The Challenges of Hunting Black Bears

The Challenges of Hunting Black Bears

Bears have an annoying habit of showing when you least expect it. (Photo by Ron Sinfelt)

Hunters seem to be universally afflicted with “the grass is greener over there” syndrome. Indeed, hunters often ignore the opportunities that exist close at hand as they scheme and dream about adventures in faraway places.

Hunters on the West Coast dream of elk hunting in the Rockies. Hunters in the Rockies fantasize about a desert big-horn hunt in the Southwest. Hunters in the Southwest get all steamed up about someday hunting whitetails in the upper Midwest or Alberta. And so it goes.…

A lifelong West Coast deer hunter, I, too, dream about far-flung hunting adventures, but about 10 years ago I realized that I was missing out on a top-notch big-game hunting opportunity that existed practically right in my back yard — hunting black bears.

Throughout the West, black-bear numbers are up, in part because forest-management policies favor the production and protection of mature timber, and those practices benefit black bears. Also, new hunting restrictions in many regions now make baiting bears, or hunting them with hounds, illegal. And in many areas, the bear-harvest goals outlined by regional wildlife biologists are generally not being met. This results in expanding black-bear populations and an ever-increasing range in which black bears roam. Today bears are being seen in areas of the West where they’ve never been seen before.

While deer and elk numbers fluctuate wildly in the West, and opportunities to hunt deer and elk come and go, one constant remains true: Western hunters have access to remarkable world-class black-bear hunting. Seasons are long, much of the hunting takes place on public land, and the challenge of putting a big bear on the ground without the benefit of hounds — or 50 pounds of old doughnuts — can be extreme.

Let Me Count The Ways

If you’ve done any research about hunting black bears, you undoubtedly know that when hunting with hounds or bait is off the table, spot-and-stalk, stand-hunting and calling are three universally endorsed approaches to taking a black bear.

I don’t profess to be an expert bear hunter, but I have spent thousands of hours in the bear woods, and I think you’ll find my observations on bear-hunting methods and bear behavior are generally helpful as you contemplate where and how to tag your bruin.

The first thing to realize is that while there are a lot of supposed “rules” about bear hunting, bear hunting is actually a very fluid sport. Black bears are frustratingly unpredictable, and field conditions strongly influence bear location and movement. The same things that can be an advantage in one situation can be a disadvantage in another.

Find the Food and You’ll Find the Bears

That is absolutely true. When a bear finds a reliable food source — be it a dead cow, a strip of hardwoods producing nuts or a heavy crop of berries — they will stay with the food source, feeding heavily and moving very little. All of this is to your advantage if you’re able to locate the feeding activity and sit in a stand nearby.

However, if you’re a spot-and-stalk hunter trying to glass a bear to stalk, having bears tied down to a food source in heavy cover is a major handicap. You need the bears to be out on the move, foraging, in order to see them, form a plan and execute a stalk. As a general rule, I tailor my approach on any given bear hunt to the elevation and terrain. If I’m hunting up high, I like to explore old burns. I hike and glass, glass and hike, always ready for one of those burned-out stumps to materialize into a bear. Every now and then, one does!

When bears are holding in the denser woods found at lower elevations, I spend less time looking for bears and more time looking for bear sign — more specifically, looking for fresh feeding activity. At middle elevations, I’ve found heavy concentrations of bears feeding on acorns, manzanita berries and black berries.

Know Your Ground

Woodsmanship and learning the area where you hunt are invaluable assets for the bear hunter. As you glass the high-country, you’ll begin to determine the type of terrain and vegetation features that attract bears. In the low-country, you’ll start to identify areas where bears feed during the fall months. Of course, a food source that was strong last year might be pretty slim this year, just based on weather conditions, but holding knowledge of places where bears have been in the past gives you a starting point for finding bears in the future.

At the end of the day, no two stalks are ever the same, and stand-hunting, once a food source is located, comes down largely to patience. Rather than regurgitating facts about these approaches that have been written about so much, I’m going to toss out some of the observations I’ve made over the years as a result of burned boot leather and sweat equity.

Bears Are Where You Find Them

Bears are where you find them. Remember that. Scouting is important because it helps you determine where bear activity is taking place, but bears have an annoying habit of showing when you least expect it. These unexpected opportunities are easy to squander. Don’t be taken by surprise. When you are in the bear woods, be ready for action.

For years, my plan was to focus on deer hunting during deer season, then spend the middle- to late-fall months hunting bears. I hunted and hunted those late fall bears with zero success. At some point, it dawned on me that most of my encounters with bears happened between August and October — first, when and where berries grow ripe, followed by wherever mast crops (acorn, nuts, etc.) were coming into season. Once the mast is on the ground and well picked over, bears seem to scatter and become reclusive. In late fall, without a food source to hold the bears, just finding fresh sign can feel like a victory. These days my bear-hunting season kicks off during archery season and extends through the October deer season. If I haven’t tagged a bear by Nov. 1, I hang it up for the season.

Paid Off Through Patience

Calling bears works for a lot of guys. I’ve seen videos of bears coming to predator calls, yet calling has not worked for me. I always carry a distress call with me in the bear woods. I’m an accomplished caller, having brought in coyotes, grey foxes, bobcats and mountain lions. Despite having called to dozens of bears, I’ve yet to bring one in with my calls. Some of the bears I’ve called to have stopped and looked at me; others have shown zero reaction.

That’s why I say “patience and a stick-to-it attitude” is the most important part of bear hunting success, beyond the grasp of basic hunting skills and woodsmanship. Most big-game hunters cut their teeth deer hunting, but they’ve got to recognize that bears are not deer. It’s not uncommon to see a dozen or more deer per day, but you’re not going to see a lot of bears while bear hunting. Bear numbers are simply not as dense as deer numbers.

If you go deer hunting in a given area and don’t see deer or sign, you can pretty much assume local deer numbers are thin — perhaps, there are no deer at all around you.You can’t make those sorts of assumptions about bears. That mile-long, 1,000-foot-deep canyon you’ve been hunting might hold two or three mature bears. Your hunting approach might be perfect, but it’s still going to take some time and patience to actually cross paths with one of those bears. When you do, your patience pays off and your skill behind the sights of a rifle, bow — maybe, a handgun — is tested to the max.

Good hunting … rather, good bear hunting.

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