Proven Bruin Tactics
When going up against a big, wise bruin, you better
have more than a few tricks up your sleeve.
By Bell Vaznis
The site intrigued me. It was situated at the confluence of two streams, a natural crossing for black bears, and well off the beaten path. It was also dark under the canopy of spruce and fir, even on a bright sunlit day, which gave me the willies whenever I replenished the bait. Indeed, the five-inch front bad tracks in the nearby mud indicated a mature boar was raiding my cache of meat and pastries every other night or so, and the last thing I wanted to do was to come face to face with him in the poor light.
I hung a portable stand crosswind to the pile of logs covering the bait after one of his visits, and even though I was anxious to free an arrow, I waited for the bear to get used to the new setup before climbing on board. It was the right decision, for the first night I hid aloft, the big bear circled cautiously downwind of the bait site, and once satisfied all was safe, committed himself to the offering just before dark.
I waited for him to present a quartering-away shot, and when he did, I came to full draw and released a vaned shaft at his vitals in one fluid motion. The Pope and Young bruin let out a deafening roar upon impact, and immediately fled the scene with his stubby tail tucked between his legs like a scalded dog.
His efforts were to no avail, however, as he was already dead on his feet expiring less than 50 yards from my stand.
Some bowhunters today erroneously believe that taking a trophy black bear over bait is a cakewalk. After all, they protest, all you have to do is wait next to a pile of donuts for one to show up! I usually break up laughing at these “experts,” for 99 times out of a hundred they have never even seen a bear in the wild much less tagged one with a bow!
You see, if the truth be known, taking a trophy bruin with a bow and arrow over bait is no gimme, especially in those heavily wooded sections of the United States and Canada where black bears are so often found. Why? Because big black bears are smart—very smart. Once a mature black bear knows you are after him, your chances of seeing him are almost nil. In fact, most woodsmen rate only the wolf as more difficult to catch flatfooted in the wild. It is no wonder then that the black bear is America’s number two big-game animal!
A mature bruin, however, is not invincible. Bowhunters who pay attention to detail, might, just might, bet a shot at the trophy of a lifetime. Here are a dozen or so tips to help you in that quest.
Hire a Good Outfitter
If you have your heart set on a record-book bruin, then Canada should immediately come to mind. Although big bruins are arrowed every year in the States, the Canadian provinces offer you well-managed populations of gargantuan bears in wilderness settings. Not to mention, most of these bears have never seen a human before!
But to get a crack at one, you must go where the biggest males abound, and then book with an outfitter who specializes in the 400-plus-pound specimens. Price is often a good indicator in this regard; expect to pay around $2,000 for a quality hunt.
To get started, dial toll-free 1-877-8 CANADA, and ask for a list of outfitters from the province(s) you are most interested in. To date, I’ve arrowed several trophy bruins in Newfoundland, Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta.
Walking the Line
Some outfitters will turn over an active bait line to you and then let you set your own stands, or offer you a couple of hot bait sites with stands already in place and then let you decide where you want to sit. Whatever the case, it is imperative you examine as many bait sites over the length of your hunt as possible to help you determine which site(s) have big bears nearby.
What should you be looking for? For starters, I look for front pad tracks five or more inches in width, indicating a probable Pope and Young bear, and large diameter droppings. A Boone & Crockett bruin, for example, will leave dung the size of a Coke can on nearby entrance/exit trails.
Mature bruins also like to circle a bait site before committing themselves to the set-up. Look for freshly crushed vegetation and faint pad impressions just within sight of the bait—a dead giveaway to the 400-pound chocolate bruin I arrowed in Saskatchewan a few seasons back. His entrance trail would have been easy to miss if my guide and I hadn’t been actually looking for it.
When comfortable, black bears will also sit on their haunches or lie down near the bait to feed giving you yet another opportunity to judge their size. Get on your hands and knees if necessary, and look for a flattened area of matted, broken or bent-over plant stems.
Can’t find a bear track? Spread cooking oil, grease or even just water near the bait site to help soften the soil. The oil/grease will also go a long way towards attracting even more bears. Put some grease on the trunks of nearby trees, too, to help lure bears to the bait site, and then gauge any fresh claw marks found on the tree’s trunk for size.
Of course, don’t overlook a big bear sighting within a half mile of a particular bait site. You can bet your plane ticket home that a bruiser knows exactly where that bait is, and unless spooked, will eventually visit during legal shooting hours.
Other Trophy Bear Sign
Keep in mind that a boar’s home range typically overlaps the home ranges of several sows. He will therefore only be able to visit a bait site once every two or three days. Unless you find sign to the contrary, a site that is pounded every day is probably being hit by a subordinate bear, maybe even a sow. I’ll take a bait that is being hit sporadically over one that is being devoured nightly any day!
In addition to size, color can also denote trophy quality. Black bears, for example, can have red, cinnamon, blond and chocolate hide as well as the very rare white. Look for hair caught on nearby tree trunks, brush or even a length of barbed wire left purposely near the bait for clues to coat color. There is no finer trophy in the world than an off-color record-book bruin!
Eliminate Sows and Cubs
Locating big bear sign around a particular bait site is one goal, but you also want to avoid hunting a site routinely visited by a sow with cubs for obviously reasons. How can you tell there are cubs about? They usually destroy a baited area leaving it look like it was hit by a tornado. Look for small tracks and small diameter droppings to confirm your suspicions, and tidbits of food scattered all over the place.
Don’t however, abandon a site if it is being visited by several sows, as evidenced in part by a plethora of medium-size tracks. Black bears breed in the early summer, and such a site can be a magnet for jumbo boars looking for a sow in heat. You may only get one chance at a particular boar under these circumstances as he will not likely return once he hooks up with a sow. Size him up quickly, and take your first killing shot.
Watch Your Scent
There are two schools of thought concerning scent control. One, keep your body, clothing and all equipment as scent-free as possible by using rubber boots, charcoal suits and deodorizing sprays. Or two, since the bears already associate the bait with humans, do not make any effort to control your odor. In fact, you can even leave an article of clothing behind in the stand to help desensitize the bears to our stench. Both schools have their merit.
It is not uncommon for a bear to return to bait site after being shot at. In fact, even superficially wounded bruins have been known to return in a day or two. Why? In part because they did not associate the sound of the shot or the pain inflicted with that of a human. Bears are always fighting, and scratches and cuts are a normal part of daily life. Once a bear knows he is being hunted, that is he associates humans and food with danger, all bets are off.
That is why I refer to keep my presence at the bait site a secret. I avoid spreading fresh scent about by walking too close to the bait pile, and I always try to sneak in and out of my stand without causing a disturbance. I especially avoid crossing any bear trails. You can never be too careful in this regard!
Underestimating a bear’s intelligence can easily lead to tag soup at season’s end. Pick a tree with a large trunk and many branches to disguise your silhouette, and then arrange it so you can shoot sitting down in full camo. I like to be no more than 20 yards from the bait and 12 to 15 feet above the ground to help insure a one-shot kill.
Bears may have poor eyesight, but they are not blind. Any blob that looks out of place arouses their suspicions, and they can spot motion faster than an alert whitetail. Anything you can do to stay out of sight, and to reduce or conceal unwanted movements, is to your benefit.
A Bear’s Nature
One of the biggest mistakes neophytes make is shooting the fist bear that comes to the bait. There is a social hierarchy among bears, and no place is this more evident than around a bait site. Sows, yearlings and young boars often feed first in the early evening followed by bears higher on the ladder with the big boars feeding last, when they feel it is safest.
A subordinate boar will generally announce his arrival by purposely snapping a twig, thereby warning any bears already on the bait that he is nearby. Bears subordinate to him will generally melt back into the forest in anticipation of his arrival. The snapping of a twig also serves as a safety device for him. The last thing he wants is to do is surprise the Alpha male at the feeding site. He knows from past experience that he is no match for the dominate bruin.
Therefore, if you see a bear acting nervous around the bait site, you can bet he fears a bigger bear is nearby. Experienced bear hunters will pass on the nervous bear in hopes a real jumbo will soon materialize.
Never Give Up
Once you are convinced a mature bruin is in the vicinity of a particular bait, plan on hunting that bait for the duration of the trip. Unless you have educated him to your presence, a big bear will eventually come in for a look-see during daylight hours. I once sat over a bait for two weeks waiting for a Boone & Crockett bear with seven-plus-inch front pads to return. I finally saw the mystery bear on my last night in camp, a roly-poly 675-pound spring behemoth with a head the size of a basketball. He never took his eyes off me, however, cleverly shielding his body with a “head-on” stance. I never did get a shot at him even though I sat only 15 yards away without a twig between us!
Once a bear knows you are on to him, he may be impossible to kill. There are, however, a few tricks you can use to lure a big bear back to the bait site. A honey burn, for example, can send a cloud of sweet smoke into a bear’s lair that most bruins find difficult to resist. Simply pour a pint of honey into a pot, and fire it up with a can of Sterno. It will first steam and then boil before erupting into a volcano of thick smoke. We took three fat bears on spring evening using this technique.
What can you do if a bear hangs up just out of range? More often than not the bear has figured out you are on stand and is waiting for you o leave so he can chow down in safety. (I told you bears were smart!) The trick here is to quietly erect a second stand downwind of his staging area in the middle of the day, or have a buddy set up another stand near the bait and then leave one-half hour before nightfall.
The first time we tried the latter, the ruse worked like clockwork. “Thinking” I had left my stand early, the bruin waltzed into the bait site before my buddy had driven out of hearing range, presenting me with an easy broadside shot. This plan has worked so well over the years that we always pack a couple of extra lightweight portables with us to bear camp.
As you can see, tagging a record-book bear means hunting in areas they thrive, and then interpreting the sign they leave behind correctly. It also means learning to play cat and mouse with them around the bait station. In fact, only then will you realize just how smart a mature black bear can be. Let the games begin!