The Eternal Spring
“Whosoever is delighted in solitude is either a wild beast or a God.”
Everything felt different.
The first time I embarked on a spring bear hunt, I distinctly remember something tickling at the edge of my psyche. When you’ve done something enough times, small changes become noticeable to your subconscious, and that was what I was experiencing now. I had never hunted during the spring, and my body was adjusting to the new realities of the situation. The air was crisp and cradled in dampness, despite the relative dryness of the region. New growth sprouted on both sides of the trail while the early morning sun did little to alleviate my chill.
But one foot followed the other, and the feeling of an unfamiliar atmosphere dissipated, while the winter doldrums melted away. The agonizingly long months between the end of your last season and the start of the new, usually broken up by out of state draws, scouting, and revamping of gear, now had a new antidote. An antidote that gave purpose and hope for an opportunity to fill a tag. A reason to step into the squat rack on January 1st, and to put down the cookie in favor of chicken breast.
I started hunting the backcountry in 2013, and have experienced some exceptional places since then. I have had bulls rattle my chest with their war cry, watched unfiltered sunrises climb over jagged, snow covered peaks. I’ve swam in alpine lakes, and grazed on summer blueberries while sipping wine.
Yet, no trip excites me like spring bear.
Yup, I said it.
I have taken a year off from chasing deer or elk, but after my first spring hunt, every one since has been spent searching for bears in one aspect or another. It does not matter if I have a tag, am helping a friend fill theirs, or shooting with a camera. Hunting spring bears has become something I must do, a pilgrimage that forces me to move and act.
Part of my love revolves around the fact that it is the first hunt of the year, but it is much more than just an opportunity to spend time in the mountains. Spring in the wilderness offers challenges, remoteness, and little pressure from other hunters. Relaxing beside a raging bonfire, letting the sun wake you instead of an alarm, and watching animals during a time of year you might not normally, only adds to the experience. Plus, you generally get to observe one of natures most fascinating apex predators, the American black bear. Ursus americanus.
Washington state offers spring bear hunting on a draw only basis, as opposed to states such as Idaho which offer over-the-counter opportunities. It takes on average 2-5 years to draw most tags in Washington, and in my experience, is worth the wait. Where else do you get to take refuge beneath a tarp for hours on end, while the weather shifts from 70 and sunny to snowing over the course of a lunch break? Or, maybe the reason I return each year revolves around the relentless attacks from the eight-legged wood ticks that cover you night and day (that’s my personal favorite).
But it could also be the remoteness of the country I tend to spend my time in. Last spring, we set a foot trap at a choke point which led into the greater wilderness area we were exploring for future hunts as neither of us had drawn a tag. A foot trap is created by smoothing out the mud of existing footprints at a creek crossing in order to count the number of new tracks that cross. This gives you a better idea of how many people you are sharing the woods with. We spent nearly ten hours exploring up new drainages, snapping photos and recording videos of multiple bears, falling in the river, finding sheds, and sharing a lunch time beer. When we left the following morning to head back up the trail towards the truck, we stared in amazement that not a single soul had crossed the creek. We had literal miles to ourselves, and it was a humbling experience to be so small in such a large and wonderful place.
Bears don’t just wander aimlessly during the spring (completely). Bears are bears, whether it be spring or summer, and are always on the lookout for a food source. In the early spring, most bears can be found eating new grass, moss, grazing on onions, scratching for cambium, or digging for bugs and small rodents. Bears being omnivorous creature, will also prey on newborn elk calves until the calves are big enough to escape on their own. We tend to find bears in what we call “bear triangles.” The nickname originates from the shape of the hillside when viewed on a topographical map, which tend to be, wait for it…triangular in shape. More importantly, it has to be located at a confluence, and be fairly open to allow fresh grass and onions to flourish. If you find something similar, but it isn’t triangular shape, fear not! One must only drink more whiskey, and the shape you seek, will generally appear.
While we have seen bears at all times of the day, from first to last light, they do have some tendencies that are more pronounced in the spring. In our experience, we have not seen an over abundance of bears first thing in the morning (likely because we are sleeping). But there are two circumstances that tend to produce more bear sightings than others: 5 PM or post rainstorm.
I can’t count the number of bears I’ve seen between 5 and 515 PM. They must all have synchronized clocks to tell them when it is time to feed across the open hillside. Increased game activity after a rain storm is not isolated to bears, but they generally join in during the break in weather to grab a bite to eat. Of course, the perfect scenario is a storm breaking right at 5. I’ve only seen it once, and it resulted in a dead bear.
The spring season is the ultimate test for the backcountry hunter in the lower forty-eight. The exponentially difficult combination of unpredictable weather in a wilderness location will test not only your gear, but your willpower. Its no easy thing to be forced to erect a temporary shelter on your glassing point and wait hours for a storm to break—if it breaks. Opportunities will materialize and force the hunter to move quickly and position themselves accordingly to be successful. The spring tests the hunter in ways other seasons do not.
Stealing and modifying a quote from Jack O’Connor:
There is no half way. After his first exposure, a man is either a spring bear hunter or he isn’t. He either falls under the spell of the spring hunt and bear country or he won’t be caught dead on another bear mountain.
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