American black bears live only in North America. These familiar bruins are primarily woodland animals, occupying forests as far north as forests grow in Alaska and Canada and as far south as Florida and northern Mexico.
The black bear's keen senses of smell and hearing make it among the wariest of all North American big-game animals.
When Europeans began settling the New World, they converted many forests to farms, and black bears were eliminated from large portions of their original range. Populations experienced a resurgence during the latter half of the twentieth century, however, as people abandoned marginal farmland and let it revert to forest. At the same time, human attitudes toward black bears improved as more was learned about them. The last bounty on black bears was removed in 1965.
"Black bear hunting is better now than it has been at any point in recent history," says Brian Bachman, founder and president of the North American Bear Foundation. "Conservation efforts and management programs have been very effective in restoring the black bear. Populations are increasing and ranges are being expanded in most areas. This is being reflected in record numbers of bears taken and also in the sizes of bears being harvested."
Today, black bears are managed as prized game animals in at least 28 states with huntable populations. States with the largest populations include Alaska, with 100,000 black bears; Washington, 25,000; Oregon, at least 25,000; Maine, 20,500-21,500; Minnesota, 20,000; California, 18,000-23,000; Idaho, 12,000-20,000; Wisconsin, 14,000; Michigan, 12,000; Montana, 10,000-15,000; and Colorado, 8,000-12,000.
You can improve your chances of bagging a bruin by following some basic guidelines. If you're new at this game, you should first study several good books on bear hunting, research the sport on the Internet and/or pick the brain of a veteran hunter. The more tricks you have up your sleeve, the better your chances for success. Space limitations allow only a cursory explanation of basic bear-hunting techniques here.
You'll also need to do some research to pinpoint good hunting areas. Harvest statistics available from state wildlife agencies can help you find public hunting areas or counties with healthy bear populations. Then it's a matter of homing in on good bear habitat and looking for sign.
Bears living in mountainous regions like to move around near bluffs. Wooded stream bottoms also are attractive, as are clearcuts. Studies of bear stomach contents show their most important autumn food is acorns, hence a large number of sightings in oak/hickory woodlands and mixed stands of hardwoods and pines. The next most significant foods are pokeberries and leaves, which grow in forest openings. Other significant bear foods include hickory nuts, persimmons, insects and carrion.
Scouting for tracks and other sign is an important task for hunters who want to kill a bruin.
Spend as much time as possible scouting for signs of bear activity in the area you intend to hunt. Look for some of the food sources mentioned above, take note of their location and check them daily to see if they've been visited. Watch for bear tracks around watering holes. Large, soft black droppings full of seeds and acorn shells also are an indicative sign. Droppings often are found on logs, along with hair left when bears sun themselves. A bear meandering along a stony outcrop often leaves a trail of overturned rocks where it searched for insects. Bears sometimes scar tree trunks with their teeth and claws, another sign that can help bear hunters locate a promising area.
When hunting, remember that bears have keen senses of hearing and smell, and are highly attuned to anything out of place in their environment. Always hunt downwind from the area where you expect a bear will show itself. And to prevent a bear from winding you, try one of the products deer hunters use to mask or eliminate human odor. Some hunters actually use the bear's sense of hearing to their advantage by using predator calls that imitate injured rabbits. Bears sometimes are attracted to these.
Some hunters sit on a stand, waiting for a bear to come to them, but because a bear may roam over many square miles, many successful hunters say it is best to cover lots of ground, moving slowly and quietly as you might do if you were still-hunting for squirrels.
Where baiting is allowed, you might want to consider giving this a try after checking specific regulations for the area you'll hunt. This tactic is most effective during spring hunting seasons but can work to the hunter's advantage other times of year as well.
A wide variety of baits can be used, but most hunters opt for a mix of several things. Combinations might include honey, bacon grease, fish, pastries, meat scraps, apples and peanut butter, to name just a few. And when possible, the hunter should obtain baits in quantity. Grocery stores are good sources of meat trimmings, restaurants often will provide old grease and food scraps, old pastries and doughnuts may be available at bakeries, and farms and orchards are good sources for fruits and vegetables not suitable for sale but very suitable for bear consumption.
The hunter should give in-depth consideration to the location of his bait station. Ask yourself, is there a blind location downwind from the bait? Are alternate locations available in other directions if the wind shifts? Is there thick cover nearby? (Bears rarely travel far from cover.) Is the bait likely to be found by other hunters? Is the locale easy to haul bait to?
Black bears often weigh 300 pounds or more. Using the right weapon for hunting may make the difference in a wounding or killing shot when a trophy finally makes an appearance.
Don't expect much action if you create your bait station just before the season opens. Where allowed, it's best to start baiting up to 30 days prior to the season in order to accustom bears to the bait. And remember, sometimes a bear takes weeks to cover its home range and encounter a bait site, so don't give up. Baits should be replenished at least once every three days to keep bears in the area.
Baiting does not guarantee you'll harvest a bear. A hunter sitting near a bait pile still must use all his hunting skills to increase the odds for success. Bears are typically very cautious when they approach a bait site, so the hunter must stay alert and watch very closely to avoid being caught off guard when a stealthy bruin appears, as many hunters describe it, "silently out of nowhere." Use the utmost stealth, moving quietly and cautiously, or a bear may leave before you ever see it.
Selecting the right weapon for bear hunting is important, and knowing how to skillfully use it is even more important.
When hunting with a rifle, most experts recommend .30 caliber or larger. A .30-06 or 7mm Remington Magnum will do the job, but for more killing power, it may be best to use larger cartridges like the .300 Winchester Magnum or the .338 Winchester Magnum.
Remember, too, that black bears have a thick layer of fat and are tough to track if they get into heavy cover. For this reason, only premium controlled expanding bullets should be used. Bullets such as Swift A-frames, Barnes X and Trophy Bonded Bear Claws work very well. They reliably expand to twice their diameter while still retaining over 90% of their original weight.
Hunters should approach downed bears cautiously, from the uphill side if possible.
Hunters using muzzleloaders should opt for a minimum of .50 caliber and fire a conical bullet or sabot. Many have excellent success with 370-grain maxi-balls propelled by 80 to 100 grains of FFG powder. Many bear hunts are conducted in constant rain, so proper precautions (nipple and muzzle cover) should be used, too. A take down tool and necessary cleaning supplies should also be included as it is recommended to clean and dry the gun each night before hunting.
Bowhunters shouldn't use anything lighter than a 50-pound bow, and one with a 65-pound pull is even better if the hunter can accurately shoot it. The best arrows weigh at least 450 grains. Expandable broadheads can and do work, but fixed heads tend to be better for these heavy-boned animals. Even presharpened broadheads should be honed to a perfect razor edge to penetrate bears' thick hide, fat and muscle.
Making A Killing Shot
When you see a bear and are preparing for a shot, move slowly and quietly so you don't alert the bear to your presence. Bears are sensitive to sound and movement, and a rapid movement by an archer, a clumsily cocked muzzleloader or the snap of the safety on a modern rifle can send your bear bolting. If you frighten a mature bear in this way, chances are you'll never see that bear again. The bruin will either depart to some other food source or they will visit the area only at night.
Knowing where to shoot a bear also is important. Broadside and head-on shots are the preferred choices for gun hunters. A bruin hit in the shoulder blade area won't travel far. For head-on shots, aim for the center of the chest.
The best shot for archers is not a broadside shot, but one where the animal is angling slightly away. Try to place the arrow just behind the nearest shoulder, midway between back and belly. This gives a clear shot at the vital area without interference from the front leg or shoulder. Broadside shots behind the shoulder blade also will kill.
A bear's heavy fat layer prevents free external bleeding, making it difficult to track. For this reason, many bowhunters use a string tracking device. Available from archery suppliers, each consists of a spool of thread with the end attached to the arrow and the spool attached to the bow. The line plays out as the game flees, leaving a clear trail to follow.
When you find a downed bear, approach it cautiously. If possible, approach the animal's rear from uphill. If the bear isn't dead and is aroused, it's most likely to lunge forward and head downhill. If the bear shows any sign of life, finish it with a well-placed shot.
Bagging a bear is challenging, but most ardent bear hunters prefer it that way. To them, that obvious degree of difficulty is the reason for hunting. The hunt is a success whether they kill a bear or not, because they've faced the challenge and tried.
Still, the chance of success is always there. And every bear hunter hopes that maybe, just maybe, this will be their year to bag a bruin, one of North America's most magnificent and storied game animals.