Hunting the Eastern Deciduous forest for black bear without the aid of bait or hounds is one of the toughest hunts in North America. Heavily wooded and rugged terrain combined with a “low density” animal to make the pursuit legit. Recently, I’ve been calling it the “sheep hunt of the South.” The only difference being the odds of killing a bear are probably lower. The first questions most people have are, “what does bear sign look?” and “what’s the best type of sign?” This article and the accompanying photos are designed to describe just that. Most of these photos were collected over the course of a single scouting trip and an additional hunt on public land. Some sign is more valuable than others. Sign that leaves an accurate “time stamp” will give you the most relevant information for harvesting a bear.
Bears are nomadic by nature with large home ranges (typically from 10 to 20 square miles). If you’re trying to kill a bear today, bear sign that is a month old has less relevance than sign made two days ago. Here are six things I look for when hunting big woods bears.
Scat is King
Bear scat (droppings, poop, crap…whatever you want to call it) is the most valuable sign. Its freshness will give you a good estimate of how recently the bear stood right there. Bear scat is moist when fresh and dry when old. Weather conditions and temperature will give you an indication of how quickly it will dry out. High temperatures and direct sun will make scat crust over within a few hours. Cooler temperatures in a shaded region will leave scat moist for longer. It’s always important to use a stick or your boot to knock the crust off the scat to get a better estimate of age.
Secondly, you can tell what food source the bear has been using from examination of the scat. Seeds and fruit hulls (muscadines, black gum, cherries) often pass through the bear without breaking down much. Bears eating acorns often have an almost “peanut butter” like texture with the odd acorn hull mixed in. You might see insect exoskeletons and wings. Whatever you see, you’ll learn something about the bear’s habits. Lastly, you can get a rough estimate of the size of the bear based upon his scat. Big bears leave big piles, smaller bears leave smaller piles. It’s that simple. Bear scat can be tubular or just a circular plop (like a cow pattie).
Rolled Rocks and Logs
A bear’s diet consists of a lot of insects during the warmer months. They find these insects by rolling rocks and logs. Southeastern bears typically have a diet that consists of 85% plant matter (vegetation, nuts and berries) and 15% animal matter. Of that 15% almost all is insects, and ants make up the majority in many regions. Rolled rocks can look like a neon sign on the side of the mountain because the part formerly underground doesn’t have moss or lichen on it. You can examine the hole and see if it’s been rained on, or turn over a nearby rock and compare the dirt underneath. Usually you can get an estimate accurate within a week or so. However, you won’t be able to gauge the size of the bear, but at least you’ll know there was a bear on the mountain.
In the Eastern Deciduous forest leaf litter covers almost all the ground making it difficult to see clear bear tracks. However, you’ll find tracks on roads, road ditches and near water holes, basically anywhere there is bare dirt. I’ve heard of bear tracks in buck scrapes. You’ll also learn to discern bear tracks on embankments by wide scuffs in the leaves and dirt. A track gives you some good information, namely the relative size of the bear and a decent time stamp of when he was there. If a track has been rained on and you know the last time it rained, you get a data point. Often I’ll push into the dirt with my fingers or boot beside the track to see what a “fresh” print looks like. As far as determining size, the age-old method of “add an inch to the width to get the square” is fairly accurate. What that means is this: measure the width of the track, if it’s four inches then add an inch and you’ll know that a five-foot bear made that track. When you see a track over five inches wide you know you’re probably looking at a mature male. A “six-foot” bear is a good one anywhere; a “seven-foot” bear (six-inch track) is a world-class animal. (*I’ve seen five-and-half-inch tracks produce seven foot bears.)
Bears are going to use standard game trails in the mountains used by all animals, but there is such a thing as a “bear trail.” I don’t have a good picture of one, because they’re often very nuanced and hard for a camera to pick up. In certain areas where the terrain funnels bears into a small area over and over again they’ll put their feet in the same place every step. This makes for padded out footsteps in the leaves and dirt. It’s very distinct and you’ll know it when you see it. Secondly, in some cases you won’t see the individual footsteps, but you’ll discern a trail that’s wider and more “padded out” than your average deer trail – these are bear trails. If you find a distinct bear trail, there is a food source nearby that they’re going to and from.
Food isn’t technically bear sign, but their movements and habits are driven by the proximity of calories. Finding a prime food source, like White Oak acorns, in good number near the bear sign is key. You won’t find bear sign without it being connected to food. In the Eastern Deciduous Forest in the fall their favorite food is going to be to some type of White Oak acorn (in most regions). However, they could be feeding on any number of things including hickory nuts, black gum berries, persimmons, beechnuts and other types of acorns. In the fall, bears are going to be keying in on hard mast (nuts). They are the caloric lynchpin of the bear’s lifecycle and all the Southeastern hunting seasons are in the fall, so hard mast is key. On years when mast is concentrated, bear hunting can be very productive. On years when mast is everywhere, the bears are spread out and it can be difficult to find a bear.
In the fall, bears are engaged in a biological process called hyperphagia, which is a state of increased appetite and excessive eating. Processing this many calories means they’ve got to be drinking a lot of water. In low areas with lots of water sources, it’s not a limiting factor and they could be drinking from anywhere. However, in highland regions (mountains) when the food source is high in elevation often bears will key into specific water sources like wildlife ponds (built by Forest Service), springs, mudholes or small creeks. If you can find a water source that’s got tracks and trails near it, you might have a great ambush point. However, hunting water is difficult and can be frustrating. The only thing that’s consistent about a bear using a water source is that he’ll be unpredictable. In my experience they’re as likely to be there at daylight as they are 10 a.m. or 2 p.m. They seem to be pretty hard to pattern, which makes all-day sits sometimes the most productive type of hunting.
Hunting bears in the Eastern Deciduous Forest without the aid of bait or hounds is not an easy hunt, but the rewards are high. Go out and find some bear sign. The good news is that you’ll find a lot of it on public land in the big blocks of National Forest. Plan on it taking a few years before you’re successful or even see a bear! When you kill on send us picture and use the hashtag #sheephuntoftheSouth.