Bighorn sheep have double-layered skulls shored with struts of bone for protection during their fierce head-butting. They also have a broad, massive tendon linking the skull and spine to help the head pivot and recoil from blows.
John banked the Cessna and throttled back. The airstrip’s towering grass, dancing to a stiff wind, hid the bumps. Dust billowed up around the 180 as the prop fluttered to an idle. John swung the tail around by the pines that last year had sheltered our elk camp. Below us, deep in Hell’s Canyon, ran the mighty Snake River, a slender white thread from our perch on Lord Flat. We’d sleep under the wing tonight and look for elk in the morning.
I walked off to glass the meadows in dusk’s last light. Rounding a snowberry bush, I almost bumped into a bear. It lumbered off silently, looking much clumsier than it was. Shortly, I saw another bear. Then another. When darkness closed, I’d spotted nine bears, all on top of the flat. It was the darndest congregation of black bears I’d seen, though the numbers shouldn’t have surprised me.
You see, black bears are a lot more plentiful than most hunters think. They’re just awfully good at avoiding people. And they’re as silent as the moon.
Black bears are found in a variety of habitat; the key to finding them is knowing what they eat.
Some places, hunting bears means baiting or loosing the hounds. But increasingly you’ll find such practices illegal. They’re prohibited in Oregon and Washington, where I hunt. Not to worry. In spring or fall (some states offer both seasons), you can find bears just by looking. Ralph Flowers, employed by timber companies to reduce bear numbers on Washington’s west side, killed dozens of bears by guarding young plantations. He’d look for the movement of a young Douglas fir yielding its cambium to a hungry bear.
Another method, more recently popular, is predator calling. Bears come to noise that says easy meat.
“Spot-and-stalk” bear hunting can be exciting. Once, moving through a thicket toward a promising noise, I was surprised when the bruin appeared silently less than 20 feet away. Catching my scent, the bear wheeled and melted into the brush with hardly a sound—before I could nock an arrow.
Cursed with mediocre vision, black bears have a keen sense of smell and excellent ears. Keep the wind in your favor. Stay quiet or stay still; unlike elk, bears aren’t noisy themselves. But I learned the hard way that other sounds can drown out your approach.
It was the day after I’d shot an elk. The young bull had taken my arrow at dusk and vanished in thick conifers. I decided not to push him. The next morning I found the carcass right away—what was left of it. A bear had visited (the only time I’ve lost part of an animal to a predator). I salvaged most of the meat. The next morning, keen to see if the bear would return, I sneaked through the lodgepoles toward the offal. To my delight, the bear was eating. I eased forward. The litter was very dry, and at 18 yards it seemed the bear couldn’t help but hear me. I found a shooting alley and let fly. Just before the arrow reached the animal, I heard it nick a limb. The bear fled. I checked anyway. Nothing.
At the elk carcass, I was astonished to find yellowjackets swarming so loudly that I could hear nothing else. Head buried in the cavity, that bear couldn’t have heard me, even if I’d come close enough to swat that big rump with my bow!
Black bears eat almost anything, from fresh grass in the spring to berries in the fall, to carrion and cambium. Bears are smaller and faster than most people think, quick enough to qualify as predators and very strong. Bear sign can be in an overturned log or a shredded stump, where insects live.
Bears have poor vision but a keen sense of smell and excellent hearing, so keep the wind in your favor when spot-and-stalk hunting.
I’ve seen bears at all hours of the day, but dawn and dusk are the most productive times. Look mostly in thickets. Bears are woodland animals. Remember too that black bears are not all black. In fact, many western bears are brown, red, or blond. Even the blackest bears, from the East, upper Midwest and Pacific Coast, are not truly black. The hair is really dark, dark brown, like a charred steak.
You’ll likely find more bear scat than tracks, because bears are soft-footed and don’t limit their travels to established trails. Besides telling you what the animals are eating, scat can also give you a clue as to their size.
Estimating the size of a bear is hard, even when it is plainly visible. Look for small ears, and a small head. A cub’s head is big in proportion to its body. The animal spends its life growing a body that will make its head look tiny, as some animals fill out to match their feet. Knowing that a Boone & Crockett score is the sum of the length and width of a bear’s skull, many hunters look for a bear with a huge head. What they get, almost always, is a modest skull and a small carcass. A bruin whose shoulders and rump make the head shrink is generally bigger and farther away than it appears.
Black bears use many habitats, from cedar swamps to ridges above timberline. Locating bears is easier if you know what they’re eating. I’m sure the nine bears I met above the Snake that evening were feasting on berries. When huckleberries ripen in the Rockies, pickers must be careful visiting their favorite spots, because the bears know them all! The snapped and lacerated limbs of elderberries also tell you of bear activity.
Snow sends black bears to hibernation, but not right away. Once, hunting elk in wintry weather south of Yellowstone, I came upon a sow black bear with two cubs of the year. She plodded powerfully through the deep snow, but the cubs were shorter, all but hidden in the fluff. They struggled to launch themselves from one footprint to another in the ragged wake of the sow. I marveled at their energy and tenacity.
Ironically, black bears are not truly black; they can be many different colors, including brown, red or blond.
In areas like this, where black bears and grizzlies share the range, you’ll want to be sure of what you’re tracking—and shooting! Nowhere in the lower 48 are grizzlies fair game; penalties for mistakenly killing one can be severe. A black bear’s claws are shorter and more curved than a grizzly’s, and the leading edges of the footpads scribe a steeper arc. If you draw a straight line across the front of the pad mark, the toe prints of a grizzly will fall in front of or on the line. A black bear’s outside toe falls short of the line.
You can’t tell a grizzly by its color, because some are dark, and in the woods light can play tricks on your eyes. The dished face of a grizzly, the prominent hump and small ears are good clues if you have a clear look at an adult bear. Silvery back hair, dark eye patches and visible claws also tell you to leave. But bad lighting or an immature bear can leave doubts. Don’t shoot on hope! Steer clear of bears you can’t positively identify.
Many black bears are shot incidentally by deer hunters in states with concurrent seasons. But bear seasons where you live may be longer than you think. Washington’s general bear hunt runs from August 1 through November 4, for instance. If you’ve taken your deer, or you live where spring bear hunting is legal, spend some time in the woods loaded for bear. Still hunting, stand hunting, stalking or calling, you’ll sharpen hunting skills and perhaps earn a trophy in the bargain!