By Clay Newcomb
Timing is everything in hunting. The best destinations in the world can be highly productive for a certain species at a given time, and at other times in the calendar year they can be only average. Oftentimes spring bear hunting is lumped into one broad category covering the months of May and June. Hunters booking hunts in remote destinations would do well to understand the general phases of the spring and the related bear activity during that time period. Knowing what to expect and what questions to ask your outfitter are critical for choosing the right time hunt. As well, for the do-it-yourselfer, this information will be invaluable as you plan your hunting.
The springtime for black bears is dominated by two biological realties, and a third is a major player. The need for bears to find food and build up their fat reserve after months of denning is the first reality. Black bears emerge from their dens between March and April in most parts of the bear range. They den from 90 to 150 days depending on their northern latitude and food availability. When they emerge, they are looking for green vegetation, carrion, and basically anything with digestible calories. Spring hunting, whether spot-and-stalk or bait hunting, capitalizes on a bears need to eat.
The second springtime reality is the bear rut. Bears can basically breed at anytime they aren’t denning, but the peak breeding period is in a 60-day time period between late May, June, and early July. Most spring bear hunting seasons only go through mid-to-late June. The rut has played a part in many successful spring hunts ending with giant-headed boars in the backs of UTV’s and on pack frame backpacks. Understanding the timing of the rut combined with a knowledge of what bears are doing in terms of feeding will help you decide when to go hunting.
The third factor is weather. In hunting, weather is either your greatest ally or your worst enemy. Springtime bear hunting can be dominated by weather conditions. An early spring can have the bears out of the dens early and ahead of their usual schedule. A late spring can have bears way behind and hardly awake by the time you are hunting. Weather is the most unpredictable part of spring bear hunting. However, if you understand the generalizations of the region you’re hunting, you’ll be equipped to make a solid decision about timing.
Three Phases of the Spring
Mature boars are usually the first bears to emerge from the winter den. Sows with cubs are typically the last. Boars come out early in order to start packing on calories to build up their bodies for the coming rut. Just like whitetail deer, boars roam long distances and expend great amounts of energy looking for receptive sows. They burn lots of calories, and feeding becomes secondary to breeding later in the spring. By emerging early they are getting a jump-start on the calorie game. We will categorize the first part of the spring as Phase One, the mid spring as Phase Two, and later part as Phase Three. Timeframes will vary based up how far north you’re hunting. We will make some assumptions with dates that could flex either way. Let’s define these phases and discuss the pros and cons of hunting them.
Phase One (Dates – April 1st – May 10th): Early Spring
Pros: Oftentimes this is when mature boars become easily patternable over bait or on green vegetation. Not many green leaves allow for great visibility for spot-and-stalk hunting. Bears are focused on feeding, not rutting, so if you find a mature boar, he’s usually very killable. Many outfitters claim this is their best time for killing giant boars. The sows and cubs usually aren’t out of dens or active on baits. No rutting activity can be a positive as the bears are locked on food. Bears aren’t moving long distances, so if you find one, he’s likely not going very far.
Cons: Expect colder hunting conditions, possibly even snow. Expect to see less bears. Bears during this phase are getting their stomachs adjusted to food and aren’t eating much. On a week long hunt you might expect to see just a handful of bears. No rutting activity. Typically won’t see a lot of immature bears, and certainly not many sows with cubs. In this time period you can run the risk of inclement weather putting the bears back in their dens for a few days.
Phase Two (Dates May 11th – June 1st): Mid Spring
Pros: Phase Two of the spring is a popular time for black bear hunting. Many outfitters start taking their first batch of clients after May 10th. The deeper bears get in the spring, the more active the baits become. More bears are emerging from their dens, they are eating more as their stomachs are adjusting to digesting food, and they’ve had time to find bait sites or grassy meadows, etc. In most Canadian locations the leaves haven’t greened up yet, temperatures are still cool, and natural food availability is low. The closer you get to June, the more natural food will become available. However, during Phase Two, bears will be responding very well to bait. The later part of Phase Two can also have some good rutting activity. This time period is probably the safest time period to spring bear hunt. The best times for spring black bear hunting are before the climax of spring green up, but not too early when bears are still sleeping and sluggish.
Cons: Not a tremendous amount of rutting activity until later in Phase Two. Possibility of seeing a lot of immature bears and sows with cubs. Possibility of outfitters being booked during this time frame.
Phase Three (June 2nd – June 30th): Late Spring
Pros: The biggest advantage of hunting during Phase Three is the influence of the bear rut. During this time big boars will begin to roam looking for receptive sows. Just like in the whitetail rut, you never know what to expect every time you go to the bait or on the mountain to glass. A big boar could be anywhere at anytime. The second positive about hunting this time is milder temperatures. Hunting Phase One and Two in the North can mean colder temperatures, which is a negative to some hunters. In the month of June, in most regions, you’ll find moderate temperatures. Thirdly, bear sightings can be high as all the bears are out of the dens and feeding in full force.
Cons: The biggest con of hunting Phase Three is that in most places it will be 100% green. Visibility will be low. Natural food will be highly available, and bears may respond less to bait than they did several weeks before. On a spot-and-stalk hunt, bears can spread out because food is everywhere. Earlier in the spring bears were concentrated on the scarce food sources, be it a bait site or grassy meadow. The bear rut can also be a negative. When spot-and-stalk hunting, rutting bears can be hard to catch as they always seem to be moving. Rutting boars aren’t predictable, so if you see one at a bait site one day, he may not be there the next. Hunting the bear rut has both positives and negatives.
Generalization About The Bear Rut
When trying to understand the bear rut it can help to compare it to the whitetail rut, though it is biologically quite different. The bear rut isn’t as intense as the whitetail rut because offspring birthing dates aren’t as critical because of delayed implantation in sow bears. Conception date is critical for most mammals, because it determines birth dates. The fertilized egg of a sow bear, however, is stalled (delayed implantation) until late fall when it is attached to the uterine wall to begin the 60-day gestation period. Basically, this means that it doesn’t really matter when a sow is bred. This translates into a drawn out breeding period. The whitetail rut is a spike of breeding activity. The bear rut is a long arch of breeding activity.
However, the months of May and June for bears can be compared to the months of October and November for whitetails. In whitetail hunting, rut related activity begins to pick up in late October, and peaks in mid November. For the part of the bear rut that we can hunt, rutting activity begins to increase the last week of May, and continues to increase throughout the month of June. The 20th of May through June 1st is comparable to the “pre-rut”, much like October 20th through November 1st for whitetails. June 1st – June 30th is considered the bear rut, comparable to the month of November for deer. Just like in whitetail hunting, the rut can produce some great results. However, it can also be slow when target bucks are locked down breeding does. The same can be true with bears. A big boar may stay with and breed a single sow for three to five days. If that sow isn’t where you’re hunting, the boar won’t be either. However, killing a boar cruising bait sites or feeding areas looking for a receptive sow is the name of the game.
The timing of hunting spring black bear is critical. Generalizations are just general assumptions based upon previous experience, and can be overturned on any given spring. However, dividing the spring into these three parts will help will guide you in your decision of when to hunt. It could also equip you with fodder for some good questions for your outfitter.
To summarize what we’ve discussed, the early spring (Phase One) can be great for locating a giant bear on food source, but you’ll likely see less bears on your hunt. It will likely be cold. Phase Two is one of the most popular times for spring bear hunting because it’s before green up, but most bears will be up and active. Expect to see bears very active on baits. The bear rut dominates Phase Three of the spring. All the bears are out of their dens, and a giant boar could show up at anytime. However, natural food is at a peak, and bears may be responding less to bait.
All three phases of the spring have their pros and cons. Be sure to talk with the outfitter or local hunters about the trends they see in the regions they hunt. Much of your decision on the timing of your hunt depends on what your goals are. If opportunity is your number one priority then later in Phase Two and earlier in Phase Three might be your best choice. If you are after a trophy class boar, discuss with your outfitter the earlier hunts, or even the rut hunts. In lieu of all these assumptions, big bears are killed at all times during the spring. However, understanding the progression of the spring will make you a better bear hunter.