool.

The bear appeared with a fast paced walk uphill. Muscles rippled with each stride the bear took, and there was no hesitation in his demeanor. This was the dominant boar of the woods and he knew it. He was at the bait in moments and my heart raced to stay calm. You always have more time than you think, but it’s hard to wrestle with the idea of having patience in this situation. This bear’s belly nearly scraped the ground and he manhandled the big logs covering most of the bait.

Once he positioned himself to feast, I drew back and settled on his vitals. The bear hardly flinched as the arrow punched through both sides and stuck right into the ground. The sound was loud, like ribs got smashed, but this bear was tough. He slowly waddled away and then the adrenaline really kicked in. I had to wait five minutes before the shaking stopped to gather my gear and check out the crime scene.

The red fletch was a familiar friend but the light was fading fast and I never heard the bear give out a death moan. Rather than push the bear, I backed out and waited for my dad. It was going to be a long night. I played the shot over and over in my head and retold the story over a campfire, we were confident that my bear expired. We’d have him in the back of the truck come morning.

Bear in truck

It took four strong dudes to load this bear into the back of the truck.

I had a crew of friends to help me track this bear and we found very little blood initially. However, once we got past the first couple hundred yards of dark timber, we hit more lush green terrain and the blood trail really started to take off. The boar made it further than we thought, but was piled up next to a creek. The good news was that the bear died only 20 yards from an ATV trail so we were able to wench it out whole and it took four of us to lift it into the back of the truck.

This was my biggest bear to date and I have to say it is extremely rewarding to be patient and target a specific bear. He was mature, big, and very cunning. Each year I learn more and more about bear behavior and how to find areas that they cannot resist. The main reason I hunt bears is for the adventure. It’s a date with the mountains and enough just to get me by until elk season.

Hunter and the bear

This is my biggest boar to date, he’s well over 300 lbs and provides me with amazing memories from DIY public ground bear hunting.

Speaking of elk, make no mistake about it, bears are hard on calf elk. June is when the calves get dropped and when boars are roaming for ladies. A lot of times, calves are left alone by their moms in order to not draw attention from predators. If a bear gets a calf in its nostrils its fate is sealed. As hunters we care more for the land then most folks will ever know and we can do our part and help manage the bear population and keep better calf counts for our elk. Also, bear hunting keeps you sharp, keeps your broadheads dialed, and gets you in great elk shape. It’s no mystery to me why I keep coming back to north Idaho each spring.

Dan Staton

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3 Comments on "Bowhunting Spring Bears"

Re: Bowhunting Spring Bears #
That is a nice looking bear. What a monster!
Posted by Wes Levy on 4/30/2014 12:09:15 PM
Re: Bowhunting Spring Bears #
Real hunting by stalking is a long tradition. I'm glad you carry this on, and teach others through your adventures.
Posted by Bill Lander on 5/5/2014 8:38:47 AM
Re: Bowhunting Spring Bears #
Great article on a great bear hunt!
Posted by Mario V on 5/8/2014 7:44:40 AM

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