Tag Archives: spot-and-stalk

Spot-and-Stalk Black Bear Hunting Top 10 Tips

Spot-and-Stalk Black Bear Hunting

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 was the least productive time to spot bears. But in my experience I saw just as many bears early as later. 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 tips.

Spot and Stalk Black Bear Top 10 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.

Bear feeding on south-facing open slope near old-growth forest.

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.

Bears in western Idaho feed heavily on yellow flowers called “arrow-leaved balsamroot”.

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.

Fresh green bear droppings.

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.

Claw marks.

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.

Rub tree located on a saddle crossing.

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.

Rear foot track in mud.

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)

Dug-in tracks.

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.

Five-inch wide front track made by a boar.

5. Locate 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. Be sure to use a windicator when searching for or stalking bears.

Note: Bears have short attention spans. 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. Hungry bears will happily brave the elements, and bears are always hungry! In my experience rain was not a factor, but snow and freezing temps were real bad news.

On two separate occasions I spotted a bear one day, and when the snow moved in the next day it disappeared from the mountain. 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 for them to just go back 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. When a bear is broadside the front shoulder blocks the vitals. Therefore, you must time your shot for when the front leg is moving forward. I learned this the hard way by trying to squeeze my arrow too tight to the shoulder. My arrow hit the bear’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. He 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.

Conclusion

I hope you found these tips helpful for your spot-and-stalk bear hunt. I realize that the majority of bear hunters prefer using dogs and/or bait, but in my experience there’s nothing more exciting. challenging, or rewarding than getting it done on the ground the old-fashioned way.

My 2016 spot-and-stalk black bear.

Good luck, and be careful out there!

Over- and Under-Estimating Big Bucks

muledeer_011
(Photo courtesy of Utah DWR)

Over- and Under-Estimating Big Bucks

This post is dedicated to the properly estimating your chances at big bucks:

Any seasoned hunter will tell you, “NEVER underestimate big deer!” I agree, but experience also tells me that ‘NEVER’ really means ‘SOMETIMES.’

I have spent up to 7 hours stalking big bucks, and other times, I’ve barreled right in on the animal, either because I was losing light or he was distracted by something.

I’ve also watched hunters (hold on, I’m trying not to laugh, ha-ha-ha-ha-ha.. sorry…) walk directly at a deer or elk, in plain view, thinking he’s invisible because he’s wearing camouflage! I’m not joking! You should’ve seen the look on the animal’s face just before it jumped up and ran away.

What it boils down to is that every situation is different. You can’t judge the current situation on the last situation, whether it worked out or not. In bowhunting there are way too many variables.

Big bucks are extremely wary…most of the time. On very rare occasion you’ll catch a buck being lazy or carelessly feeding, allowing a hunter to run in on him. MOST of the time, you can’t get within 60 yards–which happens to be bow range–without extreme caution. This is sometimes referred to as the 60-yard bubble. Within this bubble, the buck’s senses are exceptionally acute. This is where critical decisions make or break your hunt.

Below, I’ve compiled a list of situations that either causes me to speed up my approach, or sloooooow way down:

When to speed up your stalk:

  1. It’s getting dark. Fortunately when it gets dark, it’s gonna get light again…in the morning. Unless the buck is on the move, or in a rare situation, you have the option of pulling out and trying again in the morning. If morning isn’t an option, you better roll the dice and make your move.
  2. The buck is about to unbed. A bedded buck is a Godsend. Assuming he just bedded down for the day, you know where he’ll be for several hours at least, and you have all day to plan your approach. However, if he’s about to un-bed, you better make a decision. Can you get close enough for a shot before he stands? Because when he stands, it will be far more difficult to get closer.
  3. The wind is about to change. If the wind is in your face, your odds of success go up. But everyone knows that wind shifts. Wind shifts a) when the weather changes (i.e. before and after a storm, and b) when the thermals change. In the evening and early morning, the wind blows downhill with the cooling air. In the late morning and afternoon, the wind blows uphill with the warming air. These are called thermals, and the conscientious hunter always plans his attack based on this. Wind is the most important factor when getting close to big game. Noise is a close second.
  4. There is cover noise. I’ve used every possible noise for cover including blowing wind, flying grasshoppers, squirrels barking, jets flying, buck fights, etc. Anything that makes noise–other than you–will help you get closer faster.
  5. The buck is feeding into thick timber. When a buck heads into the thick stuff, it can sometimes be easier to get closer, but if it’s too thick–like a stand of willows–you may never get close enough, not even five yards, without busting him out. Make your move before he gets swallowed up.
  6. The buck is distracted. Distractions range from bucks fights to squirrel chatter but include anything that gets the buck to look the other way. The best distraction is when they rake trees with their antlers. This is especially common with elk. They are nearly blind with their face buried in a fur tree.

When to slow down your stalk

  1. When the buck beds down for the day. Again, you have several hours to get close. Take your time!
  2. The wind is steady. If you’re lucky enough to be hunting during a stretch of steady weather, you can use predictable wind to keep your stalk slow and methodical.
  3. The ground is noisy. Try sneaking to twenty yards with a forest floor covered in dry pinecones, gravel, scree, or pine needles. Dry conditions are a nightmare, especially in thick cover. Sometimes, it is simply impossible to get close enough. Fortunately, there are a couple things that can help you. First, take your boots off and stalk-in-socks. Second, wait for cover noise. Dry, hot conditions often bring flying grasshoppers to life. Their loud, short-burst flying often provides valuable cover noise to get a step closer.
  4. The buck is facing you. If you’re trying to stalk close to a buck that’s facing you, you shouldn’t be moving at all! However, if the buck’s face is hidden from view, and you’re unable to circle around him (wind, terrain, etc.), then a super-slow-motion stalk is Don’t think so? Try it sometime. A couple years ago, I spent 3 hours stalking toward close to a cow elk bedded on a ledge in plain view. Unfortunately, it got dark and the elk unbedded at 30 yards, but I didn’t have a clear shot. If you understand anything about deer eyes, you know they have a hard time seeing fine detail and slow motion.  If you can move slow enough–and without blinking–you can literally walk right towards buck without him seeing you. The trick is moving extremely slow. When you finally get too close, say 30 yards, he will see you. Unless you have cover, I don’t recommend trying this.

These are just a few examples of when to speed up or slow down. What it really boils down to is common sense and experience. Most importantly, spend time observing and studying your prey. What are their strengths and weaknesses? The more you understand your prey, the better you’ll understand yourself as a predator.