Which of the Three Is Your Favorite Method?
Like skinning cats, there's more than one way to hunt for bears. For those that tell you bear hunting is just too easy and unchallenging, they've probably never hunted the majestic black and colored bruisers. The basic descriptions of the various types or styles of bear hunting are covered here in this article. My professional bear hunting career began with hound hunting, so let's look at that method first.
Hunting with Hounds
Hound hunting requires the use of a highly trained pack of hounds that have the ability to smell the ground, air and brush in order to track a bear wherever he might go. Once a track is found, the guide, who is usually an expert at reading hound behavior, will let one dog out to test the track. He will know by the dog's reactions if the track is good, and if it is, he will let one or two more dogs loose to assist in the tracking. Some guides will let all the dogs go which could be as many as seven to 10 dogs.
Many times pups are included in a chase as this is the primary training method. Bears can run for a very long time, often hours and hours. I have been in many races that have lasted eight hours or more.
Depending on the head start the bear has, the race could take a while to begin (the race occurs when the tracking is complete and the dogs make a visual encounter). The guide knows this by the frequency and intensity of the hounds' barking. At this point, it is not uncommon to drive quickly through the forest on logging roads to get as close as possible to the baying hounds. Radio tracking collars are often placed on the dogs before they are turned loose, to aid in locating them when they get out of hearing distance. When you get closer to the barking frenzy, the remaining dogs are released as they are fresh and anxious to join in the chase. The race could go on until 1) The dogs come back to the truck exhausted; 2) The bear climbs a tree; or 3) The bear decides he would like to fight the dogs to the death.
If the third scenario occurs, the guide's future in this business may be at a critical point and he may be flying through the woods as though his children where being eaten. Do your best to keep up with him. When a bear is bayed on the ground, there is without a doubt no more excitement or adrenaline rush found in any type of hunting. Bears bayed up on the ground need to be carefully stalked from downwind. This has to be done quickly to protect the hounds from fighting with the bear. One whiff of human scent will usually send the bear on its way again. If the bear trees, you have lots of time; bears usually stay put for a while when up in a tree. If this happens, the hunt is basically over. The hunt is in the chase and the excitement of the baying hounds. Shooting the bear once it is treed is usually anti-climatic.
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Hunting with Bait
As hounds are very expensive to maintain all year for the two to three months I could use them, I chose baiting as my next adventure. (Also, hounds are not practical to use near roadless wilderness areas, parks, and highways.) When I was a hound hunter, I thought I was an expert bear man. But I was wrong.
While baiting bears, I realized how little bear knowledge I had. I had a long learning curve before I was good at baiting. Unfortunately, I thought like many of the anti-hunters do today -- the only thing necessary was to load a pile of donuts on the ground and build a treestand nearby; then bears would stroll up and clients would shoot them. Nothing could be further from the truth. Baiting is the most physical and time-consuming form of big game hunting I have ever done.
It is necessary to find numerous bait sites that bears will use during daylight; set up stands in places so the setting sun will not blind a late-evening hunter; keep stands a secret from other hunters; check baits and refill them daily, etc. (One year I used 20,000 pounds of food in six months. That's 400 50-pound sacks of bear chow.) What a massive undertaking.
I did find a great location in west central Washington where one year 40 hunters took 40 bears, and each saw an average of two bears per night. This was a very successful hunting camp and over a 10-year span, we took hundreds of bears. That opened an opportunity for me to work in the Weyerhaeuser Company's bear management program for 10 years, averaging 60 feeding stations per year. During those years I gained an extensive education in bear biology.
An older hunter who can't walk well or climb anymore, or one who is handicapped will enjoy this kind of a hunt. There is no real physical effort needed by the hunter, just to remain calm and shoot good (the outfitter has the responsibility of the physical labor).
Hunting bear over bait is by far the most interesting and educational because you are able to learn by observation. I took every opportunity before hunting season began to hide away in my treestand and watch the bears interact with each other. Hunting over bait is much more personal for the hunter because you're usually by yourself, no one is there to help you to judge the bear, back up your shots, or to help track after the shot.
Some hunters think this would be boring if nothing shows up, but there are so many things to watch in the forest that keep your interest. Bears seemingly appear out of nowhere. You can look down at the bait and see that nothing is there, so you look around the forest and then back at the bait, and suddenly a bear is there. They walk in the forest almost in complete silence. I really enjoy this type of hunting.
An added benefit is that you will never shoot a female unless you choose to. At the typical 25 yards you can identify the sex almost 100 of the time. It is wise to put a few snacks in the tree branches to get them to stand and then identification should be easy. Find a 6-foot log on the ground and with a chain saw make notches every foot as a bear ruler. Making notches in the trees growing nearby helps to determine shoulder height as well.
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Hunting with Stealth
Lastly and, without a doubt the most satisfying bear hunting I have ever experienced, is the old-fashioned spot and stalk. We were forced into this when the laws in Washington State banned the use of bait and hounds. On the positive side, we now can take two bears per year. The negative side is that sows can easily be killed when you can't see them up close, leaving cubs abandoned. Fortunately, we have never had this happen on any of our guided hunts. There is unmatched pleasure in finding a bear on your own and stalking it to within shooting distance. The high alpine scenery is breathtaking; the fall colors, the snow-covered peaks, various wildlife species or even hearing a bugling bull elk are highlights to please any outdoorsman.
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Glassing the high meadows for bears is about the most satisfying and relaxing thing I have ever done in my life. Hunting bears this way could require shots of 300 yards or more. A rangefinder would be a reasonable investment (we use them on our guided hunts all the time and they have become very small and affordable).
This type of hunting can also be quite physical as you must find an elevation where the berries are low enough for you to see a bear on all fours. A hike of a mile or more up a steep hill is not at all unusual. There are usually plenty of logged areas which you can drive to but they are usually heavily hunted. The bottom line here is you may find a ton of bear sign at low elevation but if you can't see them, you can't shoot them. There may be fewer bears up high but they are visible out in the open meadows and clear cuts.
In summary, the highest success rate for your bear rug is hound hunting. It is usually the most expensive and can be the most physical as well. Next is hunting over bait, also a very successful method, and very affordable guided or semi-guided hunts are available. Stand or bait hunting can be more like hunting on your own -- you get to make whatever choice you want, good or bad. It is the least physical if you are not doing the baiting. It is the most physical if you are doing it. Finally, the spot and stalk method. This is the least successful only because it is not usually guaranteed. Some years it has been, but many years hunters have passed on bears that could be shot. In some locations like the northern Vancouver Island or southeast Alaska, it could be considered a 100-percent guarantee if the hunter is willing to take any bear. I certainly can't tell you which way is best for you -- that depends on your physical ability and interests. I have taken bears by each method and guided many other hunters with all three methods. For me, the high alpine hunts in the fall are still the high point of the season.
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Editor's Note: The article above originally titled "Hunting Methods for Bear" by Jim Hackiewicz was first published in the Jan/Feb 2000 issue of Bear Hunting Magazine and has been reprinted here by permission of Bear Hunting Publications, Inc. To learn more about Bear Hunting Magazine please visit www.Bear-Hunting.com
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