Tagging bears by hounds or bait offers a certain brand of excitement and high-odds success, but not every jurisdiction allows these methods. For the do-it-yourselfer bowhunter, this means still-hunting or spot & stalk, each dictated by terrain and vegetation type.
Still-hunting is best in heavily wooded areas with limited visibility. Bowunters slip slowly and quietly through promising habitat after heeding wind, calculating their approach to unsuspecting bruins. Spot & stalk is most viable where visibility is better. Hunters glass promising habitat to seek distant bears. Then they plan a sensible approach route to arrive within bow range.
Bears live by their stomachs and have a supernatural sense of smell. While still-hunting or stalking, follow the food. Bears are always hungry. In spring when bears emerge from hibernation, they are literally starving. In fall, they are fattening up for the long winter. Where there is food, there will be bears. Scouting is pivotal to locating hotspots. Bear scat not only tells you bear are in an area, and how many, but what they’re eating.
Inspect bear droppings closely to determine what kinds of food bears are hitting. Finding bear sign is seldom difficult. You can cover a lot of ground before the season begin or do it while hunting less methodically until you unlock the season’s preferred fare. Afterwards, concentrate your efforts on areas where preferred food is most abundant.
Foods found in thick areas — like second-growth or creek-bank berry scrub (East), or piñon-nut mesa country (West), as examples — allow slow, patient still-hunting. Terrain conducive to spot and stalk might include acorn-bearing oak ridges, old forest-fire clearings, clear-cuts, or Southwest juniper berry or desert prickly-pear fruit canyons.
Prevailing weather can provide clues to a particular year’s crop. Summers with normal to above-normal precipitation generally create acorn mast, making such areas hotspots. Piñon nuts typically produce on a seven-year cycle, making certain years bear-hunting bonanzas. During a drought when Southwest acorns or high-country berry crops fail, look to lower elevations and juniper berries as bear magnets. Prickly-pear fruit can also be highly productive during dry years. It’s counter intuitive, but during dry years foothill habitat often attracts more bears.
Slipping close to a bear, face to face, has to be one of bowhunting’s most thrilling experiences. Invest your time this season, and you can realize your dream of a bear-skin rug by following the food for success.