There is no doubt about it. The secret to consistently bagging trophy black bears is reading bear sign accurately. Indeed, it makes no difference if you are still-hunting, spot-and-stalk hunting or trying to arrow a bruiser over bait, gargantuan bears leave their calling card behind for all to see.
Since most archers hunt from an elevated platform over bait, let's zero in on bear sign found around man-made bait stations. For starters, big boars don't advertise their presence in a manner that smaller bears, yearlings, and sows with cubs so often do. So, you'll want to examine each bait site carefully and weigh all the "soft" evidence before you elect to sit over any particular bait site. This goes whether you book an all-inclusive hunt with an outfitter, "rent" a dozen baits from a local guide, or plan a do-it-yourself trip with a buddy.
When you examine a bait site, start by looking for bear tracks in the nearby mud, sand or soft earth. They are hard to find, but a front pad better than five inches in width is usually a very good bear. Creek beds, logging roads, gravel bars and beaver dams are all good places to look for tracks. Keep in mind that large bears rarely approach a bait station on a daily basis, while subordinate bears will feed almost daily. Indeed, those "old" tracks you found on the beaver dam might in fact be heralding a return visit by that bruin in a day or two.
You should have no trouble locating entrance and exit trails if the bait is being hit regularly. If so, examine nearby trees for more bear sign. Claw marks high up the trunk will give you clues as to how tall the bear is, and the space between individual "clawings"can give you a sense of how wide his front pads might be. Fresh beds on the trail or near the bait site can also indicate relative body size. Be aware that bears will often sit on their haunches, like a dog, leaving smaller "beds" than if they were lying on their belly. Finally, if the nearby brush is thick, look for bear "tunnels" hollowed out of the branches and leaves, and bear fur stuck to those branches. This is an excellent way to determine the colors of the bears feeding here.
Of course, seeing a big bear within a half-mile of any bait station is a good sign, even if that particular bait has not yet been hit. Sooner or later that bear will sniff out your pile of goodies and sneak in to check it out. When he does, he may not leave any obvious clues behind, such as tracks or claw marks, and he may or may not sample the food.
He will often, however, first circle the bait, staying under cover and just within sight of your offering. You will have to look closely, maybe even get on your hands and knees, as the trail will be faint. Look for wide pad impressions in the dead leaves, crushed vegetation, and bear hair stuck in the bark of nearby tree trunks. You may also find logs ripped apart, overturned stones, and ankle-high vegetation ripped out of the ground all along this trail, indicating the bear was feeding as he was watching. You may even find where he sat down on his haunches like a dog, or lay down on his belly facing the bait as if he was carefully studying the setup. (He was!)
This trail is undoubtedly one of the surest signs you have that a big bear is working the area, and it is one of the most overlooked pieces of big-bear evidence available. Locating it usually separates the casual bear hunter from the real expert.
Another clue you have that a dominant bear is sniffing around is when you stumble upon several large piles of fresh dung about 2 inches in diameter scattered around the bait site. I've found the stand when scat such as this seems to be placed purposely on entrance and exit trails. Any droppings the size of a soft drink can usually indicate a very big boar has taken over the bait site, claiming it with his own specially scented territorial marker. My impression is that these strategically deposited droppings also function as a warning sign, telling other male bears to keep out, and if any other boar dares to trespass, he trespasses at great risk. More on this later.
All else being equal, absence of small bear sign is sometimes a good indication that a decent bear is in the area. If you must flip a coin, lean toward bait sites adjacent to thick underbrush because these locations provide cover that draws larger bears. Keep in mind that your best chance at a bear will be on the first night you hunt from the stand. Once the bear knows you're sneaking around the bait, he'll be much more difficult to bag.
Behavior of other bears at the site can be another indication that a dominant bruin is working a particular bait. For example, a yearling bruin may eat nervously or very early in the evening and then bolt at the slightest noise. I once watched a yearling bear announce his arrival at a bait site by snapping branches and then huffing, puffing, and popping his jaws. "A little like a teenager whistling in the dark," I thought to myself later. I guess he didn't want to run into any "big" surprises at the dinner table!
Indeed, one of the biggest mistakes neophytes make is shooting the first bear that comes to the bait. There is a social hierarchy among bears, and no place is this more evident than around a bait site. Sows, yearlings, and young boars often feed first in the early evening, followed by bears higher on the ladder with the big boars feeding last when they feel it is safest.
A subordinate boar will generally announce his arrival by purposely snapping a twig, thereby warning any bears already on the bait that he is nearby. Bears subordinate to him will generally melt back into the forest in anticipation of his arrival. The snapping of a twig also serves as a safety device for him. The last thing he wants is to surprise the alpha male at the feeding site. He knows from experience that he is no match for the dominant bruin.
Editor's Note: This feature is condensed from Bill Vaznis' book, Successful Black Bear Hunting.