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Tips and gear for calling black bears

All you hardcore coyote killers out there know what a rush it is when a big dog comes charging in to your calling. For the ultimate hackle-enhancer, though, why not try doing the same thing with black bears? It’s something I have been doing off and on for 20-some years, and, with apologies to the late great B.B. King, “The Thrill Ain't Gone.”

Recently I traveled to northeastern New Mexico to put some pronghorn meat in the freezer, but also to try and call in a black bear. It was a large camp, with 6 hunters, all here to test drive the new Mossberg MVP Predator rifle chambered for the .308 Win., as well as an array of Swarovski optics. On this ranch the year before the bear hunting had been wide open. Of course, last year the scrub oaks had been loaded with acorns, and thus the bears had been all over the ranch. This year, with no acorns to speak of, bears were few and far between. I only managed to call up two bears too small to shoot, but 3 of my friends had success.

But it brought back memories of many of the bear calling adventures I have had over the years. The first occurred over 20 years ago in southern Arizona, where a buddy and I set up on a bald knob overlooking a large patch of semi-desert foothill country. I had never thought of such an area as being a good place for black bears, but in truth this region holds some of the country's biggest bears. Below was a vast expanse of sagebrush and prickly pear cactus, flat ground and deep cuts, and Jim assured me that there were several good bears here.

We glassed for a while and didn't see anything, so Jim began using his dying rabbit predator call. It was just like calling coyotes. We were camouflaged up and ready to rumble.

Before long a very large black bear showed itself. I couldn't believe it! He made a beeline toward our station, sniffing the air and leaving no doubt what was on his mind – supper. And we were on the menu. The closer he got, the more his hackles stood at attention. This guy was ready to rumble, too. When he went out of sight at the base of our hill, Jim stopped calling and picked up his .30-06. I had my bow, and was starting to get worried. It was deathly quiet when, all of a sudden, the bear popped up not 20 yards away, heading right for Jim. I drew my bow and shot him through the chest, which diverted his attention from my buddy, who had the rifle up and safety off. The bear whirled and ran down the hill, where he expired.

Both Jim and I were shaking like leaves. “Holy mackerel, Batman!,” I said. Or something like that. “This bear calling can be scary!” My friend just shook his head and grinned. “Yeah,” he said. “When they come to the predator call, they are not making a social visit. They are ready to eat the caller!”

Yes, black bears can be called, and it can be more than a little exciting. In fact, it can be downright dangerous, if you're not buttoned up. I learned right away that you never call bears alone, but only hunt with a buddy who can watch your back.

Black bears are omnivores. They eat just anything, including lots of meat whenever they can catch it or find a carcass. In areas where there are lots of rabbits, they will come to the dying rabbit call as readily as any predator will. They'll also come to a fawn distress call, as I learned hunting them in Alaska. (So will monstrous brown bears, but that is a tale for a different time.)

Like all game calling, bears will not come to the call every time they hear it. I have also found more success by first spotting a bear at long distance, then calling it to me, than calling blind. The exception is if I know there is a bear in the area, in which case I may try some blind calling. This is what we did in New Mexico, where the flat, open prairie is dissected with deep, tree-filled canyons with cover so thick it is almost impossible to glass up a bear. And so you get the wind right, pick a good-looking spot where there is ample water, find a hole in the thick stuff where you think a bear may appear if and when it comes, and start calling. I have also noticed that bears lose interest in the call quickly. By that I mean that as long as you are calling they will come to you. Stop blowing the call, however, and they are as apt to sit down as keep coming. Steady calling is important.

You can call them up with odd things, too. One time I was sitting in a tree stand in the Finger Lakes region of New York state, bowhunting whitetails. I tried some rattling, and when I heard a branch break I got pumped up. It was not a big buck, however, but a big black bear. He walked past at 20 yards, went down the deer trail, and stopped. I used the grunt call, and his ears perked up. Then he vanished, and I thought it was all over. Next thing I knew, he was right under my tree, looking up at me! Fortunately I was able to shoo him off. Now when I call black bears while bowhunting, I always have a “hammer” with me -- you know, a large-caliber handgun, rifle, or pepper spray.

You can call up all sorts of other stuff when trying to bring bears in with varmint calls, too. For example, on this trip we called up several coyotes and a lone grey fox, which can make for a fun-filled mixed-bag hunting trip. But those little guys are nothing compared to the excitement of getting a bear to come to you, ready to eat whatever is making that noise.

That would be you.

Check out gear used in this hunt.

Swarovski EL Range 10x42 W B binocular

Swarovski Z3 3-10x42 riflescope

Mossberg MVP Predator .308

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