Timing is everything with hunting. The best destinations in the world can be highly productive for a certain species at a given time, but at other times can be only average. Oftentimes spring bear hunting is lumped into one broad category covering the months of May and June. When booking hunts in remote destinations, you should understand the general phases of spring and corresponding bear activities. Knowing what to expect and what questions to ask your outfitter or friend are critical for choosing the right time hunt. For the do-it-yourselfer, this information is invaluable as you plan your trip.
For black bears, springtime is dominated by two biological realties and one external factor. Their need to find food and build up fat reserves after months of denning is the first reality. Black bears den anywhere from 90 to 150 days, depending on latitude and food availability, and emerge between March and April in most areas. When they awaken from torpor, they are looking for green vegetation, carrion, and pretty much anything with digestible calories. Spring hunting, whether spot and stalk or over bait, capitalizes on a bear’s need to eat.
The second reality is the bear rut. Bears can basically breed anytime they aren’t denning, but the peak breeding period is a 60-day time period between late May, through June, and into early July. Most spring bear hunting seasons end in mid-to-late June. The rut has played a part in many successful spring hunts—ending with thick-headed boars in the backs of UTVs and on pack-frame backpacks. Understanding the timing of the rut, combined with a knowledge of what bears are eating, will help you decide when to go hunting.
The third factor is weather. When you’re hunting, weather is either your greatest ally or your worst enemy. Springtime bear hunting is often determined by weather conditions. Early warm weather can have the bears out of dens and ahead of their usual schedule, whereas a late spring will make bears way behind and hardly awake by the time you are hunting. Weather is the most unpredictable part of spring bear hunting. However, if you understand the generalizations of the region you’re hunting, you’ll be equipped to make a solid decision about timing.
Mature boars are usually the first to emerge from their winter dens. Sows with cubs are typically the last. Boars come out early in order to start packing on calories to build up their bodies for the coming rut. Just like whitetail deer, boars roam long distances and expend great amounts of energy looking for receptive sows. They burn lots of calories in pursuit, even after feeding becomes secondary to breeding later in the spring. By emerging early, they are getting a jump start on the calorie game.
These timeframes will vary based up how far north you’re hunting. I’ll make some assumptions with dates that could flex either way. Let’s define these phases and discuss the pros and cons of hunting them.
Early Spring: April 1 to May 10
Oftentimes this period is when mature boars become easily patternable over bait or on green vegetation. Sparse, early spring growth will allow great visibility for spot-and-stalk hunting. Many outfitters claim this is their best time for killing giant boars. No rutting activity can be a positive, allowing the bears to stay locked on food. Bears aren’t moving long distances, so if you find one, he’s likely not going very far.
Be ready for colder hunting conditions, possibly even snow. Expect to see fewer and more lethargic bears. During this phase their stomachs are adjusting to food, so they aren’t eating much. On a weeklong hunt you might expect to see just a handful of bears and no rutting activity. Typically, you won’t see a lot of immature bears, and certainly not many sows with cubs. In this time period you run the risk of inclement weather putting the bears back in their dens for a few days.
Mid Spring: May 11 to June 1
Mid spring is a popular time for black bear hunting. Many outfitters start taking their first batch of clients after May 10. The deeper bears get in the spring, the more active bait sites become. More bears are emerging from their dens, eating more as their stomachs adjust to digesting food, and they’ve had time to find bait sites or grassy meadows. In most Canadian locations the leaves haven’t greened up yet, temperatures are still cool, and natural food availability is low.
The closer you get to June, the more natural food will become available, but bears will be responding very well to bait. Mid spring can also bring some good rutting activity. This time period is probably the safest to hunt spring bears. The best times are before the climax of spring green-up, but not too early when bears are still sleeping or sluggish.
There isn’t usually a tremendous amount of rutting activity until later in mid spring. You also have the possibility of seeing a lot of immature bears and sows with cubs. Many outfitters will be booked up during this time frame.
Late Spring: June 2 to June 30
The biggest advantage of hunting late spring is the influence of the bear rut. During this time big boars will begin to roam, looking for receptive sows. Just like in the whitetail rut, you never know what to expect every time you go to the bait or up the mountain to glass. A big boar could be anywhere at any time.
The second positive factor about hunting this time is milder temperatures. Hunting early and mid-spring in the North can mean colder temperatures, which is a negative to some hunters. You’ll often find moderate temperatures during the month of June in most regions. Third, you might see a lot of bears because they’re all out of the dens and feeding in full force.
The biggest downside of hunting late spring is that most places will be 100% green, so visibility will be low. Natural food will be highly available and bears may respond less to bait than they did several weeks before. Bears will spread out because food is everywhere, making them harder to find.
Breeding activity can actually make hunting more difficult. When spot-and-stalk hunting, it can be hard to catch rutting bears because they always seem to be moving—and they travel a lot faster than you do. Rutting boars aren’t predictable, so if you see one at a bait site one day, he may not be there the next.
Understanding the Bear Rut
When trying to explain the bear rut, it’s helpful to compare it to the whitetail rut—even though it is biologically quite different. The bear rut isn’t as short and intense as the whitetail rut. The breeding time isn’t as critical because sow bears can delay implantation of the fertilized egg—the only mammals with this ability.
While conception dates are critical for most mammals because they determine birth dates, the fertilized egg of a sow bear does not immediately begin to grow. Instead, this delayed implantation mechanism creates a blastocyst which waits until the sow is in a healthy and stable condition to attach to the uterine wall and begin the 60-day gestation period. Basically, this means that it doesn’t really matter when a sow is bred, which translates to a drawn-out breeding period. So, while the whitetail rut is a spike of breeding activity, the bear rut is more of a long arc.
However, the months of May and June for bears can be compared to the months of October and November for whitetails. Whitetail rut-related activity begins to pick up in late October and peaks in mid-November. For the part of the bear rut that we can hunt, rutting activity begins to increase in the last week of May. June is to the bear rut what November is for deer.
The whitetail peak rut can produce some great results but it can also get slow when target bucks are locked down breeding does. The same can be true with bears. A big boar may stay with and breed a single sow for three to five days. If that sow isn’t where you’re hunting, the boar won’t be either. Finding a boar cruising bait sites or feeding areas looking for a receptive sow is the name of the game.
To summarize, the early spring can be great for locating a giant boar on a food source, but you’ll likely see fewer bears on your hunt. It will likely be cold. Mid spring is one of the most popular times for spring bear hunting because it’s before green-up and most bears will be up and active. The bear rut dominates late spring. All the bears are out of their dens, and a giant boar could show up at any time. However, natural food is at a peak, and bears may be less responsive to bait.
All three phases of the spring have their pros and cons. Be sure to talk with outfitters or local hunters about the trends they see in the regions they hunt. Much of your decision on the timing of your hunt depends on what your goals are. If opportunity is your number one priority, then later might be your best choice. If you are after a trophy class boar, think about earlier hunts or rut hunts. Big bears are killed at all times during the spring, but understanding the progression of the season will make you a better bear hunter.
This article first appeared in Bear Hunting Magazine.
Feature image via Tony Bynum.