Black bear hunting isn’t easy. These secretive, often nocturnal animals prefer to live in relative obscurity—sticking to thick cover and avoiding people whenever they can. Even in areas where bear populations are relatively high, there still aren’t many of them when compared to more common big game species such as deer and elk. Also, with a few exceptions—bears concentrating on salmon streams during summer and early fall—black bears are widely scattered throughout their available range.
In fact, Gary Alt, the well-known Pennsylvania Game Department bi- ologist who headed up the state’s black bear program for many years, once told me that by far the highest percentage of bear kills in his state were the result of nothing more than pure luck. “Most bear hunters go into the woods, sit on a stump and hope a bear comes by,” Alt said. “Unless they’re awfully lucky, they have very little chance of killing a bear.” Alt said a survey of Pennsylvania hunters showed that 13 percent of successful bear hunters shot the first bear they’d ever seen in the wild, and 53 percent had seen fewer than six bears in their lifetime—and this included trips to bear-rich environments such as Yellowstone Park.
TARGET FOOD SOURCES
Regardless of where you hunt bears, always remember one thing: A black bear is a large, furred food processor whose movements and habits are largely dictated by a seemingly insatiable appetite. More than any other big game animal I’ve ever hunted, black bears tend to concentrate on specific food sources at specific times. Generally speaking, their preferred fall foods include berries, mast crops and fruits, though in areas such as Alaska and coastal British Columbia you can add migrating salmon to the list. In some states, agricultural crops such as corn draw bears like a magnet. In contrast, spring bears love the first lush grasses that grow along water courses, on the steep sides of mountains and in swamps.
If you’re serious about trying to shoot a bear this fall, your first step should be to call a state game biologist and ask about the preferred foods in the area where you plan to hunt.
You must remember, though, that bears don’t act like deer. That is, when one specific food source has been depleted, they’ll move on until they locate another. While deer might use an acorn ridge for a month, bears are very mobile and more likely to feed there a week or less and then move on. Alt’s research showed that some boars will roam a home range as large as 60 square miles, and sows 15 square miles, all the while looking for food.
SCOUTING IS CRITICAL
Anyone who takes a black bear without spending significant time scouting should stop off at the convenience store on the way home and buy a lottery ticket. To get a handle on where bear activity is high, it’s important to log a lot of hours in the woods looking for sign.
Also, ask lots of questions of locals, including if there have been any recent bear sightings, or any general areas where bears are seen from year to year. These folks might not be able to tell you exactly where the bears are living, but even if you can get some sketchy information, such as where bears have been seen crossing a certain road, you have a great place to begin scouting. Such information is good only if it’s fresh, though, because bears have a tendency to move a lot. Sightings that occurred a month ago are rarely valuable.
One mistake novice bear hunters make is believing the amount of time and effort they’ll need to put into a successful bear hunt is comparable to or less than what they put into hunting deer. Nothing could be further from the truth. Deer are much more habitual and predictable than bears, and their overall numbers and densities are much greater, which makes patterning them much easier. Bears have unpredictable movement patterns, even though they’re generally tied to the availability of food. And you can be sure that in years when preferred foods are scarce, bears will move more. If acorns are scarce but apples are abundant, it makes sense to hunt the orchards, not oak flats.
Scouting should begin before the season opens. In the Southwest, I often scout deer and bears at the same time. I glass during early morning and late afternoon for deer, then during midday check out oak groves and cactus patches. If I find trees where bears have torn limbs off the previous fall, I’m reasonably sure that when these same trees produce next fall’s nut crop there’ll be a bear vacuuming them up.
Topographic maps and aerial photos can be a big help, too. Coupled with information from local residents and knowledge of what the bears prefer to eat in the area, these tools can show you drainages leading to food sources and thickets bears prefer to use for bedding areas.
Bears like to move just before dark, feed at night, then retreat to the nastiest, thickest place around to bed for the day. Swamps, cool timbered ridges, overgrown clear-cuts, and the like are the kinds of places they like to bed. Stationing yourself between the bedding area and the food source is a great way to get a shot at a black bear.
In the intermountain West, I find it best to pick a spot where I can see a lot of country and glass. Forget about looking for bear sign per se. If there’s food around—berries, nuts, etc.—and it’s a good bear area, sooner or later you’ll spot a bear. Look mostly along the edges of timber stringers, thick brush and so on. In areas where bears like to feed on agricultural crops, scout field edges for bear sign, then set a treestand in the hopes of intercepting the bruin as it comes to raid the standing corn or rip the fruit off the apple trees. If the bears aren’t reaching the fields until after shooting hours are over, hunt them like deer—that is, backtrack their trails and set stands inside the woods back off the field edges 100-150 yards.
It’s important to remember that bears have a superb sense of smell, and they can also see better than people give them credit for. When setting up a spotting station, planning a still-hunt, or placing a treestand or ground blind, always keep the wind in your favor. Don’t unnecessarily skyline yourself or move around more than you have to when on stand. When I get on a glassing or spotting station, I get myself nice and comfy, then I don’t move except to raise and lower my binocular for a look. And when looking for bears, remember they spend as little time in the open as possible. Focus your efforts on thick cover, especially the upper edges where bears can walk easily yet dive into their security cover in a flash.