Spot & Stalk Black Bear Hunting Strategies
It was the middle of May. My wife, Heather, had done a perfect stalk on an average-sized cinnamon phase bear early in the afternoon. A wonderful trophy in its own right, she was still hoping to fill her second Alberta bear tag on a big old black. With a little luck and some good strategy we hoped to accomplish this all in the same day. In turn, we invested the next several hours scouring the countryside in search of a bigger bruin. Her cinnamon was taken at just 60 yards on a small patch of lush clover, the only one we could locate for several miles in either direction.
Capitalizing on the warm spring day, as we advanced further into the remote wilderness we were excited to discover another prime area. It had open lines with clover, several drainages with flowing water, and the hillside was south-facing - really too good to be true. As the sun began its descent, deer and moose emerged to feed on the new green growth on the line.
"This is too good; definitely a bear hotspot," I offered. "I'm sure we'll see something feeding near one of these creek bottoms before dark. Let's find a high spot and glass for a while."
Moments later I raised my field glasses for a better look. Five hundred yards down the line was a familiar black shape ambling along a gentle ridge overlooking a creek bottom. It was 7:00 pm, just the right time for bears to come out in the open to feed.
At that we disappeared into the trees to begin our approach. Covering the first 300 yards was easy. The timber was reasonably open and the mossy forest floor made for quiet walking. The latter 200 was a different story. Unable to close the gap under the shelter of trees we were forced to use contours in the landscape to close the gap undetected. Thankfully the big boar was preoccupied with filling his stomach on dandelions and grasses. Heather could have taken her shot at 100 yards, but when asked if she wanted to get closer, she said, "absolutely!" The wind was in our face and conditions were ideal for a silent stalk. Finally, at 50 yards I asked if she felt good about the shot opportunity. She nodded and the rest was up to her. Waiting patiently for the big boar to turn broadside, she played her cards right. Gently squeezing the trigger of her Tikka 7mm, the bullet penetrated tight to the shoulder. The bear let out a vicious roar and bolted for cover.
"Congratulations honey, you just shot the trophy of a lifetime!" I exclaimed.
To be certain we waited 20 minutes and then advanced to retrieve her prize. I knew the shot was good but despite best efforts neither of us could find any blood sign. Her bear had rocketed straight into the trees near the creek and I figured he'd be lying dead just a stone's throw away. Following the natural contours, Heather grinned from ear to ear as we discovered her seven foot, nearly 500 pound, bruin piled up against a tree.
Able to take two bears in one day, to some extent luck certainly played a role, but more importantly we did our homework searching out the most ideal locations frequented by black bears in the spring. May is prime time for hunting spring bears just like September is prime time for fall black bears. If you've got the itch to sneak up on a bruin here are a few tips for first finding them and then getting in close for the shot.
Spotting a Bear - Where to Look
To find a bear, you have to go where they hang out. Whether you're hunting in the spring or the fall, remember a bear is motivated by food. Virtually everything a bruin does is based on the urge to feed. Find a desirable food source near good cover and you'll eventually find the bears.
Mention spring clover and fall oat fields to most bear hunters in the know, and their ears perk up. Particularly in the northern Canadian provinces where oil and gas has created hundreds of thousands of miles of linear corridors, protein-rich clover is abundant. Likewise, in agricultural forest-fringe areas where fall oat crops are readily available, bears will key in on this accessible food source.
Bears are invariably attracted to green clover and dandelions, especially the stuff that shows up in early spring along open back roads, cut-lines and hillsides. The heaviest green patches can be invaluable for a bear hunter. In general bears are predatory scavengers, so they are opportunistic feeders. After a long winter in the den, they'll be out in full force looking to fill their stomachs on the emergent nutrient-rich greens. Find those healthy clover and dandelion patches in late April and May and it's only a matter of time before a bear shows up.
Year round, bears spend a lot of time along waterways searching for food. River ridges, shorelines and hillsides along lakes, creeks, and streams are all high odds locations to focus your hunting efforts. Beavers are a staple food source for black bears. Find a healthy population of beavers in the heart of big timber and you're sure to see bears in the area.
In the spring most bears don't leave their dens until at least the middle of April. Most years the forest floor is dry and void of growth until at least the first of May, if not later. So what do the bears feed on? In a natural situation, bears look for those favored green shoots and they quickly learn that the first places to green up are south-facing slopes. With cooler ambient air temperatures on most spring days, those south-facing slopes get the most sun and heat. In turn, this is where the first grasses and dandelions show up.
As a rule bears like cool, dark, moist cover. Mossy muskeg flats full of swamp spruce and deep valleys for instance are often defined by this kind of cool, dark and moist cover. Even in mountain habitats, shady drainages with moss-laden willow flats can be excellent areas to look for black bear. Locate this kind of cool, dark cover near a high quality food source, waterways and south-facing slopes and you could well get your chance to spot and stalk a bear.
So you've found where they live and have finally spotted a bear. If the name of the game is spot and stalk, now comes the approach. Believe it or not, approaching a black bear is relatively simple. If you're a bow hunter, your goal will be to get within at least 40 yards. Gun hunters can get away with further distances as long as their firepower is capable of longer range shooting and has the knock-down power to do the job.
Most importantly, understand that a black bear has a hyper sensitive nose and despite their relatively small ears, they have an acute ability to hear and respond to sounds. After you find a bear, take a few minutes to evaluate the topography, check the wind direction, and identify the sex of the bear to ensure that it is legal game (i.e. boar, sow, or sow with cubs). Consider your best options for avoiding detection. Know that a bear's eyesight is relatively poor. They don't have much to fear in the woods, so bears are often less wary than other game animals.
If you can use landscape features like drainages or blocks of timber to conceal your movement, do so. Evaluate the type of ground you'll be covering, and go through a mental checklist as you plan your stalk. Is it grassy, rocky, muddy, or snow covered ground? Will you have to cross any water? Is the bear moving or standing still? Does the bear look relaxed or anxious? What time of day is it? If it's mid-day that bear may only be out in the open for a short time. If it's evening, then chances are the bear will be out in the open foraging.
Flowing water can create white noise that helps to muffle your footsteps. Once you've determined the distance and type of ground you'll need to cover, plan your attack and, in most instances, stick to it. Often you'll be out of sight, so you have to guess whether the bear will be in the same location of if he might have moved. If you think he may have moved, then forecast where you think he went and proceed to that location. If you're in the mountains or hill country, try to get above the bear, but consider the time of day and the thermals. Even if winds are relatively non-existent, early morning or late evening air currents can bust you.
The best advice I can offer is to move quickly when you're out of sight and out of earshot, but slow right down when you get in close. At some point, you'll probably be exposed. Remember, as long as the wind is in your face and the bear's head is down, chances are very good that you will go undetected. Depending on your level of comfort, to ensure that you make as little noise as possible, consider removing your boots. Sock feet can be very quiet and help you gain desirable yardage, particularly for archers. As an aside, remember bears can be dangerous. Most will run if they see you, but the only thing predictable about a bear is that they are unpredictable. Always exercise caution and be prepared for a bluff charge or in a worst case, an actual confrontation.
When you're close enough you'll have to decide if you have a viable shot opportunity. Bears can go a long way, even when hit in the vitals. Be certain that you can make the shot before squeezing the trigger or releasing the string. Tension can run high in a spot and stalk situation as it is often a close encounter game. When the moment of truth finally arrives, be sure of your target. If at all possible wait until the bear is broadside or slightly quartering away before taking the shot. Risky bullet or arrow placement is not an option. Placing your shot in the vitals will bring your bear down.
After the shot, always wait at least 20 minutes. If you have 45, then give it the full three quarters of an hour. The rest is up to you.
Kevin Wilson is a freelance outdoors writer and professional big game & waterfowl
guide/outfitter from Alberta, Canada. Confessing an obsession for big whitetails
and bighorn sheep, he has hunted most North American big game species with either
bow, muzzleloader, rifle or shotgun. Specializing in archery, freshwater fishing,
waterfowl and big game hunting, his articles can be found in several well known
outdoor publications across the U.S. and Canada. For more information on his
outfitting services, visit www.venturenorthoutfitting.com.
Member of OWAA & OWC.