We went by jet boat up Idaho’s Salmon River, a rampaging wilderness waterway that stymied Lewis and Clark on their way to the Pacific. But they didn’t have jet boats.
They didn’t have a Winchester Model 70 Featherweight .30-06 rifle and Leupold 2.5-8X36mm VX-III scope, either, so I was way ahead of the curve. We motored slowly up slack-water runs and powered noisily over standing waves and rapids. We watched not just shorelines, but vast reaches of the bordering mountains freshly greened by spring grass sprinkled with bright yellow arrowleaf, balsamroot, and a dozen other native wildflowers.
We were looking for black bears, descendants of the same bears the Voyage of Discovery probably saw during their trip in 1805. That’s one of the wonders of hunting: We can still hunt the same species in the same places as our forefathers, thanks in large measure to dedicated hunter-conservationists who put an end to market hunting and initiated modern wildlife management.
After 100 years of continuous seasons, Idaho’s black bear populations are as high as ever, possibly higher thanks to an increase in elk, a species Lewis and Clark found in short supply in Idaho’s mountains. Black bears are the number one predator on elk calves in the state.
“There’s one. Way up near those pines,” my young guide from Shepp Ranch pointed out. We beached the boat, set up the spotting scope, and studied the bruin as it studied the vegetative smorgasbord spread before it. Spring bears are hungry bears, gobbling grass, wildflowers, winter-killed elk, new elk calves, and anything else they can find to fill their hibernation-emptied bellies.
“Nope. Cubs back in the trees. She’s a sow.” So back to the river we went.
In the end we found our older boar by hiking back in the hills, glassing the many back draws and canyons as we went, seeing bears hidden from the river.
“Glass and stalk,” I said. “My favorite technique until I’ve hiked too far and climbed too high. Then it’s fun to get back in the boat.”
Either way, you cover a lot of country and see a lot of bears. This is important in order to find just the right, big, old boar. You can’t assess meat quality visually, but you can coat quality. Hunt for a big bear with a lush, full coat and, if it’s been feeding on fresh salad since emerging from hibernation, chances are the meat will be sweet.
“Three hundred yards,” my guide said as we contemplated the burly black bear we’d stalked our final day. It was feeding voraciously, chomping as it moved steadily up a sidehill canyon off the main river. The .30-06 barked once, twice, a third time, and the bear came tumbling down, fairly hit by a couple of 165-grain Nosler Ballistic Tip handloads. The pelt was perfect and the steaks as sweet as I’d hoped.
This next bear followed a tough act. Three yearling cubs had hit the bait first, squabbling and climbing to fight for their turns at the beaver carcass our guide, Wally Mack of W&L Guide Service, had hung from a cross-pole deep in the Alberta parklands. Just getting to this bait site was a spring outdoor adventure. Ruffed grouse were drumming and beavers were carving the glassy waters of numerous backwoods streams and ponds. Yellow-rumped warblers twittered through the budding aspens. Ravens croaked and swooped. Canada geese honked and bufflehead ducks posed and dived. The Northwoods were coming back to life after a long, deep winter.
I sat quietly in the treestand, camera as ready as my Mossberg lever-action .30-30 rifle. It sat in the corner, zeroed with a 3-9X36mm Swarovski Z3, ready to drive Hornady’s 160-grain Monoflex bullet home. In the other corner hung my other cannon, a Canon 7D fitted with a 70-200mm f-2.8 lens and 1.4X teleconverter. During the hunt I shot hundreds of rounds through that “gun,” but just one through the Mossberg.
That’s what’s so special about hunting black bears over bait: shots are close and sure. And the whole hunt is a watchable wildlife moment. Small bears, big bears, old bears, young bears. You watch them come boldly, cautiously, furtively, happily, hungrily. They get easy meat and you get a show, plus plenty of time to assess them carefully and pick out a boar. The young cubs will be lucky to have the dangerous predator gone; big boars eat cubs as readily as fawns and beaver carcasses. Studies have shown that removal of cranky old boars results in an increase in total bear populations.
After three days of photography, I finally selected my old bruiser. One shot from the Mossberg ended his free lunch.
If jet boating, glassing and stalking, and bait watching didn’t appeal to the bear hunter in me, my Vancouver Island boat hunt with Darren DeLuca’s Vancouver Island Guide Outfitters surely did. I’ll admit, this is a lazy man’s route to bear. The boat motor does most of the walking. I just enjoyed the ride, the view, and the seafood guide Kim Cyr and I plucked from the water and steamed over beach fires.
Bears foraged on the upper reaches of grassy beaches amid gorgeous shooting star wildflowers and sedges. Bald eagles, ospreys, swans, mergansers, seals, and more enlivened the periods between bear sightings. We hiked a bit, boated a lot, and glassed and stalked many bears before choosing a boar that proved to be battle-scarred and tooth-worn from a hard, beach-bumming life. One 150-grain Barnes TTSX from a Borden Timberline 7mm Remington Magnum topped with a Swarovski Z5 3.5-18X44 dropped the bear in its prints.
There’s more than one way to skin a bear.