Keys to Early Season Success

Early Fall Hunting Strategies for Hunting Black Bear

It’s the beginning of May as I write this. My grass is growing at a rapid pace, weather is unpredictable with glorious sunshine one minute and hail the next, and the wounds of the cancellation of the Washington spring bear hunt are still fresh and painful. Summer hasn’t even hit yet but in my mind, I am wandering back to the late days of summer, when the warm evenings carry a welcome breeze to kiss the back of my sweaty neck as the Nighthawks divebomb and let loose with their zoooom sound as they dart overhead. Thoughts of mosquitos harassing me as the sun sets and the comforting crunch under my feet from gravel and dirt take me back to my childhood and our gravel driveway I’d play in. Bear hunting in a t-shirt is usually how I end my summers and the “see me not” blood sucking flies thank me for it. But I am months away from this joy.

Trying to give very specific tips for bear hunters on what bears are eating nationwide is a difficult task. Obviously, food sources are not the same in the Pacific Northwest as they are in, say Arizona, or even the eastern side of my state. Therefore, I want to focus on ideas and strategies to help you narrow down for yourself exactly what the bears are eating this time of year (or anytime really). After reading this, you should have a good basis to further your knowledge no matter the season you are hunting bears.

I wanted to share with the inexperienced (or unsuccessful) spot and stalk bear hunters what I look for in the early fall season for bears. The main thing you should always be looking for is what food is currently available. What can help you decipher this if you are not familiar with the local bear food preference? Scat! Fresh bear scat can tell you several things, such as what they are eating (by simply smashing the scat and trying to match it up with local berries, plants, and the like). It can showcase how long ago the bear was in the area (how fresh is the pile, has it been rained on or dried out from the heat?). Is it a bigger bear (the bigger the diameter of the scat, the bigger the bear, theoretically)? And finally, are there lots of piles or just a couple?

If you continue having issues with figuring out what they are eating, call or email your local game biologist or warden and ask for a little advice. Food for bears really varies throughout the regions of North America; it’s very regional specific. But think berries, masts, fruits, insects (ants, termites, hornets), and the sort. If you know of a lone apple, plum, pear, or cherry tree out in the woods, keep a close eye on that bugger! Also, don’t be afraid to check out the local hiking forums online. You’ll often see hikers post photos of bears off of trails showcasing where the bears are and what they’re eating. These can offer great tips to help point you in the right direction. I am not saying hunt off a super popular hiking trail, but if you see a photo of a bear eating blueberries at 2000 feet elevation on trail X, that gives you some good insight.

When I find fresh bear scat, I almost always smash it with my foot or dig through it to see what the bear has been into (I’ve even found a few hooves in them). This little action can provide invaluable information for you on what the bear is eating. Don’t recognize the seeds or structures in the scat? Break apart the local berries, fruit, plants, etc. to see if you can find some matching parts. I have done this early on in my bear hunting career and it pointed me in several good directions when I had nowhere else to turn. Smashing the pile can also tell you how dry it is (if it's old) and disfigures the pile so that if you happen to come back down that trail again, you know you’ve already seen that pile. Learn to distinguish between fresh, stale scat (as I like to call it) and old scat. This comes with experience.

In your head, always think, “find food, find bears”---a simple but complex mantra. Bears are constantly searching for food, especially as the year moves on. This should be your primary focus when searching for a good bear hunting spot because it’s a bear’s primary focus too—that and minimal human interaction. The less people the better. Once you figure out what they are eating, now you need to figure out where they are eating it. Locally, I will be focused on areas with water and shade, like a marsh, creek bottom, lake or pond, even a seep in the ground that might feed down a small valley. Generally, these areas are brushy and provide food on several levels for many animals and are a good place to start your search. If I am not finding scat or other signs, such as tracks or scent marker trees, I might move on to another locale. I will often walk slowly and just observe my surroundings, watching closely for the unobvious signs of bears. For example, a torn apart stump or log, an alder that has been broken at 5 or 6 feet high where the bear has snapped it over his shoulder, bear hair on briar thicket bear tunnel, overturned boulders, and the list goes on. Slow yourself down and become very observant.

Older clear cuts where the brush has come up nicely is another favorite, especially with a mature stand of trees that borders the area with a creek close by. Predators seem to like edges and bears are no exception. Watch the edges of tree lines for bears feeding on the brush that borders the trees. Sit quietly and glass with binocs and listen carefully. You’ll often hear a bear feeding long before you see it. When glassing, look for pieces of bears. Many times I will see only a paw come out of the brush and drag down a tall berry bush so the bear can eat it. But of course, be wary in this situation and always be sure of your target.

Remember, bears like to be close to cover. Additionally, bears get hot due to their heavy coat and fur color. Early season (which is August for bears locally), it gets very warm during the mid-day—mid 80s or worse—and like bears, I get hot too. I will often hang by a creek and gold pan or quietly wade in the clear, icy water for a bit while I wait for the cooler afternoon/evening air to move in, then I’ll start my hunting. In reality, I am hunting while I am hanging out, but I might start to walk to different areas as it cools down to try to find one feeding. Hell, my son took his first bear a few years ago while I was swimming in a creek pool next to a log jam. Right in the gravel bar, the bear came out at maybe 40 yards. But that’s another story altogether. So, this would be my other tip besides, “find food, find bear”, which is to pay attention to cover and cool, shaded areas. I am not saying you won’t find bears out in the heat, but they tend to stay close to areas that offer protection from the misery of the sun’s rays.

If you are lucky enough to live in an area where you can get up between a couple drainages and glass for some distance, especially in the early dawn or dusk hours (late afternoon), this can be highly advantageous to you. This will allow you to cover lots of area with your eyes, without spreading your scent throughout the area. As most of you know, bears have incredible noses, so avoiding them catching your scent is key to any hunt. I personally play the wind and don’t bother with “scent blocker” sprays and the like, but that is me. Side note here: make sure if you use a cover scent, it is legal to do so (in my state of Washington that is considered baiting). If you catch a bear on one of these glassing sessions and the darkness is falling fast, don’t fret. Early in the season, the food in the area might be enough for the bear to stick around, provided he doesn’t get pushed. Try to come back the following morning or evening and work the bear if you don’t have time for a stalk that evening.

Elevation and light play an important role in food availability for bears, so if you are not finding food at your current elevation (or side of the hill which might be getting less sun), change it up. Locally in the Pacific Northwest, bears are usually pretty low during the early season and then slowly work their way higher and higher until the end of season because they follow the berry crops. Sun exposure also plays a big role. If a berry bush is shaded much of the day, it is less likely to produce fruit before a bush that is in full sun most of the day, which could be just yards away or across a gulley. Take notes either in your head or on your phone as you work your hunting area. If it isn’t ripe this second, the spot may be beneficial within a week or so.

As for my early plans this season, I intend on going back to where I shot my bear last year in August. A winding creek, choked with brush and logs, but which offers food, water, and cover. Not to mention, fairly easy travel along the sand bars—which bears can appreciate. In this spot I am referring to, there are huckleberries that will be ripe on opening day (which tend to grow right out of old cedar stumps), salmon berries that will be ready, various logs and stumps for insects, and it stays cooler than outside of the tree canopy. Additionally, as the hucks and salmon berries go out, other berries will become readily available, keeping the bear in the area. This area is also inundated with predators too, so the deer could use a little help with this issue. I had on my trail camera several bears, at least five different cougars, and three failed deer stalk attempts within a week. I ended up shooting a bear there last year in my imitation Wal Mart brand croc sandals after an afternoon swim. It was pretty great!

Be patient with your learning curve if you are having trouble finding success. Take time before you shoot to ensure you are not taking a sow or a sow with cubs. Remember to enjoy every moment of it: the sunrises and night falls, the sun-soaked naps and the rain-soaked retreats, the thirst and hunger, triumphs, and failures. As my dearly departed mom, Rose, once said years ago on her death bed as I held her hand waiting for the inevitable, “I wish I could go elk hunting one more time. I know I can’t, but I wish I could.” We only have so many hunting seasons in us.

This season, take the time to wander and get to know your hunting grounds. Learn the plants and what becomes available at what time, watch for bear trails, and become closer with nature. Listen to the whispers of the land as it will speak to you, if you only take the time to hear it. This will help your chances of success in spot and stalk bear hunting greatly. Just don’t let me catch you swimming in my log jam creek pool, or we’ll have a problem. Well, not really, I could always use a pack mule. Happy hunting, my friends.