Famed hunter and explorer Daniel Boone once killed 155 black bears in a single year. He brined and smoked the meat and sold it as “bear bacon.”
Today, most American hunters who do hunt bears will kill only one or two in their lifetimes. For them, bears are regarded as a novelty species, something to break up the monotony of a lifetime of whitetail deer hunting. For some hunters though, black bear hunting becomes a highly anticipated annual event.
What’s great about hunting bears is that you can typically chase them during the spring, when all other big game besides turkeys is off-limits. What’s more, bear flesh can be a welcome deviation from the meat of hoofed animals such as deer and elk. It’s often described as a hybrid between beef and pork, and works well as a smoked meat.
The fat of a black bear can be rendered into high-quality oil that fluctuates between a solid and liquid at room temperature. It works incredibly well in pie crusts, and can be used as a frying medium as well. And when the meat and oil of a bear are long gone, you’ll still have a wonderful trophy.
Unlike the hollow “hair” of ungulates such as deer and elk, bears have beautiful and luxurious fur. The tanned hides can be made into floor rugs, wall hangings, and even comforters for your bed. This animal should be regarded as a worthy quarry for any serious hunter.
Bar Room Banter
In many areas, black bears have surprisingly small home ranges for an animal of their size. Some black bears will spend their entire lives within five miles of where they were born, and will spend an entire summer on a single square mile of ground. Despite their homebody nature, black bears have tremendous navigational skills.
On many occasions, black bears that have been trapped and relocated have traveled well over 100 miles across unfamiliar terrain, including urban centers, to return to their home turf. They have also been known to swim long distances, sometimes traveling back and forth on a regular basis from islands that are beyond sight from the mainland.
Mostly black in the Eastern United States. In the West, colors range from black to blond. It seems that color phases are linked to annual precipitation. Wet areas, particularly in coastal environments, tend to have primarily black-phase black bears; dryer inland climates have far greater percentages of blond-phase and brown-phase bears.
Interestingly, there’s a population of blue-phase black bears near Yakutat Bay, Alaska, and a population of white-phase bears on Gribbel Island, British Columbia. Males achieve weights in excess of 500 pounds and body lengths in excess of 6’ in areas with abundant food and a mild climate. Females are typically much smaller.
An omnivore, black bears are opportunistic feeders with a wildly varied diet. Favorite food items vary according to location and time of year, and are almost too numerous to list.
Common staples include hard such as acorns, beechnuts, and hazelnuts, pine nuts. Fruit such as cranberry, huckleberry, bear berry, salmon berry, buffalo berry, and wild strawberry. Insects and insect larvae such as yellow jackets, bees, ants and beetles. Meats such as winter-killed ungulates, anadromous fish, beached sea mammals, and newborn calves and fawns of deer, elk, and moose. Grasses, forbes, buds and shoots from trees and shrubs and agricultural products such as corn, peaches, apples, alfalfa, and honey.
Life and Death
Black bears are the primary natural predator of black bears. Boars, or males, will practice infanticide on the cubs of their own species, probably in order to make the sows, or females, receptive to breeding. Where the black bear’s range overlaps with that of the grizzly bear, grizzlies will readily kill black bears.
Breeding and Reproduction
Although breeding occurs in June and July, implantation is delayed about 4 months. Young are usually born between January and March. Litters range from 1 to 5 cubs, with 2 cubs being the norm. Females give birth every two years at most.
Forests and wooded swamps in the East. In the West, forests and timbered mountain ranges.
Evidence of feeding includes shredded stumps and rotten logs, overturned rocks, pawed-up ground, discarded fish carcasses along spawning streams, and the scattered remains and crushed bones of carrion. Territorial markings include trees that are scarred with tooth and claw marks, often about head-high on a human. Also rubbing marks on tree trunks, along with clumps of hair stuck to bark.
Varies according to the animal’s diet. Bears that have been feeding on hard mast or berries have superb flesh that is reminiscent of beef brisket when cooked; the meat from these bears can be used for most applications that are suitable to pork, such as sausages and a wide variety of smoked and slow-cooked preparations. The flesh of bears that have been feeding on rotten carrion or dead fish can reek so strongly that it’s nearly unapproachable.
Black bears are increasing in population throughout the U.S. Residents of black bear states will find getting tags fairly easy, either through lottery draws or over-the-counter sales. Non-resident black bear tags are abundant and easily gotten as well. States differ widely on seasons, spring or fall or both, and the allowable methods for hunting bears. In some states, dogs and bait may not be used. In other states, these hunting methods are permissible. Refer to each state’s regulations booklet for details.
In the words of the late great hunting writer Duncan Gilchrist, “the walking [bear] hunter seldom gets his trophy.” Gilchrist was an expert at spot and stalk bear hunting, with many years of guiding under his belt, and he implored his readers to avoid blundering through a bear’s bedding and feeding areas. Human odor and disturbances, he found, will clear bears out of the country much more quickly and completely than they will affect species such as deer.
Gilchrist’s finding are hardly controversial, as expert bear hunters are in almost universal agreement that bears are best hunted by patiently watching their feeding areas from a position where the bear is unlikely to detect your presence.
Locating Feeding Areas
These feeding areas can come in many forms, apple orchards, dead livestock, berry patches, salmon streams, moose gut piles, avalanche slides in the spring of the year, and manmade bait stations placed by hunters with the deliberate purpose of attracting bears. For our purposes here, we’ll discuss natural food sources in reference to spot and stalk hunting, and save artificial bait stations for the later discussion of ambush hunting.
The key to finding bears is locating their feeding areas. In coastal areas during the late summer, this might be as easy as locating a productive salmon spawning stream. But in other places at other times of the year, particularly in places with low concentrations of bears, finding active feeding areas can be frustrating. The upside is that bears tend to use the same areas from one year to the next. If you locate a food source that multiple bears are using in mid-May of one year, there’s a high probability that there’ll be bears using it again the next year.
In the West and Alaska, where most spot and stalk bear hunting takes place, the animals typically emerge from hibernation between mid-April and mid-May, with larger boars emerging before the sows. This is a just a generalization, there’s tremendous variability between animals and regions.
When the bears leave their dens, they find a world that is still somewhat winter-like. Northerly and Westerly exposures are often still shrouded in snow, as are shaded, low-lying areas. This is a prime time to locate bears, because their feeding options are limited to those snow-free areas that have been able to absorb enough of the sun’s energy to promote new plant growth.
In steep country, one of the best places to find these conditions is on exposed south-facing slopes, particularly those that have been cleared of snow by slides and avalanches. These slopes often produce an abundance of preferred black bear foods, glacier lily, skunk cabbage, clovers, grasses, and various other herbaceous plants, while many square miles of the surrounding country are still locked beneath a blanket of snow. Locate one of these productive slopes, and you might see multiple bears per day while other hunters are sitting at home because “it’s still too early” to chase bears.
In coastal areas, such as southeast Alaska and British Columbia, the earliest emerging plant growth is commonly found on the “grass flats” that form on the alluvial fans at the outlets of streams and rivers. Watch areas with beach rye grass, horsetail, and skunk cabbage, especially near the timbered edges of grass flats where bears are most likely to feel comfortable.
While it’s very common to glass spring bears in the Rockies during the late morning and early afternoon, coastal bears seem to prefer feeding in the open during the last hour or so of daylight. A notable exception is during low tide, when bears will work the exposed shorelines to graze on beds of blue mussels and flip over rocks in search of small crabs.
In the fall, berry patches are the most reliable places to glass for bears. In alpine areas, particularly in the mountain ranges of south-central Alaska, it’s sometimes possible to glass berry “patches” that cover entire mountains. A hunter might sit at the base of one of these mountains on a September day and see a dozen or more bears during an hour or so of glassing, all of them standing in knee-high growth of blueberry, crowberry, bear berry, and cranberry, without a single tree within hundreds of yards.
This type of bear hunting can seem almost too easy, at least until you start climbing the mountain toward a particular bear. It’s a mystery why more would-be hunters don’t try it. It’s such an inexpensive hunt that can be done without a guide, and the meat and fat of these berry-fed bears is absolutely phenomenal.
At the same time of year, concentrations of black bears can be found where salmon are spawning. A common postcard image shows bears feeding on fresh, still wriggling salmon that would look great in a fisherman’s cooler. But bears are just as likely to feed on rotten fish that have achieved a consistency of pudding. These salmon stream bears are best avoided, as their flesh can be useless: bears that feed on rotten salmon will taste like rotten salmon.
In the lower-48, berry patches tend to be a bit more dispersed and often occur on ridge top and hillside mosaics of mixed timber and brush. Here, the spot and stalk hunter wants to get into a high position where he can see as many of these patches as possible. It’s common to get only glimpses of a bear as it works from one patch to the next, but keep in mind that a feeding bear will often stick to one area for a day or more.
If he vanishes for an hour or two, it’s quite likely that he simply laid down for a rest. When glassing, you’ll sometimes notice bears that are curled up in a patch of blueberries, sound asleep. Once you’ve identified a general area where a bear is actively feeding, pack up your gear and try to get within shooting range of that location. Then hunker down and wait for the bear to reemerge while you continue to glass other areas for more bears. And before shooting at any bear, make sure to assess the quality of its hide. In the late spring, black bears will often rub their rumps and flanks against tree trunks or rocks. A “rubbed” hide, with bald patches, makes for a lame bear rug.
Judging Bear Size
Learning to properly judge the size of black bears can take years of study. A few hints: Small bears (right) have pointy ears that sit high on top of the head; they look “leggy,” with long, thin appendages; and they have an overall gangly appearance and an awkward gait. Large black bears (left) have proportionately smaller ears that sit off toward the side of the head; their belly seems to sag, giving their legs a shorter appearance; they have thick rumps and shoulders and heavy legs. They seem to have an overall powerful appearance and a ponderous gait.
Whenever you’re hunting bears, you should constantly keep in mind that bears are opportunistic feeders; they’re going to show up at the richest, most productive food sources that are available in their area at a given time – whatever those happen to be. Bears in one area of the country will feed on things that bears in other areas have never seen. In dryer portions of the Rockies, fall black bears can sometimes be glassed while they feed on pine nuts in subalpine parklands. White bark pine and pinyon pine are favorites.
They might also turn up in old apple orchards, stands of live oak, and near mountain ash trees when the berries are ripe. In the southwest, hunters often glass hillsides of prickly pear cactus in anticipation of bears coming out to feed on the blossoms. Another thing to watch for are big game gut piles left by other hunters, including bear gut piles left by your hunting partners. In fact, a big gut pile is so attractive to bears that it’s a good idea to keep an eye on a fresh gut pile even if a bear has yet to find it. Once a bear locates the pile, it will not last long.
Ambush hunting over artificial bait stations is the most common black bear hunting strategy in virtually every state and Canadian province where the practice is allowed. From an outsider’s perspective it seems simple enough, dump some bait in the woods, then shoot the bears as they come rolling in. In actuality, bear hunting over bait requires significant know-how, especially if you want to consistently kill mature bears.
One of the primary considerations is that you need to establish your bait station not only in an area where bears will find it, but also where they’ll feel secure enough to visit the station during daylight hours. This means placing the bait station along a frequently used bear trail or in the vicinity of naturally occurring food sources. Make sure that the bait is near dense cover where bears feel secure, but not so dense that you can’t see the bear clearly in order to determine its size, the quality of its hide, and whether or not it has cubs.
A wide variety of baits can be used, specifics are usually determined by the budget of the hunter. Some hunters use dog food with molasses poured over the top, which can be very expensive. Others use beaver and muskrat carcasses salvaged from fur trappers. Some use rough fish such as carp and sucker harvested with a bowfishing rig. One of the easiest and most economical baits are expired bakery goods from grocery stores and donut shops. When choosing a bait, keep in mind that you’ll be eating the animal. A bear fattened on old donuts will taste much better than a bear fattened on maggot-ridden carp.
Some hunters will simply dump their bait on the ground, or place it in a hole. Others prefer to place baits in such a way that they are harder to get at. This keeps birds and small scavengers from eating it all, and it forces bears to linger for longer periods of time rather than just running in and grabbing a piece of bait on the fly. Baits can be placed in burlap sacks that are hung from trees, or put inside barrels with access holes that allow the bears to get their paws in there to scoop out food. Another strategy is to build a covered pen out of downed logs with an access point that helps put the bear in a broadside position relative to your blind.
Once a bait is getting hit on a regular basis, it should be replenished as quickly as the bears are eating it so that they don’t lose interest. The bear or bears will use regular trails when coming into the bait, and you should stay clear of these routes in order to avoid spooking the bear with too much human odor. Place your stand in a downwind direction of the bait, keeping in mind that you need to be well concealed but still within reasonable shooting distance. Don’t let your fear of bears dictate your stand placement. Get close enough so that you can see the bear clearly and make a lethal shot.
Shingdaddy on Bear Baits
“The thing you have to remember with a bear is they operate almost entirely off of smell. If you can get to their nose, you can get them to you. I don’t personally like to use a barrel because I don’t want the scent of the bait contained at all. The best thing I’ve found to draw them is used cooking oil from Long John Silvers. I get corn or some kind of food that has enough consistency to it that I can pour that oil all over it. I also throw it in the trees and pour it on logs and branches.
“Bears will really eat anything. The early spring they like foods with a higher protein base. Old meat, fish or chicken seems to do really well. About the time summer hits they start wanting those carbs to cake that fat on. Anything you put out that is sweet, be it doughnuts or pastries works great. A few years back I dumped an old outdated jug of molasses all over a stump. I returned the following evening to find that the stump had been totally destroyed in my absence. They seem to love white bread. If you can dump several loaves of white bread or old biscuits, that will keep them close.
“The only thing that will deter a bear from returning to your bait is the coming of white oak acorns. When they start maturing toward the end of August, you might as well give up for a month. Then start baiting again and they will gradually start returning back to your baits. After getting a bear coming in regularly, I do recommend putting logs and limbs over and across your bait to help keep it out of the mouths of raccoons, foxes and coyotes.”
Jerod Fink on Archery Stand Placement Near Bear Baits
“With bears, you need to be careful with stand placement but there are certainly differences from deer hunting. A good rule for bow hunters to follow is that you should place your tree stand no greater than a foot high for every yard you are from the bait. Twenty yards away, twenty feet up, is a good bet. This will ensure a proper placement of the arrow through both lungs.
“The stand, however, must be concealed very well. Bears, despite having relatively poor eyesight, notice movement very well. But wind is much more important than anything. In my area, you want to place the stand on the southeast side of the bait. This allows you to hunt when the wind is blowing from the north, west, or northwest, which is typical.
“DO NOT hunt a bait if the wind is blowing from your stand toward the bait, or toward the animal’s avenue of approach. You will spook it. It’s best to set a bait in an area with a natural barrier, such as an open field or beaver pond, on the southeast side of the bait. This will keep the older and wiser bears from being able to circle downwind.”
Chad Baart on Rifle Stand Placement Near Bear Baits
“If I am hunting with a rifle I will sit as far away as I can while still feeling like it’s a slam dunk shot, maybe 50-75 yards, depending on the type of cover. Pay close attention to the prevailing winds and set up crosswind. Upwind will spread your scent to the bait. Downwind will make it so you are between the bear and the bait, as they almost always approach from downwind in order to scent-check for other bears on the bait and for hunters if they’ve had past experience with hunters at baits. Be ready to adapt if you have a bear that won’t commit. It may help to have an alternate stand set up downwind from the bait to be ready for the big dude that likes to stop short and have a look without committing.”