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Ultimate Mountain Hunt: Spotting and Stalking Bears

Photo Caption: Some people will tell you bears are blind. And yes, I think I could have walked up to some and slapped them. But other times, they've seen me barely stick my rifle barrel out of a pop-up blind from 100 yards away and they spooked.

By: Tom Claycomb

Spotting and stalking bears is a great way to hunt bears and is one of the ultimate mountain hunts. You hear a lot about it, but exactly what does it mean to spot and stalk bears? Well, let’s cover that topic today.

How do you do it?
Spotting and stalking usually refers to how people spring bear hunt. They’ll hike up on top of a ridge where they can see a lot of territory. Bears will be coming out about Bear Thirty, so you want to be up on top and set-up before then. Don’t set-up on the very top, or they will skyline (see) you. Set a few feet off the top of the ridge.

Since you’ll be glassing off a good ways, you don’t need to lug up a pop-up blind, but you can hide behind some brush if you feel so inclined. But for sure take a pad to sit on. You’ll be setting and glassing for long periods of time. The more comfortable you are, the better you’ll glass.

Decades ago, we’d take kids up bear hunting after school. Ed Sweet would film them for his show Kid Outdoors. I remember once we hunted two afternoons in a row and saw 10 bears total, five each afternoon. Out of those 10 bears, I only saw one first. The difference? Ed and Gary had Swarovski spotting scopes, and I only had a mid-level set of Burris binoculars. After those hunts, I became a believer in using good glass.

Getting Good Binocs
Let’s talk about glass for a minute. I know everyone has a budget, but, don’t leave any change in your pocket when you go to the store to buy your optics. Spend every penny that you can, and you’ll never regret it.

To spot and stalk, you’ll need a spotting scope and a good pair of binoculars. Where I hunt, a 15-30x spotting scope works fine. I’m not looking for miles like you may be while sheep hunting in Alaska. For binoculars, I’ll use my Riton Optics 10x42’s.

I used to only own straight spotting scopes, but now I favor angled ones. They’re a lot more user-friendly. You’ll also want a lightweight user-friendly tri-pod.

Glassing System
You need to have a glassing system. Starting at the top of the mountain, I’ll scan across, hit the end and drop down 50 yards (or whatever your field of view is) and scan back across. Do this all the way down the mountain. When you finish, wait a few minutes and then do it again.

You’ll have the tendency to want to just glass the open spots, but work it all. Also, don’t think, “Well, I just glassed that area 10 minutes ago, and nothing was there.” Game feeds in and out of cover, so keep repeating.

In the spring, bears will be out eating vegetation just like a cow grazing. I don’t know what they are, but they like eating the yellow-topped flowers. Everyone will tell you to hunt at snowline. This is true, but it doesn’t mean right where the vegetation stops and the snow starts. It is not a hard-fast line. What they’re saying is that as the snow melts, new vegetation is sprouting out. It is fresh and tender, and the bears love it. After a long winter of hibernating, their stomachs are tender. Yes, they will eat meat if they stumble onto a winter-killed elk or deer, but at first, they prefer vegetation.

But Which Bear Is Best?
We had spots where we could glass 2-4 mountainsides from one spot. One afternoon, from one spot, we glassed three different bears out grazing at once. That gets exciting. But now, which one should you go after? Here’s where good optics comes in. With good glass, hopefully you can tell if Bear A is rubbed bad. If so, how is the pelt on Bear B?

Also, is the bear moving along fast? Will he be gone before you can get there? You also have to play the wind. And what if he is too far for you to get there before dark? Should you set up again tomorrow evening closer so you can get a good stalk on him? If he isn’t boogered, he should be out grazing in that same spot tomorrow night. Whichever route you go, you have to determine fast what to do.

If you must circle around too far to play the wind, it is better to wait until the next evening. Also, do a quick assessment. Which route will give you the best cover to sneak up to them from? While spotting and stalking an antelope a few years ago, I had to circle a good 1 ½ miles around a mountain instead of taking a 1,000 yd. hike straight to it.

Note Landmarks
And especially take note of some landmarks nearby. It constantly amazes me how I spot something right out in the open, and when I stalk in to it suddenly, it looks like I’ve landed in a completely different world. There are draws and hills I couldn’t notice from ½ mile off.

So notice, is there a big dead tree near the bear? A patch of yellow flowers? A big rock? Something you can use as a landmark when you get over there. And realize, they may have grazed away from the original spot where you first saw them.

In Idaho, it is not legal to use radios and have a buddy watching you and guiding you in, but you can look back at him through binoculars and have him give you hand signals if you can’t find your bear.

On a different species, when stalking elk or deer, you don’t want to be so focused on the one animal you saw and spook three others you didn’t see, thereby messing up your stalk.

If he was laying down, then really slow down; go in slow so you don’t spook him. The odds are in his favor. If bow hunting, you may want to take some soft soled footwear so you don’t make as much noise. And for sure, cover your scent, so when you get twirling thermals that he doesn’t bust you.

Spotting and stalking is a fun way to hunt. And if you’re going bear hunting in a state far away where you don’t have time to be baiting 6 weeks ahead of time, it is really the only way to go. Have fun.

Tom Claycomb III is a product tester for outdoor manufacturers, hunter, and outdoor writer, writing from Idaho.

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