Dateline: Snake River Country, Oregon
By Gary Lewis
When the berries ripen in Northeast Oregon, hunters have a chance to see high concentrations of black bear as they move down out of the mountains to put on their winter fat.
Oregon has a controlled spring season which is growing in popularity with resident and non-resident hunters, but one of the best times of year to hunt bear is in the late summer. And one of the best places to find them is in Northeast Oregon's Snake River, Imnaha and Chesnimnus Units.
This is open country with abundant edge habitat and transitions from tall timber to steep, grassy slopes. This land is home to mule deer, whitetail deer and elk – the black bear's natural prey. These Snake River country units are made to order for the spot-and-stalk hunter and for the hunter who prefers a predator call to bring a bruin on the run.
According to Barry Cox, owner of Del Sol Wilderness Adventures in Lostine, Oregon, early summer is the best time to hunt bears in mid-level habitat. When the hawthorn berry comes into season in August, bears migrate lower, out of the timber, onto the mountain benches and into the draws to feed.
"They put their winter fat on with those hawthorn berries," Cox said. "Early in the morning is the best time to spot them moving around, going and coming from water. But I have taken bears in the middle of the day."
Summertime bears have shorter hair than spring-season and late fall season bears. If you want a rug, wait till mid-September for the hair to grow a little longer, but if you just want to hunt bear, consider hunting in August.
Northeast Oregon has a high number of color-phase bears. "The Snake River area bear is predominately a brown-phase bear. They go from a light blonde cinnamon to a dark brown. I have seen very few true-black black bears taken in this area," Cox said.
Bears from this corner of the state average 250 to 350 pounds and range between 5-feet and 6-feet (measured nose to tail) and beyond.
To find bears in late summer, Cox watches the draws, whether he is riding in the breaks of the Snake or above the Imnaha River. He focuses on the berry bushes, particularly hawthorn berries. "The hawthorn is a shrubby tree that runs up and down the draws, usually pretty close to water. Sometimes you see them out on a bench and that's because there's a spring there or the water is close to the surface," Cox said.
For a couple of months, the bears eat and sleep in the hawthorns, sometimes displacing the deer that don't like their new neighbors. Bears tunnel in the hawthorns and use them as base camp for raids on nearby orchards or forays to the river in search of spawning salmon.
Predator calls (mouth calls and electronic) may be used. Bears react to the call in several ways.
Subordinate bears may be intimidated and head the opposite direction. Bears of all sizes might stop and listen before committing to what they believe will be a battle. A few bears will circle, trying to pick up the scent. Subordinate bears and bears that have not had a good meal in a while will start heading in the direction of the call. But they only keep coming as long as the sound is constant. When they come in, they expect a fight.
Be ready to deal with an aggressive bear. If the bear spooks, keep the call going. Often the bruin will turn and look back, allowing a last shot opportunity.
Bear hunters should carry a cougar tag. Cougar often reach the caller before the bear.
Eastern Oregon's General Bear season runs August 1 to November 30. Outfitters offer pack-in and pack-out services, drop camps, supplied drop camps and deluxe guided hunts.
Del Sol Wilderness Adventures offers a drop camp in Hells Canyon for $1500 per hunter. They provide a supplied drop camp for $2000 per hunter. A fully-guided full five-day Deluxe Camp hunt with riding horses (minimum three hunters, 2x1) costs $4000.
Dan Morse of Canyon Adventures offers a five-day drop camp for $1000. Canyon Adventures offers their Deluxe Guided Camp (limited to four hunters, 2x1) for $2500 per hunter.
Hunts are conducted with spot-and-stalk tactics over known food sources, using the call as an option to bring a bear from across a canyon. Bear hunts may be combined in October and November with deer and elk hunts.
A non-resident hunting license costs $76.50. A non-resident bear tag costs $151.50 and a cougar tag costs $151.50. Cougar season runs January 1-May 31 and August 1-December 31. Coyotes may be hunted year-round. Wolves are present in small numbers in northeast Oregon and may not be hunted. For more information, visit the ODFW site. Call 503-947-6100 for specific license agent locations.
This area of Oregon is served by air out of Lewiston, ID and Pendleton, OR. There is a small airport in Joseph, OR.
Much of eastern Oregon is owned by State and Federal agencies. Use a Bureau of Land Management map to determine the ownership of the land. For the largest selection of maps east of the Cascades, call Bend Mapping at 541-389-7440.
Dan Morse, Canyon Adventures.
62063 Lime Quarry Road, Enterprise, Oregon 97828.
Barry Cox, Del Sol Wilderness Adventures.
PO Box 108, Lostine, Oregon.