It was a lazy October day, remarkable only in that I was outside and away from my desk with the forest an utter cornucopia of hunting possibilities. I was bowhunting tassel-eared squirrels with my good friends Dave Faiello and Pat Keith in New Mexico’s northern Gila National Forest. Essentially, it was an excuse to sit around campfires in the evenings with good company while also hunting something during daylight hours. And while western squirrel hunting doesn’t approach the allure of more glamorous big-game, it’s always an action-packed, enjoyable endeavor and nothing to get snooty about.
It was nearly lunchtime, and I was just a couple bushytails away from a limit. I was slipping along a ridgeline with a recurve bow holding a quiver full of small-game heads, looking for the telltale flicker of a puffy tail in the pines or a bouncing rodent atop the acorn-laden understory. In the back of my mind, there was also the long shot of something else.
That something else suddenly began to appear less abstract after discovering hand’s-width bear tracks in a dusty trail, distinct as a signature on a bank document. The little voice in my head told me to retreat (to retrieve some broadhead-tipped arrows), but I continued, captivated by the possibilities. Farther along the trail I poked at a wet-fresh pile of bear droppings, but still I pushed on, looking for chattering squirrels.
A ghosting movement stopped me. The bear was simply there, no more than 50 yards away; a gorgeously-furred chocolate boar ambling down a shaded bottom, pausing occasionally to nose through leaf litter and vacuum up the golden Gambel oak acorns hidden beneath.
Now I did retreat, stalking away cautiously at first then, when out of sight, breaking into a desperate jog toward my truck a couple miles away. I arrived sweaty and wheezing, ripping small-game arrows from my quiver and digging through an arrow case to reload with lethal, broadhead-tipped shafts. After taking the time to gulp down a warm sports drink, I impatiently labored back up the ridge.
Loaded for Bear
It doesn’t matter where or what I’m hunting in the West, I seldom venture into early-fall woods without a bear tag along for the ride (when legally possible). From southern New Mexico to northern Idaho, most Rocky Mountain states hosting an early-fall big-game season offer black bear on the bill of fare. This approach has proved sound insurance against several surprise trophies through the years — some in addition to target game, others as singular consolation. You just never know when a deer or elk (or squirrel) hunt will suddenly transform into a hunt for bruins.
You may argue my point of spot-and-stalk bear as a “high-odds proposition” (relative to deer and elk in the same habitat), but concentrating your efforts smartly can certainly make this the case — especially in the West. Hunting smartly means following the food most of all. Fall bears are voracious eaters, gobbling anything offered against the long winter of hibernation awaiting them. Putting on a heavy layer of fat is the only way they’ll meet spring in good health. Find obvious concentrations of food in suitable habitat, and there you will also find concentrations of bears.
Systematically covering a good deal of likely habitat in the quest for fresh bear droppings is the first step in determining where this week’s hotspot might be located. Undigested acorn shells, piñon nut husks or masticated juniper berries (southwestern states), berry “jam” (northern Rocky Mountains), and compacted grass or skunk cabbage, as examples, all give you quick clues to black bear hotspots.
In the desert regions of southwestern New Mexico and southern Arizona, don’t discount novel foodstuffs such as prickly-pear cactus fruit, which bears seek as a cure for a sweet tooth. This makes the ability to identify bear food, and more importantly, having a good idea where to locate such fodder, highly important. If you’ve no idea where to start, get a guide book of local flora and spend some time chatting with an area game biologist.
During reconnaissance missions, keep a keen eye toward other forms of conspicuous bear sign — aside from droppings — including twisted limbs on food-bearing trees and bushes (limbs bent to reach more nuts or fruit), flipped rocks and rolled logs, or diggings for skunk cabbage roots or in rockslides in the pursuit of rodents. Also check water sources for fresh tracks — especially in drier regions of the Southwest — which also allows you to gain insight into trophy potential in your chosen hunting area.
Back on my own oak ridge, I put my binoculars to work, carefully picking apart the thick vegetation, lingering on shadowed places in an attempt to separate dark bear from dark shadow. That’s another aspect of bear hunting that often proves highly appealing. In areas where human disturbance is minimal, bears might be found feeding during any portion of the day — even at high noon. This is easy enough to explain; fall bears are trying to beat the clock (beat the calendar, actually). As mornings begin to turn frosty, a bear’s No. 1 priority is to put away as many calories as possible before real winter sets in and forces them into a long sleep. These calories are all-important stores against three to four months of compulsory starvation.
This is why fresh sign — and food concentrations — are so important to spot-and-stalk success on fall bears. When bears discover a food-source mother-load (unless disturbed), they’ll most often gorge until temporarily getting their fill and then lay up nearby to guard that source or at least keep it handy. They might retreat to a shaded cliff edge a half mile away, or fall into a grassy hammock where a full belly finds them. When hunger overtakes them once more they simply stretch and began anew.
Finding a commanding vantage overlooking concentrated sign and putting in your time behind the glass is paramount to success. A combination of fresh sign and abundant food means your bear will appear given time. Of course, “fresh” is relative and you must be careful to assess when sign was realistically left behind and the remaining availability of attracting food. Bears are like locusts, moving on after ravaging a food source.
And with time “my” bear would show, given a couple hours of diligent observation marked against my wristwatch.
Though it was nearly 1:30 on an unseasonably warm afternoon, the chocolate boar materialized from shadows and began ambling through the thick stand of oaks. Now the most difficult portion of my hunt was accomplished. I’d discovered a desirable target. I say finding a bear is the most difficult portion of the hunt because bear are at the relative apex of the food chain, seldom as abundant as deer or elk in the same piece of habitat. Too, while no pushovers, bears are markedly less difficult to approach than more neurotic deer or elk. There are several obvious grounds for this statement. Bears simply have few natural enemies (aside from man), and while their noses are the best in the West, they hear no better than you or I. Plus, their eyesight could be termed “dim” relative to most prey species.
Your top priority if you wish to close the distance on a black bear on the ground is to keep careful tabs on the wind. This isn’t to say you can thereafter mosey right up to a feeding bear (though this does happen), but you’re not in for the stalking challenge presented by a cougar-wary deer or hunter-educated elk. Bears will take heed of a snapping twig, grinding gravel or course material brushed against stiff vegetation, and they are quite adept at picking up movement. But step quietly, move slowly and use shadows to your best advantage — keep the wind in your face most of all — and stalking within bow range can happen for you more often than not.
Moving quickly yet silently is a skill developed while “dogging” bugling elk. The quicker you get on the scene, the less opportunity your prize has to wander over a ridge or fall into a dark canyon and out of sight.
I’d lost my bear to the thick oaks, but I sensed it was close. The wind was doing crazy dances, swirling back on itself in the tight bottom. The situation was looking dicey, to put it mildly. I had an arrow on the string of my Bear recurve, moving from shadow to shadow, straining my eyes for any movement or a small patch of chocolate fur. A dark bear in deep shadow is nearly immune to the human eye. You really have to concentrate on sharp edges instead of patches of color, and movement (however slight).
This is the phase of the stalk when you want to slow to a snail’s pace. Take a few steps, and then pause to soak in your surroundings like a sponge. Engage all the senses. Be patient above all else. It’s always amazing to find you have been staring at a bear at 30 paces all along, revealed only after he detaches from shadow to become suddenly obvious.
Which is exactly what my bear did; abruptly exiting a shadow and entering a patch of sunlight, it materialized only 25 yards away. Its body language exuded nervousness, moving tense and jerkily. I tightened my grip on the bowstring serving, frantically seeking an elusive shooting hole, knowing the situation was seconds from exploding in my face, the boar ambling slowly, paused, looking to confirm a whiff of something caught on an errant breeze. The shooting hole was just big enough, and I eased the string to anchor.
The cut-on-contact-tipped arrow threaded the needle to find its mark, and I felt an overwhelmingly deep sense of accomplishment that would’ve been tough to muster sitting over a barrel of bait or even chasing tongue-lolling hounds over hill and dale. I’d taken a trophy bear on its own terms, face-to-face the hard way.