10 Tips for Bigger Spring Bears by Bowhunting World's Joe Byers
10 Tips for Bigger Spring Bears by Bowhunting World's Joe ByersApril 26, 2010 - Joel
Want a monster black bear?
Try these strategies for king-size coal.
“I was so excited I could feel the blood pumping through my ears,” remembers Michigan archer Toby Shaw. “The bear was within inches, and I focused on breathing silently … or not at all.”
This was Shaw’s third night in a stand. Half an hour before dark, a gorgeous cinnamon-colored bear suddenly and silently appeared. The animal didn’t seem nervous and walked directly to the bait. In the next several minutes it changed positions, yet never exposed its vitals. Then suddenly, it looked toward Shaw and ambled straight to his modest treestand, which was nailed between two slender pine trees, 10 feet above the Canadian soil.
The bear put its forearms over the steps and awkwardly began to climb toward Shaw. “If it comes half-way, maybe I’ll yell …,” Shaw thought. Then he reasoned, “But this is such a beautiful bear, and it’s showing no threatening behavior, only curiosity.”
As the bear eased closer, Shaw meditated: “Lord, if I need to scream, please tell me.”
In seconds the bear was so close that Shaw’s slightest movement could cause a jerk reaction. “I was sitting in the stand, and its head disappeared behind my knee,” Shaw remembers. “Suddenly, I felt a gentle nuzzle of my ankle. If I move now, he could bite me or surely would run. Then the bear looked me squarely in the face and waddled back down the ladder.”
Shaw believed he had passed the curiosity test, and if the bear returned to the bait, he would get a shot, exactly the scenario that played out. “The Muzzy head broke bone on the way out, and the bear crashed into a log barrier, then rolled over just 20 yards farther,” says Shaw. “I was shaking so hard I couldn’t climb down. Eventually, I regained my composure and cautiously approached the magnificent beast. What a fantastic experience.”
Passing The Patience Test
If patience were an Olympic event, Shaw would surely wear gold. Ironically, this was his first bear hunt and only the second bear he had seen. Some might say he was too patient, yet his analysis of the bear’s body language and the discipline to take only the perfectly angled shot paid off. He reached his stand in ample time for the evening sit, wore Scent-Lok clothing, and sprayed his boots, clothing, and backpack with scent killer.
Shaw’s bear measured 6 feet long, a testimony to its longevity. Bears do not typically grow older by making mistakes, and this bear certainly took every avenue to explore its surrounding before relaxing its guard.
Bear in western Canada have an affinity for treestands, which are rarely more than 12 feet high. Whether they believe a stand is a small bear in a tree, are attracted by salt from human perspiration, or are just curious, a seat or tree exhibiting tooth or claw marks indicates a bruin has been there and may come again. Savvy hunters ask lots of questions before sitting a bait. From where do bears usually approach? Any particular bear to look for, distinguishing characteristics, or behaviors—like climbing trees?
Scout For A Big Bear
If you want a big bear, ask the outfitter for the best chance at a large bruin. But realize it didn’t get big by being dumb. Big bears leave big tracks, big dung, and typically approach bait sites at the edge of daylight. Often these “un-huntable” bears discourage archers, and the sites get little pressure. Ken Byers, Shaw’s hunting buddy, had this situation on their Manitoba trip. “This bear has scat the size of beer cans,” the outfitter told him. “It could be a giant.”
Because the treestand at the bait site was questionable, it had not been hunted all spring. As an experiment, Byers used an Ameristep pop-up blind and placed it close to the bait. An hour before dark, the big bear showed up, but directly behind the blind. It left, but soon returned, walked past the bait and directly toward one of the blind windows. Byers shot at 5 yards. The monster bruin exceeded 400 pounds, a real toad for a spring bear.
Hunt Bears Like Deer
Bill Epeards was hunting grouse in Wisconsin when he noticed a huge bear track. The PSE pro staffer, who had previously taken two book bears from Wisconsin, made a mental note to apply for a spring license. When it arrived, he began scouting and found that the bear traveled a regular route along a cornfield. Epeards established a bait site in another end of the property.
Expecting to see action at the bait site, three bears came to the bait, but not the huge beast that roamed nearby. Switching to deer tactics, Epeards hung a stand along the corn edge where tracks practically smoked with freshness.
“I looked up, and this thing that looked like a mini Volkswagen was coming across the corn field,” remembers Epeards. His Mach X performed as expected, and the huge bear piled up close by.
“The shot placement, even on a large bear, is difficult,” says Epeards. “The hair is long, and it’s hard to pick a spot on the coal-black figure with no distinctive markings. You want to aim behind the front leg, but not too low.” Epeards’ bear was so big, a farmer removed it with a Bobcat loader. The beast tipped the scales at 576 pounds and easily made Pope & Young.
Bears use trails much more consistently than deer, and some bruins step in the same foot prints for years. If baits are heavily hunted or visited nocturnally, scout the perimeter. Bears often use approach corridors in daylight. Hunting from the ground or a small portable stand can catch them by surprise.
Calling The Alpha Bear
Wayne Carlton, who probably is best-known for his diaphragm elk caller, is equally passionate about bear hunting. “Each bait has a dominant bear, in my opinion,” says Carlton, “and that dominant animal will not be too far away. If it’s the only bait in the area, he will treat it like a kill site.”
If this is true, calling a bear with a varmint call should produce, yet Carlton had very poor results with this tactic until he discovered the secret. “I had a well-known game caller with me in New Mexico calling sporadically to coyotes, foxes, and bears. On that trip, I learned that coyotes and foxes come to sporadic calls (stopping and starting), but bears come to constant calls.”
Enduring your own calling is part of the challenge, because when you stop calling, the bear stops approaching. “How many guys can call constantly for 15 to 20 minutes?” Carlton asks with a wry smile. “It takes dedication and confidence to call in a bear.”
At a bait site, Carlton believes the dominant bruin is nearby and you can’t make enough noise to call it in. Tie a string to brush, crash and bang and squall on the call like someone is pulling your arm off. “Call as loud as you can for as long as you can, but do not quit until the bear is exactly where you want to shoot,” says Carlton. “Once you stop, it will just stand there.”
A bear call is ideal for the spot & stalk hunter (spring or fall) out West, or in the mountainous East. “I love calling bears because it’s so much fun,” he says. “Stalking those last 100 yards is really tough, and you may not have a good shooting situation. “Don’t worry about getting closer. Get set up in a good shooting situation and nock an arrow ’cause that bear is going to drop whatever it is doing and run at you. Once you understand calling, you can create that situation.”
Approaching A Stand
“We used to have a lot of big bears come to our baits, and they got used to our odors,” said Carlton, who outfitted in Colorado. “Then, when we brought in our clients with a different smell, the bears would not come to the baits for several days because something new was in town.”
To solve this problem, Carlton began mixing anise (which smells like licorice) and Liquid Smoke in Windex bottles, then sprayed boots to cover entrance trails. He sprayed clothing and gear with H.S. Scent-Away to neutralize odor. Sure enough, the bears came in. “You wouldn’t think that someone new walking in the woods would make a difference, but it made all the difference in the world.”
Paul Moore, of Wisconsin, has never met Wayne Carlton but takes a similar approach to scent control, except he adds mineral oil to the solutions (anise and Liquid Smoke) so that the scent does not evaporate as quickly in the sun. He believes these scents cover human odor and increase the chance of a bear finding the bait.
Moore, a bear guide for more than 10 years, recommends setting a stand based on wind direction and using as much human scent control as possible. “I enjoy changing the bait every couple of days to something new,” he says. “It helps keep them interested.”
For that alpha bruin that won’t approach in daylight, Moore has a special trick. “This is a bit awkward to explain,” he said with a bashful smile, “but I’ll go to a distant bait that has large bear dung, scoop that up, and place it near my hunted bait. If there is a dominant boar or sow on the bait and they smell the competition, it may be just enough to bring them in during daylight. Even 15 minutes earlier can give you a shot.”
Rise & Shine Bears
When a big bruin just won’t show his ebony or is rarely seen at a bait site, the animal may be using a dawn feeding strategy. I once had a Quebec bear guide bet me $50 I would see a bear the first evening. The last thing I wanted to do was take my guide’s money, but the gentleman just wouldn’t take “No” for an answer.
The second night, we went double-or-nothing, and the guy was flabbergasted. This was one bet I surely wanted to lose, so I suggested an early rise and a quick sit the next morning before departing. Bingo!
In Alberta a similar situation occurred when a guide and I traveled down a river, beached a boat, and walked toward a bait at the river’s edge. “We know a big bear uses this bait, but no one ever sees it,” he whispered as he led the way. A few minutes later, we crested a hill and the guide nearly tackled me, ducking out of sight. The bear was 10 yards away but spooked at the casual approach.
In late spring in the Northern Tier, days are so long, hunting morning and late evening wears people out, yet I believe the preference of evening over morning has much to do with getting out of bed. If you find yourself in a camp where the hunt is not going well, play the wind, sneak in silently, and your luck may change. Trail cameras are a bit cumbersome to pack, yet digital evidence of a bear’s routine will make you more confident and maximize time on stand.
How Big Is Big?
A mature black bear may be the most difficult animal in North America to judge. With no antlers or body parts for comparison, what does a 300+ pound bear look like? Young bears look like German shepherd dogs and have a long nose, distinct legs, big ears, and walk with a noticeable gait. By contrast, large adult bears seem to have small heads, short legs, and thick, round bodies. They waddle more than walk. If you use a 50-gallon barrel, make sure the bear is taller and larger than the barrel.
Basic Black, Size Large
Put these 10 tips in your quiver for a bigger bear:
- You want to be at your best at prime time. Take your first “best” shot.
- Put a trail camera by your bait. This allows you to know what bears show up and when.
- Take scent precautions. Act like you’re hunting wary whitetails.
- Approach your stand from down wind if possible, and use a cover scent like anise or Liquid Smoke.
- Try using a varmint call. Make noise at the bait and call often.
- Spot, stalk, and call. For Western bears, close within 100 yards, set up, and use a varmint call.
- Hunt early morning. Sneak in quietly and get ready.
- Hunt travel routes between baits or back in the thickets.
- Sign doesn’t lie—look for big tracks, big dung, and “unhuntable” animals.
- Channel a bear’s approach to a bait with logs or brush.
Making The Shot
Avid bowhunter Bruce Barrie tackles a bruin at every opportunity. As the former owner of Rocky Mountain Broadheads, he has done his share of “field work.”
“One of the first men I bear hunted with stressed the importance of taking the first good shot when a bear approaches bait,” Barrie says. “He believed that the bear was the most focused on the bait during the approach, so if you get a quality shot right away, take it.”
Barrie reasoned that the longer you wait, the more that can go wrong. The wind can change, the bear may hear a strange sound, or just spook at some non-threatening sound. (Or climb up your tree!)
Also, make sure the bear cannot access the bait while facing you. Build a log or brush wall so the animal must turn broadside. “I have not always done this and it has cost me,” Barrie says. “A good guide usually does this, but if you are setting your own baits, use brush piles or other natural material to channel its approach. Finally, Barrie likes to sprinkle marshmallows around the bait, which often distracts the bear and provides a variety of shot angles.