Black bear hunting has changed dramatically throughout much of the West during the past 10 years, and taking a good bear requires a bit more preparation and planning than it used to. A number of Western states have outlawed the use of bait and hunting with hounds, and several have eliminated spring bear hunting seasons because of pressure from the anti-hunting crowd. Throughout most of the West, black bear populations aren't only in good condition but increasing at a substantial rate. This bear boom is costing states significant amounts of money for game damage restitution, while adding an additional strain on the big game populations through predation. But high black bear populations throughout the West provide generous opportunities for those willing to adapt and change their hunting methods to take advantage of the bruins' fall habits.
If you're considering a Western fall bear hunt, now is the time to act by collecting the latest license info on the state you're planning to hunt. The process for obtaining a fall bear license varies from state to state and even within game management units in those states. Some states allow licenses to be purchased over the counter, while others, such as Colorado and Wyoming, issue fall licenses for certain seasons on a draw-only basis.
Many Western outfitters cater to fall black bear hunters, as do most of the Western Indian reservations, and hiring an outfitter might be your best bet for your first fall bear hunt. Remember, the harder you work on the early aspects of your fall bear hunt, the “luckier” you'll be.
When black bears emerge from their winter dens early in the spring, they spend most of their time resting and only a limited amount of time feeding. It takes time for their hibernation-softened foot pads to toughen up and for their digestive system to start functioning at full capacity. During early spring, black bears are primarily grazers, feeding on protein-rich, easily digestible shoots of new growth grasses and sedges. As summer progresses, black bears gradually spend less time resting and more time keeping their bellies full.
During August, September and October, black bears will often feed 18-20 hours a day to build up the layer of fat that will sustain them throughout the winter. They bed down only for short stretches during every 24-hour period, and this increased fall activity certainly plays into the hands of hunters.
By far, the most popular method of hunting Western black bears during the fall is spot-and-stalk.
There are a number of areas in the various Western states that are ideal for this type of hunting and others where it might be a waste of time. Spot-and-stalk hunting works well along the coastal areas and mountains of Washington state, Oregon and Idaho, where the rainforest timber has been clear-cut, allowing for the growth of succulent goodies such as blackberries, huckleberries, raspberries and gooseberries that provide abundant fall forage for appetite-driven bruins during August and September. Clear-cut and open mountain slopes and valleys in the high-country regions of Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Arizona and Colorado, where bears spend much of the day foraging for fall-ripened fruits, acorns and sedges, are also ideal locations for glassing and stalking fall bruins. In many of these logged-over areas, there are miles of forest roads that extend into prime bear country. Some are closed to vehicle traffic but can be hiked or biked by serious bear hunters. Working these back roads early in the morning and late in the afternoon, when bears are most active, and glassing the slopes to locate a feeding or napping bear can be productive.
The key to successful spot-and-stalk bear hunting is simple: You have to see the bear before it sees you! Black bears are supposed to have notoriously poor eyesight, but after years of hunting these critters I'm not so sure this is the case. I personally believe black bears have pretty decent long-range vision because I've had them spot my camouflaged form at several hundred yards and spook as quickly as a bull elk or white-tailed buck. I've also had black bears walk right past me at 20 yards without showing the slightest indication they'd seen me. But, of course, the same has happened with deer and elk. I think it's movement that draws their attention, so I try to keep as still and unobtrusive as possible in all black bear hunting situations.
If black bears do have a vision deficiency, their keen sense of smell and acute hearing make up for it. So staying stealthy and keeping the wind in your favor when stalking bears is extremely important.
In many Western states much of the prime fall black bear habitat is covered with dense timber or heavy brush and spot-and-stalk hunting is a real iffy proposition at best. Here, a hunter's best bet might be sitting near waterholes or calling black bears by using the distress cries of prey species.
During late summer and into the fall, black bears are busy munching anything that will fill their bellies, from bugs to berries to buffalo, almost non-stop. Consequently, they need water several times a day to keep their digestive systems functioning during this voracious feeding. In the warmer, semi-arid southwestern states like Colorado, New Mexico, Nevada, California and Arizona, a good waterhole is worth its weight in gold. If you find a tank or spring with abundant bear tracks, you've found the best possible location to fill your fall bear tag.
Several years back, one of my archery elk clients was sitting in a treestand overlooking a small spring situated in a canyon choked with dense oak brush. I'd found this particular watering spot on a bear chase one spring and over the years have taken several record-class black bears and some good bull elk from it. I'd advised the bowhunter to purchase a bear license but he told me he'd hunted Colorado for several years and had never seen a black bear, so he declined.
The hunter had been in the stand for less than an hour on the warm September afternoon when a fully furred 250-pound black bear came in for a drink 10 yards below him. A few minutes later, a huge 350-pound brown color phase black bear came ambling in for a drink at the same distance while the hunter fumed at his decision not to purchase a bear license. A half-hour later, a 5x5 bull elk started down off the hill coming into the hidden spring and was promptly run off by the larger bear, which really ticked the license-less bowhunter off.
Screaming For Bears
Calling black bears during the fall by using prey distress calls can be the most exciting or most frustrating method of getting a bear in your sights. When it works it will get your adrenaline level redlining, and when it doesn't you're going to swear it's the most boring method of hunting you've ever tried. BE PATIENT! Most hunters spend a couple outings trying to call up a fall bear and then opt for some other method. Give it time to work.
Calling black bears can be as effective in the dense, brushy rainforest of Washington state as it is in the arid canyons of Arizona and all places in between. Broadcasting a free lunch to a hungry fall black bear might not rank as one of a hunter's most intelligent endeavors, but the challenge and excitement is a heck of a lot more intense than watching hunting programs on TV, or spot-and-stalk hunting for that matter.
But remember, you're dealing with a potentially dangerous animal. Teaming up with a partner, so you can watch both directions when calling, is a good idea. If you're archery hunting, team hunting will allow one hunter to use a bow while the other backs him up with a rifle, handgun or muzzleloader. Not a bad idea. Having a hungry bear come storming in to your calling from your blind side might not provide exactly the kind of hunting opportunity you were expecting and could prove downright dangerous to your well-being.
A couple of years ago, Tommy Freestone, an ardent predator caller and fellow Arizona outfitter, and his brother were calling black bears in the deep canyons of southern Arizona during August. They'd called for an hour without results so Tommy hiked back to get the truck while his brother stayed on location and promptly dozed off in the early morning sunshine. When he woke a few minutes later, a cougar was crouched only a few yards in front of him. He filled his cougar tag with one quick shot. After he shot the first cat at point blank range, a second cat rose out of the grass to the side of him less than 10 yards away. His shouts only appeared to aggravate the cat into slinking toward him in a muscle-quivering, tail-lashing stalk, so he shot that cat, too. After the second shot still another cat came out of a clump of brush only a few yards to the other side of him! However, this cat decided that discretion was the better part of valor and slunk off at his shouts. Who knows what would've happened had he napped a few seconds longer.
Using a predator call during the fall season will usually bring in the larger black bears in the area because they're the most dominant and aggressive. The reaction of black bears coming to the sound of a deer fawn bleats or rabbit screams can vary from almost nonchalance and pure curiosity to that of a slobbering, raging, teeth-popping bruin intent on killing and eating whatever it finds making those intriguing sounds—namely YOU!
When I set up for calling black bears, I try to choose a location where I have a good field of view in front and on both sides of me. The last thing you want is a huffy, hungry bear popping out of the brush right in your face thinking you're an injured fawn or rabbit. If I'm calling alone, I try to pick a spot where the least likely avenue of approach is to my rear. Even then you can bet I check that direction from time to time.
When calling fall bears, I prefer a course-sounding call that comes closer to imitating a distressed big game critter. Electronic callers are illegal in many states, but if they're allowed where you plan to hunt give them a try because it's a lot easier to let one of these run for an hour than to keep up steady calling on a mouth call.
Calling black bears is a lot more strenuous than regular predator calling in that you need to call constantly and stay on the stand for an hour or longer to get the best results. I've had bears come on the run within minutes of my first series of calls and had other bears nonchalantly amble into sight an hour after I started. About the only thing I learned for sure after 50 years of black bear hunting is these furry predators are totally unpredictable—I guess that's what adds to the allure of conning one within gun or bow range with a call.
Fall bear hunting is often overlooked by hunters planning their fall hunting schedules. Regardless of whether you're a gun hunter or bowhunter, it's often possible to add black bear hunting to your other big game hunting ventures with little increase in cost or time and maximum increase in the challenge and opportunity to hunt one of North America's finest big game animals.