By Doug Treat
Bait, hounds, spot-and-stalk and sitting over water are the primary methods of chasing bears. Bear hunting is unique in the variety it offers hunters. All of these methods are exciting, but one method, not often utilized, provides the most heart racing excitement of all...calling. Using predator calls to call bears in close is not for the faint of heart, and if you’ve never tried it, this fall will be a great time to start calling.
My First Called-in Bear
“There’s no way this is going to work,” I said to myself as the realization of what was happening sunk in. About 100 yards away stood a beautiful cinnamon-blond-phase black bear, sniffing the air, looking back and forth for the screaming fawn I was imitating. My mind raced as I tried to predict what the bear was going to do. I decided to be bold and make a fawn sound like it was getting a leg ripped off. I knew my aggressive action would either be met by equal aggression or the bear would get intimidated and run off. “Well, there’s one way to find out!” I blew the call with increased intensity.
It was a foggy September day in the backcountry of Colorado. The morning had been rainy and now the fog made the woods eerie, quiet, and dark. It was the kind of weather that puts a smile on my face. I felt the bears would respond to calling all day since it was cool.
I had decided to bowhunt even though the odds were against me. The success rate in Colorado for bear hunters was around 5%, but I had committed myself to the goal even if it took many years to accomplish. The area I was hunting was not conducive to spot-and-stalk because of the dense forests. I thought calling with a deer fawn bleat would probably be my best option. This area had a good number of mountain lions, so I’d have to be cautious. The bear sign I had found in pre-season scouting was encouraging. This was my second year bowhunting bruins, and I was learning a lot.
So, here I was on that foggy day, looking at this beautiful bear, trying to gather my courage to start another call sequence. I wondered if my nerves would hold out if it happened to work. The bear was getting bored while I wavered for a few seconds of indecision and it turned to leave. As it did, I blew on the call again and it immediately turned toward me and started walking, coming with a boldness that unnerved me. I stopped calling and it stopped too, this time at about 60 yards away.
“Wow, that was cool”, I thought to myself as I processed how it felt to manipulate such a creature by simply making a noise with a call. The bear again stayed for a minute or so and then turned to leave as it didn’t hear or see anything more. Again, I put the call to my lips and did my best fawn bleat/squeal and again, the bear responded with a hungry-looking, intentional walk, moving yet another 30 yards closer. I looked for an opening where I might get a shot if I could tempt the bear to come just a little bit closer. I noticed that there was a spot about 20 yards away that looked good. If the bear would pass by broadside there, I could throw a sharp stick at it.
Calling aggressively had worked so far, so my confidence was high when the bear again turned to leave and amped up the intensity. This kicked the bear into high gear and it came with a steady determination that surprised me. Thoughts of “Here we go!” and “What have I done?” simultaneously filled my mind.
The bear walked right toward the spot that I had picked for the shot. I drew my bow as its head went behind a tree and steadied myself for the moment of truth. Just as it got into my shooting lane, it turned and faced me, still walking with determination. Fifteen yards...ten...five. My mind raced and the bear kept coming, finally stopping as it looked right into my face quartering toward me at three yards! My pin settled and my arrow barely cleared the bow before striking right in the crease between the neck and shoulder.
I think it took only about 3 seconds for the mortally wounded bear to make it 20 yards before crashing to the forest floor and sliding to a stop. I shook my head in disbelief. Noticing how badly my hands now shook, I wondered how they had remained steady prior to the shot.
I took a deep breath, soaking in the moment and wondering if I would ever experience such an exciting hunt again. I knew that I would again look for adventure by calling bears. I wanted them in close enough to see the slobber running out of their mouth as they anticipate a fresh meal. I wanted to again hear their ragged breathing at close range. If action and adventure is what you want with bears, a call just might be the best way to get it.
1. A Game of Odds
Calling bears can be hours of minimal entertainment followed by intense moments of sheer excitement. In my hunting, I usually will set up and call at least 10 times before I call in one bear. That’s 10% odds of seeing a bear. The key is to make as many calling sets as possible. It’s a game of odds and the more you play, the better your odds get. I like to move around and call, not staying in one location for much more than thirty minutes to an hour. Don't expect a bear every calling set, but always be ready. I once started a calling and managed to call in a bear that ran in. He was at 10 yards when I first saw him and he got too close, too fast, less than 5 yards, while I fumbled to shift my feet and get my bow up. I was caught with my pants down, not really expecting such a quick response. Even though I didn't get a shot, hearing his ragged breathing and seeing him salivating as he expected a meal at point blank range was worth the price of admission. It took a good while to get my heart rate back to normal that day.
2. If a Bear Isn’t There, He Won’t Respond
Scouting is key to finding quality calling locations. Primarily, you’re looking for an area with a good population of bears. If a bear isn’t there, he won’t respond. Additionally, if he can’t hear you, he won’t respond. Look for scat, overturned rocks or logs, and tracks. The fresher the sign, the better. In the fall, calling near berry patches or places with concentrated hard mast is a good starting point. You’ll have more confidence if you know bears are in the area. Call from locations where the sound can travel long distances, like at the head of long draw or on top of ridge. It doesn’t do much good for your calling sets to overlap, so cover some ground or go over the ridge before you call again.
3. Play the Wind
Just like any good calling setup lots of factors are going to need to be in your favor, and wind is one of them. If a bear can get downwind of you, he probably will. Set up your calling location with the wind blowing into areas he can’t get to, or likely won’t go. For instance, calling from a ridgetop with a perpendicular wind will have your scent traveling high above the valley to your back. However, no set up is perfect and sometimes you just call, knowing that there’s chance he’ll wind you. Again, this is game of odds so just keep calling.
4. Fawn in Distress Call
I like using a fawn distress sound in the spring and fall. The actual sound of your call may not be as big a factor as simply finding a curious or hungry bear within ear shot. You’ve just got to make some noise and sound convincing. Having deer in the area will add authenticity to your set up, and most of black bear’s range has some type of deer. Deer will often respond as well to protect their young, which can also add excitement to the hunt. Be aware that other predators, including mountain lions, may also find your calls enticing, so use a healthy dose of caution if the big cats are around.
5. Keep Calling
Bears tend to be a bit lazy and they lose interest quickly so keep calling to keep them interested. This is difficult because you often don’t know when a bear starts his journey towards you. You just have be disciplined and continue calling in short sequences for long periods of time. You don’t have to literally call non-stop for 30 minutes, but call in one to two minute sequences take a short break (20-30 seconds) then call again. Many times my impatience has spooked a bear when I give up and move to a different spot too quickly.
6. Be Cautious When Calling Bears
One caution about calling bears is that a sow with cubs may tell her cubs to stay put while she goes to the grocery store. In some cases it may be difficult to determine whether a bear is legal to take if a sow that has cubs comes in alone looking for a fresh meal of venison. Look for nursing sign on the bear if it appears to be a sow. I would encourage you to try calling for bears. It just might add an extra bit of excitement to your next bear hunt.