In Idaho, there’s a generous general bear season in the Spring and most of the state is open. Those hunts begin April 15th. However, there’s a draw hunt that begins April 1st, which means you can go right from cottontail season to bear season. I didn’t draw a tag, but my buddy Ryan did, and this is the story of a grand adventure that began with the pursuit of bears and ended with a once-in-a-lifetime encounter and the worst April Fools ever.
A Vow To Bears
I have vowed to not pursue turkeys this year until I have killed a bear. It seems like every year I get tempted by the ease of a morning turkey hunt and it keeps me from going after bears. My buddies always make it sound like it’ll be a quick and done hunt. “It’s my friend’s cousin’s wife’s family’s land and there are herds of turkeys running around: we can’t miss! We’ll be back by lunch with two birds each, guaranteed.” Yeah, you know how it goes.
The fact is that I could have spent that fuel money and the morning filling my bear bait, maybe sitting it a while to see if one comes in. Even if it takes me twice as many trips to get a bear killed, it’ll be eight times as much meat in the freezer plus a beautiful pelt and an intriguing skull. Whereas butchering turkeys leaves you with feathers all over creation, ten pounds of meat, a poultry smell in your fingernails, and I swear there’s been a downy feather stuck in the back of my throat since last season.
No, bears are the way to go. No turkeys until a bear is down.
Bears Like To Eat
Food is the thing that drives bears in the Spring. And in the Summer. And in the Fall. Find the food and you should find the bears.
Bears are up from hibernation and need calories. In the early Spring, that means eating grass and other plants. Until deer and elk throw their fawns and calves, there’s really not a lot of other options for bears. They’ll dig up some insects amongst the plants, but it’s mostly greens.
Studying maps, I found east-west drainages with large south-facing slopes that should lose snow early and start growing grass. Plus, the places I found were publicly accessible. But how do you know if bears are actually going to be there?
Call the Pros
I called the fish and game office and talked to one of the biologists. I explained my plan and asked what he thought. “Follow the green-up,” he said. He thought my plan for the specific places I outlined sounded reasonable. The place we wanted to park is private land that’s included in Idaho’s Acess Yes! program where they work out a deal with private landowners for hunters to access public land through their places. These areas include a sign-in sheet, and the biologist said that he had never seen anyone sign in for bear hunting. That could either mean we’d have the place to ourselves, or there are just no bears there to hunt. He also gave me the number for the local Conservation Officer.
The C.O. was helpful. He thought our plan to park and backpack in was a good one. “The hunting begins where the traffic ends,” he said, meaning that the farther you can get from the road the better. He said the bear hunters he runs into in that unit are exclusively driving the roads and looking from their trucks. He thought we stood a good chance of finding bears on foot.
I showed him another area Ryan and I were thinking about and he said it would be a good place, but it’s totally inaccessible because of the snow right now. Still, he gave me directions to get into a terrific spot that should be open in a few weeks while this tag is still usable.
Speaking with the pros gave me some good information as well as a little more confidence in our plan.
Normally, I wear leather mountaineering boots and gaiters but the parking lot was foot-deep mud and I figured it would be muddy on the sunny side of the hills, too. I decided to wear my neoprene boots instead. I’d usually say that wearing galoshes backpacking would be a disaster, but my DryShod Southland boots are an exception.
They fit well and are always warm and keep the mud and water out. The wicking liner keeps them comfy. Also, they have a nylon shank and aggressive soles with a wide heel that makes them very stable. I have foot problems and wide feet, but these boots are perfect. Knowing we’d be wet and muddy for the next two days, I gambled and it paid off. My feet were warm and comfortable the entire time.
I’ve got a Big Agnes Flycreek one-man tent and I like it rather well. Coupled with the full-coverage fly, it works great even in cold temperatures. Moisture from my breath and sweating transpire through the mesh walls and condense on the fly, which is at least eight inches from the mesh walls. That means that your sleeping bag doesn’t get frost all over it. It’s tall enough for me to sit up totally straight, and I’m over six feet. The vestibule is generous for getting in and out in the rain, but not quite enough for my whole pack. The only thing I don’t love is that it’s a front-entry, not a side entry and that’s a little tricky, but it makes the tent weigh a lot less. It’s just 1lb 7oz, so I deal with it.
I brought the brand new Kestrel Glassing System. It’s a remarkable tool. It gives you 90% of the stability of a tripod, but it’s much easier to use and it only weighs six ounces. It’s got only one foot and you can swing and pivot and tilt all over the place without moving legs or adjusting three knobs on a tripod head. It makes glassing for hours a lot less strenuous and a lot more effective. At 6oz, it’s so light that I didn’t feel it on my pack and it’s so quick to deploy that I used it continually.Maven C.3s
Ryan and I both had 12x50mm binos and were glad for it in the open country we were hunting. He has the Leupold BX-4 Pro Guide HD’s, and I was using the Maven C.3s. We traded off now and then, and I was impressed with both sets. I’d say they performed pretty similarly, though I liked the grip on the Leupolds.
Bear Hunting — a.k.a. Glassing
Ryan’s tag only allowed for spot and stalk hunting, which means spending hours behind binos. You should glass systematically. Look quickly in obvious places like grassy fields and meadows and any openings. But then you’ve got to start glassing the whole area seriously. Ryan and I set up on a ridge overlooking several draws that led to a creek valley below with more draws on the other side.
Glass everything at a specific distance together. There’s a ridge and everything on it is the same distance, but another closer ridge intersects it. Glass each of those ridges in its own grid. Glass the farther one row by row, then shift focus and glass the nearer ridge. You need to understand how large things are in the area you’re looking and that’s hard to maintain if you’re shifting between near and far all time. Pretty soon you’ll spot some deer or elk and that’ll give you an idea of the size of the thing you’re looking for.
How A Bear Hunt Becomes A
Fox Cougar Hunt
Ryan and I had been in one spot for a couple of hours, glassing through three intervals of sunshine and sudden snowstorms, and decided to take a break. Ryan stood and walked up the hill to warm up, and I called after him that he should take his rifle, but he didn’t hear me. I stood and walked to the right around the hill, thinking I should probably take the rifle, myself, but also knowing that I didn’t have any tags in my pocket.
I’ve been practicing my still hunting skills, so instead of looking at my foot placement, I was trying to keep my head up as much as possible to catch a glimpse of the bear that was surely around the corner. Since I didn’t have a tag or a gun, the Hunting Fates would surely put a huge bruin in my path, right?
I edged around the hill into the view of the draw on the other side and stopped to look around with mountain mahogany covering me from view. I looked down the slope and my heart jumped into my throat as I saw a huge red fox lying under a bush. Its orangish coat was in stark contrast to the blue-green and gray of the sage and brush. Now I really wished I’d grabbed the rifle because foxes don’t require a tag to hunt.
Then it flicked its tail and moved its head, which I couldn’t see before. Suddenly the fox was twice as large with a long skinny tail and cat-like ears and eyes.
Yup, it was actually a mountain lion, and he was staring straight at me from 80 yards.
Catch A Cougar By The Toe, If He Hollers Let Him Go
I froze in place and looked right at the largest cat in North America and I was sure he was looking straight at me. His yellow eyes were wide and sharp and his ears were forward. I didn’t breathe.
You’d think I’d be considering my options for escape and defense, but the thing that kept running through my head was, “Did the cougar season end today or yesterday?” I had read the regulations before I left home, and I didn’t bring my cougar tag because it was extremely unlikely to see one and the season was ending. My thoughts were cycling on whether I could hunt this cat for about two minutes while he stared in my direction.
Finally, he flicked his tail and laid his head down and rubbed it on the ground upside down with his eyes closed — just like a house cat. I immediately dropped to my knees and snuck back around the hill, looking over my shoulder to make sure he wasn’t closing on me. But the wind was blowing steadily straight up the hill from him to me and it masked my noise and took my scent up over the ridge. He never knew I was there.
As I ran hectically over the broken ground back to our spot, I was thinking, “Ryan’s going to think I found a bear,” and Ryan was thinking, “Did he find a bear???”
I told him the situation and he grabbed his rifle and followed me back. We eased behind my bush and peeked out. The cougar was still there, lying in the sunshine. He still seemed oblivious, so we snuck out a little more until we had a clear view of him.
“Are you going to shoot him?” Ryan asked — the only question that mattered. He was enormous. His coat was much more orange than the surrounding grass, and his chin and throat were stark white. The black line outlining his eyes and mouth was sharp and clear. The rifle scope gave a clear picture of this huge feline. His fresh-killed deer was nearby. I was impressed by his powerful grace, but I was also trying to measure how long his back was and how many pounds of backstrap that would equal.
It turns out that cougars, Puma concolor, with their uniquely uniform colors, are not the largest cats in North America. Jaguars can be much larger, but cougars are still the fourth-largest cats in the world. Cougar, mountain lion, puma, panther, painter, catamount, wildcat — whichever name you prefer, they are all inadequate to describe the experience of watching one in its home completely unaware of intruders.
Ryan double-checked the season dates on his phone. It turned out that the season had closed on March 31st — about twelve hours before. Compounded with leaving my tag at home, it would not be legal for me to shoot this cougar.
99.99% of hunters will never see a cougar like this. Lots of hunters get mountain lions on their game cameras or see them crossing a road, and hound hunters tree cats regularly. But rarely does anyone sneak up on a cougar and watch from just 80 yards away while he grooms and suns himself. Earlier that morning, Ryan and I were discussing how rarely people see mountain lions. It was really incredible.
Life As A Poacher
Most of us will see the biggest buck of our lives the day after the buck season closes. It happened to me this year. A few people can’t resist the temptation to kill that buck, or that bull, or whatever. They poach it. I understand the desire to have that magnificent example of a species you love, but you’ll see the biggest buck of your life several times throughout your life. It’s never worth poaching.
But as I sat there with what is truly a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, the temptation to kill that cougar was very strong. His coat looked like beautiful dense velvet, but cougar also makes a delicious meal and this one was large enough to feed a lot of people. Plus, that lion has probably already killed another deer or elk this week. Killing him could significantly benefit the cervid populations in that area.
So. I could kill him and I’d be doing the deer a favor. We’d signed in at the parking area on the 31st, so it’d be plausible that we killed him in season. We’d have to delete the pictures on our phones. I’d have to change the date code on my camera. Maybe I should go home and get my license and then come back for his pelt and meat. It’s just a law with an arbitrary date that’s restricting me…
In the end, though, I’d be breaking that law. Every time I saw the pelt or ate the meat I’d remember that I broke the law to kill that cougar. My grandmother, rest her soul, would be disappointed that I’d traded my integrity for a trophy and some sweet and sour.
After all, I even stop at stop signs on empty country roads. But rolling through a stop sign has never been as tempting as killing that cougar.
I don’t think I’d make it as a poacher.
Hunting Is Adventure
We watched that cougar for about two hours. His mannerisms were exactly those of a house cat — except that when he yawned his teeth reminded you more of a saber-toothed cat (which may be his ancestor) than a siamese.
We were stoked on the experience and sitting back down to glass for bears wasn’t attractive. Plus, turning our backs on an opportunistic killer wasn’t attractive, either. We decided to climb back up the ridge and pack up. We’d come back later when the snow was gone. A few hours later we were back at our trucks, still talking about that cougar and what a great hunt it was. We’d had a great adventure, but it felt also like Fish and Game’s season rules had played the worst April Fools prank ever.
And you know what? I picked up a roadkilled turkey on the way home. It was a very full day.