Bear-Bagging Tips

Though plentiful, black bears lead a reclusive lifestyle. Fortunately, there are steps hunters can take in the fall to swing the odds of success in their favor.

by Scott Haugen

Hunters heading afield with their sights set specifically on black bears have plenty to look forward to, but there are also many obstacles to overcome. The more prepared and diversified your approach, the better the chance of securing one of the continent's most dangerous and secretive predators.

Getting to know the black bear is critical when you hit the hills in hopes of tagging a prime pelted specimen. If you're content hunting deer and elk, hoping to stumble upon a wandering bear, so be it. But if you're intent on focusing on black bears alone, there are certain measures that can be taken to help acquire a bear.

While baiting and pursuing bears with hounds is not legal in the Pacific states - save for hound hunting in California - success can still be had. By breaking down and evaluating a bear's fall activities, four methods hunters can utilize to find bears will be considered.

When it comes to bear hunting, locating an animal and stalking to within shooting range is the most common - and most exciting - approach. Timing is everything. The more time you can dedicate to looking through binoculars, the better your chances of finding bears on the move and then knowing when to move yourself.

Spotting bears begins well before the hunt; it starts with the purchase of binoculars and a spotting scope. Good optics aren't cheap for a reason: Glass quality is better than ever, meaning you pay more. But what you gain in return is the ability to glass for hours on end without eye fatigue or headaches. Purchasing the best set of binoculars you can afford is an investment that will yield big dividends for years to come.

The author elevated himself in a tree stand over a known bear trail and then stuck this bruin with an arrow. Photo courtesy of Scott Haugen

At this time of the season, search for bears that are feeding or moving. Bears will be wandering from places of sanctuary to food sources. With winter looming, bears have one thing on their mind: Food. They will consume a multifarious diet in the fall, and knowing what bears feed on in your hunting area is important to finding them.

Berry patches and fruit orchards are good places to begin searching for bears. Open meadows harboring berries, grasses, rotten logs laden with insects and ground squirrel colonies are other food options. Bears can also be found feasting on carrion this time of year. If a deer or elk carcass is located, keep monitoring it for bear activity. If a bear is in the area, you might be able to pattern his movement and force a mutual meeting.

Glassing for bears in large tracts of open terrain can be overwhelming. Don't be intimidated by big country. Instead, break it apart into sections, thoroughly glassing each quadrant. This "grid" style of glassing allows you to cover all of the land, bit by bit. Note any unusual landmarks; what I have thought were dark rocks, shady spots, obscure logs and root wads have metamorphosed into bears.

While glassing for bears one fall, I spotted a dark spot amid a jumble of rocks but could not convince myself it was a bear. Three hours later the spot moved, revealing a mature bear. That's right: three hours! While I wasn't focused on that particular spot the entire time, I did frequently return to check the configuration of the object while glassing the surrounding country.

The key to still-hunting is knowing that bears are near. If you know bears are around, still-hunting - walking slowly, hoping to catch a bear at close range - can be an unnerving, addicting and a very productive thrill. I won't still-hunt a location unless I know bears are using it, for the odds of blindly stumbling into a bear in the woods is slim. Finding a food source is to the hunter's advantage here.

If blackberries remain on the vine, bears may congregate at these sites. Walking logging roads teeming with ripe berries is a solid bet. My best still-hunting success has come amid blackberries, where my partner and I closed in on four bears in as many hours one morning.

If blackberry production is waning, berries growing at higher elevations are where you want to search. Huckleberries, elderberries and salmon berries are some of the fruits feasted upon by bears early in the fall. The key is finding where groves of berries have been mowed over by bears. You'll know bears are frequently visiting the site if massive amounts of foliage are torn up with bear droppings from several consecutive days scattered about.

Inspecting droppings can be critical to hunting success. Examine fresh bear scat to determine what they've been eating. I once found loads of scat in an area loaded with blackberries, but the scat contained huckleberries, not blackberries. Moving our bear search to higher elevations where huckleberries thrived, we found bears.

Still-hunting along logging roads affords one of the better opportunities for success. Here, hunters can cover good chunks of real estate in a day, hoping to locate a feeding bruin. Utilizing fleece boot covers to muffle each step over gravel, dry leaves and twigs can play a huge part in a still-hunter's success.

More hunters are turning to predator calls to find success in the bear woods. No matter where you hunt them, it's far better to begin calling once you've seen a bear, as opposed to "cold-calling" in an area where no bear has been sighted. If you locate a bear and can't close to within shooting range, or simply want the bear closer, calling may be the ticket.

The type of terrain you hunt will also factor in to your calling approach. Big basins may take longer to draw in bears than will desert regions. In the desert habitat, bears can hear calls from a long way and may react quicker. In such settings, bears have been known to respond in minutes.

In big basin country, or in heavily wooded regions where sounds don't carry as well, electronic calls are effective. Not only do these devices project intense sounds, they save your lungs. Employing the aid of a fawn decoy to capture a bear's visual attention is also proving effective for predator hunters. Be certain of regulations regarding the use of electronic calls in the area you intend to hunt.

Predator distress calls and fawn bleats can be effective on fall bear. But be prepared to do some calling. Bears seem to easily lose interest when a caller gives up, which is why near continuously calling for up to an hour i

n a single location is a good rule of thumb. Call very loudly and aggressively from the start, with short, intermittent pauses. At the end of a day of bear calling, you will be exhausted.

Many bears taken annually by way of calling seem to be big, mature boars. This is likely due to the fact aged bears have spent many years in the woods and more readily associate the sounds of death with food. Thus, older males may be more willing to take risks than younger bears and sows. Big boars looking to amass winter fat may respond to such calls with impressive aggression.

Tree stand hunting is slowly gaining popularity among bear hunters not utilizing baits. The key to success here lies in finding where bears naturally move. The idea is to intercept bears as they prowl for food, or are moving between a food source and sanctuary.

Streams, ravines or hillsides used by bears are prime locations for tree stand hunters. If you don't know where bears travel, don't put up a stand. But if you've located an area frequented by bears, perhaps hanging a stand is the way to go.

Given their powerful sense of smell, it's to the hunter's advantage to hang the stand fairly high, 25 to 30 feet is not unreasonable. It may be advantageous to hang a few stands to capitalize on wind changes and bear movement patterns.

Keying in on food sources can also be effective when hunting from tree stands. Falling acorns are bear magnets in many hills, and placing a stand over the food source can be productive. Once a food plot is located, you may find bears accessing it from a direction that's tough to slip in to. In this case, rather than focusing on catching the bear in the kitchen, back off and hang a stand in its travel corridor.

(Editor's Note: Scott Haugen's recently released book, Egg Cures: Proven Recipes & Techniques, contains 103 pages with more than 90 color photos and 27 curing recipes. For a signed copy send a check for $15 plus $3 S&H to P.O. Box 275, Walterville, OR 97489.)

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