Jim's Outdoor Blog

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Spot and Sneak Hunting for Black Bears

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Spring Bear – Spot and Sneak

I love to bear hunt.  Living in Oregon provides me with the possibility of taking up to four bears each year and the potential to hunt for up to seven and one half months.  With nearly thirty thousand individual bears and no slowing in their population growth, these liberal seasons and tag numbers should remain in tact far into the future. 

In the fall, bear season extends from August 1st through November 30th in eastern Oregon, and from August 1st to December 31st in the western regions.  Most spring hunts are six to eight weeks in length, extending from April 1st through the middle of June, depending on the location.  If the allotment of spring bear tags is not sold for a particular area, hunters can sometimes purchase an additional bear tag.  Where I live and hunt in Oregon’s southwest management units, hunters can purchase two fall bear tags over the counter, apply for one spring bear tag and potentially acquire a second SW Unit spring tag.

What’s the catch?  Why are seasons so long and tag availability so high?  Oregon’s urban dwellers represent over 95% of the state’s population and reside on less than 4% of the landmass.  In 1994 a powerful anti-hunting group spent tens of thousands of dollars on a campaign to deprive hunters the use of bait and hounds for bear hunting (and cougar hunting).  Their efforts were successful and voters readily passed Ballot Measure 18.  Oregon’s Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODF&W) vigorously protested the ballot measure, but to no avail.  In the aftermath of Ballot Measure 18, bear and cougar numbers have radically increased, creating a continually worsening headache for ODF&W and for large and small livestock ranchers throughout the state. 

Spring bear hunting is my preference for many reasons.  Hides are in their best condition of the year.  Animals are thinner, which makes for exceptional eating.  And, after months of clouds and rain, camping and hiking in the mellow springtime weather cures my cabin fever. 

To visualize the coastal mountains of the Northwest in April and May, “think green”.  Folks living east of the Pacific Coast Range Mountains, including my fellow Oregonians, are generally unaware that in a typical summer there is little or no rain from July through October.  But chisel it in stone; it rains from late October through June.  In fact, it may rain 50 to 70 inches in eight months.  The bulk of this watery deluge falls from the sky in the four months from November to February.

This area has one of the most temperate winter climates in North America.  The thermometer rarely dips below freezing throughout the rainy season.  In late fall and winter, daily high and low temperatures may vary only five or six degrees, sometimes less.  With a constant borage of clouds and rain for months on end, you can expect highs of 45 to 50 degrees and low temperatures from 40 to 45.  A result of this moderate climate is that some grasses, lichens, mosses and other vegetation are green all year. 

When rays of sunshine penetrate the clouds in March, there is an immediate explosion of plant growth.  Just when hungry bear, deer and elk need a protein rich food supply the most, Mother Nature provides a bounty of “green”. 

The climate of Northeastern Oregon is dramatically different.  With mountains ranging from 5,000 to 10,000 feet in elevation, snow blankets the landscape for several months per year.  With a much more arid climate, forested areas do not have the immense underbrush of the western rain forests.  This makes for open timber and vast mountain meadows. 

East of the Cascade Mountains, bear numbers are highest in the extreme northeast section of Oregon, especially those mountain ranges along and above the Snake River drainage.  The Eagle Cap Wilderness outside Joseph, Oregon and the rocky peaks near Imnaha, have dense bear populations, as well as bighorn sheep, mountain goats, mule and whitetail deer and elk, and of course there are plenty of cougars..

I live on Oregon’s far west side and usually hunt within 20 miles of the ocean.  Season kicks off on April 1st and extends to May 31st.  I often make short camping and scouting forays beginning about the middle of March and I have began the use of trail cameras.  With my ATV, video camera and a comfortable lawn chair, I spend many hours glassing clear-cuts and walking along grass covered antique skid roads. 

On March 27th in 2004, four days before the opening of my season, I videotaped a very large coast bear.  I’ll estimate his weight at approximately 400 pounds.  This bear was sleeping in the warm spring sunshine about 440 yards in the distance, on the opposite side of a steep canyon.   The drop-off beneath my perch was so steep; the napping bear was nearly straight down below my feet.  I watched and videotaped him for about thirty minutes.  The bear eventually woke and grazed his way out of my line of sight.  Although I worked hard to find this bear after April 1st, I never saw him again.  But, I took a really nice five-year-old boar on April 22nd.  This wasn’t the largest bear I’ve killed, but he certainly provided an exciting and memorable hunt.

The first week of season was unproductive.  I was hunting on public land about 60 miles from home.  In years past I was often the lone hunter in this area, but in the first week of April 2004 I encountered a dozen or more hunters.  Sharing the mountains with new, first time bear hunters was a double-edged sword for me. Bear hunting alone can be a bit dangerous, and somewhat lonely after a week or ten days without conversation.  Many hunters stopped by my camp to visit or to ask directions, and I enjoyed the company.  But, since all Oregon bear hunting is spot-and-stalk, their boots touched the same ground I’ve always had to myself.  I saw a few bears at great distances in the bottoms of steep canyons, and heard unpleasant stories of men lobbing rounds at bruins who were 600 to 800 yards from roadways.  After about one week I went home empty handed.

On April 20th I was back in the same camp, determined to fill my tag.  Nearly all the hunters were gone and the mountains soon returned to their normal springtime rhythms.  Unfortunately the weather was cold, windy and rainy, making my job difficult at best.  But, on April 22nd the sun broke through the clouds and temperatures rose into the 70’s.  As if someone had opened the gate to an enormous holding pen, the mountain’s critters were out in force.  In a matter of a few hours I saw deer, elk, strutting grouse and three black bears.

About 6:15 p.m. I found myself checking an old clear-cut on a dead end road.  I intended to leave my vehicle at the edge of the clear-cut and slowly walk and glass the area until dark.  Just as I reached the clearing I observed a bear eating grass on an ancient skid road on the far side of the canyon.  The bear stood behind a rocky outcrop, which lies beside the road.  As he grazed I could see the upper inches of his back and I saw his head when he raised it to survey his surroundings.  He had no inkling of my presence.

My laser range finder showed the bear was 406 yards from my truck.  My rifle was a Remington Model 700/BDL in Winchester 300 Mag., with hand loaded 180 grain Sierra BTSP rounds, which leave my rifle at 3,050 fps.  This gun and ammunition is certainly capable of a 400-yard shot, but attempting this feat under these conditions is irresponsible and unrealistic. 

As I’ve written many times, the under story of brush in the coastal mountains is extremely thick.  Grasses, vines, leafy plants and young trees cover the ground from the soles of your boots to far above your head.  Canyon walls are very steep.  It can take hours to retrieve an animal from a mere 300 yards off the roadway.  If you shoot a bear with less than instantly lethal results, it will charge into the foliage and head straight to the bottom of the nearest canyon.  This bear stood on a narrow hogback ridge with nearly vertical canyon walls to it’s left and right.  It would soon be dark and my chances of recovering a wounded bear would be from poor to nil.  I decided to exit my vehicle and walk to the bear. 

I knew if I walked to the top of the canyon, the road horseshoed around a rocky point and would lead me directly to him.  It took about fifteen minutes to close the distance and when I arrived at the location in which I’d seen the feeding bear, the wind was in my face and I was standing on six to twelve inches of new green grass.  My walk had been in virtual silence.

Stopping about 60-yards up hill from the rock outcropping I’d viewed from the opposite side of the clear-cut, I was surprised to discover I couldn’t see the bear.  Instantly I worried he had seen or heard me and had gone into the depths of the canyon.  Thinking about the wind direction and my slow and silent approach I couldn’t see how that was possible.  With these thoughts racing through my mind, I decided the bear must be close and was simply feeding just out of my line of sight.  I knew I had to be patient.  I would move a step or two closer to the branches of an eight-foot Douglas fir tree on my right and wait. 

As I took my first step, gravel on the old roadbed quietly crunched under the sole of my right boot.  The sound was nearly imperceptible to human ears.  About forty yards in front of me and to my left, the boar leapt into the roadway with the agility of a cat.  I was truly shocked at the sight.  The bear had been standing behind a large old-growth stump and the faint sound of my movement had caused him to literally spring into the road and look in my direction.  Fortunately he was as surprised to see me as I was startled to see him and he stopped broadside, momentarily frozen in place.  I raised my gun and planted him in the roadway with a shot that parted his heart and the tip of his right lung.  I stood there dumb founded for several seconds, attempting to grasp what had just taken place. 

With some minor brush removal and a little work with my chainsaw I was able to drive my truck to the animal.  I took a number of photographs before field dressing the bear.  I backed my ATV into the bed of my truck and utilized its wench to draw the bear up the loading ramps and onto the tailgate, making this the easiest bear recovery I have ever had. 

I was about twenty-miles from camp and darkness was setting in as I turned around to leave the dead end of this horseshoe canyon.  As always, I took a moment to soak up the scenery and the experience.  The mountain on which I was driving is twenty-five to thirty miles from the nearest town, and my camp was in the opposite direction.  I hadn’t seen another human being all day and I was surrounded by some of the most ruggedly beautiful scenery in our nation.  Alone in the timber with a great black bear in the bed of my truck, I genuinely felt I must be one of the luckiest people on earth.  At the risk of sounding corny, this type of experience causes me to stop and think about how fortunate I am to live in America and have the ability and freedom to enjoy the independence and quality of my life.  I will always treasure the memory of this SW Oregon spring bear hunt.

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March 20, 2008 - Posted by | Bears, Cats and Claws

3 Comments »

  1. Hey Jim, Great article. I drew the Snake River Spring Bear Tag again this year. Can’t wait for the snow to break.

    Shay

    Comment by Shay Mann | March 28, 2008 | Reply

  2. Shay,

    I’ve got one trail cam on the job now and Dave and I are going to put out three or four, maybe even a total of five cameras. We don’t have a snow problem, just cold wet weather. Our season opens in SW Oregon on April 1st. That is next Tuesday! BEST OF LUCK! Send me photos… Jim Gaskins

    Comment by jimgaskins | March 28, 2008 | Reply

  3. Loved the story Jim. You made me feel like I was there.

    Comment by Mike Ansel | May 10, 2008 | Reply


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