Despite divided opinion about the political correctness of bear hunting, it is something every hunter should try at least once. But a word of caution, if you want to make the most of your outings, there are a few key things you should know. The more knowledgeable you are, the better your chances of tagging a trophy.
Fact #1 - Ursus americanus can be found roaming the woods in every northern state, all provinces and many eastern and western states. The smallest member of the bear family in North America, black bears are the most populated. Thriving in almost every jurisdiction, populations are on the rise across the continent.
Fact #2 - Black bears can be hunted in the spring or fall. Each state and province has specific regulations dictating when and how bears can be hunted. If you want to spend more time in the woods, black bears make the perfect prey during the months of April, May and June. With thick coats in prime condition, springtime is the preferred choice of bear hunters. If you're fortunate enough to connect with a trophy-sized black bear during the first few weeks of leaving the den, chances are you'll end up with a beautiful specimen, well worth making into a rug or head mount.
Fact #3 - Over-the-counter tags are only available in certain states and provinces. Some states issue tags only through a limited entry draw/lottery process.
Fact #4 - In many ways black bears are misrepresented and misunderstood. Ironic but true, bruins are gentle by nature. This stands in contrast to their stereotypically vicious reputation.
Fact #5 - Found in a variety of color phases, pelage can range from white through yellow, with black, brown and cinnamon being the most common. Their ominous looking dark shiny coat is the obvious contributor to their malignant image; it may also be the black bear's slow, methodical and calculated gestures. Whatever the reason, these quiet, yet dominant nomads of our coniferous and mixed forests, are worthy of both admiration and respect.
Fact #6 - A sow will typically accompany her cubs for 16 or 17 months. At the end of this period she will sever ties, forcing the youngsters to go off on their own.
Fact #7 - Females will reach their maximum size at six years, and boars continue to grow to a maximum size at 12 years of age. On average, most bears taken by hunters weigh somewhere between 125 and 300 pounds. Any black bear topping the 300-pound mark is considered large.
Fact #8 - Aside from body weight, black bears are judged by the size of their skull, with a Boone & Crockett minimum eligibility score of 21 inches and a Pope & Young score of 18 inches.
Fact #9 - We often hear of bears being territorial and, in a sense, this is true. While there exists a distinct hierarchy within the ranks of bear world, it is not uncommon to find many individuals residing in a given geographic area. Home ranges can span from two to 10 miles and resident populations will often hold a variety of boars, sows and cubs.
Fact #10 - Heavily timbered forests near agricultural lands often sustain good bear densities. With cereal crops such as oats, black bears favor the accessibility and abundance of such forage and often reside in proximity.
Fact #11 - As forest dwellers, black bears are omnivorous. Predominantly feeding on a variety of plants and berries throughout the summer, springtime offers a feast of dandelion and fresh grasses. Opportunists extraordinaire, black bears will also feed on carrion. Consistent with this and the fact that bears favor beavers as a staple food source in some regions, areas with spruce and poplar mixed forest and cascading beaver dams can be dynamite locations for the hunter to focus his/her attention.
Fact #12 - As with ungulate species, black bears undergo an annual rut cycle. Beginning in late May and continuing on through most of June, boars go in search of breeding partners. It is during this approximate six to eight week period that most large bears are taken by savvy hunters. Just as with members of the deer family, the larger, educated and otherwise reclusive boars become more visible as they readily cross roadways, clear-cuts and feed in open areas as they look for sows in estrus.
Fact #13 - Black bears den up in late October and drift into a state of torpor. This is not a true state of hibernation, but rather of slowed metabolism, during the cold winter months. In this suspended state, they cease to defecate, urinate or eat for the next 5-6 months. They do however periodically awaken from this sleep to stretch and walk around. Usually only a brief interlude, black bears soon return to the den to wait out the long winter. Sows will deliver and nurse their cubs in the den and as the snow begins to melt and spring arrives, they'll leave the den to begin their search for food.
Fact #14 - Bear meat brings mixed reviews. Some savor every morsel, and others grimace at the very mention of it. Its greasy, coarse texture and sweet flavor requires a certain kind of palate. A word of caution however, bear meat should be thoroughly cooked as it can carry a parasitic infection known as trichinella, a potentially dangerous disease to humans.
Fact #15 - Black bears have relatively poor eyesight, but an outstanding sense of smell and an uncanny hearing ability.
Fact #16 - When hunting black bear, consider food source. Focus on areas with a sufficient forage base. There should be water nearby along with good cover. With the aid of topographic maps, look for spots with streams, rivers and ample low ground to provide damp, dark and cool cover. In boreal forest regions, this will be dense moss-laden areas bordering swamps and isolated marshy wetlands. In mountainous regions, this will often be found in drainages along creeks and other waterways.
Fact #17 - Once a general area is identified, begin your search by looking at trees. Claw marks on deciduous trees are the most obvious indicators. In mixed forest areas mature poplars wear the battle scars revealing claw marks of days gone by. While rarely do you stumble upon fresh markings, these lasting scars unveil a historical presence.
Fact #18 - Bears leave tracks. A great place to look for these is in the wet sand and soil along shorelines of rivers, streams and lakes. Most often at least one or two old or new tracks are found, keeping in mind that bears frequently use these movement corridors. A 5" or better pad/track can suggest a good bear is in the area.
Fact #19 - Nomadic creatures, bears commonly travel traditional trails along ridges, in valleys, and along drainages. Finding fresh scat can instill further confidence in your pursuit and help you identify the size of a particular bear.
Fact #20 - A variety of strategies and techniques are proven effective in pursuing spring black bears. Whether floating down a river, walking cut-lines, spot and stalk hunting, baiting or calling, black bears are very huntable. Each strategy has its own merits.
Fact #21 - A good set of binoculars is a must when spot and stalk bear hunting. Once spotted, the stalk begins. The regular rules apply - keep the wind in your face; remember bears rely heavily on their sense of smell. The best time to spot and stalk black bears is the five to 10 day window just prior to, or just as the deciduous trees begin to bud. With little food available in the woods, they can frequently be seen browsing on cut-lines and south-facing slopes where the first green grasses begin to sprout.
Fact #22 - Baiting is far from easy, and holds no guarantees! From time to time you get lucky and have one move in cautiously to inspect the provisions, but this is frequently more the exception than the rule. Perhaps the biggest advantage I see in baiting is that, if and when a bear finally does come to the bait, it can allow the hunter time to assess size and stature. This is advantageous for the trophy hunter, allowing the option to pass up smaller bears, thus diminishing the odds of falling victim to ground shrink.
Fact #23 - Predator calling bears has come into its own in recent years. A myriad of videos and how-to articles are available to hunters looking for an alternative approach to hunting bears. I sometimes carry a Lohman wounded rabbit call for scenarios where calling might come in handy. While patience is required in this game of calling, it can take some time before a big old bruin responds favorably. But when they do, be ready, because they're coming in for dinner!
Fact #24 - As a rule, black bears want no more to do with you than Superman does with kryptonite. The fact is, it's important to treat them with due respect, be aware they possess immense strength and are able to cause considerable damage. To get an accurate picture on the nature of bears, I highly recommend a book entitled, Bear Attacks - Their Causes and Avoidance written by Dr. Stephen Herrero. Having heard him speak at a conference, the clear message I gleaned was that if, and when, black bears show aggression, most often they'll bluff charge ... stop 10 yards away and bounce on their front legs. Periodically they'll stand up, but this is usually to help them get a better look at what is going on. This is intimidating, but most often harmless.
Fact #25 - The only thing predictable about black bears is that they are unpredictable. Although many will avoid humans at all cost, there are some that have no fear at all. Caution and respect should always be exercised.
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.