The Ultimate Guide to Spring Bears
After years oflistening to stories ranging from a tale about three bears and a frightenedlittle blond girl to gruesome accounts...
After years oflistening to stories ranging from a tale about three bears and a frightenedlittle blond girl to gruesome accounts of maulings, I half expected to be tornlimb from limb the first time I went hunting for springtime bears.
Black bears,actually. When I think of that hunt now, I see a setting sun filtering throughnew green on a cool May evening. Eerie shadows lurk beneath the forest canopy,then grow bolder and slink closer in the waning light. A bear emerges at theedge of the trail like an extension of the darkness. It is rather surprising. Ifumble with my rifle and fire. A few twigs snap, marking the bear’s quickretreat, then all goes quiet. Minutes pass and the last daylight fades. Excitedbut doubtful, I return to camp. My partners and I search all the next day butfind no sign of the bear or any evidence that my hasty shot hit it.
Subsequent springbear seasons, and the company of other hunters, have taught me the value ofbeing prepared to take a shot correctly. The object is to be ready when a bearappears. That seems rather elemental, given that the whole point of going bearhunting is to get a bear, but it is not so matter-of-fact. Unless you spend aconsiderable amount of your life hunting bears, you never quite get used toseeing one. They’re big and, depending on the stories you’ve been told, atleast a bit scary. The best you can hope for is that spotting a spring bear,deciding whether to shoot it and then taking the shot unfolds in a somewhatorderly fashion. After the bear does its part–showing up–the rest depends onyou.
When a bear emergesfrom hibernation in the spring it lazes near its den for a week or so,recovering from what must feel like the mother of all hangovers. Once thebear’s digestive system is up and running, the animal starts cruising for foodto replace lost calories.
Bears have largehome ranges that might encompass more than 60 square miles. Studies have shownthat a bear’s range is centered on a major topographical feature such as avalley, and that the bear aligns its territorial boundaries along ridges ormountains. Although a patch of sweet clover might grow over the next mountain,the food is worth less than the energy cost for the bear to climb up and overthe mountain to get it. So a bear concentrates on the food available within itshome range and stays put for several weeks during the spring once it has foundthe forage and cover it needs.
First you must findsign that indicates a bear is in the neighborhood. There’s no great trick tothis: During the spring bears head toward moist areas, such as creek bottoms,swamps and south-facing slopes, to feed on the first plants of the warmingseason. The bears eat grasses, wildflowers, sedges and plant roots and stems. Astudy in northwestern Montana found that spring bears keyed on clover anddandelions.
Security and escapecover must accompany the food source. A patch of lush clover will remainuntouched if it’s near a constant parade of people. A hunter must take theunbeaten path to find spring bears. “Bears don’t live long around openroads, so park your vehicle and start walking,” says Timothy Thier, abiologist with the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Thier suggests thatthe best way to start looking for spring bears is to hike or ride a mountainbike on roads that are closed to motorized vehicles. These are typically ForestService roads. Not only are they seldom traveled, but they pass through goodhabitat that also offers security for bears. “The big males don’t movearound very much first thing in the spring,” Thier says.
Fresh scat is thebest sign that bears are near. Look for piles of droppings containinghalf-digested grass. “If you find lots of bear sign, come back in theevening, because that bear is going to be there. Only around mid-May, when thebreeding season starts, do the boars start roaming more.”
Most Western stateswith spring bear seasons prohibit the use of bait or hounds to hunt bears. Thatleaves spotting a bear from a distance and stalking to within sure range as themain hunting technique. “Get up on a knob with your binocular and watch thesouth-facing hillsides,” Thier advises. “Seeps and avalanche chuteshave the first green-up, and that’s where the bears will be. A patch of newclover is just like bait to a bear.”
In areas where highvantage points are hard to come by, and where baiting is a legal option, ahunter is better off attracting bears to his stand. “You pretty much haveto bait bears where we hunt because the country is so flat and thick you can’tsee beyond sixty yards in most places,” says Richard Page (780-922-6602),who guides bear hunters around Fort Vermilion in northern Alberta.
Page says oneimportant advantage of baiting is that it draws a bear in close so a hunter cansize it up, make sure it doesn’t have cubs and take a shot that will dispatchthe bruin quickly. But proximity holds disadvantages, too, “Every yearwe’ll get at least one hunter who goes to pieces when a bear comes inclose,” he says. “Usually, though, a hunter has time to calm down, geta good look at the bear and decide if he wants it or not.”
Page admits thateven hunters who have seen bears before often become unnerved when a boar comesto a bait right in front of their tree stands, but it’s a psychologicalvariable that every hunter must learn to control. “You just have to prepareyourself mentally to keep cool,” he says. “To tell the truth, I don’tknow how you go about that. Experience, I suppose.”
Baiting entailsmore than leaving a pile of stale doughnuts in the bush and then coming backthe following weekend to shoot a bear. “A lot of time goes into findingwhere bears are in an area and then choosing a site where they’ll come tobait,” Page says. “A lot more time goes into maintaining thebait.”
Some hunters lurebears into range with a varmint call–in effect making themselves the bait. Aswith other methods, calling only works if bears are in the area and closeenough to hear the simulated bleats of a fawn in distress.
One Saturday in MayI found plenty of bear sign in a canyon far from the road’s end but couldn’tfind the bears that left it. The next day I glassed until early evening, butstill the bears remained hidden. Just to see if it would work, I blew myvarmint call. Within a minute a bear came loping around the side of the hillwhere I was stationed. I caught glimpses of the bear as it moved through thetrees but decided it was too small. I quit calling. Even so, the young bruincame within 50 yards and paced about for a few minutes before leaving.
After the bear hadshuffled away, I climbed over the ridge and called in another. This one wasmedium-size and came on the run. Even if I had wanted to shoot it, I wouldn’thave been able to. The bear kept to the cover and never stopped as it circledmy stand. It finally walked off. I didn’t call in a mature bruin, but I wassatisfied that I could have if one had been within earshot.
Utah, Alaska andIdaho still allow hunters to chase springtime bears with hounds, but it’sdifficult to find a guide with dogs. This is a high-energy sport that requiresa lot of time and effort. A friend of mine who hunts with dogs in Idaho everyspring says that the bears run like demon greyhounds. Still, once his houndstree a bear, my friend has all the time he needs to catch his breath, size upthe bear and shoot if he wants to.
COUNT ON THE ONESHOT
A bear hit anywhereon its body usually falls at the impact of the shot and then gets back up andgoes some distance before the shooter can recover from the rifle’s recoil andshoot again. A bear’s hair and fat keep a wound from bleeding profusely, andapart from the noise of a wounded animal crashing away through the underbrush,there is little else to mark its trail. “A bear’s feet are so padded theyhardly make tracks in dry terrain,” Thier says. “So a wounded beardoesn’t leave much to follow.” Which is why it’s important to make thefirst shot count, so that the bear goes down quickly, and for keeps.
Page tells hishunters to wait until a bear has turned broadside before they shoot. “Abear hit broadside behind the shoulder and through the lungs is only going torun forty, maybe sixty yards,” he says. That’s the only shot for abowhunter because a bear’s thick shoulder blade is apt to deflect a broadhead,depending on the angle.
A bear quarteringtoward or away from the hunter offers a much smaller target area. Unless youplace the bullet perfectly, you’ll have a bear with just a broken shoulder.It’s better to wait.
If you don’t takethe time to be certain of your shot and hit a bear right, you’re going to belooking through the thickest cover around to find it again. And that’s neverany fun.
BROKEN COOKIES ARE the most popular ingredient of bearbaits in northern Alberta, according to hunting guide Richard Page. But theyaren’t necessarily the best.
Page prefers beaver carcasses. He believes thatindigenous prey animals are an important component of the most attractive baitrecipes. “What works best in northern Alberta won’t do so well in theStates. Hunters there have to experiment and come up with their bestingredients,” says Page. “Sometimes the craziest stuff will bring in abig bear, but natural food seems to produce the most consistently forme.”
Some hunters say that rotten meat is the best bait, butPage disagrees. “Based on my experience, the fresher the meat or carcass,the better,” he says.
Spotting THE BIG BOYS
THE BIGGER A BOAR, the blockier its head. Also, the earsappear to be much shorter, smaller and rounder in relation to the head thanthey do on younger bears or sows. A young bear (bottom) has big, long ears.Young and sow bears have slender heads with no visible cheekbones.
Another way to gauge a bear’s size is from its tracks.Measure the width of the front footprint in inches and add one to get the sizeof its hide in feet. For example, a bear that left a 5-inch-wide track squaresabout 6 feet.
In the West, young black bears might be almost blond orbrown in appearance. Older spring bears are almost always black, with perhaps atouch of brown in their coats.
What Does IT WEIGH?
IF YOU HAVE ACCESS to accurate scales, you won’t have toguess how much your bear weighs.
Otherwise, a tape measure and the accompanying graphcompiled by the Arizona Game and Fish Department will provide a reasonablyaccurate weight estimate. The graph at right takes into account therelationship between a bear’s chest circumference and its body weight. Thismeasurement can be taken after a bear is field-dressed, providing the briskethas not been split and the hide is still intact. The circumference measurementshould be taken around the bear’s chest, just behind the shoulders (the bearmust be at least a year old). The tape should be snug but not tight. Theestimate will be within about 20 pounds of the actual weight.
Loaded FOR BEAR
Rifles in the .30-caliber range are ideal. Accuracy iscritical. CALIBERS: “A .270 Winchester is at the low end of acceptable calibers forbear hunting,” says Canadian outfitter Richard Page. Most hunters arrive atPage’s camp with .300 or .338 Magnums, some in the short-case versionsintroduced by Remington and Winchester in the past few years.
SHOT PLACEMENT: Regardless of the caliber, Page adviseshunters to show up with rifles they can shoot proficiently. “Some huntersthink a hit anywhere with a magnum will kill a bear,” he says. “Butit’s all about hitting a bear in the right place. I tell my hunters to bring arifle they’re comfortable shooting, which is probably the .30/06 they use fordeer back home.”
BULLET CHOICES: Bullets like the Barnes X-Bullet, NoslerPartition, Swift A-Frame or Scirocco and Winchester Fail Safe retain most oftheir weight when they hit a bear, even on a shoulder shot.Controlled-expansion bullets are essential at the short distance from whichmost baited bears are shot. At 40 yards a bullet still has most of itsvelocity, which can cause a regular bullet to come apart on impact and create arelatively shallow wound.
ESTIMATING ABEAR’S LIVE WEIGHT