On a late August evening, I found myself sitting at a water tank in hopes of a big black bear walking in for a swim. Never had I bear hunted before, but it was always something that I wanted to do. It may have been because bears represented everything that was wild in my eyes. They were the symbol of true wilderness as far as I was concerned.
As much as I’d admired their iconic nature, I had no idea what I was doing in terms of hunting them. There were a few books that I’d skimmed through and some experienced hunters that let me bend their ear, but that’s it. I was as green as you could get with the bruins. By a stroke of luck, one came strolling by me that evening, but I never could get a shot.
From that point forward, what I thought would be a hobby, turned into a lifestyle. Seven years later I am more addicted than ever to bear hunting, but I’d be lying if I said there wasn’t a learning curve to getting it done. With a good foundation of info, you can find and harvest black bears regularly. It won’t come without some elbow grease though.
Below are my thoughts regarding bear hunting.
The first thing that one needs to do if they want to pursue black bears is to find quality bear habitat. These places are often remote, steep, and not the easiest to get to. Bears are reclusive animals and like their quiet time. I spend a great deal of time staring at topographic maps trying to suss out where the bears might be hanging. Steep canyons that are about a mile from a road are a great starting point, so be willing to hike.
After you’ve notated a few points you can seek out some guidance. A great way to get you started down this path is just by calling the local game and fish office. Now, don’t just come out of the gate and ask them where the bears are. Show them that you’ve been putting in the work and mention specific areas on the map that have intrigued you. Or ask them about what food the bears are eating during the season and if the areas you’ve mentioned hold that food.
By showing them that you’ve been doing your homework, they are way more likely to point you in the right direction. I’ve done this several times and it’s always worked out swimmingly.
Hunt the Sign
Finding bear sign can be difficult, but when you do, it’s pure gold. Bear scat dries out pretty fast, so if you happen to find fresh scat that is wet, you can bet that bear is close by. Scat can usually be found along canyon bottoms, across benches on a steep hillside, or along the edges of the tops of canyons. I’ve also found a fair amount of bear scat on the trails we walk believe it or not.
Even if it’s old, it is valuable information, and here’s why. Say I go out and find a pile of scat during the month of March that has Gambel oak acorns in it. This doesn’t help me out right at that moment, but it will when I am bear hunting the following fall. Now, I know that there was a bear feeding in this particular area on Gambel oak acorns, which are usually being consumed during the months of October and November here in Arizona. That logic works with all of the food sources.
As far as tracks go, this is something that is even harder to find than scat. Because of their soft pads, tracks can’t always be found, depending on how soft the ground is. Mud around water or sand is a great place to look for tracks. Bears are also pretty lazy and will drag their feet, which you can see in pine needles.
Bears will also break open logs to look for termites. Look for downed trees and parts where the tree looks like it’s been pried into. Scratch marks can be found as well. Another thing to look for is flipped rocks. Bears will flip rocks over to look for bugs. Oftentimes, there will be a line of them on a hill.
Hunt Food and Water
This is the big one for successful bear hunting. The thing that will make or break your hunt. If there isn’t any food, there aren’t going to be any bears. It doesn’t matter if it’s spring or fall. Bears get so keyed into their food sources, and this is the advantage you’ll have over them. Knowing what food sources are preferred during certain times of the year, is going to lend to your success.
My scouting for bears is usually spent finding food, not bears. We want to hunt them where they are going to be, not where they are before the season. I’ll spend a great deal of time surveying the landscape and seeing how the food crops are looking.
If we’re talking spring, I’m paying attention to big north faces with snow on them. These are going to hold moisture the longest and offer cover. The moisture will give way to fresh green grass, which is what they want in the Spring. For Fall, I’m looking for little acorn buds or prickly pear fruit during the months of June and July. They aren’t ripe then, but they will become Fall and the bears will be there.
On top of all of this, make sure that there is an adequate water source nearby. Bears need and love their water. Once I find these things, I’ll spend hours upon hours sitting up high and glassing these areas with my optics come season.
Final Thoughts on Bear Hunting
Black bears are some of the smartest animals out there if you ask me. The oldest recorded bear killed here in Arizona was around 29 years old. Imagine how smart a 29-year-old deer would be. Black bears are more than a worthy game animal to pursue.
Two years after that first encounter that I mentioned above, I sat on a ridge overlooking a canyon during the month of October. The canyon was loaded with acorns and I just knew there were bears crawling around. At 7:30 a.m. a giant black bear showed himself down below.
I pulled up my rifle with a half-eaten breakfast biscuit in my mouth. I remember him looking so big through my scope and it wasn’t hard to find him at all. The shot rang through the canyon and the bear mowed down the trees in front of him. A few hours later, I was standing in front of my first black bear, and the solidification of an addiction to bear hunting that won’t soon fade.