By Clay Newcomb
The silent emergence of black fur into view is an indescribable feeling that keeps all bait hunters coming back season after season. For me, the first five seconds of seeing a bear stirs an initial adrenaline rush and an abrupt increase in heart rate. This epitomizes the excitement of hunting bear over bait. How can such a big animal move so quietly? The question at hand, however, involves the point of view from which you’ll perceive the majestic entry of Ursus Americanis. Will it be from an elevated tree stand or eye-level from the ground? Several factors play into this discussion, and both have pros and cons.
Pros of Hunting Out of a Treestand
Hunting out of a treestand is usually going to be the best way to conceal your presence visibly and your scent. Many Canadian hunts take place in low- elevation treestands, sometimes just 8 to 12 feet high. This usually works because many of these wilderness bears just aren’t that concerned about humans. Usu- ally, the less contact bears have with humans through- out the year, the more they’ll tolerate humans at a
bait site. In contrast, bears that avoid humans all year long in more populated areas are typically skittish of humans at bait sites. Hunting over bait in Arkansas or Michigan, I wouldn’t want to be sitting in the wide open, 10 feet off the ground.
Hunting at low elevations isn’t going to do much for scent control, but if you are serious about being undetected, you can get higher to avoid being smelled. Just like in whitetail hunting, hunting at 20 to 25 feet or higher gets your scent up off the ground, and if the wind is in your favor, it can get those skit- tish bears in close. This is one of the biggest advan- tages of treestand hunting. Most hunters sitting over bear baits aren’t hunting at 30 feet off the ground, but I’ve done it before trying to fool a smart bear. And it sometimes works.
Being elevated has another advantage that plays into the biology of black bears. A bear in a tree is a display of submission. Correspondingly, a human (or any threat) up in a tree is perceived as an act of submission. A bear may know you are there, but not perceive you as danger because you’re off the ground. Many big bears that likely wouldn’t have been killed if the hunter were on the ground were killed out of trees.
The last advantage of hunting from an elevated treestand is visual concealment. Some stands I've hunted out of with outfitters don't give you much visual concealment, but they offer more than if you were on the ground. A bear’s sight is very similar to a human, and they often see you in the tree when they walk in. However, being elevated is a key to visual concealment. Being off the ground also gives you more liberty to move while in the presence of a bear. Bears are top predators and aren’t as jumpy as a prey animal. Getting above their sightline is a positive thing. Even though bears can be more tolerant than deer or turkey, treat every bear as if it was skittish until you determine the bear’s mood.
*An elevated shot position also increases the chance of a low exit wound, which is a positive thing for blood trailing bear.
Cons of Treestand Hunting
There aren’t many cons of treestands. However, they can be a hassle to hang. Removing them from the equation makes for easier hunting. This might seem elementary, but ground hunting is just less complicated. No need for safety belts, pulling equipment into the stand, or the preparation involved in owning and hanging a treestand. Perhaps the biggest disadvantage of treestand hunting is a more difficult shot angle on bears.
High elevation stands make for very difficult shot angles. Be prepared for this and practice at
steep angles. Big brutes are unforgiving when shot poorly, and elevation does increase the risk of poor shot placement. Steep angles decrease the surface area of the vitals.
Thirdly, and perhaps we’re grasping for negatives, but hunting from a treestand is usually less comfortable than hunting from the ground. You never quite have enough room for all your gear in a tree, but the ground provides plenty of places to comfortably store your gear.
The biggest con of treestand hunting is the limited options you have in trees to hang your stand. Sometimes you end up hanging the stand in a less-desirable location that is the best option for amount of trees at the bait site. A tree has to be big enough to support the weight of the stand and a hunter without excess movement from the wind or when the hunter moves. Secondly, your best tree may not be situated for the best wind direction. In short, treestand hunting limits the possibilities of your killing location. However, bait place- ment should be chosen with treestand placement in mind to avoid such issues.
Lastly, a treestand is functionally a permanent fixture, meaning that you can't move it easily if the wind direction is different than what you planned for. Treestand hunting limits your options when the conditions change. When hunting from the ground, it’s easier to adapt and move.
Pros of Hunting Bears off the Ground
If you’ve never hunted off the ground for bear, then you've missed out on some tremendous excitement. Perhaps this is the biggest draw to ground hunting - being eye-to-eye with one of North America’s top predators. The close-range, ground level view of a black bear is amazing and is totally different that being on the ground with a whitetail, mule deer or elk. This is the first pro ground-hunting statement. It can be more exciting than sitting in a tree.
In terms of adding an element of success to your hunt, one of the biggest advantages of ground hunting is the unlimited possibility for your location. Ground surrounds every bait (unless you’re up against some type of water), so your placement is unlimited. If you want to be 10 yards from the bait or 50 yards from it, you aren’t limited by where a
tree is located. Secondly, changing wind conditions can be compensated for more easily by changing locations on the ground. If the wind is doing something different than you had planned for, you can just move locations (more to come on hunting out of a commercial blind or natural ground blind). Or you can build more than one natural ground blind at a bait for different wind directions.
Secondly, hunting off the ground gives you a more advantageous shot angle. This is the biggest advan- tage of ground hunting. When shooting at an animal on ground level, what you see is what you get. Ground level shooting offers the greatest exposed surface area for the vitals. No need to compensate the aiming point for the an- gle – just aim where you want the arrow to hit. Many bears have been lost due to poor judgment out of a treestand regarding shot angle, either shot too high or too low.
Cons of Hunting Bears Off the Ground
In my mind there is no question that hunting bears off the ground is more dangerous than hunting them out of a treestand. Dangerous in two ways: getting in a sticky situation with an aggressive bear is number one.
Number two, dangerous in terms of being detected by a shooter bear and missing an opportunity. However, we’ve got to keep in mind that bear attacks on hunters are almost statistically non-existent. It's highly unlikely that you'll be mauled by a black bear while hunting one over bait. How- ever, things can get sticky when hunting off the ground. Bears are very curious and the problem bears are often the younger ones, who are curious as to what you are. This can be a negative. Your ground blind, whether it is a com- mercial pop-up blind or natural blind made by limbs, will attract the attention of bears. The worst-case scenario is that you’d have to intentionally try to spook a non-shooter problem bear away that gets too close. In doing this you could be unknowingly spooking target bears nearby. If I had a bait with 10 different bears coming into every even- ing, I would likely choose a treestand. If I had a bait one or two bears, a ground blind could be a good fit.
Last year while hunting in Oklahoma I ran into what I would call a “bad bear.” Within minutes of getting into my ladder treestand, a 180-pound sow came into the bait. Within a minute she had climbed up my tree a mere two feet from my stand popping her teeth and woofing at me.
She proceeded to harass me for 45 minutes. She circled the tree, shook the trees around me, woofed and showed a lot of aggression. I wouldn’t have wanted to be on the ground with that bear. Perhaps if I had been she wouldn’t have been
as aggressive, but I wouldn't have wanted to find out. I have no doubt that things would have gotten sticky if I’d been ground level. That day I was happy to be in the tree.
Scent control is going to be more difficult on the ground. The ideal situation would be to set up with a natural barrier like a bluff, lake, river or field opening as a backdrop with prevailing wind blowing into the barrier. However, a situation like this is rare. Most of the time when hunting off the ground, the bears are going to know you are there and will often come in from behind you. It’s up to you to decide if that is an issue or not. On a wilderness hunt it may not be an issue, but in the lower 48 states where bears seem to be more skittish, it may be a problem.
What type of ground blind to use?
I have hunted wilderness bears in Canada out of pop-up blinds with good success. We just popped the blind up on the day we hunted and it didn’t bother the bears. On a hunt in Northern Alberta in 2014, our party killed four 19-
inch bears out of pop-up ground blinds that were set up on the day we hunted. However, I would never dream of doing that in Arkansas with our skittish bears. It all has to do with the tem- perament of the bears you’re hunting. I have also seen good success with natural blinds made of treetops and branches.
This method is less intrusive, can be done days in advance, and is a natural material that is less attractive to bears – which can be a big advantage. I would never want to leave a pop up blind around a bait site for days at a time. In most situations the bears would get curious and tear it up. A ground blind made of limbs, however, they wouldn’t tear up.
What’s best for you?
Making a decision of hunting from a ground blind or treestand is a matter of personal choice. Ground hunting is going to be more challenging, but offer a more intimate and exiting hunt. However, I make my decision based upon multiple variables, of which the most important to me is how
human-tolerant the bears I’m hunting are. In short, in Canada I like hunting them off the ground, especially if I’m using my traditional bow. In Arkansas and Oklahoma I will almost
always choose to hunt out of a treestand because the bears are more skittish. In most situations, hunting out of a treestand
is going to be more advantageous for success. However, the excitement of ground hunting bears is unmatched and should be tried by all bear hunters. Good luck in 2016 and always keep safety as a top priority, but don't let it stifle your sense of adventure. I think you know what I mean; after all, you're a bear hunter.