Spot & Stalk
Jun 07 2022
Bears and Wildfires
By Seth Watts
If you are from or are familiar with California, you know that there is no shortage of black bears or wildfires. California has one of the highest black bear populations in the lower 48. California's black bear population has increased over the past 25 years. In 1982, the statewide bear population was estimated to be between 10,000 and 15,000. Presently, the statewide black bear population is conservatively estimated to be between 30,000 and 40,000, but I believe the population is over 50,000 and growing. The yearly hunting quota for black bears is 1700 and the quota has not been met since the outlawing of hunting bears with hounds. That law was passed in late 2012 and went into effect in 2013. Since then, the bear population has exploded, and the ungulate population has plummeted. We all know how much black bears have an effect on our elk and deer fawns.
My obsession with bears and bear hunting did not start until 2013 when I had my first encounter with a black bear while out hunting. I came across a bear that was in a tree. That year I did not have a bear tag and up until that point had never thought about hunting bears. I’m glad that I didn’t have a tag because being uneducated on bears I would have shot it and not thought to give the bear a good look over before pulling the trigger. As it turns out, it was a sow with two little fur ball cubs. It was quite the experience - something I’ll never forget.
It also triggered something inside of me to learn more about the bears in my area. I slowly started to learn about them and where they lived, what they eat, and that a lot of bears don’t even hibernate here in California. They go into what is called a torpor mode. Many animals once thought to hibernate, including bears, only enter a lighter sleep-state called torpor. Torpor also involves decreased breathing and heart rates, and lower metabolic rate. A bear's body temperature reduces slightly. It is not uncommon to see a bear out in the middle of winter looking for a quick bite to eat and then go back to napping.
I would say that I really dove into bear hunting in 2016 but didn’t fill my first bear tag until 2018. Hunting bears has become something I’m still learning more and more about. Over the past few years, I have also gone out of state to hunt spring bear seasons in Montana since we don’t have a spring season here in California. I hope to eventually hunt spring bear season in every state west of the Rocky Mountains. Growing personally and as a hunter, led me to share my passion for hunting bears with other people on Instagram @black_bear_pursuit in 2020.
The year 2021 was a big year for me. I was successful in taking a bear with my bow for the first time. I set the goal in 2020, but after sitting in my tree stand for probably less than 5 minutes, I dry fired my bow, blowing it up while checking for clearance from the branches of the tree my stand was in. Epic fail and embarrassing, but I’m not afraid to admit I did it. Twenty-twenty archery season was officially over though. I was down-and-out for a while after that even though I’m sure I’m not the only one that’s made that mistake, it hurt. What made it hurt even worse was the fact that my camera in that area showed a nice chocolate bear come by a few hours later. Even if I was able to get my bow fixed a forest fire had started nearby and Sierra Pacific had closed the area I had been hunting. Fast forward a few months later when rifle season opened. I took a giant color phase black bear that scored over 20 inches, so you might say I somewhat redeemed myself and self-confidence.
In 2021, I was even more determined to take a bear with my bow then I was in 2020. I started scouting in early April a few months earlier than I normally do. I was focusing on 3 different areas I had scouted the previous year that were producing a good number of bears. Things were looking really good for the upcoming archery season with my cameras showing even more bear activity then previous years, so I was getting excited. As many people know, July 13, 2021, the Dixie Fire started and burned for months destroying 100’s of thousands of acres and threatening the areas I had been scouting for months. That fire eventually forced a closure on all National Forest and Sierra Pacific property, and I thought for sure my season was over before it even began…. again.
With the scouting earlier in the season at elevations I normally hunt late in the year in the Fall, I remembered that I had seen some good bear sign. Not wanting to give up on my goal of punching a bear tag with my bow and not ready to give up on my 2021 season, I decided to give it a chance and hunt that area since the land was still open to hunt and not closed. I made the 4-hour drive on a last-minute decision and got to camp at about 12 midnight. I woke up that next morning at about 6:30 am and started making my way down to the area I had scouted earlier that season about a 3/4 of a mile hike. Once I got seated in a spot I thought was good, I knew the winds and thermals were going to be challenging all day. I think I ended up moving 3 different times throughout the course of the morning. Once I was finally settled, I started ranging certain rocks and trees where I knew a bear could potentially walk through.
Shortly after 2pm as I was sitting there daydreaming, I caught some motion out of the corner of my right eye. Instantly, I was shaking with nervousness and excitement. A bear was walking down the trail headed in my direction to the waterhole I was watching. I had seen this bear before, so I knew it was a boar and was a definite shooter. With a quick pep talk and slaps across my face to calm myself down I patiently waited for him to get to a tree I had previously ranged to be 30 yards. As he cautiously walked in my direction slowly, I knew I had one chance to draw back my bow when he walked through a small group of trees, and he was surely not able to see me. This all happened so fast but seemed like it all took 10 minutes. As soon as he got to the tree, I let that arrow fly, hitting perfectly. I don’t think I’ve ever felt calmer and sturdier when drawing my bow back as weird as that might sound. Instantly I knew it was a lethal shot.
He ran back in the direction he came from and paused for a minute confused on what had just happened. He then started trotting off again going about 20 yards before expiring. In that moment I let out the loudest yell of success, something I do when I fill a tag. I cried and I laughed. All that hard work of scouting and practicing shooting my bow had paid off. Not wanting to give up when there was still open land to hunt was worth it. As for 2022, this coming season, I plan on working even harder and scouting even more to achieve more goals I have set.