How to hunt black bears & why to pursue them in the spring
By Nikita Dalke
Who doesn’t love spring? The snow is melting, weather is warming up and everything starts to bloom and turn green once again. People flock outside to soak up some much-needed vitamin D, but hunters have another reason to get outdoors – spring black bear season. There is nothing more exhilarating than pursuing a large, powerful predator. There are lots of different locations to pursue black bears and a few different ways you can hunt them.
Populations & Regulations
The American Black Bear is the most common of the bear species. Widely distributed throughout North America, there is an estimated population of 900,000 bears (Fur Institute of Canada), with 500,000 of that population in Canada – almost twice that of all other bear species combined.
Black bear are found in all of Canada (except PEI) and 41 U.S. states with 27 of the states allowing bear hunting. Out of those 27 states, 11 allow the use of bait and 16 allow hunting with dogs. Some states only allow one or the other, but many allow both with strict regulations and seasons. In Canada, most of the provinces are in favor of baiting, but only British Columbia and Ontario allow bear hunting with dogs.
Every state has their own laws, most have a spring and fall season and others have certain seasons and areas you can bait or use dogs. So it’s important to figure out how you want to hunt, when you want to hunt and then where you can hunt. If you are wanting to hunt in a different state or province, it’s good to know that you will either need to use an outfitter or someone to hunter host you. If you plan to hunt outside of your country, you may need to get a CITES permit to export your bear back home, usually the government websites will have the regulations and whether or not you need the permit. Your outfitter should know this as well.
Spot and Stalk
Black bear spot and stalk is definitely the more challenging way to hunt bears, but it is a huge adrenaline rush when you finally do get to pull off a stalk on a bear; particularly when you are bow hunting and have to get incredibly close. This is why I love hunting bears on the ground, you may not see as many as you would using the other methods, but being able to sneak up on a big bruin within archery range is a huge accomplishment in itself.
Bears may not have the greatest eyesight, but they have good hearing and an excellent sense of smell, 66 times better than a bloodhound. When searching for a bear, I tend to do a lot of driving and glassing. I focus on old, grown-in roads, old clear cuts, avalanche slides and any natural opening. Bears like thick brush, so an opening with green grass and thick brush around it for cover will eventually have a bear on it – it’s just a matter of timing.
Spot and stalk is a lot of luck and perfect timing, you can come to an area that screams bear and you may not see one at all or any sign. Game cameras can help on figuring out an area and identifying some of the bears that could be in that area, especially if you don’t have a lot of land to hunt. Bears can have up to a square 200 km territory, so even when using cameras, you could catch a bear on it one day and be weeks before you see it again. If you have lots of public land you can hunt on, then covering ground (by hiking or driving) is a good idea.
I have not personally bear hunted with hounds, but I have many friends that do. It can be dangerous for the hunter and the hounds if you get an angry bear or a bear that will not tree. It takes a lot of time and knowledge for the handlers to train their dogs and shape them into good bear dogs. Typically, they will hunt with a larger number of dogs (unless your state has regulations on the number allowed) than for cat hunting. The dogs have to be more aggressive and braver than your standard cat hounds.
Hunting bears with hounds can be a controversial subject, but like cat hunting, it can give the hunter more choice on what type of bear they desire and typically an easier time telling if it is a sow or boar they have treed or bayed up.
Baiting is another controversial subject among hunters and the public. However, an Alberta study showed that baiting actually helps promote the survival of sows and cubs, and decreases the number of human/bear conflicts. Common bait used can be oats, beaver, meat scraps and processed food, such as donuts, cooking oil and molasses.
The bait is put in a large barrel with holes and then tied to a tree or a stump to stop the bear from dragging it away. Game cameras are set up to watch the bait. This lets the hunter see bears in the area, which ones have cubs and if any pattern, such as time of day visited.
A treestand or ground blind is set up within 40 yards of the bait. The bait attracts lots of bears, providing you have a good location, so there are chances of seeing multiple bears a day. The combination of monitoring trail cameras and bait allows one to be highly selective in the bear they want and the shot to take. Patience, bear identification, and animal selection are all excellent benefits to baiting.
Four years ago, I tried hunting over bait for my first time in Saskatchewan (BC doesn’t allow baiting), and I didn’t really know what to expect. I have hunted there twice now and while I did not take a bear, I saw many bears. I enjoy watching and observing them almost as much as hunting them. One thing baiting offers that I learned and enjoy is you get to observe them up close in their natural state. You get to watch how sows interact with their cubs, how they interact with other bears, and mating rituals and play. I learned much more about bear behavior by sitting over bait than any other way.
Judging a bear can be difficult. It takes time, practice and research – and even then you can still have surprises. There are two things you will want to be able to judge with a bear: sex and size. This is where people like to use the baiting method, you get an up-close look at a bear and the chance to observe it, and you can use the barrel to judge size. But lets focus on judging a bear on the ground without a barrel.
Sow VS Boar
Telling boars (males) from sows (females) is no easy task and isn’t always 100 percent guaranteed. Typically, a sow has a narrower head and muzzle with soft, rounded features, kind of similar to the look of a German Shepherd dog, and their forehead looks flat. Sows also have wide hips, giving them a ‘V’ or heart shape from behind, and tend to waddle in the hips. Sows shoulders are narrower and their legs will pinch in at the wrist, right above their feet.
A boar’s head will depend on age and size. When they are young, they can resemble a sow slightly in the head and face, having a similar slim head with big ears. Boars are heavier in the shoulders than sows and have narrower hips. From behind, they have a horseshoe shape and tend to waddle more in their shoulders as well as be pigeon-toed. If you see a boar and sow together, chances will be the bigger bear is the boar because they tend to be bigger overall.
A lot of times the first thing you notice with a bear is its body size. If his belly hangs close to the ground and his legs look short, that’s a heavy bear. His chest will be bigger than his backend and when a boar gets really big, they can develop a swayback behind their shoulders, giving him a hump. His neck will be bigger than his head or it can appear that he doesn’t have a neck at all. Looking at the head, the eyes will appear small and beady, the ears will look small and seated more on the sides, and right down the middle will be a distinct crease.
The head shape will be very square and blocky; the nose will attach at right angles and look short. Young boars will appear gangly and their heads will resemble a sow. When looking at tracks, the general rule of thumb is the width of the pad in inches plus one inch will give you the bear’s approximate height.
Grizzly VS Black Bear
If you are hunting in an area with a mix of black bears and grizzly bears, it is important to learn how to tell them apart. Montana actually makes hunters wanting to hunt bear take a course in bear identification before getting a tag. Shooting a grizzly instead of a black bear can have major legal consequences.
Going off color is not a reliable way to do it as black bears can range in colors of white, blonde, black, brown, red and bluish grey. Grizzly bears can have similar coloring from blonde to very dark brown. A lot of times they will have silver markings on their humps and shoulders and sometimes silver throughout their body. It is this silver-tipped grizzled look that gave them their name.
When trying to identify between a black bear and grizzly, the first thing people identify is the iconic shoulder hump. However, if a black bear matures and gets heavy enough, they too can develop a hump due to swayback. Although this is a good indicator between the two, it may not always be so cut and dry, so it is important to learn the other identifying characteristics.
From a side profile, a black bear’s face has a straight profile or looks roman-nosed, while a grizzly’s profile is dished. Black bear ears tend to stand up more on their heads and grizzly ears are shorter and rounded. The claws are a good indicator of bear species in tracks and on the animal itself. Grizzly bears have much longer claws, perfect for digging, while black bears have short claws made for climbing. There are lots of websites and photos dedicated to educating people on the different characteristics and some sites have actual tests you can take.
Spring Vs Fall
Spring or fall bear hunting – which should you do? Most places allow both spring and fall seasons, but some only allow fall hunting, like Colorado. Spring hunting black bears tend to be easier than the fall for a few reasons.
Black bears start to venture from their dens during April and May, depending on weather and location, to look for food. Black bears are omnivores and their diets are 85 percent plant-based. When bears come out of their dens, they are skinny and hungry, so the first thing they do is seek out food.
In the early stages they stay close to the den, but as the snow continues to melt and the green grass starts to get more lush and plentiful, they start to venture farther. A lot of times this will be on a south-facing slope since that is where the snow melts first.
Spring is also mating season for bears, the end of May to the middle of July is typically when they start (can vary from place to place), so finding two bears together is highly possible. A boar will travel to find a sow in heat, so you might get lucky and catch one on the move.
Many people that eat bear prefer taking one in the spring because they have very little fat. Fat can make the meat more gamey and greasy. Fall bears general have a large amount of fat and their diets start to incorporate more fish and meat, which some people claim can change the taste of the meat.
In the fall, bears are not as easy to find and most bears are encountered while hunting other animals. Bears start to scavenge more once the grass and plants are dying and the berries are gone. Having a powerful sense of smell and trying to pack on the pounds before winter, this can sometimes lead to human interactions. Most problems with bears are in the fall, whether it is in town or in the bush. It’s always good to be prepared while hunting ungulates in the fall, for a run in with a bear.
The bear hides can vary greatly from a spring hunt to a fall hunt. Springtime they start to rub and will often have big bald patches or thin hair on their bodies or faces. However, if you can get a spring bear that hasn’t rubbed out their hide, it is usually beautiful and not too greasy. Fall bears usually have beautiful hides but can be greasy, which can be harder to clean for taxidermists.
Bears are very tough animals. So like any animal, it is important to take a clean shot. However, their anatomy is different than deer. Their upper leg and shoulder cover a good portion of their lungs and almost their entire heart. So no matter the shot, you want to make sure that front leg closest to you is forward. For a perfect heart shot, you want to aim a third the way up the body and a little left of the front leg or right depending on which side you are facing. Of course, taking a broadside shot is the ideal shot. I have found bears do not leave much of a blood trail as their fat seems to clog up the wound and their hair soaks up the blood. If you are hunting with a rifle, try to take out both the heart as well as the far shoulder, and then the bear won’t go far.
Spring bear hunting has to be one of my favorite hunts, and it’s a good way to break up the long wait until fall hunting seasons. Outwitting a bear’s powerful nose and getting close to one of the most powerful animals is a huge adrenaline rush.
I love to watch and learn from them; they all have their own personalities. They are magnificent animals. If you haven’t been on a bear hunt, I highly suggest trying one out sooner rather than later. Every style has its own benefits and appeal, whether you want the challenge of a spot and stalk, the fast-paced adrenaline of dogs or the quiet patience of baiting – there is a type for everyone.
Nikita Dalke is a wife and mom from the Rocky Mountains of British Columbia, Canada, a director for Backcountry Hunters & Anglers BC chapter and an avid outdoorswoman. She competed in the 2015 Extreme Huntress Contest, and enjoys blogging about her outdoor adventures. Her passion is to further education in conservation, and get women and kids involved in the great outdoors.