By Josh Kirchner
Spring bear hunting gets a ton of attention, and it’s for a very good reason. During the spring time, there really isn’t anything else going on as far as hunting seasons go. You might get out for some turkeys, but that’s about it. It’s a fantastic time to solely chase bears. The wilderness is coming back to life at this time, as are we the hunters after a long winter. However, spring isn’t the only time to get out and try your luck at a big bruin. Fall is equally, if not more, productive as spring in terms of opportunity. There are some states that don’t even have a spring season, but do offer fall hunts. This can oftentimes be a great mixed bag hunt as well. Some fall bear hunts will overlap deer hunts, giving you the opportunity to hunt both at the same time. This is where I personally cut my teeth as a bear hunter and have come to really love hunting bears in the fall. The bears are fat, pressure is usually down due to antlers being on the brain, and the air is beginning to cool. Bears are secretive animals though. In order to find them, you need to put in the leg work and scout. Fall is no exception to that rule.
The first thing that I look for at the beginning of scouting for fall black bear is terrain. Bears tend to love steep and deep country and this is where a hunter should focus their scouting efforts. A topographical map is going to be your best friend for doing this. Being able to see contour lines on the map is going to let one pick out various canyon systems to hone their attention on. For me, canyons and canyon bottoms specifically are roadways for bears. They offer security, food, and water. Canyons not only offer phenomenal habitat for bears, but they are much more huntable than flatter country, especially with a rifle. The reason being, is because they offer a view. Out West we find a lot of animals by using our optics and scanning the surrounding hillsides for game. In flat country, you simply can’t do that. By stepping out to the edge of a canyon, one is enabling themselves to see the opposite side, which is what you want. Using your binoculars or spotting scope to dance across the hill looking while focusing your gaze at potential food sources is a tried and true method for locating feeding bears. Which brings me to my next point. Food.
Finding the RIGHT Food Source
In the fall, bears will be heavily focused on food in every part of the country. It’s their Achilles heel. If you find the food, you will find the bears. The question is, which food? This is something that can change from year to year depending on rainfall. Acorns and berries don’t just magically appear each and every year in the same areas. For instance, last year here in Arizona, I found a whopping two acorns in a canyon that I frequent for bears. Want to guess how many bears we saw there that season? Zero! However, the year before when there were acorns galore, I saw 18 bears in that canyon after only hunting a day and a half. The difference is dramatic. So, how does one deal with this and make sure that they are prepared? Well, the answer isn’t some magical secret, but pretty simple. You need to get out there and get your boots dirty to monitor these food sources. If the food isn’t there, don’t waste your time. Pick up and move on to the next area. With bears and scouting, a hunter needs to hunt where the bears are going to be, not where they are at the current moment of scouting a few months before. You can bet your hunting tag that they will be where the food is. It’s just in their nature to do so.
Water is Mandatory
Another thing that one should be on the lookout for while burning a hole in those maps with your eyes is water, especially out West. Whether that is stock tanks, creeks, or springs, bears need water. They will swim in it, sleep in it, play in it, and of course drink from it. You’d be hot too if you had that big thick coat on all of the time. I will notate water sources in or around the canyon systems that I have already circled on the map. Especially ones that have natural travel corridors leading to them like saddles. Here’s the thing though. Along with water sources that are labeled on the map, there are plenty that aren’t, especially in the bottoms of canyons where water might pool up. These can be deadly due to their locations and overall remoteness. In fact, for a lot of these, you wouldn’t even know they were there if you didn’t walk the canyon bottom and stumble across it. Bears can hit these while traveling from food source to food source or just for a middle of the day swim. I’ve seen both. So, if I arrive at a drainage that doesn’t have water anywhere near it, the chances of me hunting that particular area will drop dramatically. Many water sources will oftentimes have mud around the edges too. These are perfect areas to possibly find tracks.
Like I said at the beginning of this article, bears are secretive animals. Because of this, utilizing trail cameras can be a great way to see what’s walking around these canyons you’ve been looking at while you’re not there. In my opinion bears aren’t super ritualistic, but they do have their needs. This is how I’d try to capitalize with cameras. A great way to try and load up that SD card with bear photos is to find those secluded water sources I mentioned above. While you may not get the same bear over and over again, you will be able to see if bears are utilizing the area, and that’s what is important. Where there is one bear, there tends to be more. I’d highly suggest getting a lock box and cable lock for your trail camera as well. Bears are super curious and will oftentimes bite and paw at the cams. A few falls ago I had a camera on a small tree in the bottom of a drainage that was loaded with bears. By November, my camera had been turned around 180 degrees. The rest of the time it was up, I got nothing but tweety birds on camera, because the bears spun it right into a bush. I’ve also had friends that had cameras get the lens punctured by a bear tooth.
Scouting This Year for Next Year
Fall is largely looked at as a time where most hunters focus on deer and elk. Nonetheless, it puts us out into the mountains where the bears live and causes us to hike mile after mile in pursuit of the highly regarded ungulates we love so dear (no pun intended). There have been quite a few times where I’ve found bear scat while out and about on these hunts. The cool thing about bear scat is that whether it is old or new, you can see what the bear has been eating. My friends laugh at me if we come across a pile of bear scat. Immediately I grab a stick and start rooting around in there. Whatever food I find in the scat, it gives me a general time frame of when that bear was in the area. For instance, if I find gamble oak acorns, I know that bear was there around October here in Arizona. While this might not help you at that very moment, it is something to keep in mind for the future. Bears will oftentimes return to these same areas year after year, as long as the food is there. This all circles back to food and paying attention to when that food ripens up. Being a serious bear hunter will cause you to learn way more about horticulture than you ever wanted to likely.
I love antlers just like the next hunter, but fall is an under utilized opportunity for bear hunting if you ask me. Bears are on the move relentlessly feeding on the fall crops to fatten up for the winter. On top of that, the hides this time of year are second to none. The later in the season it gets, the thicker the hides are, unlike during the spring where one could potentially have rub marks on it and not be as lush and thick. If that sounds like your cup of tea, you might just fall for fall black bear hunting as I did. I can smell the adventure now.