All photo credits: Josh Kirchner
All photo credits: Josh Kirchner
Another winter has passed. Right about when winter says its last goodbye, most folks start thinking hard about turkey hunting. I'll admit, it's an exciting time to be out and about when the forest is echoing with chatty toms. However, while most are thinking of gobbles, I have other things on my mind. As the snow melts and the temperatures start to rise, few things get me going like the thought of bears waking up and roaming across our Arizona landscapes. Watching these animals zigzag their way through the spring green choked hillsides has become something I look forward to immensely every year. The weather is beautiful, the plants are coming back to life, and it is a perfect time to be in the Arizona backcountry.
Truth be told, I talk to quite a few folks—some even residents—that don't even know Arizona offers a spring bear hunt. When I tell them it is an over-the-counter (OTC) hunt, their eyes widen into saucers. I think the reasoning for this is that Arizona is much more known for its fall bear hunting opportunities. Many hunters want to experience the "bears in the pears" phenomena. While that is an exciting time of year to be out in the hills, it doesn't mean spring should be forgotten. So, yes. Arizona indeed offers an OTC spring bear hunt and it takes place from late March until early May (two units are even open through the end of July). This is a general tag so feel free to bring either your bow or rifle. There are actually 25 units that are open to spring bear hunting here. Each one of them has a sow quota. It is your responsibility to call the bear hotline to make sure your unit is still open to bear hunting and the sow quota has not been met. From there, all that you need is a license and money for a tag. Oh, and a whole lot of patience.
You can also utilize INSIDER to find your perfect bear unit. You can quickly narrow down all the units in Arizona that are OTC and you can even filter units by the number of bears harvested! You can jump to Filtering 2.0 for Arizona bear hunts here.
I'm not gonna lie. This is a tough hunt. Where you could see 20 bears in a weekend of hunting during the fall hunt, you might only see one or none during a weekend in the spring. The bears are just not moving as much as they do in the fall. That doesn't mean that they can't be found, though. I can assure you; they are out there. You just need to do your homework and spend the time out in the field. Spring is a different game than the fall.
Spring bear hunting has really grown on me over the years here in Arizona. One of the biggest things for me is the weather. It is a beautiful time to be out in the hills. When compared to our 100+ degree days during the fall bear hunt, spring is a walk in the park in terms of comfort. I love to backpack this time of year and the fact that I can have a tag in my pocket while doing so is a major win for me. The fact that it's a bear tag is the cherry on top. That's the other thing. During the spring, I have one tag in my pocket. On the fall hunts, I might have three or four. Being an avid bear hunter, I don't usually have too much of an issue with my decision making here; however, I have witnessed friends get distracted with other species. Hunting bears in the spring lets you focus on one thing and one thing only.
Tactics for spring bruins here in Arizona is going to vary from person to person. Before we get into what I have found to be the most effective methods, I think it is important to mention a few things. First, the use of hounds is prohibited here for bears between Jan. 1 and July 31.
This is an incredibly effective way to harvest bears, but, if you want to chase them in the spring, you will need to leave the dogs at home. Second, while baiting bears is a very popular means of take for the spring, it is illegal here in Arizona on public land. There are Indian reservations that do practice baiting on these hunts, but that is another deal entirely. For the purpose of this article, we are going to talk about tactics for an OTC public land spring bear hunt.
Glassing is going to be the most productive way to find bears, no matter the season. By sitting back and letting things unfold before you from a distance, you have the ability to cover an immense amount of country with minimal physical effort. This is great because you can watch a bear act like a bear and go about their business. If you are a spot and stalk hunter, this is gold. Being able to watch an animal that doesn't know you are there is only going to benefit you when it comes to planning a stalking route. The hard part about that is going to be anticipating the bear's movements. Bears are notorious for bouncing around randomly on a hillside. I find this especially to be true when they are in the act of feeding.
That word "feeding" is key when it comes to where you want to be glassing. During the springtime, bears are going to be focused on everything green, at least based upon my experience. Whether it's green grass or green leaves up in the treetops, they are on it. I like big north faces for this. They are both dense in vegetation (which the bears love) and holds moisture the longest, which is key for fresh green up. Earlier this season, we backpacked into a favorite spot of mine for the spring bruins. Upon our arrival, I noticed that the vegetation was all still brown and dead. This gave me very little confidence and, indeed, no bears were spotted. After a few weeks, I returned to find much more of a green hillside before me. All of a sudden, we started seeing bears. The bottom line: if there isn't food where you are looking, look elsewhere.
We are indeed in the desert here and, for that reason, water is a big key in locating spring bears. This is especially true during the later part of our spring hunt. It really starts to heat up and the bears start hitting water like mad. They will bathe in it, play in it, drink it, etc. You try being a bear with a big thick hide during the warmer months in Arizona. You'd be running to the water as well. For that reason, setting up on or near water can be a great way to intercept a bear. Be incredibly mindful of your wind when doing this. Bears have a nose that is not to be ignored. Look for scat in lush riparian areas. Canyon bottoms are great for this. An area like this is definitely worth your time.
While other states get a lot more spotlight for their spring bear hunting, Arizona isn't one that you should discount. Our diverse desert landscapes offer a unique bear hunting experience that you aren't likely to find elsewhere. Fall bear hunting opportunities get a lot more publicity, but they come with a price and that is the grueling heat. Arizona's spring weather is nothing short of beautiful. Throw in a bear tag, loaded down backpack and ambition? Now, that is my idea of a good time. Looking back on this past spring bear season only fills me with anticipation for the next. The bears will be out and I will be, too.