By Clay Newcomb
The black ghost seemed to be gliding through the hazy morning light with little effort and no sound as it rapidly lessened the distance between us. I noted the fluidity of his silent movements as he traversed over what should have been crunchy leaves. This was the first bear I’d seen in a real hunting situation and I was mesmerized. The bear’s hide would later adorn my wall and his meat my freezer. Almost 20 years later I’ve still got the hide, the meat is long gone, but the memory of that first bear branded me with an inextinguishable passion for bears.
Bear hunting is becoming trendy in the hunting community. It’s interesting because bear hunting is a foundational puzzle piece of our continent’s hunting culture. The resurgence makes sense because the descriptor was once a term of renown and prowess – bear hunter. Men the likes of Theodore Roosevelt, Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett all identified as bear hunters. Some realized the value of bear-related commodities, such as Boone who hunted them for market, while men like Roosevelt pursued the great beasts because of the challenge, experience and to engage the wild places they inhabited. Modern reasons for being a bear hunter have shifted; we don’t hunt bears to be sold at market, nor do we hunt them for the sole purpose of standing in personal triumph over them. But in some ways, our motivations remain the same, just calibrated. We hunt bears for three main reasons today: wildlife management purposes, to acquire excellent meat for eating, and because the pursuit of bear is challenging and exciting.
We’re reaping the harvest of the conservation efforts of the last 100 years. Bears are more plentiful today than any time in the last 150 years. We live in the heyday of North American bear hunting. In the last five years, more people are talking about it, creating outdoor media about it, and realizing the utilitarian and recreational value of pursuing the icon of North American wilderness. In this column we’re going to discuss how you too can become a bear hunter. I’m going to try to answer some questions and explain some things that will hopefully help you along your journey to becoming a bear hunter. In this first column, I’m going to answer three of the most frequently asked questions by new bear hunters. Here it goes:
Do you eat the Meat?
Most other species of animals that we hunt are commonly known as good table fare - like deer, elk, ducks and squirrels. Bears, however, are often left off that list. It’s probably because fewer people hunt bears and because they’re a predator. In the past, many places didn’t require hunters to utilize the bear meat; however, most places today regard them as game animals that are protected by wanton waste laws. These laws require hunters to properly remove edible portions of game meat from the field. It’s been no secret to bear hunters, but just in the last 10 to 15 years, bear has been popularized as supreme table fare, which it is. It might be confusing because we typically don’t eat predators like coyotes and bobcats. However, a bear’s diet is mostly made up of plant matter in most regions of the country, making them have delicious meat similar to an ungulate. Bear meat can be cooked in replacement of beef or pork in a dish, but it does need to be cooked to an internal temperature of 160 degrees to deal with potential trichinosis, which is a non-issue when cooked properly.
Where can you Hunt Bears?
Black bears are the second most widely distributed big game animal in North America. Bears cover the Eastern Deciduous forest, which is basically the eastern third of the United States. This forest biome ranges from Arkansas to North Carolina, and Maine to Florida. Bears also inhabit the western half of the United States, basically from Colorado to California, and from New Mexico to Montana. The only region of the country where black bears don’t live in abundance would be the Plains states; they don’t have a lot of heavy forests. We can’t talk about bears without talking about Canada and Alaska; both are incredible bear country. The Boreal forest is the northern forest biome of North American encompassing parts of all the Canadian provinces that touch the United States including Alaska. Bears can’t get enough of this place.
Current population estimates for black bear in North America are hard to pin down because bears are managed at the state level, but it’s estimated that there are 800,000 +- bears here, and about 40,000 to 50,000 are legally harvested annually. Bear populations typically grow by about 10% per year, and in most regions bear numbers are stable or increasing. Whatever is happening ecologically has been beneficial to bears in the last 50 years, because numbers are at an all-time high.
To answer the question at hand, black bears can be hunted in over half of the states (30 to be exact), and all Canadian provinces that have black bears. Geographically this is a massive chunk of land, and you’re probably closer than you think to bear hunting. You’ve got better than a 50/50 chance you can hunt them in your state. Search your local state game laws to get the specifics on bear seasons.
How do you Hunt Them?
Black bears are found in a very large block of real estate, and because of that the hunting methods are different in many regions. However, there are three primary methods of hunting bears: spot-and-stalk, baiting, and using hounds. I’ll briefly describe the three methods and where they’re used.
Spot-and-stalk hunting typically takes place in regions with more open terrain, like the American West. The hunting style is simple; the hunter positions himself in areas where he can see vast sections of good bear habitat, and when he spots a bear, he stalks it. Usually, this type of hunting is done with a rifle, but it can also be done with a bow and arrow. Great states for spot-and-stalk bear hunting would be Montana, Wyoming, Oregon, Washington, Colorado and Idaho. However, in recent years spot-and-stalk hunting in the East is gaining popularity, even though it is harder because you don’t have the visibility like in the West (The Eastern Deciduous forest has low visibility in most places).
Hunting over bait is typically done in regions where spot-and-stalk hunting can’t easily be done, and where state game agencies have trouble meeting their harvest objectives without some type of aid to the hunter. Hunting over bait involves putting out food a bear likes and hunting near the area in hopes of getting a good shot at the animal. Hunting over bait allows a hunter to be selective, because he might have numerous bears coming to one bait site. It also allows for great shot selectivity because bears are feeding in one place for an extended period of time. Bears can be hunted over bait in Maine, North Carolina, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Idaho, and Wyoming (and most Canadian provinces).
Hunting with hounds is done in many of the Appalachian, Western and Great Lakes states (namely Michigan and Wisconsin). The method is often employed in regions where bears are difficult to see because of terrain, like the swamps of the Great Lakes regions or the rugged mountains of the Appalachians. Bears are chased and ran up trees by trained hounds. Once the bear is in the tree, the hunters are able to judge the bear and decide if it should be harvested. This type of hunting allows for the hunter to be highly selective, which is a positive thing. There is a lot of tradition in the hound hunting community, as it requires extreme dedication to train and maintain a pack of bear hounds all year long.
Let me know your questions by emailing email@example.com and share our new column with buddies that want to get into bear hunting!