November 8, 2011

Mike North: Don't let snow throw you off the hunt

Weather conditions can play a big role during a hunt, but sometimes assumptions about certain weather patterns can mislead sportsmen.

Weather conditions can play a big role during a hunt, but sometimes assumptions about certain weather patterns can mislead sportsmen.

On Wednesday, I'm leaving for a four-day bear hunt in the Plumas National Forest with three of my hunting partners. I've heard several takes on what the weather will be like, some calling for snow and others calling for steady rain.

Either way, precipitation seems inevitable.

My bear hunting success has always come during bright, warm weather, but in past years, I've learned that adverse conditions simply call for a change in hunting style.

Three years ago, I went to hunt bear in the same area of Plumas. The weather down in the flats was warm and sunny, but as a climbed up higher into the mountains, the clouds became thicker and the reassuring warmth of the sun disappeared into a cold mist.

It wasn't long before I was scaling up a snowy hillside in my two-wheel drive pickup to try and get to the peak of the mountain where I'd killed a bear the year before.

But the snow and ice proved to be too treacherous, so I parked my truck well below the top of the mountain and hoofed it the rest of the way up. I soaked a bandana in bear attractant and tied it around my neck to try and entice the critters out as I made my ascent.

I walked for miles and before it got dark, I gazed out to the other surrounding mountains, noticing that they weren't blanketed in snow like the one I was on.

My heart sank as I assumed all the local bears would have left my mountain for a drier hill with more easily accessible food.

Dejected, I walked back in the dark, still with the bear attractant around my neck.

The walk back to my truck took hours since the snow was up to my knees. At times I felt like passing out from walking so many steep miles without rest, but the only way to maintain the feeling in my legs was to keep moving through the freezing temperature.

With snow falling, I made it back to my truck, set up camp and tried to sleep through the cold that made its way through my sleeping bag and thermal clothes.

The next morning brought more light snow. There were no signs of life, and it seemed that all animals had left the area. Not even a bird chirped. The dead silence was like being in a vacuum, and the only sound was the ice crunching beneath my boots as I hiked up the mountain again.

I didn't think there'd be anything up there, but I was there to hunt, so that's what I did.

After taking about 20 steps out of my camp, I saw a set of big bear tracks heading right toward my tent.

I backtracked to see where the bear had come from, and found another set of bear tracks coming down the mountain side, sidling up right next to my footprints.

After assuming all the bears had left and nearly giving up on my hunt, two sets of fresh bear tracks, some right on top of mine, showed not only were there bears in the area ... they were active and walking along old logging trails.

Both bears followed me down the mountain side that night, obviously enticed by my attractant, but not brave enough to tangle with me over it.

I usually hunt bears by sitting and waiting, but with the snow I found that patrolling a long stretch of road can be more effective. This late in the year, bears are willing to take a risk for some easy food before the snow piles up even higher.

If the next few days do bring snow, this new technique will hopefully improve my group's chances.

But at least I know a little snow won't drive every bear away, just like it won't drive every hunter away.

Reporter Mike North can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or mnorth@mercedsunstar.com.

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