Spring black bear season is fast approaching, so today I’d like to offer my top 10 tips for bagging a black bear spot-and-stalk style.
Full Disclosure: I am NOT a professional black bear hunter. I bow hunted bears in Idaho on two separate occasions (2012 and 2016), and last year was my first successful hunt. That being said, I spoke to two different biologists in advance of each hunt and studied everything I could find on black bear hunting, habitat, and behavior. Still, it took many days to finally get the job done.
Interestingly, much of the theoretic data I collected in the preseason proved wrong. For instance, one article stated that early morning is the least productive time to spot bears. But in my experience I saw just as many bears early as late in the day. One biologist mentioned that bears absolutely hate the rain, but I ended up shooting my bear in a steady rain storm. Go figure.
Ultimately, spot-and-stalk success comes from boots on the ground and relentless time in the field; in other words, real-life experience.
Now let’s get on with my Top Ten Tips:
1. Food is Everything: Someone once said that black bears are just big hairy pigs. They eat, dig, and root around constantly, rarely holding still for very long. Since they’re so distracted, it should make them easy to hunt, right? Kinda. Like deer, bears feed for a while, then bed down for a few hours and repeat. The good news is that bears are easy to spot and generally found out in the open.
Spring bears primarily feed on new grass shoots, wild onions, clover, dandelions, and other spring offerings. It is imperative to talk to your regional biologist to find out what the bears are primarily feeding on in your area.
As for time of day, my advice is to hunt bears like deer: Get to a high lookout before first light and start glassing steep, grassy, south-facing slopes adjacent to old-growth forest (used for bedding). Of the nine bears I encountered last year, most were spotted in the early morning or late afternoon.
Even in the best units, you’ll likely glass many miles before actually laying eyes on a bear. If you can’t glass up a bear, keep moving. Get away from the roads, explore remote canyons, and cover as much ground as possible. Bears are solitary animals and are spread out across their range. This leads to tip #2.
2. Look for Sign: If glassing fails, the next step is to locate an area that looks “beary” and look for sign. You’re looking for large piles of black or green dropping, claw marks on trees, tree trunks rubbed smooth with hair attached, diggings, tracks in mud, turned over items, and dug-in tracks (see photo below). I’ll break these things down separately as we go, but basically you’re just looking for concentrations of bear sign and focusing your efforts there.
The most common sign you’ll encounter is droppings, aka scat. Droppings come out wet and green, then quickly oxidize to black (within 24-hours in warm weather). If you’re not finding droppings, keep moving.
3. Examine the Trees: An area dense with claw-marked trees is a good indication of a likely bear hang-out. Black bears–especially cubs–like to climb trees which leaves claw marks in the bark.
Bears also rub on trees just like deer, and they always have their favorite rub tree. Rub trees occur near trails or beds and are generally conifers with easily identifiable smooth spots with hair stuck to it.
4. Watch for Tracks: Unlike deer, bear leave few tracks because their foot pads are wide and soft which spreads their weight out. Most bear tracks are found in snow, mud, or soft dirt.
Another strange phenomon I found was “dug-in” tracks. Dug-in tracks are frequently found near bedding areas. Rather than soft tracks, these are trails that bears uses every single day while traveling from feed to bed. Because they step in the exact same spots each day, it creates staggered depressions in the ground. (see photo below)
Bear tracks will help you judge the size of a bear. Basically the main pad (front or back) of a mature bear (sow or boar) will be 4.5 inches or wider. Sow tracks generally don’t get bigger than 4.5″, but a big boar will stretch up to five or six inches.
5. Find Bedding Areas: Bear beds are similar to deer beds and are usually located in thick stands of trees not far from feeding areas. Bear beds often look like large nests, whereas the bear pushes branches and ground cover out to the edges of the bed. Bears also like to bed on the cool, dark north-face near the tops of ridges. Also, just about every bed I found had multiple piles of scat nearby.
6. Watch for Items Turned Over: What the heck does this mean? Rocks, logs, and cow pies turned upside-down. This is something I never read about before, but everywhere I found bears or bear sign I found multiple items turned upside down. A rock lying next to a depression in the ground where it previously lied is most common. In springtime bears are primarily herbivores, but they really love protein from insects, grubs, mice, and other animals hiding underground. You’ll also encounter occasional diggings. Diggings consist of a random two or three-foot holes dug into the dirt where the bear went after a squirrel or other animal.
7. The Triple “S” of Bear Behavior: Secretive, Shy, and Slippery: Assuming you’ve found a good feeding area with lots of bear sign, there’s still no guarantee you’ll find a bear. On several of my hunts I found areas littered with bear sign, but no bears anywhere. Slippery: Bears have a bad habit of disappearing right in front of you. They mosey behind a tree and they’re suddenly gone from the world. They are such quiet animals and chronically secretive. They are very shy and simply don’t want to be found.
Being patient is the key to bear success. When a bear finds a good feeding area/hillside, he’ll likely stay on it for several days. If you’re in a good location, or if you glassed up the bear earlier in the day, he’ll likely re-appear sooner or later in the same general area.
8. Watch the Nose: Bear hunting is technically easier than deer hunting because unlike deer, bears have relatively poor hearing and eyesight. However, the bear’s nose is equal to or better than a deer’s nose. Simply put, if he smells you it’s game over, so hunting according to wind direction is critical.
Note: Bears have a short attention span. If a bear sees or hears you, hold very still and he’ll likely forget you were there.
9. Watch the Weather: Just like deer, bears avoid heavy rain or snow. However, a light or sporadic rain doesn’t seem to bother them; if they’re hungry they’ll brave the elements. In my experience rain was a non-factor, but snow and freezing weather was real bad news.
On two occasions I spotted a bear one day, and when the snow moved in the next day they completely disappeared. This is especially a problem in the early season (April and May) when the bears are living close to their dens. When the snow flies, they head back to their dens and won’t emerge again until the weather is better. It’s much easier to just go to bed and wait for brighter days.
10. Know the Anatomy: Unlike hooved animals, bears carry their vitals (heart/lungs) further forward in their chest. On a broadside bear, the front shoulder blocks your shot unless the front leg is moving forward. I learned this the hard way by trying to squeeze the arrow too tight to the shoulder. My arrow ended up hitting it’s big, powerful shoulder, which stopped my arrow short of the vitals. Fortunately he swung around to face me and my second arrow sailed under it’s chin and into the chest. The big boar didn’t go too far, but I was lucky. Fortunately bears don’t react the same way as deer; they’re more likely to stay put after a poor shot instead of instinctively sprinting away.
I hope you found these tips helpful for your spot-and-stalk bear hunt. I realize the majority of bear hunters prefer using dogs or bait to get their bear. But in my experience, there’s nothing more exciting or challenging or rewarding than getting it done on the ground the old-fashioned way.
Good luck, and be careful out there!