DIY Montana Spring Bear Hunt – Weapon Choice
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I don’t know how to explain the disparity between the way I feel so strongly about elk hunting with a bow and absolutely not caring about bear hunting with a bow. Bottom line is that I don’t have to explain it. All I have to do is tell you that I’ll be packing Ol’ Betsy out to Montana. Those feelings might change after my first Western bear hunt, but I’m really happy about the fact that I’ll be able to handle anything from a 15 yard ambush setup on a logging road to long range cross-canyon shooting into an open clearcut.

Here’s the bullet drop chart that I put together for the butt of my gun.

With a prone steady rest, minimal crosswind, and an exact yardage, I will feel confident to shoot out to 400 yards if need be. That would be holding just off the hairline at 400 yards. I’m waiting until next week when dad brings my rifle up from North Carolina to shoot some different loads through it, but that gun has historically shot extremely well with Winchester SilverTips. Something else will have to really impress me to make a switch.

One of the toughest parts of bear hunting is judging bear size and quality. That task gets exponentially harder as distance increases. Not wanting to unknowingly tag out on a sub-par bear is one motivation to get close. One of the main reasons I bow hunt for elk is because I like “in my face” animal encounters. Despite the fact that I’ll be carrying a center-fire rifle on this trip, the goal will still be to cut the distance as short as possible. If as short as possible still means 300 yards, I’ll be no less thrilled to fill my tag!

I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that another reason for toting a rifle is the ever-present possibility of a grizzly bear encounter run amuck. Those odds are probably lower than the 4th floor of my office building caving in on my head in the next 20 minutes, but they are on the landscape and odds are we’ll at least run across some grizzly sign over the course of our 9.5 day hunt.

Anyways, ‘Ol Betsy will be arriving in just a couple days, so I’ll be sure to post my final choice for ammunition and range practice update as the days tick down.

Dissecting a Black Bear Hunting Honey Hole
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So what makes a certain location an absolute mecca for black bears? I have no certain knowledge. I have ideas based on facts, theories, experiences, hunches, and descriptions I’ve assembled from others, but I have no prior knowledge of NW Montana and how it relates to actual bear hunting. This all begs to question – how in the heck do I plan to narrow down NW Montana to the “best of the best”. To start, I’ve looked for a few key components – 1) hard to get to either from a road access standpoint or from a rugged terrain perspective, 2) lots of openings – be they clearcuts, select cuts, above timberline clearings, or old wildfires, 3) aspects that range from southwest swinging over to southeast, and 4) good glassing points that open up the southern exposed openings to a good set of optics. Still, there are zillions of these places located throughout NW Montana.

For me, planning is half (at least!) the fun and I went overkill in selecting precisely 30 locations that I deemed top-notch. Some of those can be hunted in half a morning, others probably can’t be adequately hunted over a 2 or 3 day span. No way we get to over half those spots, but we definitely won’t be stuck in the situation of wishing we had game-planned more. What I have done for my 30 locations is systematically laid each out. After 2 or 3 days of hunting, we should have a decent idea of what is and isn’t working. Based on the characteristics of those locations that are producing lots of bear sign, sightings, and/or shot opportunities, I can then look at my comprehensive list to match up other most similar spots. Here’s how I have them each broken down…

***What do I call the spot?*** This name lands on each and every map – aerial, topo, US Forest Service, Gazetteer, and Motor Vehicle Use Map – so that I can keep tabs on each spot easily.

***What national forest or wilderness is the spot located?”*** This helps organize from the top-down…the first point is more “bottom-up”.

***If it’s a national forest, what district?”*** This determines what map to pull out…

***Primary aspect*** True southern aspect or a slight bend towards the west or east?

***Minimum and maximum elevation of the prime openings I’m looking to target in each spot*** Snowpack will track closely with elevation and this shortcut data will save looking at lots of topos in the field to judge what spots are and aren’t accessible.

***Trail miles required*** Some will have none, some will have LOTS!

***Snowpack*** I’ll update this Excel column in the last 10 days before the trip from NOAA’s interactive snow model webpage.

***Any other notes I deem appropriate***…clearcut or natural opening…approximate age of clearcut, etc.

You should know by now that I overkill the details, but the details are what add up and compound to achieve success (and luck of course!). I’m convinced of it…whether those details are as small as being organized, or having 3 pounds less in your pack, or getting to the top of the ridge at 2:31 PM instead of 2:32 PM because you had to take an extra breather on the vertical climb up…the way we’ve over-analyzed each spot and all the associated maps is one more detail in the “more likely to succeed” bin. The next month and a half can’t go by fast enough!

Rain Gear Upgrades – Marmot Super Mica Jacket and PreCIP Pants
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My gear list hasn’t changed too much – same sleep system, same baselayers, same cook system, same pack, same everything mostly…I really only switched up my optics and my rain gear. The Driducks were a good idea and they served a 2-week stint in Colorado 2 years ago. I had issues with them though. Too loose fitting to be functional if you were doing anything other than being stationary. Not durable enough to withstand…well, anything. They did keep you dry, but that was about all. Knowing that the climate of NW Montana has the potential to throw a lot more adverse weather at us than the Colorado high country, I wanted something that would keep me dry AND let me move about to continue hiking, hunting, or what have you.

The answer was a long list of products that Andrew researched and found some great deals ranging from Stoic’s Vaporshell line (which he chose on a great deal from Backcountry.com) to some higher end stuff from Marmot, North Face, and other quality backpacking gear companies. Truthfully, the higher end stuff wasn’t even on my radar until I checked eBay and found a barely used Marmot Super Mica jacket in my size. I ended up snagging it for $45 shipped…STOLE IT!!! That jacket retails for between $150 and $200 and the reviews were stellar. Around 6 ounces in my size and a tight fit that will allow me to keep moving even in a downpour. Durable enough to withstand basic abuse and bragged about for its breath-ability. I was real excited to have that jacket show up at my doorstep.

For the pants, Andrew and I both purchased a pair of Marmot PreCIP pants off Sierra’s Trading Post for $45. This is less than half of the standard retail price and it was another great deal that we couldn’t pass up. I almost quadrupled my investment in rain gear from the Driducks of old, but I think the upgrade will “bear” itself out for a great return on investment. That pun was so forced…sorry!

Caltopo – Maps on the Cheap!
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High-resolution, waterproof maps aren’t cheap. For each area, you’ll pay between $10-$20 depending on your source – MyTopo being one that I’ve dealt with in the past and which I will do business with again in just a week or two. Caltopo is now another player in this market.

It’s probably the simplest venue I’ve used and it allows you to make maps CHEAP! It takes some extra steps on your part, but I’m using it to cut my map budget from $90 down to about $30. For our MT bear hunt, I would probably have had to buy 5 or 6 MyTopo maps to cover the extent of all the areas on my radar. That probably seems ridiculous to those of you familiar with just how much area one MyTopo map can cover, but remember – snowpack – that all powerful ‘X’ factor will likely force us to become highly adaptable as many of spots on my Google Earth that I’ve place marked won’t be accessible. Some won’t be green. Other guys will be hunting them. Etc. For some of the more isolated areas – just one drainage or just one side of one isolated mountain with some recent timber activity – Caltopo lets you generate your own custom maps and print them to a PDF – did I mention totally custom. Most people don’t have a printer that can handle 11″x17″ paper, but Kinkos will make black-white copies (US Forest Service layer) of that size for only 19 cents each!

Instead of buying a $15 MyTopo to catch 2 isolated areas in the middle of the Lolo National Forest, I can just make an 11×17 PDF of each, print off multiple copies in case one gets wet, and save myself $14. In fact, this is what I do. For each area I want to investigate, I’ve got 2 copies of each of the following: 11×17″ MyTopo, Forest Service District map, Forest Service Motor Vehicle Use Map, and an aerial image usually made from Bing Maps “Birds Eye” view. I carry all 8 sheets of paper in a freezer Ziploc and swap baggies at the truck depending on where we are hunting. Way more versatility in terms of what kinds of map and information I’m carrying, a back-up in case of rainy weather, and still beats the weight of a single MyTopo by a couple ounces.

Here’s how Caltopo works…Generate the map
All sorts of layers – topos topos with shading, topos with aerial underlays, satellite imagery, draw in your own points, lines, and polygons, add layers that show viewshed (e.g., “how much ground could I see if I was sitting right here”), old wildfire perimeters, where will the sunlight be shining at 4:00 PM, you can even add in your own layers if you have 2 coordinates to accurately reference and overlay against the base maps provided.

An example of the viewshed…all the red-shaded area is ground you can see with your butt planted in the exact location you choose.

Print the map
Sure, you can order your maps just like on MyTopo, but I’m using the service to choose the “Generate PDF” option. You can choose your page size, map scale, what coordinates the gridlines will be, and a couple other options.

Once you have your PDFs on a thumbdrive, mosey over to your local Kinkos and start printing. Just that simple. I don’t think it’s a total replacement for MyTopo, but it will definitely save you lots of money in those “Man, I wish I didn’t have to buy a whole map just to get this one little area I’m interested in” situations.

I’ve got a lot of those situations – 13 to be exact. Not sure I can handle the $2.47 pricetag…excuse me, $4.94 – I have to print doubles…OUCH!!!

Colorado Preference Points – Future Hunt Plans…
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To break the flow of the bear hunt content, I got dad started on accumulating some elk preference points in Colorado that will likely be directed towards a September muzzleloader tag in a few years. It’s worth pointing out that some hunts can happen on “accident” but most require years of planning, preparation, and effort.

I purchased what will be mule deer preference point #3. I don’t foresee a reason to bail on our OTC archery elk honey holes anytime soon, but I am in point gathering mode to cash in on an early season high country mule deer hunt in another 3 or 4 years. Maybe archery, maybe rifle in some of the alpine wilderness units.

A big velvet muley is definitely on my long-term wishlist!

Infolinks 2013