Calling Black Bears in Remote Wilderness Areas
Is an Addicting Challenge
By Jack Spencer Jr.
Today’s predator hunters are living in historic times. Predator populations are thriving and expanding geographically. The Dakotas now have mountain lion seasons, several Western states now have a wolf season and it seems that most states where black bears reside are having more and more conflicts with their growing bear populations.
Many of the larger North American predatory species either require the use of trailing hounds or tags that are difficult to obtain for a sportsman to be successful. Black bears, however, are one of the few predatory species where a bear tag can simply be purchased over the counter (varies state to state).
If you reside in a state that does not have a black bear population, wait a few years and you just might. Predators are taking back their historic ranges and many state agencies and conservation groups are waiting with arms open willing to re-introduce certain predatory species. The controversial wolf re-introduction in the West and Midwest is just one of the examples.
Calling Them In
Calling black bears with a distress call can usually ensure the predator caller everything from quiet to chaotic moments. Ever have a documented man killer run up to your calling stand location within a few yards? It is thrilling to say the least, and it can be mighty addictive.
I have successfully called in more than two dozen black bears and I can say that no two bear hunts mirror one another. I have had some bears aimlessly come in on a galloping run, while others come in very slow and cautiously. It’s hard to believe that a 400-pound plus animal can slip into your personal space without a sound. Even a yearling doe would make more of a disturbance.
The predator call market is littered with all types of different predator calls and, to some extent, they all can attract critters that have sharp teeth and want a free meal. The fawn bleat sound seems to get the best results for me, especially when I mimic death moans. And the versatile open-reed call is what I prefer when filling black bear tags. An open-reed call is one of the hardest calls to master though.
In order to whistle up a black shaggy, you’re going to have to do some homework and eventually some legwork. Phone calls should be placed to the management agency responsible for managing black bears in your hunt area to gain further knowledge of an area with good bear populations. Aside from asking where to hunt, you should also be asking for harvest numbers and where the bears are being harvested. If record-book bears are important to you, look in the record books to find the areas that produce the bigger trophies. Many states post bear harvest locations either by counties or hunt units where bears were killed the previous seasons.
The best bear caller in the woods can’t produce a bear if there are no bears in the area. The most important aspect in calling bears is finding suitable habitat that harbors good black bear populations. Areas that lack major human disturbance are usually where I start the search. Remember, though, everything you pack in you must pack out and that hopefully includes the carcass of one black bear.
Because not many sportsmen venture into roadless wilderness areas, one might not have to venture in more than a couple of miles from the nearest road. And, as is almost always the case, if you hike in a couple of miles from a road, you lose about 90 percent of your hunting competition.
The hunting aids in today’s computer era can save sportsman a lot of unnecessary scouting trips. This can also save sportsman gas and general wear and tear on their vehicle. Google Earth will give you a bird’s eye view of anywhere in the country. Google Earth also has to show overlays of roads, camps and even desired wilderness area boundaries. This is extremely useful information, yet many sportsmen don’t even use it to their advantage.
If I am going to venture into a new area, I simply visit Google Earth and I get a good idea of the lay of the land before I arrive. I can even look at the mosaic of vegetation and tell what shrubs, timber or even oak patches are in a particular area I wish to hunt. Knowing where bears sleep and feed before a hunt can really help increase success.
The black bear age structure in remote areas tends to favor older-age-class bears because they are not being harvested. In areas where hunters constantly remove bears, the average age of bears tends to decrease. Older-age-class bears are more likely than younger bears to have heard the death cry of small mammals, such as deer fawns, in the course of their longer lives.
Older bears also tend to be bigger bears and are much more likely to sport better skull measurements for the trophy bear hunters. The game department aged two of my wilderness area bears at 11 and 14 years respectively. They were very old by bear standards.
There is a little disclaimer I should make up front so guilt won’t haunt me later. If you’re fortunate enough to harvest a black bear in the backcountry, you’ll be unfortunate enough to pack it out.
I am a competitive trail and distance runner, so hiking in 12 miles really doesn’t bother me and I find the long distant foot travels soothing on my soul. There’s nothing romantic about making four 12-mile trips out to your truck with greasy bear meat though. After I finish the last pack load, I always tell myself this is the last bear tag I’ll buy, but then the next bear season rolls around and my little brain easily forgets about aching muscles and blistered feet.
Within a few minutes, a coyote came trotting in within 30 yards down wind. I believe the coyote could easily smell me and it just didn’t have a care in the world that I was there. I made another series of fawn calls and the coyote simply sat on its bottom and watched me. This only happens in remote areas where most animals have never seen a human exhibit this type of docile behavior.
Eventually the coyote left and I kept on calling. About 40 minutes into my calling, a small mountain lion crept near my calling location. I have made several thousand calling stands in most of the Western states, Canada and Mexico and finally had a mountain lion show up to my call. The problem is I was hunting in the Golden State, which doesn’t allow mountain lion hunting. The mountain lion crept underneath some brush about 50 yards away and laid down.
I decided to keep calling in hopes a bear would arrive, but I couldn’t scan the country around me like I normally do because I couldn’t trust the mountain lion so near to me. I called several more times and, after an hour, I would occasionally hear something in the willows 20 yards away over my shoulder. I would look over in the direction of the noise, but I kept switching to the opposite direction to watch the mountain lion again. It was so fascinating to see a mountain lion that close for so long.
I often hunt mountain lions with my hounds, so I’ve seen many mountain lions up close caught by the hounds’ fury, but this sight was truly amazing. The mountain lion eventually stood up and started walking away. I couldn’t resist taking a better look, so I eased up and watched as the stealthy ’cat slid into the shadows.
At just about the same time, I heard a loud “huff, huff” and a big black bear headed into the thick brush only 15 yards away. I was so preoccupied with the presence of the mountain lion, I didn’t pay close enough attention to my opposite field of view. It had taken more than an hour for the bear to reach my calling location. I don’t know how far out this bear came from, but I think this particular bear just responded slowly.
The mountain lion encounter cost me an opportunity at harvesting a bear, but the experience still ranks as my most memorable calling stand ever.
The Acorn Patch
I gathered my composure and headed to another calling location nearly a mile away that had some promising acorn patches. I found this area by merely sitting on the computer late at night looking at the area using Google Earth. I had never been to this location before, but I remembered what the area looked like. It had a couple of small clearings near the acorn patches. When I finally arrived at the location, it was exactly what I was looking for in a good bear calling set up.
I let out a series of soft fawn distress calls and waited a few minutes. About five minutes later, I repeated the calling process again. I was halfway through my distress series when I heard some loud crashing sounds coming from the bottom of a draw. I figured it must be an old doe deer because they will often come in agitated with a fawn bleat call. I kept hearing the sounds. Occasionally they would stop, but I would call and the sounds would start up again. Eventually, I could see willow branches swaying from the creek bottom and could tell the thrashing was headed in my direction.
I blew a couple more tender squeaks and a big bear came running right toward me. It was not stopping. I tried to whistle to get the thing stopped, but it continued shuffling right on by before the bear finally paused long enough for me to make an uncomfortably close shot.
When I checked the large bruin’s teeth, I wasn’t too surprised to see they were worn. The dental wear looked older than the teeth from the 14-year-old bear I shot a few years prior. The sheer aggressiveness of the bear responding to the distress sound in the acorn patch indicated to me that it was an old bear. The forest floor was blanketed with fallen acorns, however, even with an endless cache of food readily available, this black bear couldn’t resist the tempting sound of an easy meal.
Not for Everyone
Tackling predatory black bears in remote areas is going to require a little more effort than lugging a fast-handling long gun near roads and sounding a call. These wilderness hunts are tailored for the adventurous types and for those who are not afraid of heavy backpacks and long walks. There are many who hunt black bears, but damn few who can go in deep, call hard and come out loaded with bear.
Jack Spencer Jr., of Nevada, is an avid predator caller.