The Reasons You're Not Finding Bears
By Doug Boze
For many in the U.S., by the time this article is published, fall bear season will be starting up. Oh, what a time it is! The hot days give way to cozy, pleasant evenings, the air is filled with the smell of berries warmed by the sun, and the anticipation of the coming deer and elk seasons are creeping up. But the immediate challenge remains, where are the bears?
We’ve discussed a lot about how to become a bear hunter, how to find bears, call bears, and the list goes on. But I haven’t really talked a lot about why you may not be finding bears, despite following the many tips and advice previously laid out. First and foremost, I wanted to remind especially our new bear hunters that it is okay to find it a challenge locating bears. If it was easy, everyone would do it. Some places are easier than others, but I think bear hunting advice is universal for much of bear territory. So, why are you not finding our amazing bears?
Issue 1: You are moving too fast. You say, “What do you mean I am moving too fast? Bears travel fast and I have to beat out others on public land, so I have to get moving.” Well, a lot of that is true. Hunting on public land can be a challenge, not only to find animals but to avoid people. Seems to get worse every year, at least where I live. But let me break it down for you. I talk about this a bit in my book, The Ultimate Guide To Black Bear Hunting, but I will reiterate it for those who missed it. Slow yourself down both mentally and physically. In our modern life, that can be a challenge, but it is necessary when hunting. We are hyped up in today’s modern life with traffic, work, to-do lists, social media, coffee, energy drinks, instant messaging, instant gratification, and the list goes on. I have a hard time with this a bit too, but I must remind myself to simply slow down on all fronts.
Before I even get to my hunting spot, I will turn off my music on the radio—especially if I am by myself, which is about 90% of the time. I’ll do this probably 20 minutes or more away from where I park. I do this for two reasons: 1) to help my hearing adjust to the lack of sound and 2) to quiet my mind and focus on the task at hand. Now, I will have a coffee or caffeinated drink most likely, but that is par for the course for me, so I am not too worried about that. Who doesn’t like a cup of joe on their way to hunt?
When I arrive at my spot and I start my hike, I will walk at a steady pace for a bit. This will vary depending on where I am hunting. Some areas have good hunting almost right away while other areas require a more extensive hike. But one thing is for sure, when I think I am getting close to decent hunting, my pace slows to a crawl. I am very aware of the wind, if any, and I am looking around at the ground for signs like scat, peels, rubs, bear tunnels, and so forth. I am also cognizant of how I am walking and what I am walking on. If the logging road I am walking on is noisy with gravel, I move along the side of the road or center where the grass is located, or I use the sides of my feet as I place down my weight to quiet my foot falls. I move with purpose, but force myself to slow down.
Issue 2: You’re not listening to the story nature is telling you. What do I mean by that? “Trees don’t talk! Squirrels won’t fill me in!” You’re saying. Well, they do sometimes. When you’re deer hunting and you pass an alder that has been shredded and there is deer hair stuck in the sap, that tree is telling you something the best way it knows how—a buck used it as a rub. Bear hunting is no different. If I pass a blackberry bush that looks like a kid took a stick to it and beat it to hell, I will stop and see if that is what happened. I will look for hair on the thorns, which is usually a very good way to tell if a bear got to those berries. That bush is telling you a story, so stop to listen. Be observant.
Say I am passing a creek draw and beyond in a nice stand of mature trees, some squirrel is going bananas down at the bottom of the draw maybe a hundred yards or so from me. Why is that? Squirrels do not limit their irritating alarm to the lone deer or elk hunter in the fall. They blast that chirp for all sorts of animals, bears included. So if I hear that, I will not just keep walking; I will stop, look, and listen. Do I hear branches breaking? A bear snorting? Stumps getting torn into? I will sometimes wait for several minutes or more before moving on from a tip like that.
Next, you must make sure of your target. If someone heard me while I was climbing out of a gulley with a bear on my back, they might think I am the bear due to my breathing, busting brush, and so on. Always make sure of your target! Even if you see a flash of black, stop and make sure. A hunter could easily have a bear on his backpack and you assume it’s a bear, making a life changing mistake. Do not make that mistake.
Issue 3: You are bypassing quality areas because they’re close by. A prime example of this occurred last year. I was walking out at dusk from my “bearadise” area. The nighthawks were buzzing in the sky, crows were headed in to roost, and the mosquitos were hounding me like a drill sergeant to keep up my pace, as I was staying just out of biting reach. It was then that I heard what I believed to be a bear in the very thick brush just up ahead. I heard him snort, break branches, and saw some movement.
As I crept further to take a look, I started to hear a few people talking and it was getting closer. I then had two hunters on electronic bikes coming up the road at me. The bear heard this too and quieted down. They blew by me and up the hill. As they went out of hearing distance, the bear continued on his merry way—just out of reach thanks to the brush—and returned to his noisy endeavors. But I got to watch him scurry along a bit before I simply smiled and walked away quietly. My point is, this was not far at all from the gate where we parked.
If I was on a bike, I would have likely never heard that bear and would have blown right by a possible opportunity. I have observed on numerous occasions hunters hiking far and deep, when in reality many could have found success not far at all if they had only slowed down and paid attention. I am not saying don’t head out to the woods for the deep and steep places looking for adventure—that is half of what it is all about. But don’t bypass success simply because you want to see what’s over the next ridge. Success might be found on the very ridge you’re already on.
Issue 4: You’re not listening enough. Yes, this is different from Issue 2, which dealt with the story nature was trying to tell you. This issue pertains to you not physically listening enough, in general. When I am bear hunting, I listen very closely for sounds. I will pause at the slightest rustling of brush if I hear it. I will freeze and listen intently for several seconds or even minutes, depending on if I can pinpoint the noise and what made it.
More often than not, I hear bears long before I ever see bears. Once I think I hear a bear move, I will stop, focus on the area, and see if it continues, see if I spot maybe a paw coming out of the brush grabbing berries, etc. Sometimes, it is as simple as a bird eating something off a bush and he flitters off, giving me the okay to continue my quest. But sometimes, it is what I am after, and that is when the fun begins.
Issue 5: You’re missing obvious bear signs (to the experienced hunter). What do I mean by this? Well, most hunters know to look for scat and prints—those are basic. But, and this goes for deer or elk too, do you know to look for less obvious, but still clear signs of bears? For example, elk have wallows and rubs, not just tracks and scat. Deer are the same way with rub lines and scrapes, but the more inexperienced hunter may just blow by those neon clues. Bears will leave other things than just scat and prints: bear tunnels (actual, noticeable tunnels through thick brush), tree peels, brush thrashings (as discussed previously), torn stumps, rolled logs, rolled rocks, marks on trees, and so on. Learn to identify all sorts of bear signs and you will be surprised how much there is.
Issue 6: You are not focused on their food source for that time of year. This is a big one. This is like the golden rule for bear hunting, the “thou shall not kill” of commandments. You must focus on food sources that are available for that specific time of year, because that is exactly what the bears are doing. Bears are all about calories. Without packing on the pounds, they might not make it through the winter. The thinner the sow, the less cubs she has. The fatter the sow, the more cubs she has, so it benefits her species to be plump.
So, if you are in an area with unripe berries or fruit, you need to find where the fruit is ripe and the acorns have dropped (“akerns” for some of you southern folk). If you find a food source that is ripe but no scat or other signs of bears, you might want to move and maybe recheck that site in a few days. But if you find a food source with some fresh scat, you are in the red zone. Slow down, listen, and really take your time working through that area.
Issue 7: You’re not thinking like a bear. This is fairly simple to understand, but I still see a lot of people miss this point. Say it is mid-August, 85 degrees, and clear blue skies. It’s hot, midday, and you’re sweating up some hill in a fresh clear cut in a t-shirt and jeans, sweating away. You’d rather be in the shade somewhere, maybe by some water near a cool draw and waiting for relief so you can go fill up on some grub. Most bears have this same idea in mind. They are avoiding the heat, waiting for it to cool before coming out. Hang out all you want in the heat, glass, look for signs, etc. But I usually hunt in the afternoons and evenings for bears, especially in the early fall season. I am not saying you won’t find one out in the heat sometimes, but just like in the rain, they tend to bed down during that time. Don’t get burned out hunting all over in the heat when you could save your efforts for early mornings or early evenings.
Issue 8: You’re not taking a midday nap. This is a surefire way to find a bear. Take a nap in the grass with the sun beating down on you. When you wake up, a bear is likely close by. This has happened to me more than once. Of course, I say this half-jokingly!
When I talk about these issues, these are some of the shortcomings I used to have. It took me a while to figure out what I was doing wrong and why. So really, most of these things are about me and my failures and how you can avoid them. So when you go out this bear season, just remember to take your time and enjoy the process. And if you’re lucky, you might soon find yourself in the glorious misery of a pack out, being eaten alive by mosquitoes while you question your choices to hunt. But then, of course, only to turn around the next day and want to do it all over again. Happy hunting, my friends.