I got a late and haphazard start in bear hunting. It was completely by chance that, while deer hunting, I happened upon a color phase (blonde, cinnamon) black bear. She was sitting across the gully from me, feasting on what I later found out was maggots that clung to the rotting flesh of a deer carcass that was partially buried by a cougar. While not the biggest of bears, she was the first one I had seen in the wild. I was in my late 20s (I had been hunting deer since I was 12). I hesitantly walked over to her after the shot, in awe of her hide, but a bit taken back by the smell of the dead deer and a little sad from the death bawl I heard when she passed. I’ve spoken about the death bawl before and, if you’ve heard it, you know what I refer to.

A part of me changed forever that morning. Hearing that bawl, touching the bear for the first time, examining its feet and claws, checking its teeth, and attempting to field dress an animal I never had done before: it was all new and very different. But in that moment, it sparked a flame within me, which has now grown into a large, consuming fire. That fire is the passion for bear and bear hunting. I absolutely love the black bear species for their amazing and varied qualities. This series of articles is designed to help you become a bear hunter, too.

I think it’s appropriate to showcase what I like about bear hunting, prior to getting into the meat of the subject. And really, there are many different facets to bear hunting. Where I live, the season starts August 1st and it’s an over-the-counter tag. It does not end until November 15th, which is reason enough alone to love it. Bear season allows me to get out before and after deer hunters. From the heat of the summer in the lowlands to the frigid cold of winter storms in the high mountains, I can chase bears and for that I am grateful. I get to enjoy the wilds a little bit before and after the hordes of deer and elk hunters head out.

If I am lucky enough, I get to watch a sow and cub(s) move about their daily lives—the playful cubs jumping off logs or pestering one another in a sibling spat. I get to hunt a solitary animal, who has the capability to hunt me back and whose home is often in rugged and unforgiving terrain. An animal that is stronger than me, has an enormously powerful sense of smell, claws that could swipe my face off, a stealth that seems to rival that of a cat, brute force to destroy fallen trees, and a dexterity that few animals in North America possess. I could go on for several pages, but you get the point.

With this love of the animal comes respect, and I think that should be one of our first lessons in this series. Naturally as hunters we are taught to respect our quarry, and bears deserve no less. With that respect comes the obligation to learn as much about the animal as you can, so you can become proficient in your judgement of the sex and size, their habits, their young, and their lives. So, let's start from the ground up: the sign that bears leave.

Many of us know what bear scat looks like, but I am willing to bet that there are some reading this that might not have a clue or are just learning. You’ve come to the right place. When looking for bear scat, you need to keep in mind it changes in shape, color, and texture throughout the year. Unlike deer or elk, it is not consistent throughout because bears’ food supply changes as the year progresses. For this topic, let's start when bears first leave the den in the springtime. Ask yourself (and ask it repeatedly as you hunt), “What food is available for bears and are they eating it?”

Right off the bat, the first things available for a bear to eat in the springtime are fresh, green shoots of various plants, grass being a main staple. You might think that a bear won’t fill up on grass, but believe me they do. The scat you find in the springtime will prove my point. It will often be full of grass, a vibrant green color if it is fresh scat, which fades to a darker color as time passes. Focus on sunny areas of the early spring. Where the sun hits the longest will be where things green up. Think of old abandoned logging roads, avalanche chutes, swamp edges, south facing slopes, and so on. Areas where the sun can break through the canopy of trees or bless the sides of a rocky sloped hillside should be your focus.

As the spring progresses so does the growth of various plants, including wild onions, skunk cabbage, and so on. All of these add to the bears’ diets. Take the time to learn your hunting grounds and what is available for them to eat. I have heard a saying that bears will eat anything except asphalt…I am not sure how true that is, but it seems pretty accurate. Now, trying to explain what a bear eats in the spring is a bit difficult simply because every state (and even within the same state) has such a variety of food for bears to eat. But in early spring, the one thing all these states have in common is fresh grass. So, that’s number one.

The easiest and generally the most readily available sign that a bear is around (or has been around) is its scat. So, always be scanning for that as you walk. This is a major and obvious clue about the “when and where” presence of bears. Use it to your advantage. Even as the year progresses and say, you’re deer hunting and you find an old pile of bear scat, this is still a clue telling you, “hey, a bear was here a while ago.” Meaning, a bear used that area in the past and could easily still be around. Just because scat may be older does not mean the bear or bears have left the area. I cannot stress enough to slow yourself down and pay attention to your surroundings.

As the year moves on from spring to summer, the scat will change. You will find less and less “grassy” fresh scat and more scat with berries, fruit, and nuts in it. Now this varies as much from one state to the next but the idea is the same; take a close look at scat and try to figure out what is in it, specifically, what types of seeds, masts, and chunks of matter make it up. This can be a major clue as to what the bear is eating and where you should be focusing your hunt or future hunt. This goes back to what I said earlier about really paying attention. When I first start out hunting for the year, I must remind myself to slow down my pace, slow down my thoughts, and just be observant. In a world of cell phones and caffeinated drinks, it can be tough to force the quiet of nature into one’s mind and actions, but taking that step will help make you a better hunter.

When I am walking, I am constantly glancing down, searching for various poo piles or prints in the mud or dust. When I find a pile, I will inspect it. Is it fresh? Old? Large? Small? What is in it? Are there similar piles locally or large and small piles indicating possibly different sized bears? How old, how fresh? I will crush it with my boot or kick it. This helps me to not have to check the same pile twice and may reveal more about the scat.

I believe that it was Remi Warren I once heard say that he liked to walk logging roads or trails looking for scat in the evening or mornings. Then, he would walk the same road the following day, progressing a tighter and tighter timeline trying to narrow down when a bear was using that trail. Not a bad way to try to pattern a bear. What I have found as I have hunted bears throughout the years is that once you find fresh bear scat, you need to work that area over and over. If I find a fresh pile, I will instantly slow my pace to half speed and I will walk or simply stop and listen for several minutes. With fresh scat, bears are close (maybe closer than you think), so listening, walking a few yards, and listening again might just be the tactic you need to find one.

I was hunting just a few weeks ago on the backside of a ridge, so berries were ripe and there was a slack wind. It was cooler temperature-wise up top where I was compared to the lowlands. I was enjoying the grand views that swept beyond and below me. I could hear the river far below with its white static noise as it forever called down the valley and carved its way over a millennium. And I heard it, a brief twig call out, “snap!” It was not far off, rather maybe 40 yards to my right up in the brush. I paused for a long while and continued to listen, knocking an arrow in my bow with painstaking slow speed. And I could hear brush rustling.

Down the trail, I heard another branch break and more rustling of leaves. I glanced over to my right and a nice jet-black boar worked his way not 25 yards from me and angrily tackled devil's club plants, eating the broad thorny leaves and the brush blocking any hope for a shot, all while another bear continued to feed just to my left. I held still, moments stretching as my muscles strained for each movement which required a snail’s pace. The bear closest to me continued to eat just yards away, and any moment I was afraid a whisper of wind would give away my position and they would bolt or charge out of disgust. I spotted the other bear not 50 or 60 yards off—another full-size bear working a log over. I adjusted my position and tried to get closer to Mr. Log Smasher, but was foiled again by the brush. Then surprisingly, another bear around 60 yards off or so up the hill was working through the pacific northwest tangled jungle. He eventually popped out on the trail about 100 yards off, a very nice 300 lbs boar who was chocolate in color. I quickly lip squeaked as I tucked myself into a tree and he paused. He looked my way and then continued to work his way into the next cut, meandering out of my hopes.

I decided to do an old Jim Shockey trick and huff and pop my jaws since the bear didn’t seem to care about my mouse squeals. The closest jet-black bear did react to this and charged on occasion and huffed back, but never gave me a shot. We all played cat and mouse for a bit, but I ended up backing out so as to not bust them out of the area as they continued to work the cut.

My point of this story? If I was solely relying on bear scat signs, I would have kept walking since the only piles I was finding were old spring scat. What clued me in on their presence was that I was walking slowly and I was listening. Be sure to check out the next issue for our continued series on becoming a bear hunter.