Black bear hunting is one of the most challenging, thrilling hunting experiences available. The thrill is obvious. While deer and elk are majestic creatures, they don’t have claws and fangs. This isn’t to say that black bear hunting is dangerous – when done properly, it’s perfectly safe. But it certainly adds to the excitement!
The challenge comes from a bear’s intelligence and acute senses. Bears are predators, so it’s not surprising that they’re more savvy than most other game animals. They learn from their experiences, so the older, larger bears in particular are hard to get in your crosshairs.
As for their senses, they have the advantage over humans in almost every way. Their vision is slightly better, as is their hearing. But what really makes them hard to catch is their sense of smell. It’s seven times as powerful as a bloodhound’s. If you’re upwind of one, it can literally smell you from miles away. This means you’ll need to have an excellent knowledge of field craft, and constantly keep tabs on the wind if you want to have any chance of bringing home a pelt.
Of course, the challenge and thrill are exactly what attracts hunters to this majestic species. It’s one thing to go out deer hunting. Yes, there’s skill involved, but it’s not on the same level as bagging a bear. To paraphrase Quentin Tarantino, it’s not in the same league, and it’s not even the same sport.
If you’re up to the challenge, read on. We’ll tell you everything you need to know to get started!
Do You Need a License?
Bear hunting requires a license in every state where they live. How hard it is to get one depends on which state you’re in.
This is because black bear populations vary widely by state. In western states, Appalachia, and the Northeast, they’re relatively plentiful, so hunting licenses are easier to obtain. In other areas, such as the Ozarks, Florida, Louisiana, and Arizona, they’re sparsely populated. These states issue a limited number of licenses, so you’ll need to apply early to be sure that you’ll get one.
Most states require a hunter safety course for first-time hunters. These classes are usually free, but you the state won’t issue your license without one.
As with all hunting regulations, it’s important to check your local laws before you go hunting. It’s impossible for us to cover every state in this space.
What is the Best Time to Hunt Black Bears?
Most game animals are prey, and tend stay hidden during the day. As such, you end up having to hunt them very early in the morning, or in late afternoon when they’re coming out to eat and drink.
Black bears aren’t afraid of anything except humans and grizzly bears. They’re bold animals, and they like to sleep in in the morning. The best time for hunting them is in the afternoon, when they’re actively foraging for food.
Many states offer two hunting seasons: spring and fall. The best time of year for hunting is the fall, because bears are constantly on the move, eating as much as possible to get themselves fattened up for winter hibernation. This also makes them more bold, which gives you an edge if you’re hunting over bait.
Besides time of day and time of year, there are other factors that come into play when determining if it’s a good time for bear hunting. Here are a few of them:
- Temperature. The colder it is, the more calories a bear needs to get through the day. Because cold weather makes them hungry, they’ll be more active. Conversely, black bears get lazy on hot days, and hole up in their dens. If it’s a warm day in spring, or if you’re experiencing Indian summer in fall, consider delaying your hunting trip until it cools down.
- Rain. A lot of game animals seek shelter in the rain, but bears just shake it off. If anything, a rainy day improves your chances of shooting a black bear, since rain dampens both sound and smell, making it less likely that they’ll be aware of your presence.
- Wind. Black bears don’t mind wind, but the windier it is, the further your scent will carry. On a windy day, a black bear can smell you from up to 20 miles away. You’ll need to be constantly aware of the wind direction, and stalk them accordingly.
- Lunar cycle. Modern humans tend to forget about nature’s nightlight, but bears are keenly aware of it. During full moons, they’ll often get up in the middle of the night to grab a snack, which means they’re less active in the daytime. Conversely, they can’t forage on a moonless night, so new moons are a better time for catching them in the daylight.
Where Can You Hunt Black Bears?
Black bears can be hunted in most US states, although you won’t find them in the Dakotas, Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Nebraska, Kansas, Nevada, Texas, Rhode Island, Delaware, Mississippi, or Hawaii. Within the rest of the states, they’re found primarily in rural areas, far from human habitation.
In the Northeast, Appalachia and the Rockies, they prefer wooded areas at high elevations. The woodlands of north-central Pennsylvania host some of the densest populations in the US, including the largest black bear ever shot, an 880-pound monster that was caught in 2010.
In the Southwest, black bears favor chaparral and pinyon juniper woods, although they sometimes come out into the open to forage on prickly pear cactus. In the Southeast, they live in swampy areas, as well as in flatwoods.
In all areas, black bears prefer to live in thick underbrush, with access to nuts, berries or both. They oftentimes eat injured fawns, so the more deer there are in the area, the more likely you are to spot a bear. Black bears also catch fish just like their larger cousin, the grizzly bear. Look for them near streams, where they not only fish, but also come for a drink.
How to Locate Black Bears
Now that you know the general area to search for black bears, let’s talk specifics.
The most obvious sign of black bears are the tracks. They look remarkably similar to human footprints, but there’s little risk of getting them confused; not many people are running around barefoot in the woods. If the prints are wider than five inches, congratulations! You’ve found a large male. If the tracks are four to five inches, it could be an adult of either sex. A large set of tracks followed by a smaller set means you’ve found a sow with her cub, so you’ll want to steer clear.
Look for claw marks on trees. Not only will black bears climb up into trees to collect nuts, they’ll sometimes tear away the bark to gnaw at the wood underneath. They sometimes bend saplings all the way to the ground to eat shoots, so snapped branches on saplings are another clear sign of bear activity.
You’ll find similar destruction in berry bushes. They’ll crawl right into bushes, dragging their teeth across entire branches to strip the berries off. If you see a bush that looks like Bigfoot stomped all over it, you’re in bear territory.
Black bears will often use trees as back scratchers, particularly in the spring when they’re shedding their winter coats. Look for clumps of black hair caught in tree bark, or on the ground at the base of a tree.
Bears also love to eat ants, and, like Winnie the Pooh, they love honey. Look for rocks that have been overturned to expose ant nests, or for logs that have been torn open. These are signs that there’s a bear living in the area.
Another obvious sign is bear scat. This can have a different appearance depending on what the bear has been eating. In the early spring, black bears are mostly vegetarian. Their feces will be green, with visible pieces of grass. When they switch to eating more meat, the scat will be black or dark brown. If they’ve been eating berries, the feces will be full of seeds and berry husks. If they’ve been eating ants, you’ll often see sawdust in their droppings. Since there are a lot of “extras” in the feces, the condition of these bits can give you an idea of how recently the bear left the evidence.
Finally, the bear’s bedding area is the surest way to know where they’ll be. They’re very hard to locate, since bears will only bed down somewhere that they feel safe. They’ll generally rest near the base of a tree, in undergrowth. Look for an area where the scrub has been flattened down, and see if there’s any fur there. If there is, you’ve hit the motherlode.
With black bear more than most game, scouting ahead of time is essential. If you find signs, you’ll know where to come back on the day of your hunt.
How do You Hunt Black Bears Over Bait?
When you’re baiting a bear, the objective is to get them as close to your stand as possible. To do this, you’ll need to get them used to your presence. Go to an area where you’ve found signs of black bear, and choose a good stand.
Next, bring a bucket of bait. Venison scraps are cheap, and bears aren’t particularly picky. Set your bait early in the afternoon, so the bear can find it later in the day.
Dump the bucket on the ground, and make some noise while you’re doing it. Bang on the bucket if you like. The point is to let the bear know you’re there. Then, leave. The bear isn’t stupid. It’s not going to take the bait while you’re standing around.
Repeat this process every day for about 10 days to two weeks. By doing this, you’ll habituate the bear to your presence, and it won’t mind your scent. Once it’s used to taking food from you, you’re ready to hunt.
On the day of your hunt, leave your bait as usual, then take up a position in your stand, and wait for the bear. Provided it’s gotten used to you, it will eventually come down to eat, and you’ll have it in your sights.
Can You Hunt Bears Without Bait?
Not only is it possible to hunt a bear without bait, it’s mandatory in some states. Usually, states with swampy or ultra-dense terrain allow baiting, since it’s virtually impossible to stalk a black bear in those conditions. States with less dense terrain generally ban baiting. As always, check your local laws to make sure you’re following them.
To improve your odds, it’s best to start stalking in the morning. This gives you an edge, since you’ll already be in position when the bears become active. If you can, set up in an open area with good visibility of a tree line. The best way to search is with your rifle scope, binoculars, spotting scope, or a field glass.
If you’re lucky, you’ll spot a bear before it knows you’re there, and you can move into range. If not, the next step is to approach the area where you’ve spotted deer signs. Make sure to remain downwind, and stay under cover as much as possible.
If a bear spots you but you don’t have a clean shot, don’t panic. Hide behind a tree, and wait for a minute. Black bears have short attention spans, and will soon forget that you were there. This will give you a second chance to approach them.
What is the Best Weapon to Hunt Black Bears With?
Contrary to popular belief, black bear hunting doesn’t require a ridiculously powerful cartridge. This is definitely the case for grizzlies, which can grow to massive proportions, but black bears average about 250 pounds. Simply put, anything that will kill a deer will kill a black bear.
That said, shot placement can be a bit more of a challenge. A bear’s vitals are located far forward in the chest cavity, and their upper arm gets in the way of a broadside shot when they’re standing still. You’ll need to shoot when the bear is stepping forward and the arm is clear of your shot. Black bears are also very durable animals. Hitting one lung is a coin flip. You want a clean, broadside shot that penetrates both lungs.
Bear Hunting Rifles
If you’re shooting over bait, a lever action rifle really comes into its own. The .30-30 Winchester is powerful enough to bring one down at bait ranges, and the typically shorter design and fast action makes it easy to bring to bear – pun intended.
Lever actions are also useful for stalking, although your mileage may vary based on range. That said, since bears like dense woods, you’re not likely to be shooting one beyond 100 yards. It’s safe to say that the .30-30 cartridge is going to be effective at these ranges.
For bolt-action rifles, the .308 Winchester, 30.06 Springfield, or .300 Winchester Magnum are all excellent choices. They pack a lot of punch, and they’re easily available. Normally, we’re big fans of the 6.5 Creedmoor, but the Creedmoor really comes into its own at longer ranges. Inside of 200 yards, the .308 packs more punch. That’s not to say that the Creedmoor is a bad round for bear hunting – it can and will kill them – but it’s not our first choice.
Bear Hunting Shotguns
For hunting over bait, a 12 gauge shotgun with a slug is going to drop a bear faster than any other weapon on the market. Be careful about stalking them with a 12 gauge, though. 12 gauge slugs drop off quickly outside of 50 yards, so unless you’ve fired off a lot of expensive slugs at the range and gotten used to the drop, you’re liable to miss and spook the bear.
Hunting Bear With a Bow
As we’ve mentioned, you really need a double lung shot to drop a black bear. To ensure full penetration, we recommend using a bow with 55 pounds or more of pull. This includes virtually all crossbows.
Any broadhead will get the job done. However, your best bet is to use an expanding broadhead. It will do more damage, and is more likely to hit both lungs if your shot was slightly off center.
Needless to say, stalking a bear with a bow is a risky proposition. Generally, it’s best to use them over bait. That said, stalking with a bow is one of the most heart pounding experiences you’ll find in the woods.
What Essential Gear do You Need For Black Bear Hunting?
Besides your weapon, you’re going to need supplies. Let’s take a look at what you should bring with you for a successful – and enjoyable – bear hunt.
- Basic first aid supplies. This is true any time you go out in the wilderness. Accidents happen, and the last thing you want is to have to limp back to your truck on a sprained ankle without so much as an Ace bandage.
- Food and water. Whether you’re baiting or stalking, you’re going to be out in the woods for several hours. During this time, your stomach will start grumbling, and you’ll get thirsty. Having refreshments with you is essential.
- A safety harness. You can ignore this one if you’re stalking, but it’s important if you’re hunting in a tree stand. Every year, there’s a story in the news about some hunter who fell asleep in a tree stand, fell out, and got hurt. Don’t be that person.
- High, waterproof boots. You’re liable to be navigating some rough terrain, and you’re almost certain to cross a creek or two. Wet feet can ruin a good day, so protect your feet with a good pair of boots.
- Bug spray or a thermacell unit. Unless it’s very early in the spring or very late in the fall, there are going to be bugs. Keep them at bay, and you won’t spend half of your hunt smacking mosquitos.
- Rubber gloves and a skinning knife. You’ll want to gut your bear in the field. The alternative is packing out a 250-pound carcass, which nobody wants to do.
- A rain poncho. Remember how we said black bears don’t mind the rain? Well, it doesn’t take a scientific study to prove that most people hate sitting in a tree stand for hours in the rain. A poncho will keep you dry while you wait.
Black bear hunting is a truly unforgettable experience. It gets your blood pumping and forces you to stay constantly aware of your surroundings. Furthermore, it lets you come home with two things: some delicious bear meat, and a pelt as a trophy. Hunting just doesn’t get any better than this.
As we’ve discussed, you’ll need to do a lot of scouting ahead of time in order to get the job done effectively. Scat, trampled brush, tree scratchings, footprints, overturned rocks, fur, and bedding areas are all cues that you’re in the right area.
You’ll also need to use good field craft to get close enough to take your shot. As we hope we’ve made clear, staying downwind is essential. The black bear’s sensitive nose is its best defense.
Baiting a bear may sound like the “easy” way to bag one, but make no mistake: it takes some dedication. You’ll need to set the bait every day like clockwork, or you won’t get the bear properly habituated to your presence.
Proper shooting is also essential. Anything but a double lung shot is a dicey proposition, and you’re not likely to get a second shot if the first one missed.
As with all types of hunting, it’s important to bring the right gear. Even the little things can make a difference between having a good time and a day of frustration. For example, insect repellant.
We hope this guide was helpful. We love the great outdoors and appreciate the opportunity to share that love with others. Now get out there and hunt some bear!