Spot & Stalk
By Jake Horton
Hunting the North American black bear can be a great challenge and reward year after year. For most hunters, the most challenging part of hunting black bears is finding an area with good numbers on public land. Besides Alaska, I have never encountered more bears on public land than in the western mountains of the United States. From Colorado to Oregon and New Mexico to Montana, there is no shortage of bruins roaming the mountains. If there are so many bears, why do some hunters still not harvest a bear on their spring or fall western hunts? Why do some hunters not even see a bear in their pursuits? From years of experience and countless conversations, we have compiled the five main reasons that hunters struggle to find bears to hunt in a place where they are prevalent.
Reason One: Hunting the Wrong Areas
Choosing a bear hunting spot in the West is more complex than selecting a location on the map. The key is to find bears in a place where you can actually hunt them. There are countless ways to find an area in the western mountains that contain a good number of bears; however, the best resource is to get on the phone. When hunting a new state or unit, I first call the local Forest Service, Fish and Game, or biologist to hone in on areas with higher density. These officials perform studies, get reports, and are out and about in these areas daily, so they are the best source of information. Once you have obtained this information, you need to dissect the units using satellite imagery to determine if the terrain and habitat are huntable. An area with the highest density of bears but no open terrain will be a challenge for the best hunters. Concentrate your searches on areas with open slope faces, but make sure you locate a place from which you can glass or shoot into that open face. If you are not doing your homework, you may choose the wrong area and come home unsuccessful this season.
Reason Two: Not Finding Suitable Food Sources
Bears are omnivorous creatures who consume around 5,000 calories or more and between 10 to 18 lbs of food per day. If they could eat at a restaurant, consuming 5,000 calories daily wouldn't be that hard; however, these bears are in the mountains where food is low calorie. That means they are constantly looking for berries, forbs, grasses, meat, and more, depending on the time of year. As a hunter, this means that in order to be successful in the spring or fall you must search for the food source bears consume during that time of year. In many situations, the spring bears seek out plant buds, grasses, berries, young elk, and more. Bears eat leftover berries, bugs, nuts, and harvested game animals from other hunting seasons in the fall. If you wish to be successful during the season you are hunting, hone in on food sources that will be available during that time of year, and you will increase your success.
Reason Three: Not Paying Attention to Details
You have managed to find a good unit, a good spot with an actively hit food source with good bear sign and visibility. Yet day after day, you still go back to camp skunked without seeing a bear. What is happening, and why can’t you seem to put your eyes on a bear? The issue may be that you are so focused on hunting that you forget to pay attention to the more minor details that can derail the best of your hunts—for example, wind direction and thermals. Wind directions and thermals may carry your scent to a bear's nose, which is 21,000 times better than a human's ability to smell. This is up to seven times better than the best bloodhounds' sense of smell. Of course, you do not see any bears if you are not paying attention to your scent path. Another small detail that could sabotage your hunt is your entrance and exit to a hunting spot. Are you taking the time to plan entrance and exit strategies that do not expose you to your prey? I often try to come in a different basin and crest over the top before daylight, not to be spotted, smelled, or heard by animals in the basin I intend to hunt.
Reason Four: Not Factoring in Other Seasons
Bear season, especially in the fall, often coincides with more popular hunting seasons for deer, elk, moose, and other big game species. These seasons could affect your hunt, which is why planning is crucial to your preseason homework. Looking at potential hunting spots but understanding what season may take place during your intended hunting week or the weeks prior is essential. The majority of bears avoid humans and avoid areas that humans frequent. This can mean that a spot where the bears were last week may be different due to an elk season that started last week. This could mean that your secluded basin could be crawling with mule deer hunters chasing a big buck and moving bears out of their preferred habitat.
Reason Five: Unwilling to Adapt
A successful bear hunter is an adaptable bear hunter willing to move or change their hunting spots and tactics if they are not working. An unsuccessful bear hunter is a hunter who comes to sit on the same basin day after day without a sighting. Be willing to adapt, change elevation, move basins, and even change counties if you are still looking for what you want instead of hiking the same trails day after day. You will truly increase your success.
There are tens of thousands of bear hunters taking the woods every year in search of black bears in the lower 48 states. These hunters make mistakes that could be avoided year after year and increase their success rates. Success starts before you hit the mountains; it starts with home planning. It is imperative to understand where the bears might be, where you can hunt them, and what they will eat during that particular season and year. Paying attention to the details, specifically the wind and the thermals, can make or break a hunter's experience; however, the most critical factor in hunting bears in the West is the ability to adapt. If you arrive at a spot with no sign, too many hunters, or any other situation that can lower your success, finding a new spot and a new place may increase your chances and help you bring home some meat in the freezer and fur on the wall.