Spot and Stalk Black Bears

There’s a general consensus that regular black-bear success depends on bait or hounds. Both of these notions are false, especially when bowhunting the West. Sure, bait makes bowhunting bears easier, but it’s not absolutely necessary to earn a shot. Hunting behind well-seasoned hounds certainly isn’t easy – physically demanding to the Nth degree depending on terrain and available access – but given enough time and determination, you’ll eventually get your bruin.

Get Serious

Spot and Stalk Black Bear
This black bear is well within range, don't move and be ready for your shot opportunity.

Collecting your bear pelt the old-fashioned way certainly requires more creativity and concerted effort, but might not be as difficult as you believe. Using spot-and-stalk or still-hunting skills to arrive in range of a trophy bear certainly offers a higher sense of accomplishment, but is no more novel than spot-and-stalk mule deer or slipping through blacktimber for bull elk. After all, finding a bear is normally the most difficult part. Once a desirable bruin is located, they seldom prove as challenging as more popular big game.

For some reason western black bears seem to illicit a casual approach, many taken as an adjunct to other bowhunting endeavors. Bowhunters will go all out for elk or pack into the remote wilderness for trophy mule deer, but seldom do they attack the bear with such dogged determination. It is my contention that given the same resolve afforded an elk or deer hunt, black bear success can become a regular event.

Easier Than You Think

Bear just might possess the most sensitive olfactory gear in the entire wild kingdom, but they hear no better than you or I and their eyesight could be termed “dim” at best. There’s also the glaring fact that in most of their natural range they have few natural enemies. Even in the brown bear country of southeast Alaska, they seem downright nonchalant in regards to survival, approached almost at will with a steady headwind. Of course, you can’t count on this, but head-to-head, stalking a bear is typically easier than any deer or elk.

Though bear numbers are at all-time highs in much of their western range, they are still an animal at the relative apex of the food chain. They seldom prove as numerous as any cervid species. Following the food is what bear-hunting success is all about. Bear are veracious eaters. During Fall months they are looking to fill their bellies against a long Winter of hibernation.

Clear-Cuts Provide Excellent Spot and Stalk Bear Hunting
Clear-cuts allow sunlight to penetrate to the forest floor allowing for fresh green chutes and prime bear grazing.

Follow The Food

Discovering bear scat is the quickest avenue to determining where to concentrate bear-hunting efforts. It also helps to own a basic understanding of available foods in your neck of the woods. If you are lacking in this information, calling a state game biologist can prove a wise investment. Obvious bear magnets include any acorn-bearing oak or isolated patches of berries in nearly all of the bear’s range, though regional delicacies often become a factor.

In the Southwest, from Colorado and Utah, southward into Arizona and New Mexico, piñon pine nuts bring hungry bears out of the woodwork like nothing else. These highly-nutritious, fat-laden pine nuts seem to produce in seven-year cycles, but each mountain range is likely to display an individual cycle, so traveling can get you into action annually. When I think of the Southwest I immediately think of southwestern New Mexico and southern Arizona, where bears venture from high-country haunts to visit adjacent desert foothills to greedily gobble the sweet fruit of the prickly-pear cactus. Bear have a decided sweet tooth, anything sugary attracting bears like, well, honey. During drier years when acorns are less likely to produce heavily, juniper berries often help to fill a bear’s belly. California bowhunters find regular success on bears gorging manzanita berries common on coastal ranges there. In northern Rocky Mountain states isolated agriculture in the form of winter wheat, oats, barley or rye can bring bears into the open to invite a careful stalk.

Successful Spot and Stalk Black Bear Hunt
This excellent black bear was taken on a spot and stalk hunt.

Doin’ Bruin

How you approach a bear hunt depends largely on terrain and vegetation. In most every instance, spot-and-stalk ploys are most productive. This means gaining a vantage and carefully putting binoculars to work on hillsides, distant canyon bottoms or sharp ridges; anywhere sign – tracks or droppings – are abundant. A distant black grub may prove to be only a burnt stump, but just as likely it will be a feeding bear. In thicker areas, along cool creek bottoms where warm-weather bears come regularly to drink or where berry bushes thrive in the abundant moisture, still-hunting might prove the most viable approach. When I think spot-and-stalk I recall glassing for bears on oak-choked ridges during acorn season, setting up over Oregon or Washington clear-cuts tangled with nasty blackberry brambles, scanning rolling Arizona desert in search of cactus bears. During one New Mexico elk hunt, glassing rolling juniper ridges and mesa edges for trophy bulls, I spotted 21 bears during a two week period. Early one morning I discovered a bear too massive to ignore, detouring from the serious business of elk to engage in a two-hour belly crawl across relatively open ground. At 25 yards the “Booner” cinnamon bear sensed me somehow, rolling onto his flanks and sitting up like a dog begging a biscuit. I sent a tapered cedar from my experienced Groves recurve through his chest, experiencing 10 seconds of utter exhilaration as he rolled to attack himself where the arrow had sucked into his chest before he retreated a short distance away to breath his last.

Still-hunting has also proven exciting and productive. This past fall I discovered an abundance of bear sign while scouting an old burn during midday “downtime.” Thronged scrub oak heavy with acorns created limited visibility and little opportunity for glassing. Some of the scat I poked with my booted toe appeared absolutely steaming, high branches ravished for additional acorns. I slowed to a snail’s pace, standing in shadows and watching as much as moving, straining for the slightest bit of movement. After a couple hours I spied that movement, initially certain I was imagining things. But no, the fat-headed chocolate-phase blackie detached from shadow and swung along the ridge perpendicular to my position. I dodged from shadow to shadow, hurrying to cut him off, momentarily loosing sight of him. I found him again at 25 yards through a needle’s eye of oak boughs, quickly snatching back the string of my Fred Bear Takedown recurve and sending an arrow on its way. One hundred yards away I discovered my gorgeous prize.

Black bears on the ground; give it a try this season. There’s nothing more exciting, and it just might prove more productive than you ever imagined.

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