Black bear hunting has changed dramatically throughout much of the West during the past 10 years, and taking a good bear requires a bit more preparation and planning than it used to. A number of Western states have outlawed the use of bait and hunting with hounds, and several have eliminated spring bear hunting seasons because of pressure from the anti-hunting crowd. Throughout most of the West, black bear populations aren't only in good condition but increasing at a substantial rate. This bear boom is costing states significant amounts of money for game damage restitution, while adding an additional strain on the big game populations through predation. But high black bear populations throughout the West provide generous opportunities for those willing to adapt and change their hunting methods to take advantage of the bruins' fall habits.
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If you're considering a Western fall bear hunt, now is the time to act by collecting the latest license info on the state you're planning to hunt. The process for obtaining a fall bear license varies from state to state and even within game management units in those states. Some states allow licenses to be purchased over the counter, while others, such as Colorado and Wyoming, issue fall licenses for certain seasons on a draw-only basis.
Many Western outfitters cater to fall black bear hunters, as do most of the Western Indian reservations, and hiring an outfitter might be your best bet for your first fall bear hunt. Remember, the harder you work on the early aspects of your fall bear hunt, the “luckier” you'll be.
When black bears emerge from their winter dens early in the spring, they spend most of their time resting and only a limited amount of time feeding. It takes time for their hibernation-softened foot pads to toughen up and for their digestive system to start functioning at full capacity. During early spring, black bears are primarily grazers, feeding on protein-rich, easily digestible shoots of new growth grasses and sedges. As summer progresses, black bears gradually spend less time resting and more time keeping their bellies full.
During August, September and October, black bears will often feed 18-20 hours a day to build up the layer of fat that will sustain them throughout the winter. They bed down only for short stretches during every 24-hour period, and this increased fall activity certainly plays into the hands of hunters.
By far, the most popular method of hunting Western black bears during the fall is spot-and-stalk.
There are a number of areas in the various Western states that are ideal for this type of hunting and others where it might be a waste of time. Spot-and-stalk hunting works well along the coastal areas and mountains of Washington State, Oregon and Idaho, where the rainforest timber has been clear-cut, allowing for the growth of succulent goodies such as blackberries, huckleberries, raspberries and gooseberries that provide abundant fall forage for appetite-driven bruins during August and September. Clear-cut and open mountain slopes and valleys in the high-country regions of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona and Colorado, where bears spend much of the day foraging for fall-ripened fruits, acorns and sedges, are also ideal locations for glassing and stalking fall bruins. In many of these logged-over areas, there are miles of forest roads that extend into prime bear country. Some are closed to vehicle traffic but can be hiked or biked by serious bear hunters. Working these back roads early in the morning and late in the afternoon, when bears are most active, and glassing the slopes to locate a feeding or napping bear can be productive.
The key to successful spot-and-stalk bear hunting is simple: You have to see the bear before it sees you! Black bears are supposed to have notoriously poor eyesight, but after years of hunting these critters I'm not so sure this is the case. I personally believe black bears have pretty decent long-range vision because I've had them spot my camouflaged form at several hundred yards and spook as quickly as a bull elk or white-tailed buck. I've also had black bears walk right past me at 20 yards without showing the slightest indication they'd seen me. But, of course, the same has happened with deer and elk. I think it's movement that draws their attention, so I try to keep as still and unobtrusive as possible in all black bear hunting situations.
If black bears do have a vision deficiency, their keen sense of smell and acute hearing make up for it. So staying stealthy and keeping the wind in your favor when stalking bears is extremely important.