North America's Toughest Black Bear Hunts
The Hounds struck the bear’s scent high on a ridge in Idaho’s Hell’s Canyon, and within minutes the chasm below echoed with the sound of the chase. Guide Andy Savage’s lead dog, a grizzled Plott hound named Granite, started the track, and once Granite had the trail lined-out, Andy opened the doors of the dog box so the young hounds could join in the chase. Two of those young dogs—Cannon and Rock—were Granite’s sons, and if either proved to have the nose, grit, and stamina of their father he might one day take over his position as strike dog in Andy’s pack.
The roar of the dogs quieted as they followed the bear through the valley and across the canyon. This led into roadless country, pure wilderness, and it was no surprise that the old bear chose such remote and difficult terrain to make its retreat. We would have to follow the dogs and the bear, requiring grueling climbs over very steep and uneven terrain.
It took more than four hours to reach the dogs, which had bayed the bear in a blowdown. Occasionally, one of the dogs would tumble left or right, a sign that the bear had feinted a charge. I had to hang back on the perimeter of the fallen trees and catch my breath after what was certainly the most demanding hike of my life. Climbing over the assorted deadfalls and boulder piles was exhausting, and I didn’t want to make the difficult shot without being able to hold the rifle steady.
Andy stood on a log and peered into the deadfall. That prompted the bear to pop its teeth as a warning. This prompted the dogs to bawl louder. I was trying to find a location from which to shoot that wouldn’t place the hounds at risk. From his position on top of a fallen pine, Andy determined that the bear was an old female and not very large, and that meant we’d have to start over.
The mere suggestion that black bear hunting is physically demanding might cause some hunters to scoff, but depending on the tactics and the terrain, bear hunts can be as difficult as any pursuit in North America. From the wild erness of Alaska to the desert Southwest to the swamps of the Eastern Seaboard, bear hunting methods are as diverse as the country in which these animals are found. If you’re tired of spending long hours sitting on baits, here’s a look at four black bear hunts that will test your mettle.
DIY Alaska Wilderness
Tim Bouchard of Pacific Mountain Guides helps outfit unguided bear hunts in southern Alaska. These aren’t as rugged as some wilderness hunts (he supplies a tent and a Zodiac for each camp), but you’ll still have to contend with the unpredictable Alaskan environment. Miserable weather will test your reserves, and while you won’t be hunting completely solo (Tim requires at least two hunters on all these trips in case of emergency), you won’t have an experienced guide present to lean on when you’re trying to find the bears.
These hunts are relatively cheap, but the amount of planning and self-reliance needed to make them a success requires a great deal of preparation. During the six-day hunt, you may have to deal with wet or cold conditions and swarms of mosquitoes. Still, experiencing wild Alaska on your own and harvesting a bear with no help from anyone but your hunting partner makes these hunts as gratifying as they are challenging. Plus, you may encounter the black bear’s oversized relative, the brown bear, in many areas, which adds an extra element of adventure to these hunts.
The biggest challenges are the amount of preplanning and preparation required and the level of self-reliance you’ll have to demonstrate in the field. All problems are your problems, everything from leaking tents and soggy boots to food prep and storage, and if you down a bear, you’ll have to retrieve the animal and properly handle the meat and skin. These aren’t hunts for those who expect comfort and luxury, and the conditions can be downright dismal, but the memories of conducting a DIY hunt in the remote Alaskan bush will live with you forever.
It’s critically important to talk at length with your outfitter to determine what will be provided and what you’ll have to carry in with you. Some outfitters will have tents, stoves, and cots with sleeping bags already in place. In a few instances, you’ll have to set up camp from scratch. Cost is fairly low, though, with hunts starting around $2,000 per person, and there’s generally a two-person minimum for safety reasons. Alaska offers both spring and fall black bear seasons.
Backcountry Hell’s Canyon
Idaho is one of the premier destinations for western bear hunting. There are millions of acres of public land and plenty of big bruins, and guided hunts are affordable. In addition, you can choose from several different hunting methods, including spot-and-stalk, hound hunting, and sitting over bait.
“Offering bait is crucial in the spring months since the bears are hungry and food isn’t abundant,” said Karen Savage of Heaven’s Gate Outfitters. Western Idaho’s Hell’s Canyon, where Heaven’s Gate Outfitters is based, is incredibly steep and rugged terrain, so even a baited hunt can be physically challenging. But for the hunter looking for a true western hunt that is as physically demanding as any pursuit in the country, a Hell’s Canyon bear hunt is a good place to start.
“Lots of the areas that we hunt are roadless, which means we have to use horses or hike in,” said Savage. When I hunted bears with Karen and Andy, her husband, in 2013, we hunted bears using all three of the hunting methods that Heaven’s Gate employs. There is no easy method to cover ground in this wilderness. It’s been said that the parts of Hell’s Canyon that aren’t straight up are straight down, so having the ability to pack in on horses makes the experience much less taxing. If you want the true wilderness experience of riding into rugged and untrammeled land on horseback, camping in wall tents, and spotting game from remote mountaintops in one of the most picturesque corners of the continent, then a spot-and-stalk wilderness bear hunt in Idaho might be ideal. These wilderness bear hunts are more affordable than backcountry hunts for other big-game species like elk, but the experience is very similar.
Hound hunting for bears is extremely exciting, and after a few quiet hours spent bumping along logging roads in the back of a pickup, the sudden strike of a hound that has caught the scent of a bear is enough to raise the hackles. You’ll follow the sound of the chase, and if the bear bays, or trees, you’ll have to set out (usually on foot), following the sound of the dogs. And if the treed bear isn’t what you’re looking for, you’ll start all over again.
“You need dogs that have great stamina, but you also need dogs that are able to problem solve because of the terrain,” said Savage. “The bears will climb ledges and cross rivers or blowdowns, and the dogs need to be able to find and follow the trail.”
Idaho offers spring and fall bear hunts with good opportunities for color-phase bruins. Prices run around $3,500 for a fully guided wilderness hunt in the best areas.
Calling Bears in New Mexico
Linda Powell, Mossberg’s director of Media Relations, is an ardent hunter, and she’s particularly passionate about hunting bears. She ranks calling these animals as one of the most exciting hunts in North America.
“Over the years, I have tried various techniques for hunting bears—spot-and- stalk, baited, and with dogs—but nothing compared to my first experience of using predator calls,” said Powell. With the help of guide Steve Jones of Backcountry Hunts, Powell called in and killed an excellent bear in New Mexico, and the experience is one she said she won’t soon forget.
“We sat atop ridges overlooking grassy bottoms,” said Powell. “Almost immediately, if there was a bear within hearing range of the call, he would pop out from below and begin the climb up the rocks toward the location of the call. At times we couldn’t see the bear but only hear claws on the rocks or the small avalanche of rocks created by the climb.”
The key to successfully calling bears is to find areas where the bruins are out searching for food and to deliver a believable distress call of a rabbit or a fawn. Research indicates that black bears are one of the chief predators of fawns during the spring, so fawn bleats work particularly well at bringing these animals into range.
There are a limited number of outfitters like Jones that offer guided hunts, but you can also learn to call bears on your own. In many instances, you may not see the bear before it approaches quite close, which adds an element of excitement to these hunts—especially since a big bruin will outweigh the average bear hunter by more than a hundred pounds. In addition, New Mexico has a high percentage of color-phase bears. Expect prices on a fall guided bear hunt in the Land of Enchantment to run around $4,000.
Giants of the Carolina Coast
The eastern coast of North Carolina is legendary for producing huge bears. This is thanks to abundant forage, plenty of dense cover, and a long growing season. Just how large are these Carolina bears? Well, 500-pound boars are not uncommon, and in a two-month period in 2017, bears of 782 pounds and 784 pounds were killed by hunters in Hyde County, the epicenter of North Carolina’s big bear country. For some perspective, that’s almost 200 pounds more than the average interior grizzly bear.
Chase Luker serves as a Hunter Education Coordinator for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission, but he also acts as Hospitality and Client Manager for Dare to Hyde Outdoor Adventures in Hyde County. As such, Luker has an intimate knowledge of the area and the bears that call it home—and how to get clients on a big bruin.
“We find the bears feeding in agricultural fields in the morning,” said Luker. “At dawn the bears will head back to a block of woods for the day, and our job is to try and cut them off before they do. Sometimes that means going at a dead sprint to try to get the shot.”
If the bears reach the cover of the swamps, known locally as pocosin, dogs are called in, and the hunters pursue the animals into thick coastal forests.
“We’ll send a pack of hounds into the pocosin and we’ll follow behind,” said Luker. When the bears are seen in open agricultural fields, a scoped bolt gun is the firearm of choice, but in the thick pocosin—where visibility is measured not in yards but feet—handguns and unscoped lever guns like the .45-70 are the only option.
“We stay downwind as we approach the bear, and you may not see the animal until it’s time to pull the brush back and fire,” said Luker. “If the bears wind you, they’ll charge down the same brushy tunnels we crawl through to reach them. Both the bears and dogs may run over you, and afterwards you have to get up, dust yourself off and keep going.” That’s easier said than done as the average black bear harvested by Dare to Hyde hunters in 2018 weighed more than 500 pounds.
North Carolina black bear hunts aren’t cheap, but the bears here are the largest you’ll find anywhere. You can expect to pay upwards of $10,000 for a hunt, but Dare to Hyde guarantees a shot opportunity at a bear weighing 300 pounds or more.