Black magic: hunting North American black bears

After 30-some years, Bob Robb has developed somewhat of an obsession when it comes to hunting black bears.
Black magic: hunting North American black bears

Scott and Angie Denny and I reached the tree after 90 minutes of hard hiking at a near 7,000-foot elevation. The hounds treed the bear after a half-day’s chase up and down the rugged Idaho mountains, and it was time. The big boar, 100 feet up a thick conifer, offered an open shot if I could place my arrow through a small opening in the tangle of branches. It sounds simple until you try to aim with your body contorted at a 60-degree uphill angle.

To those who have never followed the sound of the hounds, all of this might sound anti-climactic. But hound hunting is about experiencing all that the dogs have to offer. It’s something I truly enjoy, and the Dennys — you may have seen them on their Sportsman Channel television show, The Life at Table Mountain — have great dogs. The hunt I mentioned above occurred in June 2016. This black bear was my 53rd taken over 30-some years of bear hunting. I’ve taken them with the aid of hounds, over baits, with calling and on spot-and-stalk hunts using rifles, handguns, muzzleloaders and archery equipment all across North America. For a short period of time, I guided black bear hunters in Alaska and even wrote a book about it once. I truly love it.

The black bear (Ursus americanus), once hammered by overhunting and habitat loss, has been making one of the greatest comebacks in the history of the North American Game Management model, especially so in the East. In 2015, overall continental population estimates place the number at about 800,000 bears. That is up from 600,000 just a decade or so before, with bears being seen in places where they haven’t thrived in generations. For example, in Louisiana, there are now somewhere between 750 to 1,000 black bears. There’s talk of removing them from the endangered species list.

There are now an estimated 1,000 adult bears living in two western counties of Maryland, where a hunting season was opened in 2005 after 51 years of closure. In Florida, bear numbers are estimated at 4,350 animals. There, a controlled hunt occurred in October 2015 in four of seven bear management units with 305 bears harvested. The hunt, however, was suspended for 2016.­­­

Still, black bears only occupy about 50 percent of their historic range across the United States. In Canada they occupy about 95 percent of their original range. Today, hunting is permitted in 32 of the 41 states in which black bears have been spotted. According to the Sportsmen’s Alliance, the following 13 states allow baiting: Alaska, Arkansas (only on private land), Idaho, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, New Hampshire (guides only), New Jersey, Oklahoma (prohibited on wildlife management areas), Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming. You can follow hounds in the following 18 states: Alaska, Arizona, Georgia, Idaho, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, North Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada, New Mexico, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, Wisconsin and West Virginia. Some states have spring seasons, and some have fall seasons, but very few people hunt both spring and fall.

I’ve personally taken several dozen black bears with archery gear over the last three decades. I've seen others do the same many times. Experience has helped me formulate some definite opinions on how, when and where to get it done.

Spot-And-Stalk Hunting

For the hunter who does his homework and spends time in a good area, spot-and-stalk hunting is an excellent way to fill a bear tag. One of the most important tools of the spot and stalk bear hunter is his flashlight. Bears love shadow time, those gray twilight hours around dawn and, especially, at dusk. To maximize your chances at spotting one, you have to be at your glassing station ready to look before first light and to stay into the evening until you cannot see any more. That means hiking in and out by flashlight. Given the choice between hunting mornings or evenings, skookum bear hunters choose the evening. It just seems that you spot more bears in late afternoon and evening than any other time of day.

That isn’t to say that you cannot spot bears at other times, too. I’ve seen many large black bears up feeding at lunch time. On overcast, drizzly and rainy days, bears are apt to be out moving just about any time. Like all hunting, the more hours you spend in the field, the better your chances of success.

In mountainous country, I’ve had good success glassing spring mountainsides where I know bears are denning. You have to access denning areas early. This is often before all the snow is gone, which makes getting into prime territory problematic at times. As spring progresses, you have to hunt food sources. In spring, bears focus on vegetation. Studies show that plant matter makes up well over 90 percent of their spring diet. Succulent green grasses, new shrubs and plants with edible roots like wild onions, skunk cabbage and glacier lilies are favored. You can find these plants on mountainsides in avalanche chutes, old burns and clear cuts, as well as in meadows, beaches, stream and river banks, ditches and along power line right-of-ways.

In areas with lots of snow, the bears will follow the snow lines up and down the mountain. Early, the numbers of bears tend to be high, often feeding in small open patches. Then, as the snow level begins to recede back up the mountain from bottom to top, these numbers will drop down low and follow the melt line back up. That’s because as the snow melts, new plants spring forth, and that’s just what they are looking for. In flatland areas, hunt the swampy bottoms and hollows along creeks, streams and lake edges for newly emerging plants, as well as around the edges of farmland, particularly corn fields and fruit orchards, where bears might find man-grown foods.

In the fall, the secret is to glass near preferred food sources. This can change depending on the region of the country you are hunting. In the mountains of the West, for example, grasses, berries and the like draw bears. The coastal regions that have migrating salmon are a bear magnet. In the Southwest, acorns and prickly pear cactus are torn up by foraging bruins. The upper Midwest and portions of the East have agricultural crops as key food sources. The Carolinas grow some of America’s biggest black bears thanks to mild winters and an abundance of corn — and that’s where to hunt them.

Bear Baiting On Your Own

When I first started baiting bears, I didn’t have a clue. I had just moved to an area of coastal Alaska that is, as they say, a bear-rich environment. How tough could it be? Find a little spot that was easy to access and out of the way so others wouldn’t stumble onto it, throw down some bait, hang a treestand and try and be patient as I waded through the many different bears I was sure would be fighting among themselves for the privilege of living at my bait.

Well, my friend Bill Comer and I set out trying some new spots. Of the four stands we set up, only one proved to be any good. Two never did produce, and one only had minimal action from small bears. The fourth, however, was a gem. We took a large boar off that bait every year for several years.

One thing you quickly learn is that it takes massive quantities of bait to do the job right. When you run more than one station at a time, the amount of bait you need increases exponentially. It isn’t unusual for bears at a single bait station to gobble up a thousand pounds or more of bait per season. There is some bait, like kibbled dog food, that you can buy relatively cheap as you need it. Others you can pick up as the need arises. However, it is wise to line up both sources of bait. Start collecting bait yourself well before the spring hunting season. Other than gathering bait, make sure you have a treestand in good working order. Have all of the basic, essential hunting gear needed for a bear hunt, and a trail camera that will tell you when bears visit your bait site.

Call state or province game biologists and ask questions. Where are the highest bear densities in the state? Where are the largest bears? Are there harvest statistics that show hunter success rates and the age and sex of the bears being taken? This information leads to more telephone and internet time. Once you narrow down the area to the region near a specific town, ask local fish and game officials, wildlife protection officers and taxidermists questions about where they would recommend you try. Most states that permit baiting require hunters to register their bait stations with the state. This makes this information available to you in your research.

Once you begin hunting a bait station — your own or on an outfitted hunt — hunt it as you would your best whitetail stand. That's to say, be quiet, don’t fidget, control your scent and be patient. In spring, you can be sure there will be swarms of biting insects, so wear a bug suit or employ a good repellant or Thermacell. Bringing some reading materials and your smartphone will help pass those long, lonely hours on the stand.

The Sound Of The Hounds

I shot my first black bear in the mid-1980s. It was following a superpack of hounds in western Oregon where dog hunting is sadly no longer allowed. Before the trip I thought it would be a snap. It was only after burning my lungs up chasing the dogs up, down and all around some of the steepest, nastiest mountains in the West that I realized hound hunting can be hard work.

I still love hound hunting and recommend it highly. The key is to locate an outfitter who specializes in the game, has a long track record of success and will take bowhunters. Then, after you book the hunt, start getting your body in shape for what could be a rigorous physical challenge. It is a great way to experience what has become something of a dying sport thanks to the political-correctness crowd.

Calling All Bears

Yes, black bears (and grizzlies, too) can be called, and it can be more than a little exciting. In fact, if you’re not buttoned up, it can be downright dangerous. I learned right away that it’s wise to hunt with a buddy who can watch your back. That’s because black bears are omnivores. They eat just about 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 later learned hunting them in Alaska.

Like all game calling, bears will not come to the call every time they hear it. I have found more success by first spotting a bear at long distance rather than calling blind. The exception to that rule is if I know there’s a bear in the area, in which case I may try some blind 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.

Shot Placement

Even smaller black bears have leg bones like steel pipes, scapulas like a Roman shield and thick rib bones. Their muscles are also thick and dense, and their hair is long and luxurious. It takes a fair amount of kinetic energy, broadheads with strong ferrules and scalpel-sharp blades, and precise shot placement to achieve deep penetration.

The best shots are at bears that are either perfectly broadside or slightly quartering away from you. Keep the arrow slightly behind the front leg and off the scapula, and remember that most archers who make a poor shot on bears tend to shoot them too high. My rule of thumb is to mentally divide the body into thirds, and aim for the lower portion of the middle third section.

You’ll also find that bears sometimes leave a scanty blood trail because of those thick muscles and long hair, regardless of how well they have been hit. After the shot, listen for the classic “death bellow,” remembering that it doesn’t always occur. Give the bear a bit of time, then try and find your arrow to assess the blood on the shaft to give you an idea of what kind of hit you have. Then, take it slow and easy. If the sun has set, having a powerful light source that assists in picking up small drops of blood is worth its weight in gold.

Where The Biggest Bears Are

While some old bastions of trophy bear hunting like southeast Alaska, southwest British Columbia, Alberta and the Rocky Mountain states still produce big bears, currently the very biggest bears are coming from some regions that might surprise you. These areas include the mountains of southern California, the cornfield areas of the Carolinas, Wisconsin and Minnesota; and the states around the Great Smoky Mountains. Pennsylvania has long been known for big-bodied bears, and nearby states where bear seasons have just now opened like New Jersey and Maryland also produce some big-bodied bears. What all these areas have in common are mild winters that permit bears to remain out of hibernation for extended periods, if they hibernate at all; offer access to lots of high-calorie food for many months each year; and tightly controlled hunting seasons that allow bears to grow old.

How big are the biggest black bears? Bears exceeding 800 pounds have been harvested in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, New Jersey and California. However, the various record-keeping groups score bears by the size of their skull, which can be a bit misleading. As a guide, I always told clients I could never judge what a bear’s skull would score once it’s had all that muscle and fur removed. Instead, we considered a trophy bear to be an old boar with a big body for the region and a luxurious coat with few, if any, rub marks.


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