Ursula americanus, better known as the black bear, is located in virtually every region of North America. And for the DIY bowhunter looking to add some adventure to his spring quiver, it’s hard to beat what the western United States holds. In fact, just about every location west of the Rockies offers spring bear opportunities. You just have to be willing to put forth the effort to find them.
Before the aforementioned endeavor, I had never hunted bears over bait. Although I have always wanted to slip north of the border and give it a try, the lack of time and greenbacks has kept me from capitalizing on such an adventure. Some might raise their nose to hunting over bait and feel it’s cheating or in some way “easy.” After spending nine days doing so, I can assure you that it’s not, especially when you’re hunting on your own.
When it comes to baiting bears out west, there is no better resource than my friend Bill Allard. He’s been bowhunting black bears on his own for over 25 years and has killed them in a variety of ways, but hunting them over bait is what he enjoys most.
When it comes to locating bears out west, Bill insists scouting is the first piece of the puzzle. It goes without saying that finding fresh bear sign like scat and tracks is important, but according to Bill, knowing roughly how many bears inhabit a particular region trumps all. One of the best resources for obtaining this information is from local wildlife officers and biologists.
“Bear baiting on your own is hard work,” insists Bill. “You can haul a lot of bait into the woods and have the best-looking bait site and not see a bear if overall densities are extremely low.”
Most states have a biologist specifically assigned to manage bear populations, and they are typically happy to share information with the DIY hunter willing to tackle such a hunt. Pick their brain not only for population estimates but also for areas that offer the habitat bears desire. Google Earth can only show you so much, so some firsthand knowledge can really help you zero in on an area.
Next is establishing good bait sites. According to Bill, it’s all about “location, location, location.” Bill prefers more rugged terrain like the heads of canyons. Not only do areas like this keep other hunters out, but the canyon’s natural design does an excellent job of funneling the scent of the bait site throughout the canyon. Water sources like natural springs and creeks are also a key element to the setup, and choosing a spot that offers thick cover is never a bad option. Bears are reclusive by nature and they like to hide, so Bill insists that the thicker the cover, the better.
Bill prefers to establish a bait site on a sidehill or bench, in or on the edge of thick cover. He then places a treestand in a tree below the bait site. This not only gives you a fairly level shot at an approaching bear, increasing your odds of a lethal shot, but it also helps to keep your scent away from the bait site. In the evenings, mountain air currents naturally drift downhill, so your scent will be going away from your bait.
Cradle the bait site by digging a bathtub-sized depression and stacking logs or brush directly behind it. This not only concentrates the bait and keeps it from rolling downhill, but it also forces the approaching bear to come in from the side, giving you a perfect shot opportunity.
The type of bait is also important, and Bill never has bait established if meat is not one of the ingredients on the menu. Although discarded pastries, cooking grease, syrup, dog food, oats, icing – virtually anything with sugar – will attract bears, according to Bill, if you want a big bear to come in, a meat source is a must where legal (Note: Using meat is not legal in all western states. Be sure to check baiting rules and regulations before using meat of any kind.) Typically, game meats like deer, elk or fish are not allowed, but cow carcasses from a local farmer or meat scraps from a local butcher often are.
Lastly, patience and persistence are the bear hunter’s best friend. I spent many long hours in that Utah tree staring at a bear-less bait site. According to Bill, it can take more than a week for a good bear to start coming in. In the spring, boars are on the move looking for sows to breed with, and they will travel miles every day to find one. They may only hit your bait once, so being there is critical if you’re looking to bag an over-sized boar.
Baiting is only allowed in a handful of states currently, and every year anti-hunting groups try – and sometimes succeed – in passing legislation banning the practice. It’s critical that we take these anti-hunting groups seriously if we don’t want to see future laws passed. Currently, baiting is only allowed in four western states: Idaho, Wyoming, Utah and Alaska. Because these states offer tons of public ground, they are perfectly suited for the DIY bear hunter.
It’s one thing to hunt over bait, but to become the bait yourself is a way to experience an adrenaline rush like none other. My first attempt at calling in a bear was unsuccessful, but when I blew on the dying rabbit in my second setup several years ago, I thought the woods had turned inside out. In a matter of 45 minutes, I had three different bears come to my call. When the third one barreled down the hill like a black locomotive, I knew I was on to something.
Without question, calling in black bears is the most exciting way to hunt them – as well as the most dangerous. Although I have called some in alone, I always had a scatter gun filled with heavy buck shot at my side. (Again, check state regulations before taking a firearm afield during an archery season.) Ideally, you should always have a partner to watch your back.
There’s more to being successful than just throwing out your best dying rabbit serenade in some nameless western canyon. Black bear are omnivores, meaning they will eat plants or animals, and they are typically very opportunistic. If they feel they can get a meal without very much effort, they generally jump at the chance.
Just like anything else, hunting where bear densities are good always increases your odds at drawing one into range. Not all bears will come to the call. Just like people, bears have personalities and moods, and some will be more likely to come to a call than others. You need to set up in an area that will give you ample shooting opportunities. Relatively open areas near thick cover are good options, especially if there are water and food sources nearby. In some locations like Arizona and New Mexico, prickly pear cactus may be at the top of the menu, but in other places like Colorado, acorns may be the preferred food source.
Dying rabbit calls are not the only hair-raising sounds that will bring in a bear. According to outfitter Doug Gattis, owner of Southern Oregon Game Busters, distress calls from elk calves and deer fawns can also be very productive in areas where they are present. Both deer and elk tend to drop fawns in the same general area each spring, and where easy food is available, black bears are going to follow. Blind calling can work in an area with good bear densities, but spotting a bear first and getting within a couple hundred yards will often bring them your way.
The key to calling, insists Doug, is to be patient. It can take over an hour for a bear to finally show itself, so give the call some time to work. Doug has had to wait up to two hours in some instances, but he’s willing to do so if he knows bears are in the area. Also, Doug says you need to be consistent with the call. Bears tend to lose interest in the call very quickly when it stops, so keeping a consistent cadence is typically your best bet. This is where an electronic call with a remote is worth its weight in gold. Setting it up 20 to 40 yards away from you with a motion decoy causes the bear to focus directly on the decoy and caller instead of you. Keeping the wind in your face or having a crosswind is always prudent when trying to call in a bear. Older boars will naturally try to sneak downwind before coming in.