October 05, 2020
By Al Raychard
From the Virginias north through New England, bear numbers have increased by substantial and unprecedented numbers in recent decades. As a result, longer seasons and the opening of areas previously closed to bear hunting have greatly increased hunting opportunities. The question is, how to get it done?
Call Them In
Calling is one of the more exciting ways to hunt bears. It is also one of the most challenging and demanding. Part of the reason is that calling blindly rarely proves successful, which means pre-season planning and scouting is a must to maximize efforts. If hunters have an advantage, it’s that all eastern bear seasons take place during the fall, a period when bears are mobile and constantly in search of high-calorie foods.
The key to success is finding those honey holes where the food they seek is abundant. Oak and beechnut ridges; blueberry, raspberry and other berry brambles; areas offering wild grapes, cherries, chokecherries, crabapples and mountain ash; as well as standing corn fields, apple orchards, grape vineyards and areas containing active beehives are a few good places to look for activity, particularly fresh droppings and tracks. Fresh sign combined with available food indicate bears are in the neighborhood, which greatly increases the odds of them responding to a call.
Scouting also allows an opportunity to pick the best setup locations that offer concealment and good visibility while taking into account wind and thermal directions. Bears possess a rather acute sense of hearing—up to a mile in the right conditions. The most productive calling hours are early and late in the day when bears are most active, woodland noises are minimal and calls carry greater distances. The best setup locations provide an opportunity to glass an area before calling in hopes of actually spotting a bear first. A bear can’t respond to a call if it can’t hear it. Glassing a bear first greatly increases the odds of a response while perhaps foretelling the direction from which the bear might appear.
Electronic predator calls have become the standard for calling bears; unfortunately, e-calls are not legal in all states, so be sure to check the regulations. Where legal, hand-held e-calls work, but due to their higher volume and capability of calling with more frequency and consistency, calls with wireless remote-control speakers or receiver units are ideal. Those calls tend to be programed with a wider array of life-like animal distress calls that bears respond well to. The Phantom Pro Wireless from Extreme Dimensions, the FoxPro Inferno and Banshee models, the FLX100 from Flextone and the GC300 model from ICOTEC are prime examples. The biggest advantage to remote-control calls is that the multidirectional speakers or receiver unit can be placed at a distance, allowing for better set-up and shot options and directing the bear’s attention away from the hunter, thereby increasing the safety factor, particularly when hunting solo.
Where electronic calls are prohibited, mouth calls can do the job, but are best used when hunting with a partner. Bears responding to a call can come crashing in like a locomotive or sneak in like a ghost from any direction. To prevent being blindsided, companion hunters should sit back-to-back or in such a way to cover multiple directions.
Whatever the case, once the calling begins it should continue with variations in tone, intensity and volume until you give up the spot for good. Bears have relatively short attentions spans. When the calling stops, so does the bear. If a pause between calls is too long, bears will give up the search. Be prepared, though. Often times when the calling stops, bears will stand to detect movement or to get a handle on where the sound originated from and might be closer than you think.
Drive Them Out
Where legal, drives may offer the best chance of bagging a bruin. Unless forced to go on the search for food, bears typically are reluctant to leave their home territories where they have refuge and everything they need. The idea of a drive is to get bears moving in areas where other hunting tactics are limited or not practical. Even then, success depends on pre-season scouting or other knowledge that bears are in an area. An organized strategy that includes a knowledge of the terrain, possible escape routes bears might take and an understanding of prevailing wind directions is essential.
Drives generally consist of two lines of hunters. The first line comprises “drivers” who are tasked with getting a bear moving and informing the second line of “shooters” or “standers” stationed ahead, either by radio or yelling, that a bear has been jumped, is on the move and in what direction. Ideally, the standers should be positioned at strategic, predetermined positions at higher elevations for better visibility, to reduce human scent and for safety.
Convincing a bear to go where it doesn’t want to go is the biggest challenge with drives, and bears on the run have a habit of playing tricks by making an attempt to circle back or turning left or right. For that reason, shooters and drivers alike are apt get a shot opportunity, and it’s important that all participants stay in contact with one another in order to both cover as many escape routes as possible and remain safe. Because a bear lives by its nose, drives into the wind are often more productive. That way, any bear pushed will concentrate on the commotion to its rear and not on the shooters it is hopefully moving toward. It also helps to start a drive at first light, when bears are still active or just starting to bed for the day.
There are, of course, any number of variations to a bear drive. How a specific drive is conducted often depends on the terrain and wind direction. Sometimes just planning a drive takes more time than the drive itself, but on all drives each participant should know his or her role and carry a compass or GPS and a radio for communicating. Hunters should be prepared for a long, hard day, and the team should have an extraction plan in place for any bears that are taken and a designated rendezvous location for the end of the hunt.
Bring Them With Bait
Currently, Maine and New Hampshire are the only eastern states where hunting bears over bait is legal. Permits are required to bait bears on state-owned and managed lands; a host of rules are on the books for establishing bait sites and those rules vary in each state. Hunters should check the current regulations or wildlife department web sites at mefishwildlife.com and huntnh.com for permit application and other baiting details.
More bears are taken over bait in Maine and New Hampshire each year than by any other means, but again, success depends on preseason scouting, planning and creating a site that will not only attract bears but keep them interested and hold them once the season opens. Areas with preferred food sources are good places to start looking for bear activity, especially those with lots of surrounding ground cover that provides bears with a sense of security on the approach. Water sources are good locations, too, since wind and thermal currents during the prime late-day hunting period typically flow in one prevailing direction making it easier to determine the best access and exit routes and stand or blind locations. When it comes to stand and blind setup, downwind of the bait site and, if possible, facing away from the late-day sun is always best. This puts the last light of day on the bait station and not in the hunter’s eyes.
To attract bears to a new bait, spraying trees and nearby stumps and shrubs with liquid smoke, strawberry daiquiri mix, anise or any of other sweet or smoky product will do the job. The higher you can spray it, the better to allow the scent to carry. Bears are also drawn to bacon grease and old, salty frying oil. It’s a good idea to spray and smear the ground around the bait. As bears enter and exit a bait site, they’ll track the scent through the woods, creating scent trails for other bears to follow. Honey burns work well to get the ball rolling and can be used during the season as well. Simply pour some honey into a tin coffee or soup can and set it boiling and smoking with a small propane torch. Once a steady smoke is produced, remove the heat and the honey will continue to smoke for several minutes. The sweet smell will drift and draw bears from miles around.
To keep bears at the site, dry dog food doused with grease, pancake syrup, cattle molasses available at feed and garden stores or any of the molasses-based deer attractants works well. Start out with a generous portion in a 55-gallon barrel with a head-size grab hole cut into the side. Make sure the barrel is secured to a tree and position it so that a bear will be standing broadside or slightly quartering away when accessing the contents. Check the bait every few days. Once the site becomes active, bait every day to keep bears interested.
Rarely have there been so many bears roaming the eastern woods, or so many opportunities to hunt them. Choose a tactic, scout them up and if everything goes to plan, you’ll be adding delicious bear meat to your freezer this fall.