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Spring Bear Adventure Becomes Fall Hunt

A spring bear hunt sometimes becomes a fall bear hunt when you're holding out for big bruins.

Spring Bear Adventure Becomes Fall Hunt

Chuck Adams’ 2023 Wyoming black bear was large, with a gorgeous brown coat; however, he knows larger ones will be lurking when the 2024 season begins.

Sunrise was still a pink promise when a dark blob appeared. It floated through foot-high grass, paused several times and finally stopped 14 yards below my stand. Legal shooting light was 10 minutes away, but I could clearly see the critter through my 10X binoculars.

The bear was large, his shoulders scant inches below the top of the 35-inch bait barrel. He appeared to be dark brown, but it was tough to tell for sure. The area where I bowhunt bears in Wyoming has several color phases, from jet black to brown, cinnamon, red and blonde.

My heart was pounding like a bongo as the bruin reached in the bait hole and fished out a strip of beef. I had been sitting more than a week, and this was the first outsized animal I had seen. With a body nearly blotting out the barrel, this guy would surely score high in the record book. Black bears in my neck of the woods tend to have large skulls, and just about any mature boar will beat the Pope and Young minimum score of 18.

The big bear stood for several seconds, but my heart sank when he suddenly whirled and galloped into the underbrush. I sat until 10 a.m. without seeing another critter.

It was late May 2023, and I was on my annual spring bear hunt with a few good Wyoming friends. State law allows each hunter two registered bait sites, and my pals and I have several sites adjacent to one another in a great bear spot. It is not unusual to see a half-dozen bears during a single sit, but really large bruins are never common. It takes patience and luck to see a whopper inside archery range.

I sometimes hear bowhunters sneering at the very idea of hunting black bears over bait.

“Why would I want to shoot a bear with a doughnut in its mouth?” one guy asked me at a sports show. “What’s the challenge in that?”

I am the first to agree that spot-and-stalk mule deer hunting, bugling for elk or waiting on stand for a whitetail can be hard to beat for pure complexity and thrills. But most naysayers underestimate the difficulty of baiting hard-hunted black bears.

If you want to shoot any bear, the challenge might not be high. But holding out for a wise, old boar is never easy. Despite many days of trying, you might burn your tag.

At this stage of my life, I am not interested in shooting any legal animal. Been there, done that. The fun of spring black bear hunting is watching these entertaining clowns and waiting for a truly big guy. Large boars are cagey, usually feeding in half-light or no light at all after circling the bait to detect the slightest whiff of human odor. Really spooky characters are almost completely nocturnal unless they are chasing females in heat. Even during the May/June rut, trophy bears retain most of their caution — they rarely make mistakes.

Round Two

Large Wyoming bears did not make mistakes near my stands in the spring of 2023. On the last day of the bowhunt, I watched two youngsters scamper about and eat bait from my barrel. The only “keeper” I saw the whole trip was the bear that ran away just before shooting light.

Wyoming’s second black bear season opens in mid-August with a two-week, archery-only period followed by two months of general gun/bow hunting. I decided to resume bear baiting in late August before elk and deer hunting began. I dragged my custom bait barrels back into the woods, strapped them solidly to trees and set up elevated stands at less than 20 yards.

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My bow-and-arrow setup was the same as it had been the previous spring. I cut my archery teeth as a young man on a recurve, and I enjoy shooting all sorts of bows. For that reason, I decided to use a 50-pound Bear Mag-Riser takedown recurve for bears. At 66 inches long, that bow drew as smooth as silk. With 29-inch 2117 aluminum arrows, I could hold tight groups out to 30 or 40 yards. At average bear-baiting ranges, I knew the setup would be deadly.

Wyoming allows the use of trail cameras during open season, and I had cameras strapped in front of both barrels. I know guys who monitor trail cams and bounce from bait to bait depending on what they see on SD cards every day. I think that’s a mistake. Black bears — particularly big, old males — do not visit baits predictably. If I see a whopper on camera, I settle in to wait for several days. It is exciting to know a giant is in the neighborhood, and it keeps anticipation high. But there’s no telling when or if he will show up again.

One week of trail-cam pictures at one of my barrels showed more than a dozen different bears but none standing above the 24-inch middle rung of the barrel. Most came in during daylight hours.

adams-spring-bear-fall-inline
The whopper Adams hunted last summer always appeared at night on trail camera, but never during daylight hours.

My other bait was a whole other story. Only one or two bears visited per day on average, but one was huge. Trouble was, he only fed at night. I sat that spot for 10 days in hopes of catching a daylight glimpse, but I never laid eyes on the rascal. He appeared on camera like clockwork between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m., but never when I could shoot. With no rut to cloud his judgment, that bear clearly knew how to keep from getting shot.

I kept checking the trail camera at my second barrel, but no decent bruins appeared. Archery black bear season ended on Sept. 1. I was getting itchy to go after elk and deer, but like a dog with a bone in his teeth, I put on my legally required blaze-orange stocking cap and kept sitting every morning and evening.

On Sept. 3, the big nocturnal bear vanished. I never saw him on camera again. He must have gotten tired of eating bait.

On the evening of Sept. 7, a new and larger bear appeared at my second bait. The animal stood 30 or 31 inches tall at the shoulder — nice, but not huge. With elk and deer on my mind, I decided to wait for the animal to return.

On the morning of Sept. 10, a small jet-black bear visited the bait. I loaded up the barrel, took a nap back at camp and climbed the tree at 4 p.m. The sun was dipping low when that same little bear appeared beside the barrel.

Five minutes later, the bear swapped ends and fled. Bushes rustled and a much larger, brown-colored bear swaggered out. Seconds later, he was fishing for bait.

My recurve came back smoothly and I dumped the bowstring. The arrow flickered and smashed the bear behind the shoulder. He dove into the brush, but I knew he was mine.

Thirty minutes later, I found my animal piled up at the end of a massive blood trail. The bear had a big noggin like most do in my area, but not as big as the one that got away. That’s what bowhunting dreams are made of, and why I keep going back year after year!

Bear Judging 101

The size of a black bear can be difficult to judge, and it is painfully easy to confuse little with big.

A truly large bear often has distinctive traits. The head is broad, the muzzle stout, the forehead often creased with prominent muscle mounds on each side. Ears look small compared to the head. The wrists above the front paws seem especially massive, and the belly hangs low.

adams-spring-bear-fall-barrel
A truly large black bear will stand nearly as tall as a 35-inch, 55-gallon bait barrel. It’s the most surefire way to judge the size of your target.

Problem is, a hunter must see plenty of bears before he can compare and identify such traits with any degree of accuracy. And bears, like humans, do vary in specific characteristics. For example, one of my largest record-book black bears was long and lanky with a rounded forehead and a lean belly well above the ground.

In my experience, the most surefire way to judge bear size is body height. A big male usually stands 32-36 inches at the shoulder. Most 55-gallon steel bait barrels measure about 35 inches high. If a bear on all fours nearly blots out the barrel, you should shoot!

A 36-inch stick in the ground or a 36-inch mark on a tree beside your bait will also tell you precisely how tall a bear is.




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