Black bears are iconic animals that represent the wild, mystic and enduring nature of the North American wilderness. Many of the great patriarchs of our hunting culture identified themselves as bear hunters, including Daniel Boone and Theodore Roosevelt. Fast-forward to 2019, and we find the resurgence of the bear hunter in full swing.
Bears are notorious ungulate predators, and spring bear hunting creates hunter opportunity in a time period generally void of big game hunting. In many locales, bear tags can be purchased in fall as a secondary animal on a fall ungulate hunt, but targeting them during spring when other critters can’t be pursued is the crème de la crème of bruin hunting. More good news: Black bear numbers are increasing in almost every region with suitable habitat.
Below are five do-it-yourself hunts that will jump-start your quest for interaction with a truly wild predator in truly wild places. Let’s go!
If you’re looking for a true Western spot-and-stalk black bear hunt, Montana is a great place to start. The state offers both spring and fall seasons with nonresident over-the-counter tags available for $350. The spring season is the crown jewel of the Big Sky State, featuring an April 15 opener and running through mid-June in some regions. There are a few regions that shut their bruin operations down on May 31.
“Annually, more that 20,000 black bear licenses are sold, roughly 10,000 people spend between 90,000-100,000 days hunting to harvest approximately 1,000 black bears in Montana,” said Jim Williams of Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
Over a 20-year period, 46 percent of bears have been harvested in the northwestern corner of Montana. A recent bear report posted by Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks noted that: “We have shown that bear density is greatest in the habitats of northwestern Montana and generally declines with less moist habitats towards the south. Hunter numbers follow this pattern.”
Most black bears tagged during fall are by opportunistic deer and elk hunters. In the spring, hunters specifically targeting bruins use methods that involve green vegetation. The two primary techniques are walking roads and stationary glassing. Montana has more than 30 million acres of state and federal land, which includes countless miles of non-vehicular, gated roads. Roads create canopy openings and are often the first places to grow green vegetation during spring. Bowhunters can find a favorable wind and stalk down the roads, early and late in the day, looking for bears in the ditches. My favorite method is stationary glassing. This involves getting into some big country and glassing man-made or natural openings for bears. Once a target animal is spotted, move in for the stalk.
The northwestern part of the state is heavily wooded with many old, gated logging roads. Stalking old roads is probably the favored method of bear hunting, but you’ll also find areas with fire damage or logging that create openings for glassing. Don’t be fooled, it isn’t an easy DIY bowhunt, but it’s doable.
Idaho is the do-it-yourself bear hunter’s best friend. More than 60 percent of the state is federal land, most of which is open to hunting. Nonresident hunters can buy over-the-counter tags in most regions for $186, and in some zones where they’re trying to reduce predation you can buy them for only $41.75.
In 2016, 38,000-plus black bear tags were sold in Idaho and 2,636 bears were harvested; 46 percent of those bears were harvested over bait. 2015 yielded one of the highest bear harvests in the last 10 years with nearly 3,000 bears taken.
The beauty of Idaho is that a DIY hunter can bait bears on public land, even nonresidents. All you need to do is buy a $31.75 baiting permit from a regional office. Spot-and-stalk is also popular, as well as hunting with hounds. Some of the best hunter harvest statistics during the past 5 years have come from the Panhandle of Idaho in units such as DAU 1A, 1B and 1C.
According to Idaho Fish and Game Biologist Jen Bruns, “The Clearwater Region is very unique and has a broad diversity of habitat good for bears. The Craig Mountain Unit 11 has a lot of public access and people like to bear hunt up there. Up in the Lochsa and Selway regions there is a lot of backcountry that folks like. However, the Panhandle region has some of the highest density of bears.
“The real jewel for bowhunters is spring DIY baiting,” Bruns continued. “People can bait anywhere on public land, they just need to have the permit, follow the rules and mark their bait with the appropriate tag. Each hunter can get one permit per year and can run three baits on that permit.”
It will take some logistical planning, but one could easily do a 5- to 8-day bowhunting trip and be successful. The key is bringing plenty of dogfood, corn, donuts, used fryer oil and commercial bear scent attractant, and on your arrival day set up baits at least two-miles apart. It’s also a good idea to set those baits as far away from roads as possible. Set up trail cameras as well. It might take the bears a few days to find your baits, but it’s not at all uncommon for them to find it in less than 24 hours. After a bear hits the bait, get the wind right and start hunting. Bears like deep drainages and thick cover. Place your bait in areas that allow the prevailing winds and thermals to carry the scent into areas you believe hold black bears.
Many people think of the West when referring to black bear hunting, but the East has piles of bears, and much of the lore of bear hunting has origins in this part of the country. Georgia isn’t known as a black bear hunting destination, but it’s just because it hasn’t been discovered. Georgia is one of the few states in the country that has a two-bear limit for both residents and nonresidents. Kevin Lowrey, a biologist for the Georgia Department of Wildlife Resources said, “There are three separate populations of bears. North Georgia has about 4,000, Middle Georgia has around 300 bears, and the South Georgia population has roughly 1,000.”
The Georgia bear opener starts in early September and ends on January 13, concurrent to deer season. Southern and Middle zones have limited hunting and unique season dates.
In Georgia, you can’t hunt over bait, but the state does have 1.7 million acres of public land to target bears, including some great state-run wildlife management areas (WMA). The Chattahoochee WMA, covering 25,150 acres, has some of the densest bear populations in Georgia, according to Lowrey. He said, “There are some folks that specifically target bears, but not many. We increased the limit to help with bear management.”
Lowrey gave some advice for how to hunt bears as well. “In the early season, bears will be in the white oaks and you can hunt them like squirrels. Move through the woods and listen for them in the trees eating acorns that haven’t fallen yet. Find a few white oak acorns and look for trees with claw marks. Set up near there and hunt. They’ll be back. Bears are very patternable in the early season.
“Summer food plots are active in the early season and can attract bears on a poor mast year,” he continued. “In the mountains, you hunt bears just like deer. They move like deer through the mountains. Where you find deer, you might find bears. Spot-and-stalk on the oak ridges can work later in the year.”
Definitely don’t overlook Georgia as a top-notch DIY bruin destination.
Arizona is a sleeper state that’s home to some of North America’s largest skulled black bears. As a matter of fact, it’s in the top five states in terms of Boone and Crockett and Pope and Young entries. There isn’t a massive population of animals, but it offers a unique desert and high-country hunt. April Howard, the large carnivore biologist for the Arizona Game and Fish said, “Population size has not been formally estimated in several decades, but based on expert opinion, we believe there are about 1,500-2,000 black bears in Arizona.”
Arizona also has color-phase bears that have an allure to all bear hunters. Arizona has a permit-only spring season in select units and baiting isn’t allowed, but running bears with hounds is legal in some regions. Be sure to check state game and fish regulations before utilizing hounds.
Arizona bears are found between elevations of 4,000 and 10,000 feet in the wooded regions, including pinyon-juniper, oak woodland, coniferous forest and chaparral. Interestingly, very few bears are found in the northwest corner of Arizona north of the Colorado River.
Avid Arizona bowhunter Josh Kirchner said, “Many want to experience the fall-time ‘bears in the pears’ phenomena. I don’t blame them. That is an exciting time to be out in the hills looking for bruins, but many don’t know about the spring bear seasons. Spring black bears get very little pressure and the temperatures are better than hunting in August.”
During spring, Josh likes to find a good vantage point overlooking lots of terrain and then glass. The bears are keying on green vegetation. During fall, he looks for bear sign around prickly pear cactus producing fruit, as well as sign around water holes. Hunting in August can be uncomfortably hot, but it can produce some great action.
Howard went on to give some suggestions on regions to hunt. “For fall archery seasons, we see good success in units 23N, especially north of Young, and in 27. It’s got great habitat and you don’t need to venture far from Highway 191. We also see success in 34A and 35B in southeastern AZ. Fall archery tags are over-the-counter. For spring archery seasons, I would consider 3B and 3C (both in east-central Arizona), and 35A in southeastern AZ, but keep in mind that spring archery offers only draw tags for bears. Most of these units aren’t too far from the New Mexico border. Relative densities of black bears in Arizona are highest along the Mogollon Rim in the Mazatzal Mountains in central Arizona, and the White and Pinaleno Mountains in eastern Arizona.”
Arkansas was once known as “The Bear State” but modern times have branded it with a different identity. This is my home state, and I grew up hunting bears here.
The Arkansas bear population is expanding in every direction from its core in the Ozark and Ouachita Mountains and Mississippi Delta regions. We’ve got only a fall season, and it always opens with our deer season on the fourth Saturday in September. In Bear Zones 1, 2 and 5A, hunters can bait bears on private land 30 days before the season opener. Bear Zone 1 and 5A have a bear quota that can be met quickly, but Zone 2 doesn’t have a quota. Hunters can buy a nonresident bear tag for just over $300, and you get six deer tags to go along with it. Bonus!
Arkansas has more than 2 million acres of public land primarily in the Ozark and Ouachita National Forests. The central Ozark counties of Johnson, Pope, Franklin and Newton hold the state’s best bear numbers. In Zone 2 you can focus on Scott, Polk, Montgomery and Yell counties. Bears are going to be in the big woods and focusing on hard mast during fall. This isn’t an easy hunt by any stretch, but it’s doable. Focusing on the early season, just like in Georgia, you’ll find bears on acorns.
Arkansas Large Carnivore Biologist Myron Means said, “Scouting is going to be key for success on public land in Arkansas, because you can’t use bait or scents. You’re going to want to key in on areas dropping white oak acorns, and you’ll have to pay attention to the wind direction. Water sources can also be good on dry years in the early fall when it’s hot.”
From my experience hunting this terrain, you’re going to need to be in good shape and willing to cover some miles without much return. I don’t just scout, but I hunt while I scout. The bears I’ve killed on public land have usually come when I’ve spotted them before they spotted me while I was moving.
Visibility in Arkansas is limited. In most places you can’t see more than 50 yards. Find secluded areas of national forest and scout/hunt until you find concentrations of bear scat, rolled logs, bear trails (padded out trails) and a food source.
Good luck bear hunting in 2019! When you engage in the challenge of hunting these majestic beasts you might just discover that you were destined to be a DIY black bear hunter.