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Bear

Best States To Hunt For Black Bears

by Joseph von Benedikt   |  July 13th, 2017 0

Which are the best states to hunt for black bears? I have compiled a list of several great black bear states, ranging from those that offer easy-to-get tags and high bag limits to the state that often produces the biggest black bears in the United States. But before we get into which states are best for black bear hunting, we should step back and look at bear hunting overall.

According to a statistic I read many years ago, black bears kill more people every year than do grizzly bears. Not necessarily because they’re more prone to attack—they’re not—but because there are a lot more encounters between black bears and humans each year, owing to the greater distribution and population of the smaller bears, and because when they do attack, a black bear is more likely to finish the job and actually kill rather than “just” maul.

Hunting black bears is often fraught with tension, excitement, and, frequently, a little fright, but black bears correctly aren’t categorized as true dangerous game, so they’re not particularly daunting to hunt. It’s much easier to convince one’s significant other to be okay with a black bear hunt than with a grizzly hunt. That doesn’t mean, however, that following a wounded black bear into heavy willow cover as the day turns to dusk won’t raise the hackles on the back of your neck and cause you to pucker everywhere you can pucker. In fact, black bears are the ideal gateway species to hunting dangerous game.

Of the three most common methods of hunting black bears—behind hounds, over bait, and spot-and-stalk—each can offer gratifying moments of pure hair-raising adrenaline.

Dogs tend to make old bruins grumpy, and such bears are often rather unobliging about treeing and prefer to turn and fight. Wading in to kill a scarred old boar before he tears up the dogs—without accidentally shooting a dog—gets exciting.

Sitting in a slippery, moss-covered wooden treestand over bait poses perils of its own (the only stand I’ve ever fallen out of was one of these), and when a curious bear decides to come up the ladder for a closer smell, your little inner coward will crank the pressure pump to maximum and spray adrenaline all over your brain. “Just hit him on the nose if he comes up,” your outfitter will tell you. My friend (and editor in chief of Shooting Times magazine) Joel Hutchcroft is brave enough to do that—and has. Me? If stamping on the platform doesn’t change his mind, I hit him on the nose with a high-velocity lead hammer.

Spot-and-stalk hunting is exciting by its very nature, particularly if you’re clenching a bow in your sweaty fist. And that excitement increases when the monster boar you thought had winded you and ghosted off into the timber suddenly stands up from a lush berry patch a few yards away.

Depending on the location and the season of the kill, black bears can make quite good eating. Early settlers tried to shoot at least one bear every fall, because deer, elk, and antelope venison is extremely lean and a fall bear provided much-needed fat. Even costal black bears that live on fish are palatable when made into breakfast sausage and other seasoned meats.

Because opportunity is plentiful, inherent hazard satisfying but quite survivable, and the meat is good, every hunter with dreams of pursuing toothy, uncivilized critters should begin with black bears. Best of all, your current deer rifle or bow should suffice just fine—no need for a big-bore rifle unless you just want one anyway. Here are the best states to consider for great hunts.

Northern bears grow big and have luxurious coats. In thick boreal forests hunting over bait is by far the most successful method.

Northern bears grow big and have luxurious coats. In thick boreal forests hunting over bait is by far the most successful method.

ALASKA

BLACK BEAR POPULATION: ~100,000

TAG FEE: $225, PLUS $85 HUNTING LICENSE

OTC TAGS: YES

DOGS ALLOWED: YES

BAITING LEGAL: YES, IN DESIGNATED REGIONS

APPLICATION DEADLINE: MID-DECEMBER OF PRIOR YEAR

 

Alaska is the holy grail of black bear hunting. Not only can you shoot up to three bears per year, as long as they’re in the appropriate designated areas, but also you can hunt spring and fall—with dogs, over bait, even from a boat or a snow machine provided that you’re at a complete stop before shooting.

Alaska is big, but with a population of around 100,000 black bears, it’s well stocked with huntable bruins. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, and some areas are almost devoid of bears.

Other areas—particularly along the coast—may be swamped with black bears but also have a high density of brown bears, which can add a bit of unwanted excitement to your hunt. Although most of the Far North’s black bears are indeed jet black, a few regions have color phase bears. Be sure you can tell the difference between a grizzly bear and a black bear before shooting, and if you end up hunting an area with a high density of griz, carry bear spray.

Tag costs are low, and Alaska has a unique system wherein the state allows you to harvest a game animal other than the species on your tag, as long as there’s an appropriate open season and a tag for the other species costs less than the one you hold. For example, if you hold a $325 caribou tag and happen across a monster black bear, you may shoot it and put your caribou tag on it. If you have a $400 moose tag, you may shoot either caribou or black bear and burn your tag on it.

The state has some rather intricate regulations and laws that govern traditional harvest and so forth, so be sure you’re well versed in what you may and may not do before sallying forth on a DIY hunt.

One regulation worth knowing is that the skull and all meat must be salvaged from bears taken January 1st through May 31st.

MONTANA

 

BLACK BEAR POPULATION: 9,000–17,000

TAG FEE: $350, PLUS $15 HUNTING LICENSE

AND $10 CONSERVATION STAMP

OTC TAGS: YES

DOGS ALLOWED: NO

BAITING LEGAL: NO

APPLICATION DEADLINE: N/A

 

Montana is arguably the best spot-and-stalk black bear destination in the Lower 48. Public land with good bear populations is plentiful, particularly if you’re willing to backpack into wilderness country.

However, you’ve got to be aware of a whole dump truck full of “don’ts” when bear hunting in Montana. Foremost, don’t shoot a grizzly. A state-provided identification course will help you learn the difference and is required prior to obtaining your black bear tag.

Baiting is illegal. Hound hunting is illegal. Electronic predator calls are illegal. Trail cameras are illegal. Communicating via an electronic device (radio, text message, cell phone) while hunting is illegal. And be sure to have the mandatory inspection of your bruin done within 10 days and complete your mandatory reporting requirement within 48 hours of the kill.

On the plus side, Montana is a great spring destination for hunters battling unbearable cases of cabin fever during the offseason. Most units open around mid-April and stay open until their quota is filled or May 31st, whichever comes first. Best of all, once you own a Montana black bear tag, it’s good for any open unit (wherever the quota remains unfilled) during any season. You can hunt the spring season, then archery, and then fall seasons until you get your bear.

The state offers an archery-only season during the first half of September, as well as a few archery-only districts. A $10 additional “bow and arrow” license is required.

As for hunt quality, undoubtedly the most enjoyable black bear hunting I’ve ever done was 20-plus miles inside the Bob Marshall Wilderness, spot-and-stalk hunting one fall with Shawn Little of Snowy Springs Outfitters. Berry bushes were loaded, and we saw a tremendous number of bears. I shot a massive 19-year-old female and later saw the single biggest boar I’ve ever laid eyes on: a milk-chocolate bear that sat on his haunches, rear legs spraddled, and watched as my guide and I ate our lunches.

 

NEW MEXICO

BLACK BEAR POPULATION: 5,000–6,000

TAG FEE: $260, PLUS $65 HUNTING LICENSE

AND $5 HABITAT STAMP

OTC TAGS: YES

DOGS ALLOWED: NO

BAITING LEGAL: NO

APPLICATION DEADLINE: FEBRUARY 10

 

New Mexico is a bit of a sleeper state for black bears. It doesn’t have the number of bears that the other states listed here have, but there are a lot of unpressured, color phase bears. Calling with a predator mouth call (electronic calls are illegal for bears) can be very effective.

The state is on a quota system, so non-resident hunters can purchase a tag over the counter, but when a particular unit’s quota is filled it is shut down. A unique quota criterion is employed wherein the unit is closed when either the total number of bears has been harvested or a maximum number of female bears has been taken.

All of New Mexico’s bear hunts take place in late summer through fall. There are no spring bear hunts. A large number of hunters in pursuit of elk, deer, and antelope purchase and carry bear tags “just in case.” Around 5,000 tags are sold each year, with an average of 250 to 300 bears taken. However, hunters that focus on bears—particularly those that become adept at calling and gain access to unpressured, private land—enjoy a high success rate.

Hunters must be properly licensed at least two calendar days before hunting, so if you’re traveling from out of state, be sure and obtain your New Mexico hunting license, habitat stamp, and bear tag in advance. For best populations, look to units 1 and 4 in the northern part of the state and unit 10 on the west; all three traditionally have quota limits above 100 bears (total).

Limited draw tags are available for a few units, and a few more units have resident-only draw tags. As noted, the application deadline for such tags is in early February.

This spectacular blond-and-chocolate black bear was taken by Rob Lancelotti during New Mexico’s fall season

This spectacular blond-and-chocolate black bear was taken by Rob Lancelotti during New Mexico’s fall season

 

NORTH CAROLINA

BLACK BEAR POPULATION: 15,000

TAG FEE: $225, PLUS $80 BIG GAME HUNTING LICENSE

AND $10 BEAR MANAGEMENT E-STAMP

OTC TAGS: YES

DOGS ALLOWED: YES, IN MOST COUNTIES

BAITING LEGAL: NO

APPLICATION DEADLINE: N/A

 

To the surprise of many hunters, North Carolina gives the finger to most western states in terms of both bear harvest numbers and bear size. During the 2015 season hunters took 3,118 bears. That’s more than the estimated total population of many other states

It’s the best state in the Lower 48 for shooting a really big bear. Almost unbelievably, a North Carolina hunter once shot an 880-pound bear, and the rest of the top 20 heaviest ever taken are all 700-plus pounds. Almost 1,200 North Carolina black bears have weighed in at over 500 pounds—and that’s just the ones that were officially weighed and recorded.

As for where to go, Hyde County holds five spots—fully half—in the Top 10 heaviest black bears taken in North Carolina.

Season dates fall between mid-October and early January, but actual dates vary widely between regions, so be sure to do your homework before scheduling a hunt. Also, most of North Carolina is private land, so non-resident hunters just about have to hire an outfitter with leased access or have a very good pal with access to a lot of land.

In addition to having fantastic black bear hunting, North Carolina has very friendly residency laws. Proof that you’ve resided in the state for at least 60 consecutive days qualifies you for resident tag and license prices, and if you can show a current North Carolina student ID, that does too.

 

OREGON

BLACK BEAR POPULATION: 25,000–30,000

TAG FEE: $15.50, PLUS $160.50 HUNTING LICENSE

OTC TAGS: YES, FALL TAGS (PURCHASE DEADLINE SEPTEMBER 30)

DOGS ALLOWED: NO

BAITING LEGAL: NO

APPLICATION DEADLINE: FEBRUARY 10

 

Oregon has plenty of bears. In fact, the state sells a ton of OTC tags annually. Even the 4,400 spring “draw” tags are sold on a first-come, first-serve basis. However, you’d better be a brave soul, legally savvy, and well versed in the state’s regulations to tackle Oregon bear hunting on a DIY basis.

Because of the state’s vastly liberal human population, bear hunting is an activity viewed by the “constituency” as highly questionable. As a result, bear hunting is heavily regulated. Dogs and baiting are strictly off-limits. You can’t hunt bear during deer or elk season unless you’ve got a current, unused deer or elk permit in your pocket. Moving decoys are taboo.

All that said, black bear populations have been growing for several years, particularly in dense coastal regions. Bears come out of hibernation a couple of weeks earlier along the coast, and spring hunting can become good as early as mid-April. Consistent bear movement inland and at higher elevations doesn’t usually begin until early May.

Because you can’t use hounds or bait, finding a shootable bear can be tough. Yep, even with close to 30,000 wandering around scaring REI enthusiasts. As the snowpack recedes and the slopes begin to green up, get high and glass for fresh-dug holes, torn-apart deadfall logs, and other signs of recent bear activity. Focus on those areas and with some luck you’ll glass up a spring bear jump-starting his digestive system with fresh greens. During fall seasons, look for fat bears frequenting wild berry patches.

Plenty of Oregon’s black bears are color-phase bears, cinnamon, blond, and so forth. Excited hikers frequently believe they’ve encountered a grizzly, but the last of Oregon’s grizzlies were killed in the 1930s.

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