Expert tips to bring bears bad-breath closeBy Gary Lewis
Tod Lum thumbed cartridges into the magazine and closed the bolt. We left the truck parked on the road and climbed uphill on a bare slope. Twenty minutes later we worked onto the shoulder of a finger ridge and looked down into a canyon choked with hawthorn bushes.
We set the caller below us on the slope and found a vantage point. Insistent, the FoxPro whined its pitiful electronic cry. We didn’t have to wait long.
The bear emerged from the bottom of the canyon and stopped to look back. The first shot shivered him and he ran left along the hill. Tod chambered another round, swung and shot again. The bear rolled end over end to the bottom of the canyon and came to rest against a fallen pine.
Calling a bear, whether with a mouth call or an electronic unit is charged with electricity. It never happens the same way twice. Sometimes they charge in. Sometimes they swap ends and head for cover. He comes in ready to fight, sometimes with his jaws popping, sometimes circling, silent, intent. Calling a predator armed with sharp claws and teeth is not for the faint of heart.
In the West we get our wet weather off the Pacific. Coastal mountains and interior ranges like the Cascades, the Sierras and the Rockies take the teeth out of many a major storm system. Western Oregon and Washington habitats may see rainfall of six feet or more per year, but east of the mountains in the high desert and in parts of Idaho, Montana, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, annual precipitation can be measured with a ruler.
Black bear thrive in moist and fertile country where spring grasses, tender shrub shoots and forbs are abundant. In rainforest habitat, they don’t have to travel far to find grub. Over on the dry side though, a bear must cover a lot of ground to make his living. And when bears move, they are vulnerable to a hunter with a call and the patience to employ it.
Over on the Dry Side
The only mud puddle in the area and it was a good place to find a fresh set of tracks. The bear came to the call the next morning in 52 minutes. John Warren traces fresh black bear prints on a hunt in Oregon.
To put yourself in the best place, follow the feed. Dale Denney, of Bearpaw Outfitters in Washington, thinks in terms of the food sources available. “In our area, there are two things bears love: fresh green grass and skunk cabbage. In other areas wild onions will be the draw. You need to pick an area that has lots of bear and you need to know what food source they want when they come out of hibernation and one of those three things is going to be in your area.”
One overlooked source of protein is winterkilled moose, deer and elk. Steve Nunley of Arapaho Wilderness Outfitters in Colorado watches for winter kills as the snows recede. “Wherever the carcasses are, that’s where the bears will be.”
Mike Jenkins, owner of Upfront Outfitter, believes that when food is scarce, the call is most effective. The phenomenon is most apparent in New Mexico. “Although hound hunting is allowed, we strictly use calling and spot-and-stalk methods. I have been fortunate enough to hunt all over the West including Alaska. New Mexico bears are the most aggressive bears I have ever seen.”
Jenkins thinks dry country bears come in fast because of the scarcity of protein. “I think they’re just aggressive to find a good source of food. These bears want meat. They’re eating dry dead grass and grubs and worms and bugs. They have a chance to eat a high protein meal of a baby elk or deer and they are on it.”
John Warren commits to spending whole days watching his favorite hillside. He uses calling as a backup plan when the bears do not show in the berry patch.
If there’s one thing a hungry bear wants more than anything, it’s an easy meal. And he is used to taking food from smaller predators.
But Mr. Bear is easily distracted. On the way in, he may stumble across a berry patch or a ground squirrel den. For this reason, you need to keep the sound rolling to keep him on the move. When hunting a bear, keep the calls constant.
Any number of sounds may bring a bear, but larger animal sounds promise a bigger payoff. Think bigger meals. There is a lot more protein in a deer than in a rabbit. A fawn bawl will give a bear the prospect of seizing a bigger meal than it may get coming to the sound of a cottontail.
Bears respond in various ways. Sometimes they sit and listen from hundreds of yards away. One bear came like he was tied on a string. Tod Lum’s bear waited 15 minutes before he emerged on the opposite tree line, headed away. He stopped and looked back and ended up going home in the cooler. Sometimes they take off and run in the opposite direction. If they are hungry and aggressive, they charge in.
Give him time. Depending on how far a bear has to travel, he may take an hour to reach the call. Scout a few days or weeks before to make sure there are bears in the area. Then keep the wind in your favor and your confidence high. Commit to spending an hour at each call set.
A Bear’s Best Defense
On a late August bear hunt in eastern Oregon, Troy Neimann (left), Rick Neimann and Chris Neimann watch a canyon for a second look at a bear that walked in through the junipers.
A good olfactory sense is a bear’s best defense. When a bear inhales, it draws in airborne molecules that help it sort a complex array of odors which include food signals and threats. Our challenge is to beat a bear’s defenses. We succeed when we work to dispel human scents in every setup. One of the first things is scent elimination. Scent control products attack human odor in three categories: laundry products, body products and products for use in the field. By removing a high percentage of human smell, the hunter makes cover scents, attractants and calls more effective.
This bear showed itself after 15 minutes of calling. Tod Lum connected with a quick second shot. Mountain meadows and creek bottoms with a gentle grade are favored calving grounds and a good place to call a bear to dinner. Calf elk calls and fawn-in-distress cries can bring a bear on the run.
Cover scents distract the predator from the scent of the hunter. Fox urine covers the human scent with the strong odor of a small varmint. A bear’s nose may be further confused with fresh earth fumes or the scent of a food source.
Bears may come straight to the call, but they may also circle and come to the downwind side. The scent of a prey or non-target animals can keep their confidence high. An approaching bear expects to find something good to eat at the end of the trail. And he expects to have to fight for the meal. Fawn deer, for instance, only bawl when something is trying to eat them.
Don’t expect the shot to be easy. The bear may charge across a meadow or it may come up through the brush. In either case, it is probably going to be on the move. With a bear quartering head-on, hold one-third to halfway up the body, between the head and the shoulder to punch the projectile through the scapula and the heart and lungs.
Sometimes a frontal head shot is all you get. Try to break the bridge between the eyebrows. It is hard to break the spine without a perfectly placed shot. Though, if the animal’s head is up, a neck shot will put the bear down fast.
A thorough approach to scouting and scent management can pay off with a bear that charges in, circles downwind and keeps coming.