Hunting Bears High, Low & in Parts in Between

Identifying suitable habitat and finding the right food sources help expert bear hunters score every year. Here are the techniques they use.

By Scott Staats

With the changing face of legal bear hunting tactics come the frustrations and excitement of trying new methods. One way of shortening the learning curve is to consult an expert.

In the Pacific Coast states - with the exception of California - the days of hunting with hounds are long gone, although not forgotten, and hunters have necessarily switched to taking bruins through spot-and-stalk techniques. Most bears, however, are taken incidentally by deer and elk hunters who also have purchased a bear tag to carry with them - just in case.

Vic Coggins, a wildlife biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife in Enterprise, said all northeastern Oregon's hunting units have healthy numbers of bears. It's a report that could be made by biologists just about anywhere in California, Oregon or Washington today.

"The majority of successful hunters do their scouting and glass the canyons to spot the bear and then put on the stalk," Coggins said. He noted that some hunters have success by using predator calls. Bears weighing 200 pounds are commonly taken, with the biggest being around 400 pounds, he added.

For those targeting big black bears, perhaps the simplest and least time-consuming tactic these days is to hire an outfitter or guide who uses the types of hunting tactics they prefer.

Eric Munkton of Spokane, Wash., used his .300 Weatherby Magnum to shoot this 150-pound black bear. Photo courtesy of Bearpaw Outfitters

Jon Wick, owner of Outback Outfitters in Wallowa, Ore., puts in time and miles each year scouting for bears in northeastern Oregon, and it's been paying off. His clients have enjoyed 100 percent success the last several years in the Wenaha, Sled Springs-Chesnimnus, Snake River and Minam-Imnaha units.

Last year Wick's clients went 12 for 12 and the year before 10 for 10. One client took a bear that weighed 420 pounds. He said he pulls out 300-pounders every year, but has to work hard at it. Four bears last year each weighed around 350 pounds.

Hunters need to have the best optics they can afford when going after these bruins, Wick said. To scout for bear, he likes to be on one side of a canyon and have one of his guides on the other side. "I'm looking at what's underneath him and he's looking at what's underneath me," he said.

He scouts extensively before the season and sometimes starts more than a month before opening day, but realizes the animals could move if a storm front comes in. He starts up high to cover as much ground as possible and usually hunts down to the bears. Although most hunters can expect to shoot from between 200 and 400 yards, Wick said that last year the farthest shot a client took was just over 200 yards; the closest was 45 yards. Nine out of the 12 bears taken were with shots of less than 100 yards. It's best to hunt early morning or late afternoon, he noted.

"It's easy to get hunters into areas where bear can be seen, but getting one is a different story," Wick explained. "Hunters should be in good shape, as there is often some tough hiking after a bear is spotted."

For those hunters having difficulties identifying a big bear at a distance, Wick said the best thing to do is look for the appearance of "nonexistent" ears. That's the first sign of a big-skulled bear, followed by a wide, flat head and small mouth. Nine times out of 10 this will be a boar, he said. He also looks for the air gap between the belly and ground. If the belly appears to be dragging on the ground, there's a good chance it's a big male.

One bear shot by one of Wick's clients last year was aged at 22 years.

Why such hefty kills? For one, bear populations throughout the West and in northeastern Oregon where Wick operates are increasing. Wick said his record is 26 bear sightings in a single day during the spring bear season; fall hunters can expect to see fewer bears than that.

Most of the area he hunts consists of open hillsides with some patches of trees and brush. Anyone hunting the Snake River Canyon needs to realize it can remain fairly hot, temperature-wise, until the end of September. It's the deepest canyon in North America.

West Coast Bear Seasons

Before heading afield, be sure to check your state's bear hunting regulations.


Oregon -- Aug. 1 to Nov. 30 for eastern Oregon (limit of one bear statewide); Aug. 1 to Dec. 31 for western Oregon.


Washington -- Aug. 1 to Nov. 15 (one bear in eastern WA and two in western); Sept. 2 to Nov. 15 in northeast and Blue Mountains with limit of two bears.


California -- opens with general deer seasons and closes Dec. 29 or when the statewide quota is reached. Check regulations.


Contacts -- Outback Outfitters in Wallowa, Ore., (541) 886-2029; Icicle Outfitters and Guides in Leavenworth, Wash., (800) 497-3912. -- Scott Staats


One problem many hunters have is identifying males and females or distinguishing large and small bears at a distance. The ODFW's Coggins said novice hunters can purchase videos to help with bear identification. One good video is by Duncan Gilchrist available through Outdoor Books and Videos. Call (406) 961-4314 for a copy.

Coggins said that overall hunter success during the last few years is around 10 percent. Some people get their tags and don't go out, while others - usually those hoping for incidentally contacting bears while hunting other species - don't put much effort into a hunt.

When bears emerge from their dens in the spring, they feed mostly on

vegetation such as grass and roots. Later in the year they will also feed on grubs, ants and other insects, or even a deer or elk carcass.

Dale Denney, owner of Bearpaw Outfitters in Colville, Wash., concentrates his black-bear hunting efforts on berry patches on southern and southeastern exposures using the spot-and-stalk technique. As for scouting, he simply knows the best berry patches and returns to those areas each year. It also helps, he added, that the bear population in northeastern Washington is excellent and increasing.

Although a few bears have been taken using varmint calls, he doesn't use them much. He's taken bears up to 550 pounds, but the average is 150 to 200 pounds.

"When the berries are ripe, hunters can expect to see from one to five bears a day," Denney said. He's seen as many as 19 in one day.

Northeastern Washington has a prime mix of berries and nuts in the forested mountains, which provide the necessary feed and cover for the largest population of bears in the entire lower 48 states (over 30,000 estimated). Not surprisingly, the region records the highest bear harvest in the state almost every year.

Most bears average 5 to 6 feet, with the occasional 7-foot-plus bruin. Denney said hunting is best during August and September, and his success rate is between 70 percent and 80 percent.

Bruce Wick, owner of Icicle Outfitters and Guides in Leavenworth, Wash., - 1-800-497-3912 - says that, except for his clients, deer hunters with bear tags kill most bears taken in his area. He hunts the high country and says he follows the bears as they follow the huckleberries.

"The berries in the high country ripen later than the ones down low, so when they're ripe up high, they are the only berries available and that's where we find most of the bear," Wick said. This occurs around the last week of September and the first week of October. When the berries are done, hunting is tougher unless there's tracking snow on the ground, he said.

His best success is spot-and-stalk early in the morning and later in the afternoon. He hunts old burns that are open and have lots of berries. "You can expect to see one or two bears a day, but I've seen up to nine in a day," he said.

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