by Alex Bostick
Bobby Turner slowly picked his head up and away from his spotting scope to look at me. “You gonna take ‘im?” he asked in a hushed voice.
Ah — crunch time! Time for a decision: the moment every hunter loves and dreads.
We were looking at a fairly good-sized black bear whose pelt appeared to be in decent shape; a patch of white on its chest was especially intriguing. Turner looked again through his spotting scope, and I continued watching the bruin with my binoculars, thinking more of the distance we were from the truck than of the bear itself. I did what any logical hunter would do: I stalled.
“What do you think?” I asked. “About 220 – maybe 230?”
“Yeah. He’s every bit of that, and I really like that white patch. It almost looks like a cross. Can you see it with those tiny things?”
“I can tell he’s got white hair on his chest, but I couldn’t see any kind of pattern. Let me look through your scope.”
“All right, but you better hurry up and decide,” Turner advised. As he moved from behind the spotting scope to give me room, he added, “He’s about eaten himself out of berries. He’ll be moving over that hill pretty soon, and we’ll never catch him on the other side — not with the wind blowing the way it is.”
He was right, and he’d caught onto my stalling tactic. Rather than peering through the scope, I picked up my rifle, put it to my shoulder and let it rest on the blowdown log we were using for cover and concealment. Once I found the bear in my sights, a shot through the ribs just behind his left front shoulder put him down.
“Now we’ve got our work cut out for us,” I said. “I don’t suppose you know any shortcuts back to the truck from here, huh?” The truck was only a mile away, but the terrain between it and us was steep – real steep.
Turner grinned at me. “You haul a golf bag around the course all day long, with every gizmo known to have Tiger Woods’ endorsement on it, and now you’re going to complain about a little bit of bear meat? You can carry the hide and head. Come on!”
I hate it when he’s right like that.
Bobby Turner and I met on a golf course, He, a single player for the day, was looking to make up a foursome – and, yes, was carrying his bag, not riding in a cart. Our scores were way too high that day, though Turner had more strokes of fun that I did. Long before walking up the 18th fairway, we discovered each other’s passion for hunting black bears.
Today we play the game of white-ball frustration in spring and summer, using it to get ourselves into shape for fall bear hunting. I like hunting with Turner if for no other reason than that he’s open to trying different techniques. (There’s a second reason: He’s an extremely good bear hunter!)
On this hunt, we’d used a simple spot-and-shoot tactic in an area we’d both hunted and knew to be heavily used by bears when the huckleberries ripened. But it is neither our favorite way to kill a black bear nor the tactic we use more than any other.
Spotting and stalking is typically done in the same fashion but at a longer distance. Once a bear is targeted and you’ve made the decision to pursue it, your movements to get closer to the animal will test your predatory acumen. And how! A black bear is a predator too, and will be on full alert for signs of trouble.
In fall they are more concerned with building fat reserves for the coming winter by eating fruits, nuts, mast crops and berries than by targeting meat sources. (There are some exceptions to this, which I’ll address in a jiffy.)
Just like you and me, bears prefer their berries soft and sweet, not hard and bitter. Likewise, the best time to eat acorns is just after they’ve dropped from a tree. Finding bears in fall, especially in these years of solid bear populations, is really just a game of finding each of those food sources as they ripen in bear country.
You find these food sources during summer scouting, and years of experience will tell you when the right crops will be ripe in your area. Then it’s just a matter of picking a viewing stand downwind and hidden from your quarry, finding a bear to shoot and then moving in for the kill.
Bears have three senses you need to consider:
- Smell: Bears possess one of the keenest noses in the entire animal world; get upwind of your target, and you won’t have a target for long.
- Hearing: Acute is the best way to describe it.
- Sight: Contrary to folklore and, therefore, heaps of popular literature on bears, they can see quite well. (Hey – they’re predators!)
Make your stalk from downwind; that is, put your nose into the wind. And if you hunt in steep terrain, remember to test prevailing air currents (up in the morning, down in the afternoon). Use terrain, trees and other sight-blocking obstructions to hide your approach, and find game trails or other routes where your walking won’t sound like Bigfoot stomping through a bowl of dry cornflakes.
Insects as well as the leaves and flowers of broad-leafed plants make up the summer nutrition package for most bears in years of ample rainfall. So given an opportunity for an easy, protein-enriched snack, a bear isn’t likely to turn up its nose at a wounded varmint or other small animal, the sounds of which are reproducible. There’s the bait.
Because predator calls are designed to do just what their name indicates, don’t be surprised the first time a predator reacts to your prompting. The only problem is that the predator responding could just as likely be a bobcat, fox, coyote or mountain lion as it could a bear. For that reason, let me be clear about this: Never use predator calls to attract bears when you’re hunting alone. This is a t
actic for which at least two hunters, sometimes three, are needed to hunt safely and efficiently.
A lone hunter with a mouse squeaker will have a field of vision of about 220 degrees. Allow yourself any more head movement than that, and you risk spooking prey. Without the ability to see what is sneaking up behind, you’ll be playing a dangerously silly game.
We’ve all toyed with bleating rabbit calls and mouse squeals, and while it may make sense that a bear would eat rabbits, few hunters stop to think that a 200-pound animal would target such a little thing as a field mouse. But they do.
Your position should offer a commanding field of vision from a secluded, elevated stand that allows you and your partner to sit facing opposite directions. You watch for critters approaching his backside; he watches for those approaching yours.
Wind direction is crucial here. It needs to be either nonexistent or coming cross-scape, which means it will blow directly into your ear when you’re facing forward. Having the wind at your nose would put your partner in an upwind position from any predators, and you won’t have much success.
Turner and I sit close enough that we can hear each other’s calling and so we can communicate without using our voices when one or more visitors is in front of us. A nod of the head might solve this, but we found that a quiet kiss sound has no noticeable adverse affect on bears, especially if you can follow the sound with another squeak or squeal without getting busted.
This is an exciting way to hunt black bears and usually gives you ample time to check over your potential target for size, pelt condition or other considerations you may have.
Putting it all together in the field takes practice, patience and, most important, time. Always be ready for a bear to respond to calling, but be willing to try it more than once if things don’t work out the first time. Only incidental contact ranks lower on a success percentage basis, so be sure to put yourself into an area with active bears.
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