To elevate the adrenaline factor, try a spot-and-stalk hunt with a predator call
It was May 18, prime time to hunt spring black bears. There were clear-cuts, seismic lines and old logging roads where we were hunting, and while I’m not a road hunter, glassing these hot spots from a vehicle is the most efficient way to cover ground. We had seen plenty of sign all morning, but no bruins.
As we pulled into a clearing at midday, I looked down and noticed several piles of bear scat, both old and new. At least one bear was regularly returning to feed on the fresh clover, and the odds were high it was still in the area. Wasting no time, my buddy Craig and I determined that the best vantage point was behind an old fallen tree in the middle of the clearing.
Less than two minutes after I began calling with my best rendition of a squealing, dying rabbit, a black body broke from the tree line and raced toward us. “There he is!” I whispered enthusiastically. “He’s a smaller bear, but he’s coming fast!”
I continued to squeal, and it wasn’t until I ceased that the bear finally hit the brakes. At 20 yards, he stepped up on a stump and offered us a spectacular view. He was only a five-foot bear, so we didn’t shoot, but what a treat to see him come to the call. Since that day, predator calling has become one of my go-to tactics for spot-and-stalk black bear hunting.
Location, calling strategy, sign, safety and visibility are the five most important considerations for beckoning bruins. If you want to step up your bear-hunting game, here’s how.
Find the food
The first rule with spotting and stalking black bears is to focus on areas where baiting is not allowed, as bears home in on bait sites and rarely travel far from them. They are opportunistic feeders, so when bait is available, they’re less likely to risk feeding out in the open—let alone respond to a predator call.
When looking for a bear to stalk and call to, habitat is also key. While they can be found in aspen parkland, foothills and mountains, and even on tundra, bears truly thrive in mixed boreal forest habitat. Bears are omnivorous, but on most days, organic food sources are a top priority, especially in the spring. Locate a high-quality food source and you will eventually find a bear.
Black bears prefer to remain hidden, but their stomachs get the better of them in May and June after they emerge from their dens. Look for lush green chutes (above) on south-facing slopes, along open cutlines and next to logging roads—places where the bears are most visible and your odds of an encounter go up. Where regulations allow, I’m a big fan of using an ATV to slowly travel pipelines and cutlines off the main roadways.
When available, a bear’s preferred spring meal is clover and dandelions, but it will rarely pass up a free carnivorous meal. So, if you find a bear out feeding, try calling him into range. Likewise in the fall, bears feed heavily in preparation for denning. From August through October, berry patches can be dynamite locations. In fringe agricultural areas, meanwhile, fall bears will flock to standing oat fields to feed. Calling near either of these hot spots can also produce great results.
Forestry management zones and fringe agricultural areas certainly hold a lot of bears, but if you really want to up your odds, drive the extra distance into public land zones, where the timber is heavy, the habitat is good and bear numbers are high. Look for low-lying boggy areas and cascading beaver dams, which can be dynamite because they offer another accessible food source.
Remember, too, that predators, including black bears, like to follow waterways such as creeks and rivers; ridges and valleys are also heavily used travel corridors. Invest your time in all these areas and you will eventually find a bruin.
Make the call
Currently, you cannot use electronic calls for hunting black bears anywhere in Canada. Thankfully, mouth calls (above) are downright deadly on bruins, and there are plenty of options to choose from. In fact, manufacturers have responded to the growing demand as never before. Most of the calls imitate the sounds of an animal in distress, usually a jackrabbit or cottontail.
The process of calling black bears is similar to calling coyotes. The main difference is in how the animal approaches—unlike with a coyote, the advance of a black bear can, to some extent, be controlled. Bears frequently pause to evaluate the prospect of an easy meal, particularly when the calling stops. Provided there’s only a short break, they’ll continue their advance as soon as the calling resumes. Wait too long, however, and they may question the authenticity of the call and abandon the prospect of free food.
As a rule, give it everything you’ve got when you call, doing your best to mimic a suffering prey species. Squeals and hollers wavering from loud to soft often work best. I find it particularly effective to mimic whimpering sounds mixed in with extreme squeals. This can best be described as an animal’s vocal response to being attacked by a predator. The intent is to replicate an actual predator-prey conflict, leading the bear to think a fresh meal lies in wait.
Follow the sign
Cold calling without knowing if a bear is lurking nearby can, and often does, work—but it’s a low-odds strategy. To increase your chances, first look for fresh sign before calling.
Tracks are always a good place to start, but unless you’re a skilled tracker, it can be tough to determine how old they are. If the track was made in wet soil and it rained only a few hours earlier, then you know it’s fresh. Bears can roam great distances, but they usually move slowly, so the bear that made the tracks may still be nearby.
While they may not always reveal when they were made, well-defined tracks can at least help you evaluate the size of a bear, and whether it is alone or with others, such as a sow with cubs. If you find a single set of large tracks—with a front pad measuring five inches or more in width—then a bigger boar may well have left it. That said, tracks alone won’t provide definitive answers, so keep scouring the area for more sign.
The size of scat piles and the diameter of the plugs can also offer valuable information—the bigger the pile and wider the plug, the bigger the bear likely is. And if you find scat that appears to be less than a day old, along with other piles that are older, there’s a good chance the bear will return to feed. Many times, I’ve set up in locations where there were both old and new scat and tracks, and within a few hours a bear came out to feed on the available greens.
Bear claw marks on deciduous trees such as poplars are common in the backcountry. These telltale markings provide another piece of the puzzle to confirm you’re in a good bear area. If you’re fortunate enough to find a tree with the bark torn to shreds from well above head height all the way down to the ground, chances are good you’ve located a territorial marking by a dominant bear. Be aware that it could have been made by a grizzly, however, if you happen to be in grizzly country.
Know the danger
It’s been said the only thing predictable about black bears is that they’re unpredictable. In general, they want nothing to do with people. But as top-level predators, bears are motivated mostly by food, so if you sound or smell like a meal, there’s a good chance they’ll come to investigate. For this reason, predator calling is a dynamite strategy for beckoning bruins.
In broad terms, spot-and-stalk hunting black bears is relatively safe, although the risk of danger does increase any time you try to sneak up close. Add calling to the equation, which can bring a bear into your personal space, and the risk is elevated even further. For the most part, bears attack in defence of their young or their food, or any time they feel cornered with no option for escape. It’s therefore important to choose a safe line of approach when sneaking in on a bear, especially when calling.
Also consider the risk from other predator populations. Where I do most of my black bear hunting, for example, there’s also a high density of cougars, wolves and grizzlies. With the very real possibility of attracting any of those species to my call, maximizing visibility is key (see “Mind the view”).
Whether you’re hunting with a firearm or bow, remember that mechanical problems and misfires can occur. And with the unpredictability of bears, they can become aggressive and manoeuvre in ways not conducive to making a lethal shot, especially with a bow. That’s why I’m a big fan of always carrying bear spray when calling—it provides just that little bit of added insurance.
Kevin WilsonMind the view
When you choose a place to call from, consider what you can and cannot see, assessing the area for any hills, depressions, vegetation or other geographical features that might conceal a bear’s approach. My rule is to select a spot with 360-degree visibility so that the bruin isn’t suddenly in your lap.
I know one hunter, for example, who called in a bear to just five yards through dense cover, approaching from the opposite direction the hunter had anticipated. His inability to see put him in a dangerous predicament. Plus, he was also unable to get a shot at the concealed bear, which fortunately startled and ran away. Things could have otherwise gone south in a hurry.
For the best visibility, look for elevated spots with a clear view all around you, and try to set up next to the likes of any logs, rocks or trees that can help break up your silhouette. Also, set up downwind of the direction you think the bear will approach from. Being able to observe an incoming bear’s behaviour is imperative for knowing when to adjust your calling efforts accordingly—and when to make the shot.
Alberta contributor Kevin Wilson is an avid all-around hunter.