Spot & Stalk
Mar 20 2020
By Josh Kirchner
Since I was a boy, I’ve had a curiosity about hunting bears. From their elusiveness and sheer power, to the iconic presence they have in all things wild, my eyes and ears were wide open to them. At the time, it sounded like one of those things that I would dream about, but never actually do. That curiosity never waned, and by the time my mid twenties came about, I just couldn’t handle it anymore. Within a few months, my first bear hunt was upon me. I had no clue what I was doing, but knew that I wanted to learn. That was about 7 years ago. Since then, I’ve hunted bears in the West every spring and fall. Each season that went by, I’d collect another piece of the puzzle that was, and is, bear hunting. The learning curve can be a great one for a first timer in the West pursuing black bears. Preparation is key and can go a long ways once in the field. Here are some ways to help you prepare for your first western black bear hunt.
Learn About Bear Biology
Actually taking the time to learn about the species you are hunting is huge with bears. Putting into focus why a bear does what it does, what draws them to certain areas, and how they move through these areas throughout the year will pay big come hunting time. This information will help a hunter cross off areas on a map so they can put their time where it matters most. A great way to get an idea of how bears interact with the landscape you plan on hunting is to contact the local Game and Fish office and speak to a biologist. Before doing this though, take time to research on your own. Learn about the preferred food sources at different times of year. Where there might be water. Notate access points. Mention these things to the biologist, so they know you are serious. They can give you insight into where you might find certain food sources or reliable water sources. Don’t expect them to tell you right where the bears are. Put more of your focus on finding out where ideal habitat is located. This is an area where I feel many folks don’t put a lot of focus. In turn, they often have trouble finding bears.
On a recent hunt here in Arizona, I was fortunate enough to watch a very good friend of mine harvest his first bear. The calm but nervous look on his face after the bear was down is one that left an imprint on me. True appreciation and no idea what he was in for after the fact. That bear died in a steep canyon with a boulder-strewn bottom and very dense oak brush. Just walking through the stuff is a workout. Once the bear was all packed up and we were ready to head out of there, I pointed ahead of us and said “that way.” My friend’s response was “what do you mean that way? Where?” He said this because all that he could see in front of him was rocky bluffs and boulders. The only way out was using all fours in spots to literally climb out. Bears usually don’t hang out in the most forgiving areas and love rough country. I would too if I was a bear. Think about it. The rougher, the more secluded. This gives them the opportunity to go about their business undisturbed. Makes sense right? Because of this, spending some time hiking with a weighted pack or hitting the gym will help a lot. I’m not saying that you’ve gotta workout 7 days a week and dead lift 400 pounds or anything. All that I am getting at is to care about it. Plus, bears are heavy.
No matter spring or fall, using optics to locate bears is a tried and true way of doing so. My favorite ways of doing this is by finding an elevated vantage point, mounting my binoculars on a tripod, sitting my butt down, and then start scanning the surrounding hillsides. Bears move around quite a bit, so they can usually be spotted in the mornings and evenings either feeding or going to feed. Heck, the middle of the day has proven fruitful as well for me, especially in the spring. With that being said, the more time you spend behind the glass, the better chance you’ll have at locating a hungry bruin. Long days behind the glass require good reliable optics, though. If you’ve ever spent any time looking through a cheap pair of binoculars, you know exactly why. Because of this, I’d highly suggest making sure that you’ve got the best pair of binoculars that you can afford before leaving on your hunt. A hunter most definitely doesn’t have to take out a second mortgage to buy good glass, but don’t skimp on this. You won’t regret it after glassing for hours on end.
We are so lucky in this day and age that we live in. Technology has come so far and now enables us to almost be where we want to hunt without even stepping foot there. Satellite imagery is getting better and better. With the “on the ground level” feature that Google Earth offers, a hunter can get a dang good idea of what they’ll be looking at from a given vantage point. We can see water sources, feed growth throughout certain times of year, access points, and even game trails. All by sitting in the comfort of our own home. Using this stuff to your advantage ahead of time will really give you a great idea of how the country lays out. Knowing this can help you better understand how a bear might move through said country. The power of e-scouting doesn’t just stop at satellite imagery, though. Hunting forums are a great place to meet like-minded individuals who might be willing to give some general insight. Don’t expect any honey holes, but this general info can really help paint a picture.
Of course the absolute best way to scout is by heading out into the country and getting all of that new hunting gear you just bought dirty. What I like to do before the season begins is to get a good look at the feed to see if it is fruiting or not. Are there acorns? What about berries? Did those come in this year? Is that big face I found on Google Earth actually covered in grass like the image showed? These are all things to pay attention to when in the field. Another thing to do is walk canyon bottoms looking for bear sign. Tracks and scat can often be found here. Secluded water sources also show up in the bottom. Might be a good place to put a trail camera.
Be Proficient with Your Weapon
Whether a hunter plans on using a rifle or a bow, I’d try to avoid just shooting a week before a hunt and calling it good. Spending adequate time on the range is an absolute must, if you ask me. Bears are notorious for not leaving good blood trails, so making sure that your bullet or arrow goes right where it needs to should be a priority in the eyes of not just a first timer, but all bear hunters. We want them to fall as quickly as possible, and this is how we do that. Another reason for this is bears will run into some pretty nasty areas after being hit. Following blood in them, especially in the dark, can be incredibly difficult.
The West is a big place and oftentimes, this means taking longer shots, especially for the rifle hunter. Take time before the hunt to not only make sure that your weapon is sighted in, but also to stretch the distance a bit, test your limits and try to extend your effective range. This is important, so we know those limits, and when we might need to tell ourselves “no” on an opportunity. I’m not saying to take a 500-yard shot at a bear right from the get go. However, if you hit a bear at 400 and then get an opportunity for a follow up shot at 500? That’s something you might want to take advantage of. For the rifle hunter, I’d be proficient to at least 300 yards. If the bow is your choice of weapon, I say 60 yards needs to be in your comfort zone.
After those couple of months that stood between my first bear hunt and me, it’s safe to say that my life changed. On the evening of the first day, I found myself sitting at a water hole in hopes of a bear coming in for a swim before dark. To my surprise, I looked up and saw a big black thing moving across the hill in front of me. I remember thinking “I did it? My preparation paid off?” This bear was huge and it took me a second to even lift my rifle up. That bear never did come home with me, but he lit a fire inside that still burns bright to this day. 2 years later, after more miles than I can think of hiking and hours upon hours glassing, my first bear laid before me. If that first bear I saw lit a fire, harvesting this one caused an explosion. All of the effort and memories previous to that flooded over me and I was struck. Bear hunting out in the West isn’t a walk in the park, but by taking the time to prepare, at least you’ll have a trail to walk on.
When most people hear the word “workout,” they are immediately hit with an image of going to the gym. The gym is a great place to sweat, but it is not the only place to sweat. We are trying to get ready for hiking with a weighted pack in the mountains, so what better way than doing that to prepare? I’ll oftentimes hit a local trail with around 30-40 pounds in my backpack and wear the boots that I plan on using for the hunt. I won’t go crazy either. A few miles with weight on your back can go a long way. This is not only a great way to work on your fitness, but also to break in a new pair of boots if needed. Don’t have a trail around you? I’ve also done this throughout my neighborhood. When I do though, more weight will go in the pack, because my area is absent of incline and decline. You could take this same practice to the gym on the StairMaster.
Essential Gear for Western Black Bear Hunting
I’ve said in the past that gear isn’t everything but it is definitely something. Bear hunting in the West is no exception to that statement. A few items that I would not skimp on in the least bit are boots, optics, and a backpack. Boots that don’t fit right or aren’t up to snuff for the rugged country bears live in can ruin, or even end, a hunt pretty quick. Optics is massively important as well. Sub-par optics will cause eyestrain and headaches, which will ultimately result in less time behind the glass. Less time behind the glass means less of a chance finding bears. Lastly, a quality backpack with a sound suspension system is going to do wonders once you do get a bear on the ground and have to pack it out. Sure, it might be heavy with a bear, but a backpack that carries and distributes weight well is going to aid in comfort and could even prevent injury. Make sure that when you do pick the right pack, to spend the time learning how to properly put it on and make sure it is fitted to your body. It’s not just about throwing it on the shoulders and clipping all of the buckles. It’s a process.