Black bears are one of our continent's most widespread game animals, yet hunters may go years in the woods without seeing one. The fact that bears leave little sign in their forested home twists our minds into thinking they are not present. Seasonal movements are another element to the bear's elusive lifestyle.
With the use of hounds and baiting being restricted in a growing number of states, it's getting tougher to secure a good black bear. But if you're looking to take a bear while hunting on foot, there are plenty of other options.
Bears have ravenous appetites, and focusing on food sources in your region may be all you need to do. During the summer months bears eat like mad, amassing all the weight they can for the coming winter. Once they've awakened from their winter nap, bears begin feeding to replenish lost body fat. A bear's life is a never ending quest for food, and the more meals, the better.
Late summer and early fall are critical times for bear hunters. This is when the hyperfagic activity of bears is at its zenith. During all their waking hours, bears focus on one thing -food. They'll typically take it in any form they can get it, but if a mass food plot is nearby, don't waste any time getting there.
Blackberries are among a bear's favorite food in late summer. I've seen several places where bears have temporarily abandoned their coveted huckleberry groves for more bountiful blackberries. Blackberries have a fairly short growing season, and hunters can use this to their advantage. During this time, bears can often be found all day long in or around blackberry patches.
On a recent hunt in California, my partner and I got into hoards of bears feeding on blackberries. Reports from timber cruisers, seeing upwards of a half-dozen bears a day, were typical in several parts of the region. We walked logging roads and within the first two hours of hunting found ourselves within bow range of two bears. Unfortunately, one sniffed us and the other was in cover too thick to weave an arrow through.
Mid-day found us walking roads bordered by dense patches of blackberries. Several stretches prevailed where dozens of piles of bear scat littered the road. In many places, the green, thorny vines of the berry bushes had been beaten to the ground, to the point that it looked like massive herds of cattle had been feeding.
Edging toward vines whipping around off the edge of the road, a window of black presented itself. I held the TV camera for Eastman's Hunting Journal over my partner's shoulder as he slithered to within ten yards of the foraging bear. Cameron Hanes drew his 85-pound PSE Mach 10 and drove a 425-grain Carbon Force arrow, tipped with an 85-grain Rocky Mountain broadhead clean through the bear. It was the season opener for black bears in California, and by keying in on a food source, we filled a tag.
Once blackberries have succumbed to the changing seasons, bears will often climb back up to higher elevations and continue feeding on ripening huckleberries. Though they are typically dispersed in growth, huckleberries flourish along open roadsides and logged units. Bears can be found wandering these areas seeking out and feeding upon berries. Look for fresh droppings around these sites, and if you find them, stick to the area. The bear is likely not far from either. You may want to consider tossing up a tree stand if sign abounds.
Depending on where in the country you live or hunt, familiarizing yourself with wild berry crops is essential. Know when the berries ripen, how long the fruit hangs and if bears prefer them as a food source. By focusing on berries alone, bears can be had.
As fall progresses and the sweet smell of fruit rolls through the air, orchards can be a prime location for bears. A house not far from mine had six bears coming to feed on fallen apples. A buddy went into the orchard and nailed a nice boar, after passing on three others.
Though I've never hunted them, I've heard of bears visiting peach and pear orchards as well. Again, depending on where you live, make the effort to know what fruit trees exist in the area. You may be very near a food source and not know it. Oftentimes orchard owners call Fish and Game to help them deal with problem bears. In some states, relocation of such animals is no problem, in others these programs are nonexistent. Leave your name and phone number with landowners, requesting they call you when and if bears pose a problem.
Be it wild trees or manicured orchards, fruit can be a seasonal staple in many bears' diets. Once such a food source is located, monitor it closely, for usage by bears can rapidly turn off and on. These can be good locations to stalk into or to place a stand, awaiting the arrival of a hungry bear.
Once spotted, closing in on a bear is situational, and it may not always be the right thing to do, especially when hunting with a bow. For this reason, many hunters are turning to predator calls to lure bears within range.
By instinct, bears are aggressive predators, though not all are accustomed to killing big game. Fawns and elk calves are among the common staples of adult bears, and these calls can work wonders when properly put to use. Squealing rabbit calls also attract the attention of hungry bears.
The key here is finding a bear, moving to a good calling location and setting up. Bears have an incredible sense of smell, and all efforts must be taken to keep the wind in your face. Being able to call a bear you've already spotted gives you the advantage of seeing how he'll react to your sounds.
They will not always come. I recently spotted a bear through my Bausch and Lomb Elite binoculars. Knowing the terrain was in the bear's favor, I set up to call. A few fawn bleats and the bruin waltzed the other direction for no apparent reason. Bears are finicky, but if you're stuck -- where you simply can't move any closer toward a bear without being detected -- putting a predator call to work might be all that's needed.
By going after bears on foot, you'll learn more about their habits, movements and feeding patterns. It's tough hunting, but rewarding as heck once you've tracked down and taken such a magnificent predator.