Montana Spot and Stalk Black Bear
By: Jim Kinsey
Suddenly stopping mid-stride, I slowly turned to Jana and whispered, “You’re going to kill this bear!” Not far below us a nice, fat, black bear stood, its hide glistening in the evening light. Quietly dropping our packs we both knelt down trying to make the least amount of noise possible. The slightest sound and this bear would be nothing but a memory. Unfolding the bipod on her new .300 WSM, Jana laid down in the prone position as the unsuspecting bruin continued to feed 150 yards away. With a Nosler AccuBond loaded up front it was “go time”. Suddenly, the wind switched, blowing towards the bear. Just then, he lifted his head and looked in our direction. “Jana when he turns broadside, take him” I said, watching the bear through the viewfinder of my SONY video camera. Just then, I heard the sound of her safety click off.
Spring bear season is an old tradition in the Kinsey family. My brother Al and I have been hunting bruins since moving to Montana in 1985. Back then, we would scour the hills in search of bears on our big, red, three-wheelers. Although we learned a lot through trial and error we would have saved ourselves a lot of money on gas if we knew back then what we know today. Over the last 26 years we’ve taken some great DIY spot and stalk black bears during both the spring and fall seasons. My oldest son Walker took his first bear with my brother Al during the fall season. Excited at his success and wanting to share that with my girlfriend Jana, I laid out a plan to take her into some of the areas that have produced some great bears for us over the years. New to Montana, Jana became a resident last fall and was able to harvest a nice whitetail buck on public land. Although we weren’t able to hunt fall bear, I promised to take her spring bear hunting when the season arrived.
Montana’s spring bear season typically opens April 15th and runs until the end of May in most districts. Many units have now extended the season by two weeks due to poor elk calf and deer fawn recruitment due to predation by bears, mountain lions, and wolves. We wanted to help do our part in keeping the bear population in check. I knew that a spot and stalk hunt would be a great addition to the new show I am currently producing called Skull Bound. This show is a bit different from the traditional outdoor show as each week host Jana Waller meets up with the world’s most outrageous characters as she hunts, fishes and searches out the next skull to embellish.
Finally, the snow in the high country began to show signs of receding. Soon, the bears would be seeking out the sunny, south-facing slopes in search of fresh, succulent grasses. It was the first week of May and with over 31 days to trek the old logging roads, avalanche chutes and clear cuts I knew that Jana would have her chance to score on one of the 30,000 bears that call Montana home.
My son Walker also accompanied Jana on the first hunt as he and Jana hoped to harvest bears under the big sky. We began our first search in a walk-in area that included tons of clear cuts and avalanche chutes, many of which faced south. Jana, Walker, and I listened to the wind in the treetops while hiking in along a swollen stream. “It’s really blowing hard today. Going to be tough to glass in these conditions” I said, while Jana and Walker led the way up the trail. Watching out for snags falling was a real threat and all of us were on high alert. After a 500-foot vertical climb we reached a lookout point that allowed us to see multiple ridges, rocky cliff faces and small openings in the timber. It was the perfect lookout point to glass bears from. Looking for spring bears requires long periods of time behind binoculars. My new S4 lockdown optic system made the long glassing sessions much more enjoyable. By mid-morning the wind was blowing even harder, making glassing a real challenge. Several trees below us crashed down into the creek. “Time to go guys, it’s just too dangerous up here today” I said, as we wrapped up the video shoot. No bears were spotted on the first outing, but with lots of time to hunt and country to explore, I was excited to try out several of my “bear honey holes” in the coming days.
Several days later, we headed up an old logging road in my beat-up Toyota Tundra. Walker, seated in the back on the passenger side, looked intently out his small window for any signs of bears along the canyon walls. Jana, seated up front, watched out her side as I spoke of my many bear sightings in this area. Just then, Walker’s voice broke the silence of the morning ride. “Bear, right there, and he’s a good one. Let me out!” he urgently exclaimed. Directly across from us, a beautiful cinnamon bear stood broadside watching us drive up the old road. Caught with our pants down, Walker tried to get situated for a shot as the bear made his getaway uphill through some burnt timber. Walker ran down the slope and sat down trying to line up on the bear which had stopped for a brief moment. “Boom,” we heard the sound of his .300 WSM going off. Jana and I watched the bear move uphill before disappearing into some rugged cliffs. “I missed him clean Dad and hit that rock. If only he would have stood still for one more second,” Walker said with a look of disappointment. We still went to the area where Walker shot at the bear to make sure he wasn’t hit and it was a clean miss!
Jana, excited at seeing a bear only minutes into our hunt was ready to look for the next bruin. A half hour later we crept up the old road towards a nice south-facing slope. The snow still clung to the north facing slopes in defiance of spring’s arrival. A huge black bear showed up unexpectedly, walking along a skidder trail below us. Startled again, the three of us tried to get on the bear. Before we could get off a shot the bear made a mad dash for the thick alder-infested creek bottom. “That’s bear hunting. It’s 90 percent boredom and 10 percent excitement” I said, looking over towards Jana. Climbing to the opposing ridge, we searched high and low for that bear, which we estimated would square well over 6 ft. With the bear long gone we moved to another area that looked like prime black bear habitat. Lots of hours behind the glass proved to be useless the rest of the day as none of us could lay eyes on another bruin.
After a day of catch-up at the office, it was back to where we had run into the large six-footer that gave us the slip. With Walker back in school, Jana and I walked in behind a closed gate and began glassing during the last 3 hours of daylight. Seven hundred yards away, a blond bear fed in a greened-up clear-cut. “Jana I’ve got one, he’s up there on the top of that ridge feeding on fresh green grass” I said, still watching the bear’s every move. The race was on! Jana and I headed up towards the bear. We both knew the wind wasn’t perfect for this stalk, but decided to give it a go anyway. A half hour later, we both turned the corner on the last switchback. “There he is right there!” I said, motioning to the blond fur ball moving slowly across the ridge. Two hundred yards above us, the blond bear fed on succulent glacier lilies while Jana tried to get a clear shot as it moved across a small opening. Filming the entire hunt, I locked down the tripod and punched the “record” button. The bear stopped midstride and turned to look down hill. “He’s got our wind Jana. Time to drop the hammer” I whispered, while watching the bear sit down and lift his nose into the air. Jana fired her .300 WSM, but missed him clean. The blond bear wasn’t sticking around for a follow up shot as he made a mad dash for the timber. Right then I knew something was wrong. “I think your scope is off, we need to check it” I said, still sweating from our ½ mile run.
We both knew that somehow the scope must have shifted since our last shooting session at the range. Setting up a piece of paper, we made a bullseye and pinned it up to an old stump. Jana fired a round and it hit 6 inches high and to the left. After dialing in her scope, she fired two more rounds both of which hit dead center, but 2 inches high. Reassured that her rifle was driving tacks, we planned on hunting a different area the next day. I explained that my brother Al and I had taken several big, spring and fall bears in this area, so Jana was excited.
Early the next morning Jana and I headed an hour’s drive east of my home. The morning was clear and cool with a chance of showers in the afternoon. Following my HuntingGPSmaps.com software, we drove up the mountain, following the roads to a great vantage point. Along the way, I caught movement out of the corner of my eye. There, 70 yards away, a huge mountain lion slinked away through the lodge pole pine. Jana was able to catch a glimpse of him before he disappeared. “You don’t see that every day,” I said, while putting my camera away. “Did you get any footage of him?” Jana asked. “Yes I did, but only a few seconds worth.” I said, as our hands hit with a high-five. With a mountain lion under our belt we continued up the mountain to a gated-off logging road. From there we would walk to the head of the drainage and see if any bears were around.
We spent the next few hours hiking in on the gated road searching for any signs of a Montana spring bear. We spotted a few mule deer and a moose, which Jana practiced her stalking skills on. After an entire day of scouring the area, we decided to head for the truck. On our trek back, I cautiously watched the slopes below us. Suddenly, I stopped dead in my tracks and Jana followed suit. One hundred and fifty yards below, a nice bear was feeding away from us totally unaware of our presence. Jana slowly dropped her Badlands pack and chambered a 180-grain Nosler AccuBond. I followed suit, but instead of chambering a round I leveled out my Miller tripod and hit the “record” button on my video camera. All those days of packing the camera where about to pay off with another episode for our show! Jana eased into the prone position and settled the cross hairs on the bear’s front shoulder. Time seemed to stand still as the bruin fed on the new shoots of grass below. Two minutes later, the bear sat down presenting Jana with a perfect broadside shot. “Take him now! I think he’s got our wind” I said, still recording away. “Whoomp” the AccuBond found its mark and dropped the bear dead in his tracks. “You got him Jana…he’s not going anywhere!”
After much celebration, we collected ourselves and headed down the slope to see Jana’s first Montana bear, and what a bear he was! Sporting a thick, black coat and long claws it was apparent this nice boar hadn’t been out of the den very long. We both snapped a ton of production stills for Skull Bound TV before the last rays of light sank behind the peak of the Bitterroots. Eight days of pounding the Montana backcountry rewarded Jana with a great bear. Spot and stalk bears are tough and for those willing to “keep on keeping on,” the rewards are measured in smiles. Jana’s smile was as big as the Montana sky as we headed back to civilization. It goes to show, nothing comes easy in life and in Jana’s case her never give up attitude is why her hunt was a success.