Evolution is an amazing thing. The fact that creatures can form habits and adaptations necessary for survival, and then breed them back into the population until individual species form from those adaptations, is almost incomprehensible. Life as we know it was shaped by such evolution, and few other creatures’ evolution is more baffling than that of the black bear. They have massive claws and canine teeth, are among the largest and most powerful creatures on the planet, yet maintain an omnivorous diet. During spring, summer, and fall they are constantly on the move and have one of the fastest metabolisms of any creature in the animal kingdom. Yet they hibernate during the winter, slowing their heart rate to the minimum and rendering themselves completely immobile for months at a time. The black bear is nature’s testament to the power of adaptation—and so to properly hunt them, we must become adaptable as well.
Hunting black bears is possibly the most challenging venture a hunter can undertake. Bears are solitary creatures that live without packs or herds and have very few consistent habits, making them difficult to pattern. Though bears maintain small home ranges and will often stay in an area for weeks at a time, the smallest change in time, weather, or food source will cause them to vanish from an area almost instantly. Bears are incredibly wary animals with unbelievably acute senses that will send them running for cover at the slightest provocation.
The most common ways to hunt bears are with hounds or over bait. But for your average hunter, means—and often state laws—prevent these techniques from being an option. For these hunters, bears have to be pursued with fair-chase methods. But a bear is different from other big game. Their lack of habit and general wariness makes hunting them daunting. But with a bit of understanding and the implementation of proper hunting technique, bears can be pursued just like any other animal.
Although bears live in a variety of different habitats, they tend to prefer brushy and heavily timbered areas. They also generally avoid most lowlands and game trails, preferring to spend most of their time on steeper slopes. Start looking for black bear sign in heavily timbered areas on hillsides. Go out in the early season and hunt for bear tracks, bear scat, bedding areas, turned-over rocks and logs, and “signposts,” which are trees that bears have clawed or chewed on to mark their territory.
Scat is especially important, as it can not only indicate what a bear is feeding on, but also—depending on its freshness and how many piles you find—how often a bear is frequenting an area. The more sign you find the better your chances of finding a bruin. Be extremely careful when scouting and avoid disturbing an area more than necessary. Unlike deer and elk, which are less wary, plowing through a bear’s feeding or bedding areas can cause the animal to leave the area entirely. It’s best to wash your clothes the night before with an odor-masking detergent, and then employ a good cover scent before going scouting for bears. Pay special attention to covering the soles of your boots and pant legs: any area of the body that will leave a lot of scent behind at a bear’s nose level.
Once several “beary” spots are found there are a few techniques a hunter can employ to be successful. The first and foremost of these is spot-and-stalk hunting. This is especially effective in the spring when foliage is off the trees and bears emerging from their dens are on the hunt for food sources, making them easier to spot. Remember, black bears prefer slopes, so begin glassing areas on open slopes where the bears’ earliest and most common food source begins to emerge: grass. Avalanche chutes, power lines, and glades on south- and east-facing slopes where early season grass grows adjacent to thicker timber are great places to start looking for bears.
Although you may sometimes spot bears in the middle of open slopes, most of the time they are hesitant to leave cover, especially during the middle of the day. Concentrate your glassing efforts along the edges of open areas first, searching the shadows for a feeding bruin.
The second hunting method to employ with bear hunting is also effective but requires a lot of patience: sitting in ambush. In areas with thicker timber and more cover, sitting and waiting for a bear is often your only option. The trick to this is finding a place where a bear is definitely hanging out. Look for signposts and multiple piles of scat that vary in freshness, in an area with a consistently plentiful and available food source. These can be large glades of grass, or a particularly large patch of berries, roots, and fallen tree nuts. Position yourself in an area under cover, with a large field of view, where you can quickly locate any bear approaching the area to feed.
Tips to improve your odds
Once you have chosen a hunting technique that fits your area or preferred hunting style there are a few extra strategies to keep in mind that can really improve your bear-hunting game. The first is to make sure that you always have a backup plan. If you stake your entire season on waiting in ambush for a certain bear at a certain point and it doesn’t come to fruition, you have wasted your time and your tag. During your early season scouting trips, find multiple “hot” locations. Have a plan A, B, and C in your back pocket so if one area or technique isn’t proving effective you can quickly switch to another.
The second is to remember the importance of the time of day. Bear are evening-oriented creatures and don’t move much during the mornings or afternoons. Like the wraiths in “Lord Of The Rings,” they exist on almost a different plane from the rest of the world—preferring to stay in the shadows—and are only willing to expose themselves when the shadows lengthen. The exception to this is on those extra dark, gray, rainy days, when the lack of direct sunlight will often invite bears to move throughout the day.
Finally, remember to keep a predator call in your pack. Bears are predators after all, so having a fawn bleat or rabbit distress call on hand and ready can be just the thing to draw a bear into the open or into range when you can’t stalk any closer. Remember, though, that calling bears can be extremely dangerous, as they will often come in looking to make a kill. Be cautious and prepared when using them.
For many hunters, black bear hunting is the toughest challenge in the hunting world. These animals have evolved into ultimate survivors, and to successfully hunt them we must be willing to evolve in how we think about them. They aren’t mindless killing machines nor are they rotund, fluffy dogs. Bears are animals that represent all the majesty and wonder of the outdoor world. They are intelligent, have keen senses, and are always finding ways to thrive in the most varied, rugged, and beautiful places on earth. Becoming a successful bear hunter is all about being able to adapt to every situation that comes along, being prepared, flexible, and above all else, smarter than the average bear.