Bawlin' For Bears

On the West Coast, what are the most exciting big-game animals to hunt? Black bears. What's the most thrilling way to hunt them? Call them to you!

When you're setting up to call, stay in the heavy shadows. Be sure you have a solid backdrop behind you to break up your outline.
Photo courtesy of Scott Haugen.

The big boar stood 4 yards from the tip of my arrow. Staring into the brush, he searched for the sounds that pulled him this far.

Given the angle, I had no shot. But we were separated by a thin curtain of grass, and I was sure the bear could hear my heart pounding in my chest.

He took another step closer. But still I had no shot. Slowly, I brought my bow to full-draw -- and got busted! The 500-pound brute whirled.

Stopping at 8 yards, he let out a woof and ran into the brush. I was still at full draw.

Later, I filled my tag on another bruin that came to my predator call. He wasn't near as big as the giant that I failed to connect on. But when you're calling black bears in the Pacific Northwest, controlling the size of the ones that respond is sometimes impossible.

There are several ways to go about hunting bears in the fall -- target their food sources, still-hunt or call. Of the three methods, calling is the most exciting. To get him in close, you send the message of, "Hey, I'm your food! Come kill me!"

The ensuing danger, totally different than calling in coyotes or other game, creates the excitement. Bears coming to a call are looking to do one thing -- eat! And they will, no matter how big their prey may be.

As with calling any animal, your success depends largely upon timing. The same holds true for bears.

This time of year, bears are looking to put on as much weight as possible before winter. In early fall, huckleberries, blackberries, snowberries and elderberries are a few of the fruits that bears gorge themselves on.

The cambium layers in trees, roots, tubers and other vegetation are also in the bears' diet. Carrion, spawning salmon and ground squirrels are on the menu, as are calf elk and young deer. As fall starts, there's almost nothing a bear won't rip into.

If you find bears feeding on berry patches, they won't likely travel far from them until their food source is depleted. Should they have to travel and become predators to survive, bears can cover lots of ground. In either case, calling can be effective.

To call in black bears successfully, it's important to see them first. But in some dense forests of the West, this isn't always possible. (Continued)

If you can't spot them, look for sign before you start calling. Fresh tracks, holes where they were digging, and above all else, droppings will help you key in on the bruins.

Compared to the droppings of other big-game animals, a bear's scat can teach you much more about his habits. Bears have poor digestive systems. Much of the foods they eat passes right through them and winds up looking not much different than it did to start with.

Black, slimy scat reveals that fish are their main diet. Dark, firm scat with hair shows that the devoured a mammal. To learn what berries and vegetation was being consumed, simply look at the droppings -- it will be easy to tell.

In terms of learning about bears, all of this information is valuable. You'll find out what they're feeding on and where they may be feeding at this time of year. Once you know that, it's time to set up accordingly.

The main reason why you should locate bears visually before calling is because there's no telling how they'll respond. Sometimes, they'll come in on a dead run. Other times, they'll sprint away at the first sound. Bears will also start coming and then, for no apparent reason, give up. There's no predicting what a given bear will do.

In the fall, one of the most productive sounds is that of a calf elk or cow elk. Even more effective can be the sound of an estrous cow or distressed cow. Many elk hunters are discovering just how effective these sounds can be.

At this time of year, young elk are an important food source for bears. And for the same reason, fawn bawls and doe distress calls are also effective now.

When it comes to calling bears, elk and deer calls are seasonal sounds. They work best in the months of late spring, summer and early fall.

Cottontail, jackrabbit, rodent or bird distress calls are all effective year 'round, especially as winter approaches. Because so many sounds can be used to call bears, it's better to have too big an arsenal at the ready, rather than too few.

Another reason to have a range of sounds is because sometimes the bears lose interest. A big one may be well on his way to a call, then quit coming. If an estrous cow sound got a bear halfway fired up, a high-pitched cottontail cry may regain his interest.

If he again loses interest, a bird or soft rodent distress sound may be the ticket. I've had such a scenario unfold more than once.

To lure bears, the best all-around call I've ever used is the custom-made Last Call, crafted by Jones Calls. With this device, you can make all of the sounds -- from elk to birds to rodents. Your other option is to invest in multiple calls to help emulate a range of animal sounds.

Speaking personally, there's no greater thrill than calling in close an animal that you know could kill you. I've done it with bears all over the West, and with lions in Africa. It's spine-tingling, but it tunes me into nature in a way that nothing else can.

But one mistake can cost you. You know this going into the hunt, and that's why it's vital to plan smart.

This is also why some hunters prefer to work with partners, who lend extra sets of eyes and added firepower. Numbers of attacks by black bears eclipse those of both grizzly and polar bears combined.

But such attacks on hunters are actually rare. Once a black bear discovers that you're human, he's more likely to turn and run, rather than keep coming. Then again, that very uncertainty keeps it exciting.

The use of decoys can also help put nervous hunters at their ease. Decoys -- cow elk, deer fawn or varmints -- will help distract an approa

ching bear's attention away from you. Not only does this reduce the chances of a bruin keying on you as the food source, but it also allows you a slight bit of movement if you need to budge for a shot at the bear.

Bears don't have the best eyesight, but that doesn't give you leave to be careless in the woods. When a bear approaches, keep any movement to an absolute minimum. To me, it doesn't matter if the bear sees me. But if he sees me move, the jig is up.

When you're setting up to call, stick to the heavy shadows. Make sure you have a variegated backdrop to break up your outline. Get comfortable and be ready to spend time at each call station. Once your calling sequence starts, it may go on for the better part of an hour, nonstop.

If I'm calling blind in thick habitat where sounds don't carry far, I'll give bears about half an hour to respond. When I'm calling blind in big, open country where sound carries, I'll give them up to an hour to come in.

Typically, I'll blow on a call for 45 to 60 seconds. Then I pause for 15 seconds or so, and repeat.

This is really serious work, and it takes lots of energy to keep up and stay focused. This is also where electronic calls come in handy.

There are many digital calls on today's market. The FOXPRO is my personal favorite. Set the calling unit a safe distance away and run it with the handheld remote. Perch a decoy near it, and you're good to go.

When setting up, situate yourself where you have the greatest range of visibility. You'll want to see bears as they approach. Then you can judge how loud to call and what sounds to make.

But in bear hunting, there are no guarantees, especially not when it comes to calling. The first few bears you call may pack it up and head out.

Then again, a trio may come in on one set. That's the thrill of calling bears -- and once you get a taste of it, you'll be wanting more.

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