Big Bruins

Bears are on the feed, and that makes them vulnerable to hunters on their trail. (October 2007)

Tod Lum shows a nice black bear from eastern Oregon. When you're scouting, focus on moisture-laden ground shaded by dark timber.
Photo by Gary Lewis.

During a three-day elk hunt, we cut the tracks of 17 different bears -- cubs, yearlings, sows and big boars. These animals were on the move. We also found the tracks of four loner elk headed out of the country. A bumper huckleberry crop, now all but gone, had brought the bears in. With so many sharp-toothed neighbors, the elk moved on.

We'd hunted out a timbered ridge the first morning and logged almost six miles in the snow. James had a chance at a bear, but the animal caught our scent before the hunter could find it in the scope.

Based on glimpses of it we caught in the timber and the size of its tracks, it must have been a 6-footer.

Driving the bumpy road back to camp, we noticed bear prints in the fresh powder. We climbed out and began to work out the trail. I knew we were right behind the animal when its tracks led up the side of a leaning tree. The bear had heard us and took a moment to look back from up high.

Then the foot race was on.

He led us on a side-hill run, crossing creek beds, winding through groves of willows and slipping through patches of cedar. James worked out the trail while I stayed 20 yards to the side. The bear had a good lead, the advantage of the terrain -- and he knew we were behind him.

The tracks told the story. At times, he'd stop to check if we were still on the trail. For a couple of hundred yards, he had a coyote running alongside. But his trail led in a straight line, and I guessed where he was headed: to a high ridge and a field of boulders the size of Volkswagen buses. But even though we anticipated the direction of his flight, we couldn't get there ahead of him.

In the creek bottom, the bear turned once again to check his backtrail, and then took to the rocks.

He didn't make the mistake of sky-lining himself to look back.

He'd beaten us.

October marks the transition from the easy living of early fall to the cold weather to come. Snow in the high country signals the coming of winter, and bears know that it's time to feed -- in a big way.

PUTTING ON THE FEEDBAG

It's a simple principle. A skinny bear in November will be a dead bear by May. In Oregon, the bear may hibernate for five months. During that time, a bruin could lose up to 30 percent of its body weight. If he doesn't pack on the extra pounds in the last few weeks before heading to the den, he could starve to death and never wake up.

When the weather cools and the nights get long, bears instinctively know they are running out of time. Depending on elevation and temperature, they may head into their dens in early November or as late as January.

During its late-fall feeding binge, a black bear will consume up to 20,000 calories a day and put on as much as 30 pounds in a week. He'll nap for short periods of time and, if food is scarce, will travel up to 100 miles to hit a big supply of groceries. At this time, he's focused on feeding and isn't prone to wander in the typical fashion of a summer bear. He'll put on the feedbag, eat night and day, then turn around and head for home.

Lee Van Tassell has hunted black bears in Oregon, Washington, and Alaska for nearly 30 years. I met him three years ago, and we quickly discovered a mutual interest in black bears. Together, we wrote a book called Black Bear Hunting.

Van Tassell's insights into the world of the black bear come through hundreds of hours he's spent behind the spotting scope and binoculars in both the spring and fall seasons.

"In October, for the coastal bears, the berries are just about done, and the grass is dried," Van Tassell said.

"The real big pockets of food -- the heavy berry concentrations and the fresh green grass -- are pretty much gone. The bears start grubbing and become opportunists and stay in cooler, damper places, flipping logs, getting grubs.

"Deer and elk seasons are well underway in October," he went on. "I've not known black bears to come running to the gunshot, the way a brown bear does on Kodiak Island. But if they catch a wind drift with the scent of a gut pile on it, they'll be following their nose into it."

Over on the dry side, east of the Cascades, the same principle applies.

"I have seen bears active that time of year, and they can be just about anywhere where you'll find the deer and elk herds," Van Tassell said.

Don't forget to scout around old orchards for fresh sign. "That's the time of year when the apples, pears and plums are falling off the trees and hitting the ground. Rotten or not, the bears will eat them."

This is not the time for them to squander energy. Oil-rich nuts are a primary food, as are fruits and whatever berries are left. Salmon are also rich in oils. A bear will devour the rotting spawned-out carcasses in October and November, though he might have ignored them in September when fresh fish were available.

Croplands are a target, even harvested crops like cornfields, where a bear can prospect for leftovers. In the fall, find the food source.

Hunt the water sources, too. Not only are the bears on a binge, they're thirstier than usual. October days can be warm, and an actively feeding bear will not be far from water.

"Look for the north-facing slopes and the timbered draws and for seeps," Van Tassell recommends.

Find a rich food source with water, and chances are good there'll be a bear nearby.

"I think this is one of the better times of year to try calling because the food sources are more limited and the bears still want to pack on weight. They could very well be more aggressive to the call," Van Tassell said.

UP CLOSE AND PERSONAL

When a stalk stalls because the hunter has run out of cover, a call can attract the bear's attention and bring the animal within range.

Don't call too loudly. A blast of sound is liable to send the bear out of the county. I

nstead, start soft and make the sound mournful and plaintive, with a continuous wail.

The drawback to a mouth call in this situation is that the bear will pinpoint your position and come in head-on, looking for food -- and a fight. Be ready to give him one.

An electronic call, if it can be put into play with a minimum of trouble, can be positioned away from the hunter to allow for a crossing or a broadside shot.

The predator call, or a fawn bawl or an injured squirrel, heightens the bear's awareness and raises the stakes. An easy meal is one thing a hungry bear wants more than anything else. And he's used to taking food away from smaller predators.

But a bear is easily distracted. On the way in, he may stumble across something else he wants to eat. Keep the sound rolling to keep him on the move.

And give him time. Depending on how far he's got to travel, you may see the bruin in a few minutes, or an hour. Do your scouting first to make sure there are bears in the area, then keep the wind in your favor and your confidence high. Commit to spending an hour at each call set.

FOR YOUR INFORMATION

To order a signed copy of Black Bear Hunting, send $26.50 (which includes S&H) to Gary Lewis Outdoors, P.O. Box 1364, Bend, OR 97709. This hardcover book is packed with valuable information and full-color photos.

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