Last month a friend from the gym invited me to New Brunswick to shoot some bears. This guided, private land trip over barrels of bait where the success rate was nearly 100 percent wasn’t my style, but it got my wheels spinning to start searching for more opportunities.
My goal was to hunt a bear on a do-it-yourself public land adventure where I had to literally find and stalk a bear by myself, as the allure for me is learning how to hunt these animals in their natural setting.
I started researching Alaskan grizzly bear archery hunts to put my 100-pound longbow to use, but quickly realized these have to be guided hunts by law and cost a pretty penny - around $20,000. However, after researching the lower 48 states, I learned that Idaho has the thickest population of black bears. And the best news was Idaho non-resident hunting licenses are the cheapest around: a black bear tag costs either $186 or $42, depending on which unit you choose, plus a hunter can get two tags. (In most states each tag costs around $400.)
I simply couldn’t wait for my upcoming September trip to get back to those Rocky Mountains. Initally, I wanted to book a trip in mid-May when I heard the action heats up, but my wife was on call then and the biologist I spoke with said late-April would be great. (Little did I know I was speaking with a fishing biologist who knew little of bear-hunting that far north.)
But my solo adventure versus the beast was on!
Plane tickets were only $301 round trip to Spokane, and with a 4x4 rental truck from Enterprise for $450, we were set for our 10-day excursion (two travel days, eight hunting days.)
Camping would have been free, but I found a nice cabin on a beautiful lake with a hot tub for my wife at $170 a night, and that was our only expense besides food, drinks and gas.
I had asked our local hunters for bear hunting advice, but no one gave me any insight, probably since the only thing most Cajuns know about bears is not to shoot one down here. I bought a 3D bear target and practiced with my bow throughout April.
I chose Unit 1 in Idaho because it’s the only one that doesn’t allow hunting over bait in the state, and that’s the best place for lottery tag moose hunting, which I also wanted to scout out for.
However, once my wife and clients understood I was in grizzly bear, wolf and cougar country, they insisted I take a gun. But, I ran into a problem with flying regulations: The case must be under 62 total inches (H+W+L), otherwise there is a $400 oversize charge to fly a weapon there and back. No gun case on the market that fits a full-sized rifle was small enough.
Luckily, my new .338 Fed tactical rifle breaks in half and fits nicely along with my takedown recurve bow, arrows, telescopic fishing poles and four-piece fly rods in a small 61-inch lockable case I purchased for $130. Flying the weapons was a breeze and only took an extra two minutes to check in at the airports.
After convincing my wife that the animals out there were extra-friendly, I only took the much heavier firearm for about half of my hunts depending on the spot I was in. It definitely was more thrilling being out there with just a stick, string and one pointy arrow.
What I learned in Idaho is that the woods are the thickest around. In many places, the furthest shot with a bow averaged 3 yards with only 10 yards of visibility. On top of that, about 80 percent of the land is almost not huntable because it’s so steep: Everything seemed to go straight up or straight down.
The first day I drove up a tall mountain and saw my first moose. I proceeded to hike up and follow this mountain cow into what I thought was a fog cloud. Wrong — it was a snow storm and I was in base clothing with no rain gear. I should’ve learned my lesson with the Rockies when I got trapped in a hail storm on Day 1 in Colorado, but Idaho refreshed me quickly on the unpredictability of mountain weather.
No weather alerts are available because there is no cell coverage, but the mountains are so steep even my truck’s satellite radio and my emergency spot communicator would seldom work. But I read that bears can be found on the steepest of bluffs, so that’s where I was headed.
After my first day of scouting, I realized cutovers were my best chances for success. And I was successful at seeing big game animals — hundreds of them — just not bears. I also learned I’d likely need my gun to reach out into these open areas, but some of the several year-old cutovers made for great areas to bow hunt.
Since open cutovers are the most productive way to hunt, many hunters become long-range rifle specialists because it’s much easier to get a shot at a bear in a cutover from the next mountain over (400 to 800 yards on most mountains.)
The black bears are feeding mostly on grass this time of the year because it’s easy on their stomachs, which haven’t been used all winter. The southern-facing open slopes grow grass the fastest, and that’s where it was recommended I focus my efforts.
Yet, the first day in a cutover, I instantly regretted not taking along the bow. I heard gobbling Merriam turkeys every few minutes, and I stalked two toms that were strutting and working a hen at just 10 yards. (I had purchased one of two available turkey tags before my trip.)
I ended up getting within 20 yards of about 12 hens (even 3 yards from one,) but the toms were slick and kept out of my recurve’s 30-yard range — except for one stalk where I got under four gobblers in trees who wouldn’t stop talking. I took an off-balance shot through the branches, but my arrow sailed just inches to the right of a big bird. With a shotgun, I could’ve shot a gobbler nearly every morning at one spot.
I even found a pair of nice sheds from a 12-point whitetail, but I wasn’t seeing bear sign in these turkey-filled bottoms so I ventured to higher elevations. I took my wife on a 12-mile hike and she got to see her first-ever moose and elk, when a giant 700-pound bull elk ran 10 yards in front of us.
But even I was surprised at what I saw next. A giant cougar that looked to be 8 feet long jumped out just 5 yards from our position and stared at us from 10 paces. I left my wife with the gun and went after it down the mountainside, armed only with a wounded fawn call and camcorder, but it was scared and never reappeared.
Apparently, we had walked passed its den or feeding grounds, because there were several animal skeletons along that mountainside.
The next day while bow hunting down a logging road, I talked to a truck driver who said he had shot a bear that had charged him until more shots finally put the beast down, and he never bear hunted again. I told him that only made me want to stick one with my bow even more.
The guy drove away saying, “I’ve never seen someone more excited about dying on a hunt before in my life.” I took it as a compliment, and figured that would be a story my wife didn’t necessarily need to hear.
Unlike grizzly bears, where it’s advised to play dead if attacked, the best way to survive a black bear attack is to fight. However, a black bear has the ability to detect scent 10 times more powerful than a blood hound, and will usually tuck and turn tail — a fact I would soon find out.
Unfortunately, after four days and 60 miles covered on foot, I had yet to see a bear track or droppings. I called the Idaho game office and spoke to a hunter this time, and he informed me that the bears that far north were probably just beginning to come out of their dens and weren’t moving around much.
Only one bear had been checked in the northern panhandle region after two weeks of bear season. Apparently, going early was similar to deer hunting down here when it isn’t the rut — the animals just don’t move much and sightings are rare.
Still, the biologist said there was a chance, so I put aside my back-up plan of fishing and kept at it. I was staying on Pond Orvielle, the fifth-deepest lake in America where a world record 37-pound rainbow trout was caught.
I headed over two hours from our place to an area where bears were causing the Forest Service problems because they were destroying tree bark. I ended up burning six tanks of gas in the 4x4 rental truck by the time the trip ended.
Incredibly, just as I had begun to explore this new area, I encountered a big black bear standing 70 yards away on a logging road totally unaware of my presence. I am unsure exactly how big it was for bears up there, but he was far larger than any of the dozen Louisiana black bears I’ve ever seen, with a much longer and prettier jet-black coat.
With black bears, a hunter needs to make sure it isn’t a sow nursing cubs. Since I was in the open, I tried to slowly backtrack to turn on my cameras, watch the bear and hopefully line up for a lethal shot with the gun. But I was quickly busted, and the bear took off into a thick patch of woods never to be seen again.
With renewed hope in those mountains, I stayed on the grind covering as much ground as possible. I ended up seeing only two bear tracks and two piles of droppings, but I did find plenty of productive areas to hunt in the future.
On the second-to-last day, I met a very nice bear hunter who is a long-range specialist and writer. That was the only hunter I saw the entire time. He said the bear hunting only gets better throughout May, as the temperature warms, and he hadn’t yet seen any bears that far north. He shoots a .338 Edge and practices shooting over a mile. His furthest bear was taken at 900 yards, and he’s still seeking his first 1-mile kill.
He said its best to start bear hunting at 9 a.m. and that the bears move better as the day progresses, with evenings being prime time. (I had been killing myself each morning starting at 5 a.m.)
Finally, on the last morning while bow hunting for turkeys, I enjoyed the coolest part of my trip: A huge moose shed that weighed 10 pounds and dwarfed the 12-pointer’s sheds I had found on Day 2. Still, the 12-pointer had two very cool devil horns that extended one inch from the base.
After eight full days of hunting and an estimated 110 miles of land covered by foot, I couldn’t get enough, and now I can’t wait to return. I’ll be back, but when the bears have fully awakened and are on the prowl, when I can duel them face-to-face instead of when they’re hiding in a den!
So I’m taking the positives from the trip, because in the second half the week I learned so much more about bear hunting and the area. The goal with me is never the kill, but the journey towards that shot and the course of becoming a better hunter in the process.
The other goal of my trip —to scout for future fall trips and compare Idaho with Colorado — was accomplished. I saw dozens of whitetails and mule deer daily. I averaged seeing multiple moose and elk daily, too, and found many spots where I can hunt them.
Idaho has some unique and accommodating hunting laws, as well as the cheapest tag prices around. A wolf, cougar or bear can be killed with any weapon in the fall season inexpensively, or a deer or elk tag can be used on them and five either-sex turkeys can be harvested in the fall season as well.
Come to find out, moose are the most dangerous animals out there. I was within 10 yards of several, but I have video of one very angry moose which let out three deep bellows before running sideways to me. It was incredible to see big-bodied whitetails, mules, moose and elk all within 100 yards of each other several times.
My wife had a great time running, hiking and relaxing in the hot tub while taking in the gorgeous scenery the entire week at the house we rented, and she can’t wait to go back next year. It’s very inexpensive, and a vacation spot we both loved.
The craziest scene from the whole trip took place the final Sunday morning. I realized my moose antler didn’t fit in our largest suitcase and all the airport shipping places were closed on Sunday. So I had to make a stop at the 24-hour FedEx in downtown Spokane with no time to spare.
But the largest Spokane road race of the year was just finishing, leaving most of the roads blocked off. I took off — decked out in camo — and sprinted half a mile through piles of runners holding up a huge moose antler screaming, “Where’s the FedEx?”
Luckily, that giant antler was shipped home and we ended up making our flight.