Spring Bear Bonanza

For those in search of excitement, black bears are a great reason to head to the woods this spring

Not long ago, hunting black bears in the spring was a popular activity in many states, allowing hunters a nice opportunity to pursue bears at a time when all other big-game seasons were closed.

Unfortunately, the anti-hunting forces have been successful at whittling down spring bear hunting to the point where only a few Western states allow such hunts. Colorado, one of the most important bear hunting states, fell victim to anti-hunters several years ago when a ballot initiative ended spring hunting. Similar measures have successfully halted spring bear hunts in Oregon and Washington within the last few years.

Canada, with huge black bear populations, is also seeing the effects of animal-rights groups. The spring bear season in Ontario was permanently stopped last year when the premier suddenly caved in to anti-hunting pressure. This province supports an estimated 100,000 bears. In British Columbia, which has about 160,000 bears, anti-hunters recently mounted a well-organized effort but were unable to stop bear hunting. So far. There’s no question they’ll renew their crusade.

It appears that black bears have been targeted by anti-hunting forces as the first big-game species to be protected from hunting. The Fund for Animals organization admitted this strategy several years ago.

Unfortunately, the attempted termination of black bear hunting has nothing to do with biology but is based purely on emotions. Wildlife biologists believe there are currently about one million bears roaming North America.

Baiting Basics
Methods for hunting bears include baiting, spot-and-stalking, hunting with hounds and calling. Where it is legal, baiting is done primarily by residents who have the luxury of time as well as a knowledge of the country they’re hunting. To be successful, a bait hunter must put in many hours, not only watching the bait, but also keeping it replenished until a bear finally discovers it and becomes attracted. Other creatures such as coyotes, ravens and magpies may make off with bait long before a bear gets wind of it.

Black bears have superb noses and are said to be capable of smelling a bait from literally miles away. Baits usually are constructed of aromatic substances ranging from meat to honey, molasses, pastries and a variety of commercial concoctions, most of which are carefully guarded by their manufacturers. Beaver carcasses also are an excellent natural bait, but be sure the law allows them where you hunt. Of course, you must be a trapper or know one to obtain carcasses.

If you opt to hunt bears by baiting and don’t live close to the area you want to hunt, your best option is to hire an outfitter. He’ll establish bait stations and put you on active baits that bears are visiting, but even then, it’s not a piece of cake.

There’s a false perception that baiting is a lead-pipe cinch. Trust me, it’s far from that, and I’m speaking from the experience of dozens of hunts over the years. Of the bait hunts I’ve been on, only 30 percent have been successful.

Spot and Stalk
The spot-and-stalk technique is far better suited to nonresidents, who obviously don’t have the time to establish, tend and watch their baits. Spring bears are active just as soon as the snow thaws and new grass appears. Bruins are eating nonstop, regaining the weight lost in winter. Bears are normally nocturnal, but in the spring they’re often observed all day as they gorge on lush forage. The best time, however, is always the last hour of shooting light. Practically all bears are out of their daytime beds and feeding during that period.

Obviously, visibility is of paramount importance when looking for bears. That being the case, it’s essential to hunt in places where you can see potential feeding spots, such as clear-cuts, meadows and old burns. Each of these landscapes produces the kind of succulent spring plants sought by ravenous bears.

One of my favorite strategies is to walk up a logging road closed to vehicles and hunt all day. If I have time, I’ll scout to locate fresh sign, which includes evidence of extensive grazing, tracks along wet spots in roads or trails and droppings. The latter is the most difficult to find, because unlike hooved big-game animals, bears don’t void themselves frequently. It may be tough to detect droppings even in areas that bears are using consistently.

If I’ve found sign I’ll pick a vantage point downwind and watch. If I have no idea where bears are feeding, I’ll observe as many openings as possible from a high spot, or a very large meadow or clear-cut.

If I spot a bear, I’ll try to confirm its movement pattern before making a stalk. If the bruin is grazing, I’ll get the wind in my favor and ease within range. If it’s walking, I’ll try to intercept it, again using the wind in my favor. Remember that a bear has a superb nose as well as excellent hearing. Eyesight isn’t as important an asset.

Coursing, Calling
Like baiting, hunting bears with hounds is a very specialized technique. It is normally done by hunters who have well-trained, hardy dogs capable of running a bear for miles. Most nonresidents who want to hunt with hounds will hire an outfitter.

Is it possible to call in a bear? While it can be done, it’s the exception rather than the rule. Some hunters have called in bears with cow elk calls, deer fawn calls and rabbit distress calls. A big problem is the wide-ranging habits of bruins. There are few places where you can count on a bear being within audible range of a call; therefore you must be extremely mobile and willing to travel constantly, making calls in random areas.

Millions of acres of public land are available to bear hunting. There isn’t a national forest in the West that doesn’t have bears. Of course, some have higher densities than others. Access is never a problem on these public lands, even though the best hunting is always as far from other hunters as possible. National forests are managed by the U.S. Forest Service, an agency that has nearby ranger stations where hunting information can be obtained easily.

Most forests have some logging roads closed off by locked gates or by piles of earth and rocks bulldozed to block vehicle access. These are gems because many hunters are unwilling to hike, preferring instead to drive roads and spot from a vehicle. By walking blocked roads, however, you’ll more often locate bears that feel more secure and are much closer. I once walked up an old road and met a bear walking down it. The bruin wore my tag a few moments later.

You can determine forest road systems by visiting the Forest Service office and checking maps, which are available for a modest fee. Ask someone in the office to point out clear-cuts and old burns, as well as roads closed to access. Ask which areas have the highest concentration of bears, and plan your strategy by hunting places that have the least hunting pressure.