Spot-and-Stalk Bowhunting for Spring Bears

The snow is mostly melted in Arizona’s high country, flowers paint open hillsides and budding leaves are replacing their fallen brethren. It is a time for new life, marking spring bear season in the Grand Canyon state.

Spot-and-Stalk Bowhunting for Spring Bears

Hunters across the nation are brushing up on their turkey calling and making sure their decoys are ready to go. For me though, I’ve only one thing on my mind — black bears. The spring black bear season takes-up quite a bit of my time in March. Across the United States, spring bear hunting is commonly associated with baiting. While I don’t have any problem with that at all, here in Arizona, baiting is not a legal hunting method. For a guy who likes his bowhunting, this poses a challenge and forces me to find other avenues for success. One that I have truly come to love is spot-and-stalk black bear hunting with my bow. The feeling of sneaking into bow range of a large bruin is unmatched in my book, and one that is definitely worth the effort. Here are some things I’ve learned through the years of doing so. 

Finding Bears — In order to successfully spot-and-stalk black bears with your bow, the first thing you’ve got to do is be able to find them consistently. This can be quite tricky because bears are relatively reclusive animals. I often refer to them as “shadow walkers” because of this. In my experience, bears like steep, deep, water-filled canyons. Canyon-bottoms, especially those that hold water year-round are like roadways for bear travel. Additionally, all sorts of bear food grows on the surrounding hillsides. Bear country is rugged, which keeps most folks out. So, if you want a bear, be prepared to work for it because the terrain isn’t for the faint of heart. While bears traverse through it effortlessly don’t let them fool you; it’s their backyard. 

Elevation — Another attribute of bear country to pay attention to is elevation. In my mind, the relationship between elevation and food is critical when it comes to finding bears consistently. We’ll get into food later, but elevation plays a huge role in regard to which food is ripe and when. Den locations are also connected with elevation. The deeper into the season, the farther from the dens the bears are willing to travel. In the early season, bears can oftentimes be found at lower elevations, because that is where the food will ripen up first. As the snow melts, they’ll make their way back into higher elevations.

Of course there are exceptions to the rule depending on where a bear decides to den. I am a believer that bears den at a wide variety of elevations, causing them to leave dens at various times during the spring. 

Optics are Key — The absolute best way I have found to find bears is by sitting down with my binocular and scanning the countryside. Mounting your optics on a tripod goes a long way, too. By doing so, a hunter is cutting out the natural shake that comes from free-handing optics. During the spring, bears can be observed all day long in my experience. They are homed-in to their weight-gaining needs and can be found on food sources from sunup to sundown. This provides the opportunity to observe bears from afar and make a game plan for a stalk. Of course if you aren’t looking in the right area, you aren’t likely to see them. Which brings me to my next point: finding the right food sources. 

The Bear Necessities — A common phrase that an eager-to-learn bear hunter might hear is, “If you find the food you’ll find bears.” There is a lot of truth in those few words. It is a pretty broad statement though, if you ask me. It should be stated as, “When you find the RIGHT food, you’ll definitely find bears.”

During the spring, most bears are going to be heavily concentrated on bright-green grass. Large south-facing slopes are great locations to find green grass because they get the most sunlight, which snow melts from first, allowing the green-up. Later in the season, bears may concentrate on north-facing hillsides. They’ll continue to eat grass, but will also move onto other foods such as berries, leaves, flowers and then fawns and calves later in the summer.

Finding food sources and boot leather go hand-in-hand — or is it foot-on-foot? It is essential for a bear hunter to search out food sources. The reason being is that they can change from year to year depending on elements such as annual precipitation. Some years, there might not be a good spring berry crop, others acorns or juniper berries. Ensure you are focused on the right crop, in the right location. Follow the food, because that’s what the bears do.

Mouth-blown predator calls can be used to effectively lure bears into archery range.
Mouth-blown predator calls can be used to effectively lure bears into archery range.

Closing the Distance — Now, we’re getting into the meat and potatoes; the fun part. Once you’ve glassed up a hungry spring black bear meandering its way along a hillside, it’s time to close the distance. The more bears a hunter watches, the more they will get an idea of how they move around, which is completely random.

Some situations are better than others. For instance, if you observe a bear traveling, depending on the distance, this might not be a good bear to go after. They just move too fast and the likelihood of them being there when you arrive is slim. A bear feeding though is a bear that can be pursued. Because of how keyed-in they get on their food, you can rest-assured that this bears isn’t going anywhere fast.

I’ve observed bears for up to four hours on the same hill. As a bowhunter, you need time to close the distance and a feeding bear gives you just that. It also skews its attention from its surroundings. If it is gone by the time a hunter arrives, a great tactic is to just post up in the area. Bears will head off to sleep for a bit and then come right back out into the same feeding area they were in earlier. A bear coming to you is easier than you going to the bear.

The good thing about stalking bears is their eyesight is good but not great and it’s possible to sneak in relatively easy without being seen. That is if you can get past their other senses, smelling and hearing. A bear’s nose is uncanny in the animal kingdom. They have a sense of smell seven times better than that of a bloodhound. A bloodhound’s is 300 times greater than a human. In light of that, not having the wind in your favor on your approach, is simply not acceptable. Hunters can make some noise, but a bear will not tolerate smelling them. Monitor the wind closely throughout a stalk for any hope of success.

Stalking Tips — During the stalk itself, I really like to be aggressive. That is until I get within a certain range of the bear. If I see a bear that is 700 yards away, you can bet that I’m going to bust my butt and move as quickly as I can to get to the 100-yard mark. The reason that I do this, is because bears are like pinballs on a hill. The faster that you can close the distance, the better chance you have of the bear still being there upon your arrival. Once the distance has been closed, slow down and mind every footfall. Pick out a general route beforehand and stick to it, if you can. Things can change quickly with the bears though, so be ready to pick a new route on the fly once you’ve closed the distance.

Now, say you’ve glassed up a bear, made your approach and are now within bow range. The stalk is looking good, but it’s not over yet. An arrow still needs to be sent. Getting a shot on a black bear can be both easy and difficult at the same time. Easy, because if it is right in the middle of feeding, it’s not moving much. Difficult, because it always seems that bears are more often than not, moving. This can pose a challenge when trying to get a shot off. Of course a hunter can try to make a noise to stop the bear. Personally, I really like shooting at an animal that has no idea that I’m there. Accomplishing that is all about patience and waiting for the right shot angle. Wait for a broadside or quartering-away shot and aim a tad farther back than you’d shoot a deer. A famous line that describes this is “middle of the middle.” In my opinion, this will ensure a quick death.

Hunting a predator that can hunt you right back adds to the adventure.
Hunting a predator that can hunt you right back adds to the adventure.

Predator Calling — Another way to close the distance on a spring black bear is to bring it to you. It sounds crazy, I know, but using a predator call for bears works well. It works especially well during the fawn and calf drop. These are easy meals, so when a bear hears a distress noise, it is likely to come take a closer look. Another good call is a cub in distress, because big boars will oftentimes kill cubs for food or biological reasons. When calling, spend approximately 45 minutes at each stand. Bears get distracted easily, so it pays to call longer.

The end result is worth all of the effort when the ultimate prize is at hand — a spot-and-stalk spring black bear.
The end result is worth all of the effort when the ultimate prize is at hand — a spot-and-stalk spring black bear.

Gobble Up Bear Hunting — So, you see, spring isn’t just about gobbles. There is plenty of opportunity out there for hunters to try their hand at sneaking into bow range of a black bear. With any luck, they’ll be bringing home some of the most underrated meat available, along with a beautiful bear hide. Most importantly though, they’ll have a heck of a story to tell. Bowhunting bears is always an adventure, maybe that’s why I’ve been so drawn to it. From the breathtaking country that they live in, to the jaw dropping close encounters, bears have my heart. Having those close encounters with a bow in your hand takes things to the next level. Don’t believe me? Try it for yourself.

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