Spot & Stalk
Nov 05 2020
Calling western bears isn’t easy, but it’s sweet when it comes together!
By Brian Strickland
After blowing a predator call for nearly 15 minutes, I was beginning to question my sanity. Not that I have anything against predator calls, but producing some tunes from one of them usually means you’re looking for trouble. When I caught movement out of the corner of my eye a few minutes later, I knew I had found it; or better yet, it had found me, and in an instant I knew what it was! I strained my eyes to the side to confirm my suspicions—it was a bear. His coal-black hide glistened in the pool of September light, as he stood motionless trying to find the easy meal; I just hoped he wouldn’t mistake me for one.
It’s hard to say just how long I was crouched on the forest floor in the cluster of young pines waiting for him to turn his attention in another direction. Let’s just say my legs were falling asleep, giving me little chance to make a quick move up a tree if he decided to focus on me. After several minutes, he finally took a few steps, giving me the opportunity to turn my head and size him up.
I’m no bear expert; in fact, at the time of this encounter I had never drawn back on one, so I really wasn’t being too picky. However, at 20 steps his plump body and fat head told me all I needed to know: he was more than enough bear for me. All I had to do now was adjust my body, draw my bow and burn my top pin into his chest. Needless to say, that’s easier said than done when you’re only a stones throw away.
I swear I didn’t make a sound, but as soon as I started to move his head jerked in my direction. In an instant his black eyes locked on mine, and I could feel icy fingertips trace the entire length of my spine. I really didn’t know what to do having never been eye-to-eye like this. Let’s just say being in the close presence of a bear was enough to damper the illusion that man is not in complete command of his environment.
As the standoff began, I felt as if something was missing. After a few moments I realized that something was the cool breeze that was once touching my face. As the light bulb went off in my head, the bear’s head instantly tilted up and got a snout-full of the thin mountain air. Before I could do anything, the sound of snapping branches broke the silence as his black hide tore through the timber in a flash. All that was left was my own thumping heart, trembling hands and an experience that I will never forget calling in black bears.
Since that time I’ve had numerous close calls with bears, both in the Lower 48 and Canada; and no matter how many times I experience these encounters, my perception of the world they live in and my place in it changes. Frankly, there’s just something special about getting close to dangerous game, and when you’re drawing them in with a call, it can be one of the most exciting ways to hunt western bears, and is also very effective. That being said, calling a lonely bruin into range is no slam-dunk, but here are some tips that can keep you ahead of the game.
First off, call where bears are. Although this can seem obvious, it’s easier said than done when you’re hunting out west. Because of these vast and rugged regions, bear densities tend to spread out more. Finding areas where stronger populations exist is always the best first step. Consider contacting local wildlife managers and biologists to help you zero in on specific areas, and clues can also be found looking over past hunter success. If you’re looking to draw a trophy bruin into range, checkout the Pope & Young, Boone & Crocket and SCI record books.
When it comes to the type of calls to use, consider the primary food source in an area. During the late spring and early summer months, deer fawn and elk calf-in-distress calls can be very good. During this time of year, bears will seek out these easy sources of protein once deer and elk start dropping their young. In the fall, seek out more traditional areas that offer berries, nuts and other natural mast, and use the typical rabbit-in-distress and deer-in-distress calls. Although these are not their primary food source this time of year, bears are very opportunistic as they fatten up for the long winter.
Although mouth calls are easier to carry into the woods, blowing on them for an extended period of time will make your head fill like it’s going to explode. Today’s electronic calls offer a great variety of calls, flexibility and some awesome digital quality sounds. Another advantage of an electronic call is the ability to draw bears where you want them, which takes the focus off the caller/shooter. If you’re using a bow you’ll want to keep the call within 10 to 15 yards of yourself in the event the bear hangs up, and out to 100 yards or so for rifle hunters.
It’s no secret that a bear’s nose is his strongest asset, so when you're attempting to draw one into range you want to position yourself downwind from where you think the bear will come. Try and set up in areas where the wind tends to be more consistent, and where there is less of a chance of a bear circling downwind.
Lastly, keep concealed and stay as still as possible. Although a bear’s eyes can be fooled, they will be on high alert when coming to a call. Most of the time they don’t come charging in, but cautiously creep as they get closer, using their eyes, ears and nose to find the source of the call. Also, call continuously for long periods of time, without breaks in the music. Bears can be easily distracted and will often veer off their original course if something catches their fancy or the call suddenly stops. It can also take up to an hour for one to finally make an appearance. Be patient! If you have a good bear sign in an area, it will only be a matter of time before you’re paid a visit.