The Importance of Season Dates – Hunting Out West
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At a minimum, my brain is always at least a little preoccupied with mulling over future hunt plans. Mule deer or elk? This state or that state? Apply for a tag this year or just grab another preference point? Go for an early season hunt or try a late season rut hunt? Tackle this new area or go back to where I have gotten results before? Got to remind my hunting buddy to not miss that draw deadline… On and on it goes.

In laying out a long-term hunt planning calendar, I sketched out the next 5 or 6 years of plans. It’s a crowded list and work/family-vacation schedule will dictate many of my hunting plans; however, there are certain things that exert more influence on my decision to say — hunt the 3rd mule deer season in Colorado in 2015 or 2016. One of those most important things is season dates.

Here are 4 things I’m looking at relative to how season dates can create a better situation for success in my future backcountry plans, first starting with an example from back East that I’ve seen play out numerous years in the past.

In North Carolina, it’s uncanny how a group of shooter-sized bachelor bucks can be sticking to a twice-a-day, during the daylight, almost to the minute schedule during the last week of August and through Labor Day weekend of September. It’s also uncanny how that same group of bucks will break up as velvet starts to tighten and become extremely unpredictable just a day or two before the start of archery season comes in. Obviously they have a calendar…sure does seem like it. It’s actually really intelligent management by the state wildlife agency in charge of managing the resource, a week earlier start date to archery season would create conditions where mature bucks are too vulnerable to harvest. It’s not by accident that the NCWRC starts archery season when they do – that being said, in years where archery season shifts a couple days earlier than normal, those are prime conditions to maximize chances at a still-in-his-summer-pattern archery buck.

4 examples out West:

*I don’t know the exact determinant for how season dates are set in Colorado, but it must go something like this…X season will start on the 2nd Saturday of November. Just like Thanksgiving can show up early and late in one year versus the next, so can certain states’ season dates. In 2015, the 3rd season mule deer hunt starts on October 31 and runs 9 days. In 2016, that same season starts on November 5 and runs 9 days. That is a huge difference when colder weather and proximity to the rut are the biggest contributors to a boom versus a bust year’s harvest. Lots of guys holding those PPs waiting for the season dates to roll around more in favor a big swell-necked muley buck.

*Dad is building points for a early muzzleloader tag in the areas where we OTC archery elk hunt. It’s hellacious country and we’ll recruit the help of a packer to get us in and out, but we’ll likely wait for a year where the muzzy season dates are pushed as far back into September as possible to take advantage of the peak of the rut. If the tag and season dates can align, that’s a close to a slam dunk hunt for a big bull elk that I know of.

*Several sportsmen groups pushed for Colorado’s unique early rifle hunt (usually constrained to high elevation, above timberline areas or a few of the state’s wilderness areas to be pushed back a week. Competition with archery hunters and “unfair” susceptibility to harvest by long-range hunters was enough to get those season dates pushed back. Even so, those start dates will fluctuate in coming years between the 5th or 6th of September and mid-teen dates. Similar to the NC situation, early season dates will encourage far more of those big high country mule deer to be still in velvet and still be at or above timberline before dropping into the dark timber until the November rut.

*Those are very specific situations, but here’s an example of how season date structure can positively affect a whole state’s hunt quality in certain years. Wyoming is such a state. Regardless of where the 15th or the 1st or the 10th or the whatever other date falls in terms of Monday versus Thursday versus Sunday…that’s when the season starts. This creates situations where opening day pressure can be severely inflated if the start date coincides with a weekend opener. Conversely, an opening day on Tuesday might really weed out the competition for a season opener.

Use these tips as you plan your long term hunt schedule. Many states publish 5-year plans and I’ve been using those to organize the 7 or 8 trips I want to take in the next 5 to 6 years. Just one more method to the madness!

Montana Black Bear Hide and Skull
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I was excited to receive my Montana black bear’s hide and skull back from the taxidermist. The skull was exceptionally cleaned by beetles. The hide, which we skinned out ourselves in the backcountry, was simply processed as a normal “pelt”. No frilly rugwork or modifications. I was really pleased with how it turned out as well.

We aren’t sure exactly where the hide’s final resting place will be, but I do know that it’s awesome to have such tangible memories of that great hunt in NW Montana. I’ve had plenty of questions through emails from people planning their own spot-and-stalk black bear hunts as a result of my blog posts. If you’re kicking around the idea of doing a similar hunt – or, for that matter, any other hunt that I’ve tackled through the years – feel free to reach out for help where needed. I’m more than happy to share what I’ve learned.

Trichinosis – Watch this video
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There would be absolutely zero chance of you contracting trichinosis from this bear shank roast, but trichinosis is a risk that anyone who hunts bear or feral hogs should be aware of. It has certainly been on my radar every time I’ve gone to the deep freeze to retrieve another package of butchered Montana high country black bear.

Steve Rinella, though I’m sure he is more aware of such risks that most of us, was not so lucky this past season and did get infected with trichinosis. To bring awareness to the risk and a little more clarity to hunters about trichinosis in general, he put together this excellent video which is well worth your time to watch.

My 2014 Hunting Recap
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The year began with a lot of “maybe” plans but nothing definite on the tables. My would-turn-out-to-be-bear hunting partner was up in the air on whether or not he would have to bow out due to a new job transition. My would-turn-out-to-be elk hunting partner just wasn’t sure if the year’s activities would allow him the necessary time to make an out West trip to Colorado. There was a lot of uncertainty on my behalf as well.

Before I knew it, things were falling into place and both trips went from maybe to definitely. I spent the months of April and May researching intel and maps for our 8-day Montana spring bear hunt. We filled one of our 2 tags and had an awesome time. The full recap of that hunt can be found back in the May (Part 1) & June (Part 2, Part 3) 2014 archives.

With the bear hunt behind me, I began to look forward to a 10 day hunt in the Colorado high country for archery elk. Countless more hours were spent pouring over maps and planning the ultimate DIY backpack hunt. If you go back and read the account, you’ll see that we almost stretched ourselves too thin. We had the best 2.5 days of elk hunting either of us will likely ever experience and were rewarded with 2 great elk.

With most of my time already spent for the year, I was able to get out ten times deer hunting here in Ohio and filled 2 doe tags – one with archery and one with shotgun.

Nothing quite as exciting as the bear or elk hunt planned for 2015, but I’ve got a couple things up my sleeves. Let’s just say that I don’t plan on neglecting the whitetail quite so much in 2015.

Reflections on Expectations – Montana Black Bear Hunt 2014
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While our hunt came up just short of reaching legendary status, it was an unreal experience – more or less fulfilling all my expectations and hopes of what it would be.

We knew going in there was 10.7% success rate on bears in 2013. To kill a bear defeated the odds, to nearly kill 2 – can’t ask for much more than that. My bear came from Montana unit 102 which yielded 13 sows and 26 boars for the entire spring season. Considering how large the unit is, I feel pretty blessed to have taken one of those boars.

We came up well short of my 1 bear sighted per day average, but then again, we never saw a single sow or sow with cubs. As long as we could ID gender, those would just have padded our total sightings numbers and not really have been potential harvest opportunities. Nevertheless, the 4+ days we went without a bear sighting was definitely a grind. Fortunately, we both felt as if every day we were honing our focus and getting closer and closer to figuring out where exactly we needed to be glassing and hunting.

We didn’t spend quite as much time hunting as I had expected. I think in my original “expectations” post, I said we would be hunting morning, midday, afternoon, and evening. Bottom line – you can’t sustain 20 hours of hunting per day. Literally, if you hunt until 10:45 PM, have camp set up by 11:30 or midnight, eat supper and get in the sleeping bag by 1:30 AM, you would have to set the alarm for 4:30 AM to catch first light’s action, that’s 21 hours of activity every day. It just didn’t happen. It couldn’t happen. If there is such a thing as too much daylight, then we experienced it.

To close up the posts from this hunt, here is a paragraph I copy-pasted from the “expectations” post.

So, what are my expectations? I’m GOING to be see big country in a beautiful state. I’m GOING to see lots of critters – moose, elk, deer, bear, birds, who knows what else. I’m GOING to hunt hard. I’m GOING to be spending time with a great friend. I’m GOING to be sore. I’m GOING to be miserable. I’m GOING to satisfied. I’m GOING to be exhilarated. I’m GOING to be sore (I know it’s in the list twice). I’m GOING to be grateful for every breath of fresh air I draw. I’m GOING to have the safety off on my rifle with a bear in my crosshairs within range. I’m GOING to have another hunt-of-a-lifetime. I MIGHT pull the trigger.

Sure did. Sure did. Sure did. Sure did. Sure was. Sure was. Sure was. Sure was. Sure was. Sure am. Sure did. Absolutely sure did. I did.
Expectations fulfilled.

“Hindsight’s 20/20” – Montana Spring Bear Hunt
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Well, this will be the post where I list all the things I wish I would have listened closer to (thankfully not too many) and things I learned (many many many) that I’ll be sure to implement if and when there is a next spring black bear in NW Montana.

I looked back at over 20 pages of PMs and emails that I received in response to a laundry list of questions I asked over the winter and early spring in preparation for our adventure. Here are some things I was told (in italics) and then I’ll note how much I found them to be true.

Things related to bear crap – “look for green bear poop”, “you should see bear droppings with some regularity if there are bears in the area”, “If you’re not seeing scat, tracks in the mud/snow, or torn up stumps, you should probably keep moving”…lots of comments similar to this. I can tell you that we saw a grand total of 10 or 12 piles of bear crap in 9 days. Our experience was a lot more like this guy’s quote…“For some stupid reason, I don’t see a lot of &$%# piles. If you walked through there, you would say, ‘there ain’t any bears here’, you wait til 6 oclock and night, you would go holy crap! Up in my [location] spot they must hold on to their $&#% like money.” Not only is that quote solid gold, it’s also spot-on with our experience.

Next…

“Concentrate on green young clover shoots”, “glacier lilies is like crack cocaine”, “balsam root but too much to really concentrate on” – yes, yes, and yes. I killed my bear on a logging road covered in young clover, we saw a couple bears dead center in glacier lily patches, and though the balsam root is pretty to look at, there is too much to really concentrate on.

“Southern exposure”, “south slope”, “south-facing slopes”, “anything but a north slope”, “mostly on south faces”. I’m guessing that if you have a sample size of 100 to draw from, there would be a south-facing bias – just too many people saying that to be an accident, BUT…we saw 2 bears on south slopes, one northeast, one east, and one north. Bottom line, cover ground and don’t ignore good looking areas just because they aren’t south facing. Lesson definitely learned for next time.

“I only saw a handful of hunters the whole week and all but one were just road hunting”. Yep, that was pretty much our experience. So much country, so few hunters (and most of the few are cruising roads, pressure is just not an issue. The hunt can be as easy-going or as rugged as you want it to be.

“Normally, by the end of May, you can drive most of the low and mid elevation roads, occasionally hitting a drift or avalanche pile in a north face or in a dark creek drainage.” Yep.

Don’t wholly trust the NOAA model. The resolution of the pixels is so large that it looked like the drainages of the Cabinets were snowbound. Not true. The upper slopes and peaks were, but the snowline in the valleys was basically what it was everywhere else. There was great country to hunt, but because I put too much stock in the computer model, we didn’t figure this out until late in our hunt – too late to take full advantage of hunting the remote drainages of the wilderness area. This one was on me, lesson learned.

A couple other things. I’ll probably try to take mountain bikes next time. For the NF hunting, having a mountain bike would have increased the amount of country covered exponentially. You spend so much time hiking through dark timber to get to the few open areas that will hold the bears. Being able to zoom through the non-productive areas would be awesome. Ideally, we’d go out with 4 guys next time. Drive to break up the gasoline bill (plus it would negate airfare, luggage charges, and logistical difficulties of bringing home meat and hide)…

…then have 2 guys hunting NF lands and the other 2 guys hunting the wilderness area. Take turns to keep fresh and pound country for 6 or 7 days. I’m pretty sure taking 2 or 3 bears would be very realistic.

Spend more range time shooting out past 300 yards. Country in the West is LARGE. Being 300 yards away sounds simple, but it ain’t. If one could confidently shoot out to 400 or 450 yards, the odds of successfully taking a bear would go up drastically.

Consider this entire sequence of posts – beginning to end – a template for you to plan your own DIY spring bear hunt. I’m happy to help in any way that I can, so contact me if you have further questions. One last post for the hunt – reflecting back on my expectations post – then on to something else.

Bear-b-que Recipe
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I’ve been surprised by how many people automatically assume that the bear meat isn’t fit for eating, and even if it is, consumption is surely a duty and can’t possibly qualify as an enjoyment. I’ve yet to have an “I don’t like wild game” person walk away from a properly prepared meal with the same sentiments, and I didn’t plan for this bear meat to be a first.

So how about my first meal of bear – uh, yum!

We prepared a bear shank roast using a recipe I got from a coworker a couple years ago. 7 or 8 years ago, I had a revelation about neck roasts. They are utterly delicious. 2 years ago, I had an epiphany about shank roasts. I already used the words “utterly delicious” for neck roasts, so whatever is tastier than that…think shank roasts.

2 pound shank roast
6 ounces of dry red wine
2 beef bullion cubes
1/2 pouch of dry French onion soup mix
1/2 pouch of dry Italian dressing mix
1/2 jar pepperocinis with juice (coarsely dice 8-12 peppers and use half the juice as well)

Combine all ingredients in a crock pot and cook for ~6 hours on high. Shred with fork and devour.

Spring Bear Hunt – Gear Reviews
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With ~90% of my gear just repeated from prior DIY hunts, there’s not much to say about most equipment. It performed splendidly and will not be replaced. There were a few new items though and here’s my take on them now.

Outdoor Research Gaiters (model: Crocodiles) – absolute must if post-holing through snow drifts is a regular occurrence. We got pretty good about predicting when post-holing was inevitable, and only wore them when necessary. That being said, they kept our boots dry and drastically cut down on the wear and tear to boots, pants, and legs. When the situation calls for them, they will definitely be part of my attire. Grade: A

Minox compact spotter and Vortex Summit tripod – yes and yes. This was the most I have ever gotten to use my Minox spotter and loved it. Never fogged up, was able to take clear pictures through it, and didn’t wear my eyes out peering through it. I do wish it was higher magnification, but I knowingly chose weight over zoom, so I can live with that. I also loved my new tripod. One of the most compact, ultra-lightweight tripods on the entire market and I highly recommend it. Very sturdy and operation is simple. The only issue I had was that the attachment plate to the spotter would annoyingly come loose from time to time. Working on figuring out the best fix for that, but otherwise, no complaints. Grades: A- and B+.

Avenga’s Map PDF app for iPhone. Grade: A+++. No review, just get it. It’s free. And awesome.

Reddington Recharge Pants. I’m now a man with divided love. I do love my Target C9 golf pants (seen in picture below), but I now have split loyalties. The Reddington’s (seen in picture above) are even more lightweight than Target’s pants, probably slightly less durable though. However, the addition of cargo pockets makes it a slightly more functional pair. My only complaint is that there was only 1 back pocket – right butt cheek. I prize my back pockets, so that kind of annoyed me, but otherwise I’ll be looking for more next time Sierra Trading Post is running specials on them. I looked back at my receipt from March – $21.99!!!!!!! Grade: A

Sawyer MINI water filter. Definitely a slightly slower flow rate than the original, but this filter is basically awesome. Never had to back-flush over 9 days and never ended up with chronic diarrhea – a win-win. Seriously though, you won’t find a more efficient means of filtering water in the backcountry. Grade: A+.

A couple other items were new to the list: Marmot rain jacket/pants – worked awesome for the few rains we got, but didn’t really get to test them out on an all-out day-long soaker, so I’ll reserve my judgment until that happens. I’m hopeful though. Havalon Piranta – best knife known to man.

One last thing – .270 Winchester Silvertips. Andrew and I both took flack for caliber and bullet selection while sighting in at our respective local shooting ranges. I think the real reason is that people hear “bear” and instantly think 600 pounds of heavy artillery trying to maul you. Reality is that 95% of spring bears out West will weigh less than 250 pounds and are really just an average sized Midwest whitetail. The proof is in the pudding (…actually in the bear roast currently simmering in the crock pot at home) and I’ll have no qualms about toting the same set-up if and when there is a next time. For you gun/bullet nuts, bullet retention was between ~60-70% and lodged just under the skin following 19-21″ of penetration…TKO.

Actually this will be the last thing, if I haven’t been able to talk you into a puffy yet, maybe this plug will be the one to push you over the edge. You owe it to yourself, buy one. Now. Seriously. It is the miracle garment. You will not be sorry. Puffy = awesome. For reals.

Montana Spring Bear Hunt – Day 9
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At this point in the hunt, Andrew was calling the shots on where and how to hunt. With rain in the forecast and some in-town intel on a hotspot of bear activity, we decided to use the truck for the bulk of our activities on the last day of hunting. Driving up to different overlooks and road closures, we planned to cover a lot of ground quickly in an effort to locate a last-day bear.

Seems like a good time to post a picture of our reliable and luxurious rental transportation.

We spent several hours through off-and-on rain showers glassing some great country. We saw some deer, saw some elk, even drove over and around several piles of bear poop, but no bears to be spotted.

(We didn’t take any pictures on this day, so I’ll sprinkle in some pictures off of Andrew’s camera)

Time was ticking on the hunt, but we had several conversations acknowledging how awesome it had been regardless of whether or not we could fill our second bear tag. The country we’d seen, the critters we’d watched, the bear we’d killed, the people we’d met – it had all been phenomenal.

With less than an hour left, we switch-backed up approximately 4 miles of narrow logging roads and parked at the closure gate which led to the backside of the mountain and an expansive drainage that had been logged heavily in the past 5-10 years.

Only 10 minutes into our last hike of the hunt, it was becoming speedily apparent that we had stumbled onto quite the game-rich mountain for a finale. Deer, elk, and moose were all encountered in the dwindling daylight.

Still walking on closed roads, we reached a final glassing spot where our binoculars swept the surrounding countryside a final time. But it just wasn’t meant to be – it was time to hike back to the truck.

BEAR!

I could not make this up. Literally as we were turning to leave, I swung my optics onto the largest black bear of the trip. He was waddling down a clover-covered logging road about 500 yards away and with only 10 minutes or so left of legal shooting light. His gait, pot belly, enormous shoulders, and “lack” of ears indicated he was a no-doubter for even the most accomplished of bear hunters.

Scramble mode would be an under-statement. It was more like “try not to die by falling down the mountain or by impaling yourself on one of the infinite blowdowns”.

The bear’s position was in our favor, but the timing most certainly was not. In order to reach the bear, we had to sidehill as fast as possible back into the heart of the mountain in order to come out on the next point which MIGHT put us in range of the bear.

We might very well have been in range at that point, but the heavy timber precluded us from getting a line of sight on the logging road he had been standing on, let alone the bear himself. Seconds mattered at this point and we had no choice but to try to come in hard, fast, and above the bear. Hard and fast meant noise and commotion. Above meant falling thermals.

It wasn’t a good set of ingredients and they did not make a good recipe. A long-range gun and sound shooting would have equaled a dead bear. The 10-minute sprint/stalk gave us one last fleeting glimpse of an escaping bear’s back end. Needless to say, it was a long final trudge back to the waiting vehicle.

A flat tire during the descent off the mountain added some salty sweat to the wound, but it was a heck of an exciting way to end our 2014 DIY Montana spring bear hunt. Heck, it just might have planted the seed for a next time!

I’ll finish off the post with a few more pictures. In coming posts you can expect retrospects on my hunt expectations, gear reviews, and things I would do differently/same if/when there is a next time.

Montana Spring Bear Hunt – Day 8
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Fully refreshed from a night’s sleep without roots jutting into my kidneys and free of mosquitoes dive-bombing my face, I woke to some more Montanan hospitality. A hot shower, plate full of bagels, and pot of caffeine were on the agenda. We spent a good bit of time trying to decide between 2 different drainages of the Cabinets and finally picked the one we thought gave us the best chance of killing a bear. It would be a beastly walk in – 3-4 miles on an established trail – then a 1500′ drag up a steep slope to find a boulder field. From the slide, we would be able to see into 5 different avalanche chutes way off the beaten path.

The first thing we encountered was this fresh avalanche debris field. Look closely where the slide meets the creek and notice the 10-15 feet worth of snow still buried.

For scale, the bottom of the slide was probably 200-250 yards in width. Massive power.

Lots of snow melt creating plenty of hazardous crossings – ranging from slightly to pretty darn hazardous.

This felled log is Department of the Interior’s ingenuity at its finest.

This creek crossing scored high on the hazardous spectrum.

After the long amble up the pack trail, it was time to split off into the side drainage that held our intended boulder field and avalanche chutes. It took us a little while to get the best line on attacking the ascending ridge spine, but we finally started chipping away at the elevation. Deadfall was horrendous in this area and every 10 feet involved climbing over, under, or around 5 logs.

Then it rained. Then things got slick. Then it rained some more. Then things got slicker. At this point, afternoon had worn into evening and there were some decisions to be made. Better judgment almost won out, but then we looked at the GPS. .23 miles to go. So close, no way we’re turning back now. After a breather, we put our noses down and kept trudging. At least 20 minutes later, we checked the GPS again. .17 miles to go. WHAT!

Re-calibrating our direction a little, we again set out but noticed the terrain getting steeper and steeper – if that was even possible. Eventually, we got to where our toes, knees, hips, hands, and noses were all within 6″ of the ground at any given time. Since my wife might read this, I won’t say it was dangerous, but it was definitely not comfortable. 20 more minutes of this absurdity and we decided it was time to check the GPS again. .14 miles left. Wow. To say this was a little disheartening was an understatement.

Bottom line was that we couldn’t go any further on our current route. Our 2-legged capabilities were maxed out with the wet, slippery conditions and the terrain was still getting more vertical. We had partial visibility back to the north where we could see bits and pieces of 3 of the 5 chutes, so we decided to unload our packs, eat some snacks, and do the best with what we had.

Lots of glassing, a few remarks going something like “I’m really not sure how bad I want to kill a bear all the way up in here”, and a bunch more raindrops later, and all we had to show for was a couple random cow elk filtering in and out of the green grass of the middle chute. Murphy had kicked our butts this night. Thankfully one of Murphy’s only victories of the trip, but Murphy never fails to show up at least once on an extended hunting trip. It was time to pull the plug and hump the 5 miles back to the truck.

We slowed a couple times to take some photos on the way back to the truck, but the mood was more or less somber as we knew one day left was all that remained to find Andrew a bear.

“I have generally gone into the woods weakened in body and depressed in mind. I have always come out of them with renewed health and strength, a perfect digestion, and a buoyant and cheerful spirit.” – Samuel Hammond

Infolinks 2013