By Joseph Von Benedikt
Rule No. 1: Begin with black bears. Let’s establish that right up front. Black bears are challenging enough, so leave the grizzlies and brown bears for future adventures.
Why hunt bears? In many ways they are the ultimate North American challenge. Bears are formidable. Bears can kill you. Bears taste good. Bear rugs are awesome. Most of all, bear hunting almost always creates vivid memories of gnarly adventure.
Methods & Seasons
Black bears can be hunted spot-and-stalk, baited, or taken incidentally. In some cases, they can even be drawn in with a predator call.
The favorite method of most hunters is spot-and-stalk hunting because it’s challenging and puts you on the same playing field as the bears. It allows you to pit the best of your hunting skills against a wild bear’s senses. Success, once earned, is a significant achievement.
Baiting is, in many cases, the most effective method, and contrary to some expectations, it is often the most ethical. Baiting gives you plenty of time to be sure an adult bear doesn’t have cubs. Baiting allows you to wait for the perfect shot angle and usually provides close encounters, resulting in greatly increased odds for a clean, fast kill. Also, baiting provides hunters time in which to evaluate a bear and so, if desired, to pass on young boars and females.
By the way, holding out for a big, old boar is also a sure way to benefit local bear populations, because old males become cannibalistic and regularly kill and eat cubs. The fact that trophy hunting is also an effective conservation tool is great debate ammunition for those who think all bears are named “Teddy.”
Incidental bear hunts are just that. A hunter afield with a deer or an elk tag may run into a black bear and, assuming there’s a fall season and the hunter has a bear tag, can shift gears and harvest the bear.
On that note, most states with plentiful bears have both spring and fall seasons. Spring bear is a great way to keep the cobwebs off and stay in shape during a time that most hunters consider the off-season. Also, baiting is most effective in springtime. Fall bears are fatter, and some say they taste better. Find a bumper crop of mast or berries, and you’ll often find bears fattening up for the winter.
Where to Hunt Bears
Many states have huntable bear populations, but if we’re splitting hairs, the best place to hunt black bears is in the Far North. Alaska, particularly southeast Alaska, is famous for big bears, which you can hunt from a skiff, glassing the beaches along the inlets and coves. In many areas, even non-residents can shoot multiple bears.
Rocky Mountain states also have plentiful bears, from the border with Mexico to Canada. Some states, like Utah, allocate tags for the desirable areas via lottery. Others, such as Idaho, Montana, and Colorado, offer over-the-counter permits for many areas.
Northern/Midwestern states, such as Wisconsin, and a couple southeastern states—North Carolina specifically—have huge black bears. If you live in big bear country, by all means apply for tags and hunt. If not, find a practical destination and devise plans for an annual or biannual adventure to bear country.
How to Hunt Bears
When spot-and-stalk hunting, find food sources. High-country avalanche chutes with early new growth are prime for spring hunts. Berry patches and acorn groves can be autumn hot spots. Glass them from a reasonable distance, and once a shootable bear is located, stalk into position for a shot.
Baiting bears is an art form of its own. Research and identify high bear density areas and travel routes. Watch and learn the predominant winds and then scout and locate multiple bait sites in promising areas. Set up your bait and stand to play the wind. Initially, try as many sites as are allowed by local regulations. Eventually, one or two will prove to be exceptional year after year.
Incidental bear hunts don’t require any preplanning. Just purchase a tag and keep your eyes open and your mind ready while hunting deer or elk so if you see a bear you can make a comfortable transition into bear-hunting mode.
Black bears can also be hunted with a predator call. I can’t recommend this for your first attempt at a bear. If you do give it a go, remember these tips: Get your back against something so you can’t be stalked from behind; call incessantly because bears lose interest as soon as the dying’s done; and be ready for a slobbering bear with a big appetite to come on the run. Also, stick with it: You may call for three days without a response, then suddenly have a bruin come galloping in.
Rifles & Cartridges for Bears
This is a passionately debated subject. Many hunters recommend just using your favorite deer rifle, cartridge, and bullet. I am not one of them.
Here’s the logic behind that position. Most hunters shoot bears that are sub-200 pounds. For such, the average deer rifle and cartridge work great. But here’s the thing: Bears never really stop growing. They slow when they reach adulthood, but more years add more mass. This includes skull size (which is how record-book animals are measured) as well as body size, and it’s the reason that most Boone & Crockett bears are old. A bear that has a good-sized skull at 10 years of age may have a giant skull at 18 years. And, yes, bears live a lot longer than deer.
While most of us will never see a 400- or 500-pound black bear, every one of us with a permit in our pocket dreams of shooting one. But such bears are far more challenging to kill cleanly and recover easily than average-sized bears. They’re tough and very tenacious. Bears have a different adrenal response than ungulates, and they are far hardier when shot.
As a result, I recommend good elk cartridges and bullets for black bears. They tend to kill a lot more effectively. In my opinion, such cartridges begin with the 7mm magnums, and the various .30s are better. Pick a controlled-expansion, heavy-for-caliber projectile designed for deep penetration.
Shooting the Last Wiggle Out
Bears tend to drop when impacted with a bullet. Then they leap up and flip, roll, and bounce around like a broken yoyo before streaking for the gnarliest, thickest, steepest cover around. If they make that cover, they’re likely to be very difficult to find. Hair soaks up blood and fat plugs bullet holes, so blood trails are rare. Their paws don’t scar the earth like hooves. Even well-shot bears are hard to track.
Never expect or hope that you’ll need just one bullet. Whether a bear drops to your shot or not, shoot it again—immediately. As long as the bear is moving, keep shooting. If it goes still, then twitches, pound another bullet home.
Little bullet holes in hides are easily sewn by a taxidermist, and it’s much better to destroy a bit of additional meat with additional bullets than to risk losing it all because you can’t find your bear.
Study bear anatomy before hunting and understand where the vitals lie. Black bears have very different physiology than ungulates. Shoulders are attached farther forward on the skeletal frame. Vitals lie farther rearward than expected. There’s a useful old bear-hunter’s saying: “Aim for the middle of the middle.” While that sounds like you’re about to intentionally shoot guts, it’s good advice.
Planning your first bear hunt can be daunting, but persist. Research, plan, and execute a black bear hunt. If the gods of the forest bless you with a bear, you’ll have a glossy hide for the floor or wall, a freezer full of meat, stories to tell, and memories to cherish.
The Essentials Gear Box.
Our editors have hand-picked these essential pieces of gear to make you a more successful hunter when you hit the game trails this season.