Fall Black Bear Basics
I had been sitting comfortably in the shadows of a dense clump of oakbrush for half an hour watching for any sign of movement on several brush covered knolls and hillsides fully enjoying a gorgeous fall afternoon bear hunt in the mountains of southwestern Colorado. The late afternoon sun was gilding the slopes in a soft, golden glow and the almost imperceptible breeze held a definite hint of colder weather to come. The only discordant aspect of the scenario was the ear-splitting squealing and squalling from my predator call that periodically shattered the tranquility of the otherwise peaceful afternoon. My thoughts of giving up on the calling and just enjoying the peace and quiet of the September day were vanquished in the blink of an eye when I spotted movement on top of a small ridge 200 yards in front of me. Two mule deer does came bouncing into the small clearing at the top of the ridge and stopped momentarily to glance back the way they had just come. A couple quick bounds and they vanished into the thick oakbrush blanketing the north slope of the ridge, as quickly as they'd appeared. I've often called in mule deer when using a predator call for coyotes but had these deer been responding to my call they would have been intent on locating the source of the sound from my direction and not intent on the area they had just vacated, unless something had spooked them. I kept my eyes glued to the clearing and sure enough within a couple of minutes a large chocolate-colored, black bear came out of the brush at the edge of the clearing and stood swinging his head back and forth trying to locate the source of the sounds that might mean a free lunch. I didn't keep the bruin in suspense long as I muffled the call in my hands and gave a short series of drawn out moaning squalls. Immediately the bear ambled into the jungle of oakbrush and disappeared, headed my way. I eased my bow off the limb it was hanging from and waited in anticipation of getting an "up close and personal" encounter with a fall bear. For the next hour I tried every tactic I knew in calling bears and never got another glimpse of that bruin, although I felt sure he had circled just out of sight in a thicket of oak, winded me and left without giving a hint of his presence. Needless to say, I wasn't bored during the hours of waiting and didn't spend a heck of a lot more time admiring the scenery. Knowing there is a hungry bear in the vicinity while you're trying to sound like dinner has a way of keeping you wide awake!
The fall bear hunting picture has changed dramatically throughout much of the prime western bear country during the past 10 years and taking a good fall bear at present requires a bit more preparation and planning. A number of western states have outlawed the use of bait and hound hunting and several have eliminated spring bear hunting seasons because of pressure from the anti- hunting crowd. In most areas of the west the bear population is not only in good condition but increasing at a substantial rate and costing the states substantial amounts of money for game damage restitution while adding an additional drain on the big game populations through predation. The high bear populations throughout the west certainly makes fall bear hunting a challenging and attractive hunting proposition for those willing to adapt and change their methods of hunting to take advantage of the bruins fall habits.
During the spring when bears emerge from their winter dens they spend most of their time resting and a very limited time actively feeding. As the summer progresses the black bear's pattern of activity is gradually reversed and less time is spent resting and sleeping and more time spent keeping their belly full. During the months of August, September and October black bear will often feed 18-20 hours a day and bed down only for short stretches during every twenty four hour period. This increased fall activity pattern certainly makes them more accessible for the bear hunter willing to adapt his hunting methods and spend the time and effort to be successful.
By far, the most popular method of fall black bear hunting is "spot & stalk" hunting. There are a number of areas that are ideal for this type of hunting and others where it may be a total waste of time. Spot and stalk hunting works great along the coastal areas of Alaska and British Columbia where the bears are foraging on the salt grass flats at tide line scavenging for tidbits washed up on the beach or working the salmon streams for spawning fish. In the interior areas of British Columbia, and many areas of Oregon, Washington, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming there are large areas of U.S. Forest Service lands that have been clear cut in past years. Many of these clear cuts have grown up with dense blackberry and huckleberry thickets whose succulent fruits attract hordes of black bear from mid August through mid September. In many of these areas there are miles of logging roads that extend into prime bear country. Many of these roads 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 the bears are most active and glassing the slopes with a good pair of binoculars looking for a feeding bear can be very successful.
The key to successful "spot & stalk" bear hunting is simple, you have to see the bear before it sees you! Bears are supposed to have notoriously poor eyesight but after years of hunting these critters I am not so sure this is the case. I personally feel that bears have pretty decent long range I've had bears spot me from several hundred yards away and spook as quickly as a bull elk or whitetail buck. I've also had bears walk right past me at 20 yards without the slightest notion there was anyone in the country. If a bear does have a vision deficiency it darn sure makes up for it with it's keen sense of smell and acute hearing so keeping the wind in your favor when stalking a bear is of extreme importance.
In states such as Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and various areas of other western states and some of the Canadian provinces where much of the prime fall bear habitat is covered with dense stands of timber or heavy brush, "spot and stalk" hunting is a real iffy proposition a fall bear hunters best bet might be hunting water holes or calling.
During the September and later fall seasons before the snow flies, bears are busy munching anything they can flop a lip over almost non-stop and their digestive system is working overtime to process these goodies. Consequently fall bears need to water several times a day to keep their digestive systems functioning. In the warmer, semi-arid southwestern states a good waterhole for fall bear hunting is worth its weight in gold. If you find a tank or spring with bear tracks in abundance you have found the best possible location to fill your fall bear tag. Remember when choosing an ambush site, be it a tree stand, pit blind, or ground blind, make sure you keep the wind in your favor.
This past fall I had an elk bowhunter sitting in a tree stand overlooking a small spring situated in a canyon choked with dense oakbrush. I found this particular watering spot on a bear chase one spring and over the years have taken several record class bear and some good bull elk from it. This hunter had been in the stand for less than an hour on a hot September evening when a nice 300lb black bear came in for a drink within 10 yards of him. A few minutes later a huge 400lb bear came ambling in for a drink and then sat nonchalantly under the hunter's stand for half an hour before wandering off. Half an hour later a 5x5 bull elk came to the spring and promptly got run off by the larger bear. On the way into the spring my son-in-law saw two other bears in the same canyon. Taking the time to scout areas and find such a water hole for your fall bear hunting is definitely worth the effort and if you find a key waterhole it will provide you a superb place to hunt fall black bear for a lot of years to come.
Calling bear during the fall season with a predator call can be the most exciting and most frustrating of methods for fall bear hunting. When it works it will get your adrenaline level redlining in short order and when it doesn't you are going to swear that this is probably the most boring method you've ever tried. BE PATIENT! Give it time to work. Most callers spend a couple outings trying to call up a fall bear and then give up for some other method. The key to calling in a fall bear is to do some serious scouting and locate feeding and bedding areas where you feel a bear might be within a half mile or so. Calling will work equally well in the dense bush of northern Saskatchewan or the arid canyons of Arizona and all places in between. Imitating a free lunch to a hungry fall black bear is probably not one of the smartest things to do but it sure beats watching hockey on TV. Because you're dealing with an animal that can be potentially dangerous it's a good idea to hunt with a partner so you can watch in both directions when calling. Having a hungry bear come storming in to your calling from your blind side may not provide exactly the kind of hunting opportunity you were expecting and could prove downright dangerous to your health and well-being.
A couple years ago, I was bowhunting moose in northern Alberta and on the first day of the hunt I called in a medium sized black bear and shot it with an arrow at the distance of 12 FEET! The bear had come loping in responding to my calling and lip squeaking and didn't stop coming until it saw me draw at point blank range. When the arrow slammed into the bear's chest, fortunately the bear whirled and got the hell out of there. After the action of the moment was over I realized shooting a bear facing you at that distance with a bow and arrow was probably one of the stupider things I have done in my hunting experiences. But it was exciting!!!
Using a predator call during the fall season will usually bring in the larger bears in the area as they are the most dominant and aggressive. The reaction of bears coming to the sound of a deer fawn or rabbit distress call can vary from almost nonchalance and pure curiosity to that of a slobbering, raging, teeth popping bruin intent on killing whatever it finds making those intriguing sounds. Namely YOU!! When I set up for calling bears I try to choose a location where I have a good field of view in front and on both sides of me. The last thing you want is a huffy, hungry bear popping out of the brush right in your face thinking you are a injured fawn or rabbit. If I'm calling alone I try to pick a spot where the least likely avenue of approach is to my rear. Even then you can bet I check that direction from time to time.
Several years ago a good friend was calling bear near a manzanita and oakbrush covered hillside in Arizona during the fall season in hopes of getting some close-up photos when he had a serious "up-close-and-personal" encounter with a bad bear. A few minutes into the calling sequence he spotted this monster black bear headed his way on a far ridge. He was hyped and ready for the action and some good bear photos. When the bear cleared the brush at 60 yards he quit calling figuring the bear would stop coming for a few seconds, which is usually the case, and give him a chance for some photos. Instead, this slobbering, bruin only increased the speed of his advance. The big boar, evidently figured he was going to lose his free meal to some low life coyote or hawk if he didn't hurry. He was still coming all out when my buddy figured he'd better let the bear know that he wasn't in an edible mood. He waved his arms and yelled and all the bear did was slow and start circling the camouflaged caller at FIVE YARDS with his hackles up, ears laid back, popping his teeth and moaning his displeasure at the situation in general and my buddy in particular. A mad bear this close is nothing to be trifled with and my friend was no longer interested in good photos, only survival, as the bear showed no inclination of backing off and actually appeared to be getting madder and more determined by the second. Fortunately the caller was bear-wise and had brought a shotgun loaded with No. 4 buckshot as a backup. At five yards the muzzle blast and a charge of buckshot kicking up a cloud of dust in front of the mad bruin cooled his ardor a bit but even at that the big bruin just stalked off occasionally looking back over his shoulder and popping his teeth at the thoroughly relieved caller.
Bear calling tactics are a bit different than calling predators such as fox or coyotes aside from the danger factor. A bear's attention span seems to be very short and if they're responding to a call and the sound stops generally the bear will also stop. This can be used to your advantage to get a bear stopped in perfect shooting position or hopefully stop him BEFORE he runs plumb over you! When you start a calling series, call as continuously as you can. When you spot a bear headed your way, you can vary your calling according to his reactions and get a better feel for how to handle him when he approaches shooting distance. Two callers are often better than one when calling bear, aside from the safety factor, as you can keep up continuous calling for longer periods of time. Bear can hear a call for distances up to a mile and often will take their time in responding so plan on spending at least an hour at each calling stand to give them plenty of time to come in. In choosing a stand site, remember to keep the wind in your favor as much as possible and take the time to get as comfortable as possible so you don't have to move around and can stay put for an hour or more.
Fall bear hunting is often overlooked by hunters planning their fall hunting schedules. Regardless of whether you're a gun hunter or bowhunter it's often possible to add bear hunting to your other big game hunting ventures with little increase in cost or time and maximum increase in challenge and opportunity to hunt one of North America's finest big game animals.