Natural State Bear Bonanza

There's great bear hunting to be found in Arkansas this fall, and so we offer these valuable tips on where and how to hunt the animals -- courtesy of some of the state's top bear hunters. (October 2009)

It was Oct. 25, 2008, and my father and I had packed in with horses to a remote area in the Black Fork Wilderness of Polk County. My father's intent was to bowhunt for a big mountain buck, while my primary focus was on taking a black bear.

Not long after we set up camp, my father, Gary Newcomb of Mena, headed up the mountain to do some scouting. As he traveled along a bench, not far from camp, he spotted a scrape 20 yards away. Dad laid his PSE bow on the ground and went to investigate the fresh buck sign. After a minute or two of analyzing the scrape, he turned to retrieve his bow and was shocked at what he saw. No more than a stone's through away, a bear had seemingly materialized out of thin air and was sniffing his bow!

The bear made no noise and appeared like a black ghost. Startled, Dad threw his hands in the air and hollered at the bear! The bear paid little attention to the commotion but eventually moved off about 30 yards and crouched by a tree. Slightly unnerved, Dad gathered up his bow and put an arrow into the bruin!

The bear ran 250 yards and we recovered it the next morning! That bear likely had never seen a man before, and obviously not one with a bow in his hands.

It's stories like that one that help make Arkansas the bear hunter's paradise that it is.

Arkansas black bears have intrigued me for as long as I can remember. Truth be known, few days have passed in the last 10 years when my thoughts haven't drifted to Arkansas' bear country. The black bear is an iconic symbol of true wilderness and its presence in Arkansas gives the state a unique wilderness flavor, unlike many other Southern states.

Reintroduced into Arkansas in the 1950s and '60s after near extinction, black bears now thrive in the Ozarks, Ouachitas and parts of the Delta. In the wildlife biology community, the Arkansas reintroduction of bears is considered the most successful reintroduction of large carnivores in the world. With population numbers now reaching 3,500 statewide, there has never been a better time in the last 100 years to harvest an Arkansas black bear.

Some 50,000 bears are estimated to have occupied the state at one time. No doubt, Arkansas' pre-settlement bear habitat ranged from the highlands of the northwest to the ancient hardwood bottoms of the southeast Delta, all prime habitat. It was comparable to any black bear habitat on earth.

Black bears are eccentric creatures made mysterious by fairy tale and folklore; the lumbering black giants typically have been misunderstood and misrepresented in the eye of the public. The return of the black bear has given Arkansans a second chance at stewarding a most valuable resource -- and at the forefront of that campaign is Arkansas' hunters.

BLACK BEAR MANAGEMENT

Myron Means, Arkansas' new statewide Bear Coordinator has been studying and working with bears for 13 years. Aside from being extremely knowledgeable about Arkansas bears, Means is passionate about them as well.

"I would say the general statewide forecast for the 2009 bear season would be moderate to good," Means said when asked about the upcoming bear season. "It looks like we will have at least a fair acorn crop this year in the Ozarks and Ouachitas, which probably will result in moderate baiting success and mediocre to good bear harvest in early archery season and muzzleloader season.

"Bear hunting is a key component of our bear management program in Arkansas," the biologist went on. "Without hunting, Arkansas' bear population would increase, which would cause a dramatic increase in bear/human conflicts."

Means said the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission would like to see 10 percent of the bears harvested annually in the state. As a rule in wildlife biology, bear managers stabilize the population by harvesting 10 percent annually. The latest available harvest data showed that 400 bears were harvested in the 2007-08 season. That was the most bears harvested in a single year in Arkansas since bear season re-opened in 1980!

WHERE TO HUNT

The state is divided into seven different bear zones, of which only four are open to hunting. Zone 1 is located in the Ozark highlands and produced 260 bears, 65 percent of the total bear harvest in 2007-08. Bear Zone 2 is comprised of the Ouachita mountain region and produced 126 bears for 31.5 percent of the total harvest. Bear zones 5 and 5A in the southeastern corner of the state produced 14 bears, making up 3.5 percent of the statewide harvest.

The Ozarks typically have provided the "meat and potatoes" of the bear harvest, but don't let the numbers fool you.

"Oddly enough," Means said, "there are many areas of the Ouachitas that probably have higher bear densities than much of the Ozarks, particularly the west side of the Ouachitas around Booneville, Waldron and Mena."

He even has some recommendations for future hunting seasons. "I would like to see an increase in bear harvest for Bear Zone 2. We have a target harvest of 150 bears which we have never reached."

That being said, Arkansas hunters have nearly 2.25 million acres of public land open to bear hunting in the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains. What was once known as "The Bear State" is now officially "The Land of Opportunity" for bear hunters!

In the Ozarks, the top counties for black bear harvest historically have been Newton, Johnson, Pope and Madison. White Rock Wildlife Management Area stretches across five different counties -- Washington, Crawford, Franklin, Madison and Johnson -- and generally accounts for a good portion of the Ozarks public-land bear harvests.

Piney Creek WMA in Newton, Pope and Johnson counties would be a great place to target public-land bears. Keep in mind that baiting is not legal on public land; only on private land in Bear Zone 1 and Bear Zone 2 is baiting legal.

The Ouachitas' top counties for public-land bear harvests are Scott, Polk and Yell. All three are "stacked," as it were, with major amounts of the Ouachita National Forrest. There are several wildlife management areas in the Ouachitas that would provide quality bear hunting. Here are a few to key in on: Caney Creek WMA in Polk, Pike, Howard and Montgomery counties; Muddy Creek WMA in Scott, Montgomery and Yell counties. Winona WMA in Saline, Perry and Garland counties also is known for consistently producing bears.

WHEN TO HUNT BEARS

Officially closed in 1927, Arkansas' bear seasons began a new era when the AGFC re-opened a short, five-day bear season in early December 1980. During that season, only five bears were harvested in the entire state. However, things are much different today.

The Ouachitas' Bear Zone 2 kicks off the season with an early archery opener on Sept. 15 and runs through Nov. 30. The Ozarks' Bear Zone 1 archery season starts on Oct. 1 and runs through Nov. 30. The muzzleloader and gun bear hunts correspond with the deer seasons, including a new youth bear hunt on Nov. 7-8 in Bear Zones 1 and 2.

"The primary reason for the Sept. 15 archery opener in Bear Zone 2 was to try to promote archery hunting and to provide more opportunity to harvest bears on bait before the acorns fall and pull bears away," Means said in regard to the early opener. "We would like to see an increased harvest in the Ouachitas."

Go to www.agfc.com for more details on bear season.

BEAR BAITING

In 2001, the AGFC broadened the possibilities for Arkansas bear hunters by legalizing baiting on private lands in Bear Zones 1 and 2. That move by the AGFC effectively transformed interest in bear hunting overnight. Guys who never dreamed they would be seriously pursuing bears found themselves intrigued by the possibility of doing something they never thought would be legal.

For the previous 21 years, the Arkansas bear harvest mainly had consisted of black bears killed by opportunistic deer hunters who, for lack of a better term, "lucked into" a bear in the national forest. The legalization of baiting on private land has ultimately done two things: It has given the AGFC a more effective bear management tool, and it has opened the floodgates of opportunity for Arkansas' bear hunters.

Will and Adam Beason of Boone­ville would be among those who have seized the opportunity. This father-and-son team would have to be considered two of Arkansas' top bear hunters. Since 2001, Will, 47, and Adam, 27, have harvested 10 bears by bow in Yell, Logan and Scott counties. Four of their bears qualified for the Pope and Young record book and two are ranked among the top 5 bow-killed bears in the state!

Black bears are scored by measuring the circumference of the dried skull; the weight of the bear does not affect its official score. Considering the massive fall weight gains of bears and the subsequent winter weight losses, the skull size provides a consistent means to score and compare bears with one another.

Adam harvested the Beasons' biggest bear in 2006, which ranks No. 3 in the state. The bear weighed 503 pounds and scored 20 13/16! That's a big bear! Will arrowed a huge bear in 2008 that weighed 488 pounds and scored 20 7/16 and ranked No. 5! Their other two Pope and Young bears ranked No. 12 and No. 18.

What is unique about the Beasons is that they have consistently harvested big bears over bait; their credentials speak for themselves.

Their success at taking big bears hasn't come by accident. And by successfully targeting big bears in Arkansas, they have done what many hunters would say is impossible.

"Big bears are like big deer," Will says. "They are like a different breed of animal, and you have to hunt them different than the smaller bears."

The first reason for their success, simply put, is that they have put in some hard work. Baiting bears isn't as easy as it seems; it requires a lot time, and ultimately a lot of desire. Second, they've allowed their hunting strategies to morph and evolve as time has either proved or disproved their strategies and setups. At one time, Adam was driving a 70-mile loop and keeping five different baits active. Over the last seven years, they've tried a lot of different things in a lot of different spots.

Here are a few keys that have made them successful. Some hunters think that human odor isn't an issue when baiting bears. The Beasons disagree.

"You can shoot small bears without scent control, but the big ones are different creatures," Adam said.

They also like to keep their bait sites stocked with lots of bait at all times. Though they admit other things will work, bread and dog food covered with grease is their most successful bear attractant.

In proven areas, the Beasons don't put out fresh bait until 10 days before the season starts. The trend over the years has been for bears to hit the bait hard for two weeks and then leave. By dropping a fresh bait just before the season, they have been able to hold bears until the season opener.

Adam and Will attribute much of their success to the locations they bait. They're convinced that location is the most critical factor in baiting success; ultimately, you need to be baiting where the bears want to be.

Most of their success has come on the cooler northern slopes. They prefer baiting high rather than low and use natural terrain features like hogbacks, fingers and benches to create easy access to the bait.

As a bear hunter, Myron Means also had some good advice for baiting the big ones.

"The best areas for baiting success are going to be those small parcels of private land located within large expanses of national forest," he said. "Bears are reclusive in nature and prefer to spend their time in more remote areas. Baiting adjacent to the more rugged and remote areas should increase the odds of harvesting a bear.

"By placing your bait site high on the south or southwest side of your property, you can use the prevailing winds to blow scent into remote areas.

"On years with heavy fall mast, beef fat and molasses can sometimes keep bears coming to your bait. Stay away from high-carbohydrate foods like corn during these times."

Means suggested checking and restocking baits every two to three days. "Get on a baiting routine and stick with it," he said. "Big bears will pattern your activity."

Means and both Beasons agreed that the biggest challenge to baiting bears is competing with fall mast.

If you're not interested in baiting, the possibilities for hunting Arkansas' black bears without it have never been better. With massive amounts of public land and good bear densities, all a hunter needs to do is some pre-season homework and then some serious hunting later.

Hunting black bears without bait may be the biggest challenge the serious Arkansas sportsman can take on. Over the years, I've heard a lot of hunters tell about how to deliberately and consistently harvest bears in the national forest, but I know few who have actually done it. The roughness of mountain terrain and the taxing job of getting a harvested bear out of those areas deter many would-be hunters from even trying.

Black bears have massive home ranges, bet

ween 20 and 50 miles, and they tend to move with food availability. In the fall, a bear may forage for 20 hours a day and consume some 15,000 calories in preparation for the winter. A public-land bear hunter can use this to his advantage.

"In Bear Zones 1 and 2," said Means, "the key natural foods in the fall are going to be acorns, hickory nuts and beechnuts. If a hunter could locate a bench of mature white oaks in a remote draw with a lot of bear sign, that would be a perfect place for a stand site.

"Bear sign would consist of fresh scat, rolled-over rocks and logs, and claw marks on trees where they've been climbing to get food. In most cases, bears will feed exclusively in an area until they are disturbed or until the food is gone or a better food source becomes ripe.

"Bears are ridge runners and love to move through saddles and along benches. In the fall, they are habitual in their activities and easy to pattern."

CONCLUSION

In closing, of all the time I've spent in Arkansas' wilderness, the trips where I have encountered bears were unique and unforgettable. Few outdoor experiences can compare with a bear sighting, and even fewer with a bear harvest. My interaction with Arkansas black bears has branded me with an appreciation and respect for them that's hard to describe.

It's my hope that in the years to come, my 3-year-old son, Bear Newcomb, will have the same opportunity as I have had, to hunt the ancient and majestic bruins that roam the hills of Arkansas.

This should be a great year for Arkansas' bear hunters! Good luck, but don't forget to leave some for seed!

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