The Two Ways of Hunting Black Bears
May 30, 2017
SNAP! Was that a branch I just heard break, or are my ears playing tricks on me? I wondered. Then everything was silent again except for the crazed, buzzing mosquitoes kept at bay by a combination of liberal bug spray and a Thermacell. I listened intently while scanning the area with my eyes. CRACK! A grin came over my face as the excitement and adrenaline instantly started to build.
I was sitting high up in a treestand, overlooking my favorite black bear bait site in Southeast Alaska. It wasn't long before I spotted some movement and black hair in the thick brush. The mature boar walked cautiously toward the bait, getting closer and closer. My friends and I have been fortunate to have taken several nice-sized black bears from this same treestand over the years.
I have been bowhunting black bears in the spring here in Alaska for 14 straight years. After many kills, I still get excited when I have a bear come to my bait site, or when I'm stalking close to a big old boar on the ground. Even after arrowing many larger grizzlies and brown bears, I cannot break my black bear bowhunting addiction, or I should say my black bear "tradition." Sharing a black bear hunt with a friend or two is perfect. Not only is it fun, it divides the work up and makes it safer. I have hunted with many friends over the years, and it is always a great time.
Here in Alaska, I hunt black bears both by baiting and stalking. I enjoy each method equally. The limit is two bears for a resident where I normally hunt. In a perfect season, I try to arrow one bear out of a treestand on a bait site and one from the ground on a successful stalk.
There has been much written on baiting black bears, so I won't go too deeply into it here. That said, a few things I've found to be the MOST important elements of a great bait site include time, bait, smell, and location â€” in no particular order.
Time. When I say time, I mean how long the bait site has been established before it's hunted. From my experience, the longer the better, because bears get more accustomed to coming into the bait over time. And, more bears find the bait over time. I like to get a bait site set up at least two to three weeks before I plan to hunt it. A month or two would be even better.
Bait. I do not believe it really matters much what is used for bait. Use what you have access to and is easy to acquire in your area. I use the cheapest dog food I can buy here in Alaska. What matters most is to have the bait out early, and to keep bait there long term. For this reason, I use a barrel with really small holes drilled in it (or even one hole), so the bears have to work extra hard to get the chunks of dog food out. It takes a long time for them to completely empty the barrel.
Smell. This one is important because it is what first attracts bears to the area. The smellier the bait site the better! Use the worst, rankest smelling stuff you can find. It should be so bad that it almost makes you sick handling it! I've used all kinds of things to attract bears over the years. Rotten, maggot-infested meat scraps and leftover fish heads and gutswork well, as do rotten beaver carcasses. I place the smelly stuff in a heavy-duty garbage bag and hang it high in a tree above the bait site. Lately, I've been employing scent-attraction lures that trappers use instead of rotten meat. This has worked for me and the lures are much easier to work with, but I still think rotten meat, fish, or a beaver carcass works better. Eventually the odor gets on the ground and the bears track it elsewhere, so other bears can pick up the trail to the bait.
Location. Obviously you'll need to bait in an area frequented by bears, so avoid those locations with a lot of human activity such as ATV and boat traffic, or even other bait sites. Small openings in dark timber offer a safe feeling to mature boars.
Trying to stalk within bow range of a black bear is both fun and frustrating. Sometimes, when everything works out, it seems easy. The next time you would swear it's near impossible. My friends and I have good memories of both successful and unsuccessful stalks. As with stalking into close range of any big game animal, you have to be smart about it, confident it will work, and have things go your way.
Always plan your stalk according to the wind. Knowing what the wind is doing, and keeping it in your favor, is of the utmost importance. I prefer a medium to moderate wind over a light wind. This is not only to ensure keeping my scent away from the bear but to cover up any noise and movement I might make during the stalk. It's much easier to get close to an animal with some wind as opposed to getting close on a calm, ultra-quiet day.
Do not get in a hurry. I tell this to my friends as well as to myself, over and over, on every stalk. Go slow, and concentrate on being quiet. Many more stalks fail because of rushing, making noise, and being seen than by being patient and taking it slow. When I get within a couple hundred yards or so of a bear, I usually take off my boots or waders and continue the stalk in my socks. You'll be MUCH quieter in socks.
Use the terrain to your advantage. Every stalking situation is different. Use whatever is there to aid in your stalk â€” trees, logs, rocks, ditches, hills, etc. â€” to conceal yourself while closing the distance. The aid of good cover all along the route is an advantage, but I have also stalked and arrowed more than one bear with almost NO cover. I accomplished this by moving only when the bear's head was facing directly away from me, and by moving only when the bear was moving.
Observe the bear's behavior and read its body language. Does the bear appear nervous, or is it relaxed? For example, when bears are eating, they are usually relaxed. At times like this, they seem to let their guard down a bit and are not as wary. Sometimes, for no reason at all, one bear will be nervous and the next one relaxed. Obviously it takes longer and is more difficult to get close to a nervous bear, but it is possible and worth a try. Adjust your approach to the behavior of the bear. This is where confidence and experience is important. You need to believe you can make a successful stalk. Erase any doubt, and make it happen.
One of the places I like to bowhunt black bears here in Alaska is along the coast. Here are a couple more things I have learned from experience over the years. First, I try to stay in the water, in my waders, as long as I can on stalks. It is a very effective way to move silently. As soon as you step out of the water you are walking on rocks, crustaceans and seashells, which make it much more difficult to be quiet. I have shot several bears while I was either standing or kneeling in the water. Some wind and wave action will also help cover both your noise and movement.
Second, I do not like to lose sight of the bear for very long during a stalk. For this reason, I do not recommend going into the woods when stalking a bear on the beach. This usually causes you to lose sight of the bear for too long, which leads to not knowing his exact location. Even if you successfully get inside the woods and sneak within bow range undetected, the vegetation is usually so thick right at the woodline that oftentimes you can't get a clear shot. I know this because I have found myself in this predicament more than once!
Every black bear harvest is different from the last. Every stalk is filled with anticipation, excitement, and adrenaline. Don't you ever get tired of shooting black bears? How many black bears are you going to arrow? I've been asked these questions numerous times. I think my answers will always be the same. No, I never get tired of bowhunting black bears, and hopefully I can tag many more. I hope my friends and I are able to add many more "success" arrows to the old stump back at bear camp.
The author is a regular Contributor from Wasilla, Alaska. He is an airline Captain for UPS, has completed the Super Slam, and has entered well over 100 animals in the Pope and Young record book.