Feature Articles from BHM

Sep 12 2014

32 Miles

The author’s quest for a public land spot-and-stalk bear in Arkansas took him four seasons and miles of boot leather.

I struggle to find words to communicate the personal significance of the hunt that ended November 30, 2013 on the rugged southern slope of my favorite mountain on the planet. It was the last day of the Arkansas bear season, and after a four-year pursuit, a last minute victory made the puzzle fit together. This moment of epiphany made the unconnected pieces of what I had learned about bear hunting ¬finally fit. It validated my concepts and ideas about spot-and-stalk bear hunting in the Eastern deciduous forest that remained unproven until that point. The 3.99 years prior to this moment had left me unsure.

My quest for an Arkansas public land black bear started years ago when I thought it was an insurmountable task. Most bears killed in the National Forrest are the result of pure chance. Bears are nomadic animals with relatively sparse densities. Rugged mountains and thick cover make for low visibility in most places in the Ouachita (wash-i-ta) Mountain range, making a “long shot” 50 or 60 yards. Ice storms and logging have caused the secondary growth and underbrush to thrive adding to the already limited visibility. Forty years ago you could “stretch out a 30-30 rifle” under the open canopy – not so today. More underbrush, however, means more browse and cover for wildlife. Bear and whitetail deer have done well. Even though populations have thrived, hunting for either species is difficult compared to other regions of the country.

Hunting the National Forest for the bear, in my opinion, is the most difficult big game hunt in Arkansas. The regions I am hunting are 100% covered in forest. Use of any type of lure or scent attractant is prohibited. My strategy was to cover large areas of land in search of fresh bear sign. Once I locate bear sign, then I set in to hunting it no different than I would a deer. I also had many miles of productive hunting while moving from area to area. This would prove to be difficult.

In over 30 collective miles of walking, over the span of four seasons, I had four bear encounters, which I felt was a high number. For me, the fourth time was the charm.

Bears are very habitual animals, but they aren’t patternable in the same way as deer. Deer home ranges are small, meaning that there is a good chance of being able to find them in a given area every year. That being said, game animals in the mountains move with the mast crops. Even on years when fall mast is everywhere, I’ve found concentrations of game in certain areas that is hard to explain. These areas are chosen by instinct and assessment of various tangible and intangible factors. In my hunting I found concentrations of whitetail, bear and turkey together in relatively small areas, while other vast stretches of terrain were barren of wildlife.

Black bears have large home ranges. Sows in Arkansas can have up to a 20 square mile home range and boars much more than that. Research from the 1990’s showed some boars ranging over 100 miles. However, populations have increased since that time and, in general, bear ranges may be getting smaller as they don’t have to travel as far to find mates. With even a 20 square mile home range, you can miss big when you are trying to find a bear.

2010 - FIRST YEAR

My pursuit started in 2010 when I didn’t harvest a bear over bait. I decided to take to the big woods to try to get one. It was November 23rd and I set out from my truck at daylight in some of Arkansas’ best bear country. After an estimated nine miles of walking carrying my muzzleloader, I hadn’t seen a single living creature. The November woods were barren. After this hunt I was confronted with the difficulty of the challenge.

Though it wasn’t effective on this hunt, slip hunting can be an effective, especially if you are using a firearm. By colloquial definition, slip hunting is moving through the woods as quietly as possible while looking for game and sign. Moving into the wind is the most critical aspect of this type of hunting and requires a predetermined route based upon the predicted wind direction. Typically, I move slowly 20 to 50 yards and stop for 2 or 3 minutes or more. When I come over a rise or into a place where I can see well, I will sit for several minutes, up to several hours. The combination of time moving versus time being still is limitless and is up to the discretion of the hunter. Usually, slow is better, especially if you are in an area with a concentration of sign. During my movement I am scanning the woods for game. A black animal usually stands out even better than a deer.

While moving, silence is the name of the game. Sometimes this is impossible when the leaves are dry, however, you can reduce and disguise your noise in various ways. Animals rarely make a long series of unbroken steps, but rather they take several steps then stop to survey their new sight vista or stop to browse. Break up your walking by using a different cadence, or series of steps. Animals will still hear you and be alert, but they might let you get closer. Leave them guessing.

Slip hunting after a rain is the prime time for this type of hunting. A 10-15 mile per hour wind can be a major advantage as well. If the conditions are dry and calm, it can be difficult to slip hunt.

2011 - SECOND YEAR

In mid-October 2011, I ended up hunting with a good friend that found a secluded wildlife pond in Ozark Mountains (Arkansas’ northern mountain range) that was covered with bear tracks. Generously, he gave me the heads up on the find and sent me into the pond. I only had one day to hunt and I sat from daylight until dark on October 11. At 1:00 p.m. I had a sow bear and a yearling cub come into the waterhole. The sow was big. I was broken hearted when I saw her 80-pound offspring trotting on the trail behind her. This was the only bear activity I had all year, however, I counted it as a significant victory. For the first time I could have killed a bear in the National Forest. The fact that it was a sow with a cub was just a minor detail that prevented me from completing my quest.

Follow the rest of the hunt here in Part 2 of 32 Miles