Welcome to part two of our series “Becoming A Bear Hunter”. In this issue, we will focus on the various natural food sources for bears. This is a large topic. If you think about all the different geographical areas black bears inhabit, from Alaska to Florida, mountains to river bottoms, and everywhere in between, you can imagine all the food sources! Along these lines, we won't touch on all the food available to bears but will give you general ideas to help narrow your focus.

Bears are driven by food. They must tack on weight to be able to get through winter (in most regions). Additionally, a well-fed, fat female bear will very likely conceive more cubs compared to that of a thinner bear. So, eating well helps promote the species. You can see the importance of food to them if you spend enough time watching them. They eat voraciously when feed is readily available. It’s an incredible sight to watch a bear go at a berry bush or fruit tree—they almost appear angry when eating.

Keep in mind that food sources change from season to season, month to month, and region to region. You must ask yourself, what is available right now for bears to eat? In the springtime, throughout almost all regions, that first item is green grass and other “green up” brush. This is my favorite time to hunt bears. The focus should be where the sunlight can easily reach the ground, allowing for green up to occur. I will often start at snowlines this time of year and work those areas, but usually end up traveling lower in elevation, searching for old clear cuts bathed in sunlight, decommissioned log roads that allow the sun to seep past the trees, park-like meadows surrounded by trees, and maybe marsh edges where skunk cabbage can come in (skunk cabbage is also known as swamp lantern). South facing slopes where the sun shines upon open areas will be important to keep eyes on as well.

Grass is one of the few universal edible items that bears feed on in early spring through multiple regions. From there on, things change. In my neck of the woods, we have broad leaf skunk cabbage you can find in shallow swamps, which get munched on regularly. Then of course we have young Douglas fir trees that get stripped of their bark and the bears eat what is known as the cambium layer of the tree, which ends up killing the tree. Stripping trees is a major food source for bears in my region during the springtime, which helps to focus efforts.

But in your region, you may not have thousands of acres of Douglas fir but you might have hillsides covered in wild onions or other forage. Therefore, I encourage bear hunters to get to know their flora that grows in their areas. Paying attention to what bears like to eat and when it is ready to eat will greatly impact your success as a spot-and-stalk bear hunter. Now, this coincides with my article in the last issue where I discuss bear scat and the benefits of finding and exploring what the scat has within. Keep that in mind as well. In addition, if you are unsure of what to look for in your region, really focus on areas with lots of sun. This promotes new growth in plants and I am willing to bet it will lead you on the right track of what the bears are eating.

Let us also not leave out a very important springtime food for bears: ungulate newborns (deer, elk, and moose). They begin to drop in the springtime, and it has been noted that black bears do a number on calf/fawn recruitment, which is a good argument for the need for spring bear hunts. In the early part of their life, ungulate babies have little defense but to hold still with the hope of living long enough to grow strong enough to run from predators. Bears know this and can smell them out, doing little more than walking up on bedded down fawn and calves, picking them off like hors d’oeuvres at a cocktail party. Deer fawns are, like grass in the spring, another almost universal food source available throughout most regions that bears inhabit. Fawning and calving areas should have your attention if you are spring bear hunting.

But let’s say that you don’t have a spring bear hunt. Maybe your season doesn’t start until late summer or early fall. Locally in the Pacific Northwest, we have lots and lots of various berries that bears eat. But they are not all ripe at the same time. Ripeness depends on sunlight, water, and the duration or amount of both. You might find blackberries ripe in one section of woods and the same blackberries may be weeks off in another, due to the variations of sun and water. It’s a good thing not all the food is ripe at once, otherwise so much of it would be done with at a similar time. When the fruits and berries ripen in various time slots, this allows for maximum calorie harvest over longer periods (which is a good thing). Adjust your hunting areas accordingly.

Even in my home state of Washington, food sources are almost night and day compared to the west side of the mountains and the east side of the mountains. Our west side (where I reside) gets lots of water, has tons of berries, and is thick as a jungle in spots. On the east side of the hills, it is much drier, hotter, berries are sparser, and so on. Therefore, I hunt differently in each area. For example, I know that water is a highly sought after commodity on the hot east side of the mountains. So, much of my focus when hunting over there is creek bottoms or any sort of shaded wet area where brush (and therefore berries) will tend to grow. I may use this technique on the west side a bit too, but with less water comes more concentration of its use in certain areas (from brush, ungulates, and bears) and that can be just the thing you need to tip the scales in your favor.

Say you live in Arizona or another arid part of the country. Have you checked out prickly pears? Are you having a hard time finding exactly what bears eat? Take a moment and contact your local game warden or state biologist and ask them about it. Pay special attention to old fruit trees you may find in your travels in the wilds, as these can be remote feeding stations for bears in the later season when fruit comes in. Also, don’t get too focused on one area or one food source. If you are not finding bears, bear signs, or other bear activity in one area, try out another. Now, I will often revisit areas I have seen bears in the past, but I do know that some of my areas will only be good for X amount of years. Why is that? I’ll explain.

When an area is cleared of its trees, either by fire or logging, that area will be good for bears but not immediately. It will take a few years for the brush and berries to come back. So, when it’s a fresh cut, I usually just make a mental note in my head and move on. But once a few years pass, I will revisit the area. Then that area might only be good for about 5-8 years. The reason for that is twofold: one, it will likely get too tall with brush to hunt effectively and two, the trees may start to block out the sunlight and kill off some of the underbrush. So I must adjust or rotate my hunting areas, almost like rotating a crop in farming. My point here is to be flexible in your hunts. There are areas I used to hunt I don't even go to anymore because now they are mature tree stands with little brush or food sources.

I have a pretty good lead for a bear next September. We have property in eastern Washington and a neighbor is having an issue with a bear destroying his fruit trees. He doesn’t hunt, but he knows we do as a family and is kind enough to give us a call when he sees bear scat in his yard. Our plans are to go and kill this bear, helping his family and feeding ours—a win-win situation. But we couldn’t do this in October during our deer season since the apples were already gone, showcasing the importance of finding food sources that are ready to be eaten. Yes, the bear was there for a month getting fat and happy, but that was earlier in the year. By the time deer season came around, the food was gone and so was the bear. If you’re not finding food, it will make it difficult to find bears. Food should always be in your mind when looking for bears.

You might have a short bear season, maybe only a week or two. In Washington, we start August 1st and go until November 15th for fall bears, which is a great season. If you are limited with a short season, scouting for food sources is crucial because you won’t have a lot of time. I would suggest scouting a week or two prior, that way you will find good sources that will likely still be ripe or, hopefully, will be ripe shortly. Don’t be afraid to use the internet for finding good food sources locally. Look up books that discuss local plants that you can forage from. If you can eat them, bear can too. Learn these plants and see if bears are hitting them during the year.

As the year continues and summer gives way to fall and then fall to early winter, food sources become more and more scarce. That means, you will have to seek out either what remains of the lingering food or adjust to other methods. Locally, blueberries high up are some of the last food sources available. This is where I like to head in late season (unless I am predator calling). I know that at one point there are thousands of acres of lush, calorie-rich blueberries and that in some areas they ripen later than others when all the lower elevation food sources have died out. So, if the snowpack (or lack thereof) allows it, I will head up high and search for remaining bears who are also searching out the remnants of this wonderful food.

I will find myself lost in amazement at the fields of gold and red as the blueberry bushes change color, and think to myself how all these plants were spread over such vast areas, very likely by bear scat, over the millennia. I contemplate this and realize that long after I am gone these fields will remain and the bears will still dot the rocky landscape and windswept hills as the snow begins to crawl down the mountain tops like a silver crown upon an old king’s brow. I close my eyes and smile at the comfort this brings as it washes over my soul. The world is a sacred and ancient place and bears are part of that world and a part of me. For that, I am thankful. Happy hunting, my friends.