Population umbers are rising in Arkansas, and the bear hunting is getting better as they do.
By Clay Newcomb
The Natural State has many world-class wildlife resources and our black bears are certainly one of them.
We've got big bears, a growing population, plenty of places to hunt them, and expanding hunting opportunity. The range of the Arkansas black bear is moving in every direction.
A thriving population should give Arkansas hunters a reason to be excited about the future of bear hunting in our state. This coming season should be an excellent one, and some proposed changes in the season structure will help hunters in Zones 1, 5 and 5A.
Bears from the Western Ozarks and Ouachitas have been repopulating Eastern Oklahoma for the last 30 years. The Sooner State has had a bear hunting season for the last seven years and they estimate the population to be 2,000 animals.
At this time, Arkansas biologists believe we have around 5,000 bears in our state.
Ozark bears are also expanding their range north into southern Missouri. There is now a resident and breeding population in the Show Me State and it's possible in the next 10 years we'll see a limited hunting season.
Bears in the Southern Ouachitas (Bear Zone 2) are rapidly expanding south into the Gulf Coastal Plain. The AGFC has hinted at future hunting seasons in Southwestern Arkansas. Additionally, bears from the Gulf Coastal Plain have helped establish a breeding population in Northern Louisiana.
However, bears south of the Arkansas line are considered a different subspecies — Ursus americanus luteolus.
Our Delta bears, with a habitat hub in the White River National Wildlife Refuge, have also crossed the Mississippi River taking up residence in Eastern Mississippi. Arkansas black bears are expanding their range north, south, east and west. That is good news.
For the last two years, the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission has opened bear season on the same day as the archery deer opener. The commission did that as a compromise to Zone 2 bear hunters who were hoping to get back their Sept. 15 opener, and the Zone 1 hunters who wanted an earlier season. The same structure will be used in 2017 with a season opener on Sept. 23 in Zone 1 and Zone 2.
Earlier season dates increase the chances of Arkansas hunters tagging mature male bears. However, they can also mean more sows coming to the baits.
That puts responsibility on hunters to target older males and let the juveniles and females walk. All bears (except sows with cubs and collared bears) are legal to harvest, but the restrictions we see on bear seasons are designed to protect female bears.
A later season date is the harvest-regulation tool primarily used to limit the harvest. The later into the fall, the harder bears are to kill.
If we can successfully build a bear hunting culture that targets older males and correspondingly reduce the sow harvest, we can hope for more liberal hunting seasons in the future as bear populations continue to grow.
Judging the sex of a bear can be tricky business. I've seen multiple 250-pound-plus females killed by hunters mistaking them for boars. Females have narrower heads, smaller feet and ankles, and typically are pear shaped.
Big adult females have narrow front ends and large rumps. Some sows can be very large — even exceeding 300 pounds. However, just as in deer hunting, being selective in what we harvest will provide future benefits.
Honest mistakes judging sex does happen, but I encourage adult hunters to pass on sows when possible. Even saving 30 sows per year in Arkansas might be enough to shift the harvest totals toward a more liberal season structure.
That being said, I killed a sow in 2016 in the National Forest. When you've only got seconds to judge a bear that you've never seen before on trail camera, it's a little different scenario. Additionally, on a public-land hunt (no bait allowed), just to see a bear is a big deal. More on this bear later.
PROPOSED SEASON STRUCTURE CHANGES
In 2016, Arkansas hunters killed 440 bears statewide. This is the third largest harvest in the state's 36 years of bear hunting (our first modern bear hunt was in 1980).
Archery hunters in the Ozarks Zone 1 met the September/October quota of 205 bears within three days. For many years, the Zone 1 quota has been 250 bears (205 in October and 45 in November).
Probably the biggest change to the 2017 season will be a 50-bear increase in Zone 1 to a 300-bear quota and an overall quota restructuring. In the past, the quota has been based upon the month of the harvest.
The AGFC is now proposing a season-based quota including archery, muzzleloader and modern gun. The proposed structure is a 205-bear archery quota, 45 for muzzleloader, and 45 for modern gun. The regulations also will make the bear seasons open with the corresponding deer season for that weapon.
Archery bear season will open on Sept. 23. Muzzleloader bear season will open on Oct. 21. Modern Gun bear season will open on Nov. 11. All these seasons close on Nov. 30.
Bear seasons in Zone 5 and Zone 5A historically have excluded portions of Arkansas east of the Mississippi River. You may not realize it, but there is a lot of Arkansas real estate on the other side of the river. At the time of this writing, the AGFC has a proposal to include Arkansas land on both sides of the river for bear Zone 5 and 5A.
ARKANSAS BEAR HUNTING
The opening day of bear season in Arkansas never seems to come soon enough. Our bear hunting culture is still developing, but a "hurry up and wait" mentality permeates the minds of bait hunters.
In 2016, the Arkansas bear season opened on Sept. 24. That was a big year for the Newcombs because my 13-year-old daughter, River, hunted our best bait. She's an experienced deer hunter, but this was her first bow hunt and bear hunt. Additionally, in our camp were James Lawrence and Nancy Copes.
We started our baits in early September in Zone 2 with high, but realistic expectations. The trend is almost always the same. The large adult males hit the baits often and in daylight during the first two weeks. As the season approaches they frequent the baits less by day and more by night. They aren't leaving because the season is getting closer; that would be giving them too much credit. As natural food becomes more available, bears respond less to bait.
Arkansas bear hunter Heath Martin thinks bears switching from daytime to nighttime activity in late September may be a result of the change in photoperiod. The activity of mature whitetail bucks changes dramatically in September every year as they transition from summer to fall patterns. It may have a similar influence on bears. Regardless of why, they get really hard to hunt later in September.
We had an idea which bait we wanted River to hunt. And like clockwork, several nice bears showed up, but one stood out. It was a cinnamon-colored male that appeared to be around 200 pounds. A mature male showed up only a few times. Two other females were also on the bait. However, we targeted the colored male. More than anything, he seemed to be killable. It was also a plus that he was a color phase. That would make a great bear for River.
Opening day came and River and I were in the stand by 3 p.m. We sat in the heat as our foreheads glistened with beads of sweat. We knew the action probably wouldn't heat up until the last 1 1/2 hours of daylight. At 5:45 I saw the head of a bear about 40 yards away.
I poked River and said, "There he is! It's the color phase bear. Get ready."
The bear proceeded to make a wide circle around the bait. I'm quite confident he picked up our scent, but it didn't deter him from cautiously approaching. I find that younger bears typically aren't that alarmed by human scent. The old ones are a different story.
The bear made its way into bow range as River pulled back her 40-pound Mission Craze bow. The bear was standing 12 yards away broadside when she released the arrow, hitting the bear directly behind the shoulder.
I wasn't expecting the arrow to pass through the bear, and so when I couldn't see an arrow sticking out, I assumed she missed. However, the bear fell over within 25 yards of the tree! That beautiful bear incited a celebration between father and daughter that will go down in our family history books.
At almost the same time, both James and Nancy killed bears as well. When we met back up with our hunting party after dark, three smiling hunters greeted, high-fived, and hugged. We had three great Arkansas bears on the ground. That hunt exemplified the amazing opportunity that we have in Arkansas bear hunting.
To finish out the Arkansas bear season, exactly one week later I was able to kill a bear on public land with my recurve. No baiting or attraction scents are allowed on public land. After River, James and Nancy killed their bears, our baits went dead and I decided to scout for bears in the national forest.
I found a heavy concentration of bear sign on white oak acorns. The mast crop was spotty in 2016 and in Zone 2 most of the acorns were high on the ridgetops. This is exactly where I started finding bear scat, acorn caps, and bear trails. To make a long story short, I had carried my bow on the scouting trip when I found the bear sign.
I knew of a small waterhole in the area and decided to check it for tracks. When I got there, I found fresh bear tracks and decided to hunt. I killed a 175-pound bear over the water within two hours of my arrival.
It was a lifelong dream of mine to kill a bear in the national forest in Arkansas while using traditional archery equipment. In my experience, a hunt like that is the most challenging big-game hunt our state can offer.
Whether you hunt private land over bait or on public land, good luck in your 2017 bear hunting.
MAKING A BEAR HIDE THROW
Many Arkansas hunters are looking for good ideas for their bear hides. Many mount the first bear they kill, but then have trouble deciding what to do with subsequent bears. Here's an idea: how about a bear hide throw?
A throw is basically a small blanket that can be placed over the back of a couch or chair for decoration. It's a bit more formal than a full rug that includes the legs, claws and head. A throw is basically a small blanket.
The first step is to get your bear hide professionally tanned. Most taxidermists send bear hides to professional tanneries. Keeping the hide in good condition before taking it to the taxidermist is paramount. The weather typically is warm during bear season, so skin your bear quickly and freeze the hide.
Bears spoil much quicker than deer. Many taxidermists have been blamed for bad tanning jobs, but the real culprit was improper field care. Slipped hair can't be repaired. Tanning a hide usually costs between $225 and $300.
After the hide is tanned, simply place the hide skin-side up and draw a large oval with a marker. Be sure to utilize as much of the hide as possible. Basically, you'll be cutting the legs and head off the hide.
Once you're happy with the shape, simply take a pair of scissors and start cutting and you'll then have a bear hide throw. Place the throw on the back of a couch or drape it over a rocking chair to capture a rustic Arkansas highlands look.