Feature Articles from BHM

Sep 08 2014

Hunting the Bear Rut


Darren Warren

You may know a lot about the Whitetail rut, but how much do you know about the bear rut?

I had never hunted black bears in the spring, so I didn’t understand what I was witnessing. A young boar came into my bait station, but it paid no attention to the overflowing bait barrel. On the other side of the barrel it picked up the scent of something on the ground. The bear inhaled deeply, literally sucking dirt into its mouth and nose. Then it started making a low, pathetic whining sound, pawing at the ground in earnest. Without warning, the bruin disappeared into the Saskatchewan bush.

It wasn’t until I talked with my friend Vern Hyllestad, owner and guide at Sask Can Outfitters, that I fully understood what I’d seen.

“The boar picked up the scent of a sow in heat,” explained Hyllestad

That was my introduction to hunting the black bear rut – and I’ve been hooked ever since. To bag a black bruin in late spring, you have to first understand bears’ rutting behavior.

Let’s examine the black bear rut, and then look at some tried-and-true hunting tactics that will enable you to put a love-starved boar on the ground.

Understanding the Black Bear Rut

Depending on the region, black bears breed from early June to late July. The farther north you go, the later the rut can take place. For example, Idaho black bears typically breed throughout the month of June, while those in Manitoba typically mate in July. These dates, however, can vary as the bear rut isn’t as defined as the whitetail rut. As the trail camera picture below shows, bears can even breed in May.

A defined breeding period in any species of animal is connected to that animal’s offspring being born at an optimal time for survival. However, with bears this is different because of a biological strategy called delayed implantation or embryonic diapause.

In comparison to ungulates, bears are solitary animals with large home ranges. A longer breeding season is an adapted reproduction strategy that increases the odds of a receptive sow and boar crossing paths at the right time. The bear rut is longer but less intense than a classic northern whitetail rut. However, this is the most vulnerable time to harvest a big boar with his guard down.

Female black bears don’t reproduce until they are 3-5 years old. They normally breed every other year, giving birth to one to five cubs in late January or early February.

You read that correctly: black bears mate in late spring/early summer, but don’t give birth until the winter.

“Black bear females have delayed implantation, meaning the fertilized egg doesn’t implant in the uterus until around November,” explained Wayne Wakkinen, a research biologist for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. “Before implantation, a female’s body will do a nutritional self-assessment to see if it’s healthy enough to give birth. If the body has enough fat reserves, the fertilized egg will develop. If it doesn’t, the bear will have a spontaneous abortion, and the female will come into estrus when it leaves the den the following spring.”

If a female is nursing cubs, it cannot go into estrus. Boars sometimes will kill nursing cubs, presumably to get the mother to come into heat.

Unlike the whitetail rut, the bear rut tends to be a longer affair. Females that haven’t been bred will continue to cycle into heat monthly until late July, or until a boar does its job. Females will advertise they are in estrus by frequently urinating on the long hair surrounding their vulva and leaving a drip trail wherever they go. Once a male finds a female in estrus, it will stay with her for days until the sow is ready to be bred. One sow in heat will generate the interest of multiple suitors, leading to frequent fights among males. Usually it’s the older, dominant boar that earns the honor of breeding the sow.

Like their whitetail counterparts, male black bears let their guard down during the rut, making them vulnerable to a hunter’s arrow or bullet. Let’s look at some strategies to bag a love-crazy bruin.

Spring Bear Hunting Strategies

Like during fall black bear hunting season, sitting over a bait pile is the strategy of choice for many spring bear hunters. Use game cameras to determine where to establish bait sites, and which one to hunt during the rut.

“Hunt bait sites frequented by a sow with last year’s cubs,” explained Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist Randy Cross. “That sow will be coming into estrus, and boars will be following her.”

How to properly establish and maintain a bait station is beyond the scope of this discussion, but always do whatever you can to prevent your scent from contaminating your site. Wear rubber boots and gloves, along with scent-control clothing, and make ample use of a scent-eliminating spray. And don’t forget to enter a bait pile with the wind in your face to keep bruins from winding you. If you do use bait, stealthy patience is the key to ambushing a mature boar.

“Don’t move around, because the bear will decide when he’s ready to come in,” said Russell Popp, owner of Big Woods Wilderness Outfitters in Manitoba (www.bigwoodshunting.com). “When you have a sow in heat at your bait that’s not ready to be bred, eventually males will drive her off, and your bait pile will go dead. Wait for other males to come by and check out the scent she left behind.”

Spring bear hunting, especially over bait, means dealing with mosquitoes, no-see-ums and other blood-seeking parasites. Wear a protective bug suit and apply a scent-free insect repellant containing 20-30 percent DEET, and/or use a ThermaCELL unit. Ticks are also a big problem this time of year. Wear knee-high rubber boots, keep your skin covered and always conduct a full-body tick check with a handheld mirror immediately after each hunt.

Once the rut commences, boars will be a lot more interested in finding mates than filling their bellies. Use a sow-in-heat urine scent and run a mock drip line as you walk to your bait site. This will simulate a sow that’s ready for romance grabbing a bite to eat at your bait site. For added realism, place a sow decoy facing your bait barrel, and estrus scent on pads or wicks around it (see sidebar). Set the decoy 25 – 40 yards from your blind or stand.

Old boars become highly aggressive during the rut. Use this to your advantage by staking a small decoy near your food source, positioned with its head down in the barrel hole and its hind end facing the direction you expect the boar to approach from. Collect some bear scat from another area, preferably from a male, and transplant it on the entrance trails to your bait site. Old boars often leave large piles of scat wherever they heed Mother Nature’s call.

If you’re not a fan of hunting over bait, there are other strategies you can use to harvest a rutting bear. Spot-and-stalk hunting is another proven technique that works as well when pursuing breeding bruins as it does in the fall. Look for spring bears wherever food can be found, like open meadows, ridges teeming with new foliage and agriculture fields next to thick cover. A bear’s poor eyesight means you can get away with a good amount of movement when stalking. But never underestimate a bear’s sense of smell.

“A few years ago I was hunting black bear in Montana during the spring, and I came across a big boar that was at least a quarter-mile away,” recounted Idaho bear hunter Mitch Strauskus. “The wind was swirling, so I was having a hard time keeping it in my favor. All of a sudden that boar whipped around and sniffed in my direction. He turned back around and bolted. He must’ve smelled me.”

Many stories about calling black bears in the fall will recommend that you use a fawn-in-distress call. This may work on some younger bruins, but it’s not going to fool an old boar. Wise older bears know that you don’t hear the pathetic cries of a newborn fawn in autumn – you hear them in the late spring and early summer. Use a fawn distress call during the rut to lure bears out of hiding. Combine the call with a few boar grunts, and snap a few dry branches to simulate a bear eating the fawn. A real bear will often come in on a dead run to investigate the commotion. Again, keep the wind in your favor.

Because of the unpredictability of rutting bears, hunting bruins during breeding season can be more exciting than fall hunting. Stay alert, keep your eyes on the prize and put in the hunt time. You’ll bag a love-starved bruin and have its hide mounted on your wall before the first autumn bear hunters hit the woods.

JD Huit of Hallowed Grounds Outdoors harvested this Quebec bear on a spring hunt in June 2013. Just prior to this bear arriving at the bait, another large boar cruised by just out of range, clearly in search of a eustrus sow.