BEARS WITHOUT BAIT
Submitted by Ted Williams on Sat, 03/25/2006 - 13:07.
This piece, by one of the most respected hunting writers in the United States, gives the lie to those who proclaim that the public outcry against bear baiting is the work of the “antis” or that fair-chase bear hunting is too difficult and time-consuming for average hunters. Petersen hunts more and better than any person I have ever known. And he has left more bootprints in bear country than any dozen last-gasp proponents of the dying “sport” of “garbage hunting.” About 3055 words; c 2004 David L. Petersen BEARS WITHOUT BAIT by David Petersen With the voters of more and more states taking to the polls to outlaw spring bear seasons and baiting, and with a growing number of hunters freely choosing to find a more rewarding way to bring home the bear meat than sitting over a garbage dump, the “can it be done?” and “how-to?” questions naturally arise. To answer the first: Absolutely, bears can be successfully hunted using fair chase methods- insofar as anything in fair-chase sport can (or should) be assured. As a traditional bowhunter and occasional guide who haunts the Colorado Rockies each fall, I enjoy multiple close encounters with black bears every year, and I’m not even trying. During some recent years, in fact, I’ve seen more bears than elk, my prey of choice. Confirming my own observations here in the Rocky Mountain West are those of Tom Beck, who recently retired as Colorado’s chief bear researcher after spending more than twenty years trapping, photographing, radio-tracking and crawling into occupied dens with black bears. Tom is also a recurve shooter who hunts more than anyone I know who doesn't get paid to hunt, and he definitely has hunters’ interests at heart. To provide fair representation for hunters stalking the eastern woodlands, I also spoke with Dr. Lynn Rogers, who spent thirty years studying bears for the U.S. Forest Service and others. Rogers is one of only two people I know of to have befriended wild black bears to the point he was allowed to travel and sleep with the huge omnivores. Since 1992, when baiting, hounding and spring bear hunting were outlawed by a two-to-one vote margin here in Colorado, Tom Beck has worked to identify methods for hunting bruins that are ethical as well as effective. While he acknowledges there is no panacea—no single fair-chase method for taking bears that's equally effective throughout North America, most of the following techniques should work in most areas during fall. Habits and Habitats: The one necessity underlying all others is to educate yourself about bears in order to take full advantage of the predictability of their seasonal habitat use. Fall bear hunts in most states run during September and October. This coincides handily with the annual frenzy among bears to fatten, most often on hard-nut mast and berries, before going to den. Preferred fall bear foods vary not only from region to region, but due to crop fluctuations and failures, year to year. So begin by checking with biologists in the area(s) you plan to hunt in order to learn what's normally on the local blue plate special during bow bear season and where these foods are most abundant. Thus informed, concentrate your early scouting not so much on finding bears, as on finding concentrations of the foods they'll come flocking to in autumn. Just before season opening, do some glassing and cautious poking around within these larger feeding zones (which may be as large as entire watersheds or as small as localized berry patches), looking not only for bears but for tracks, trails, hair, scat, overturned rocks and logs and other fresh spoor indicative of the microhabitat preferences of local bruins. Mark all such hotspots on a topo map as and memory. And don't overlook water, especially in the West. Under favorable conditions—hot and dry with limited water sources—secluded, shaded pools with nearby escape cover can be magnets to overheated midday bears. Here in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado, I've found spring pools that bears use virtually daily, summer through early fall, for midday baths. Finally, be aware that bears never linger long in any one area no matter how rich the feed, but will munch a few acorns here, stroll over the hill and nip some chokecherries or sedges there, drink or swim yet someplace else and nap in yet another, following a circuitous moveable feast that may span several miles and require from a day to a week to complete. And then they start all over. This bruin mobility opens two additional doors of hunting possibility. If you can locate routes connecting one chunk of fall bear real estate with another—saddles are attractive travel lanes for all wildlife; secretive bears are also fond of brushy drainages and frequently follow deer and elk trails through heavy cover—you've found a high-odds ambush corridor. And as with deer and elk, if you can identify high-traffic travel lanes it’s generally more judicious to sit and let the game come to you. Curiosity: A second chink in the black bear’s defensive armor is the species’ keen curiosity. Put something obviously foreign in a bear's universe, so long as it's not overtly alarming, and he'll go out of his way to investigate. Tom Beck's research has shown that the “bait” doesn't have to be food, but can be anything that registers on any of a bruin's senses and captures his attention. Sound: Field research by Beck and others confirms that two call types can be deadly effective on bears in all seasons. First is the familiar "wounded rabbit" predator call; second is the Wayne Carlton bear call, which imitates the frantic squalling of a terrified cub. While predator calls are attractive to bears of all ages, the Carlton call, in Beck’s experience, works best on adult bruins. Beck maintains that the natural curiosity of bears—not hunger or defensive instincts—is the primary draw of both type calls. Yet, he doesn't argue that any predator homing in on a wounded-animal call is likely looking for an easy snack. More complex is Carlton's distressed cub call. Adult boars frequently kill cubs, but only secondarily for food. They do it primarily because they "know" instinctively that destroying a sow's cubs, which may or may not be his own, may cycle her back into heat a year sooner, providing increased breeding and gene-propagation opportunities for the killer. The maternal instincts of sows, meanwhile, prompt them to assist and sometimes even adopt distressed cubs in springtime. (Dr. Rogers once watched a confused spring sow run helter-skelter chasing after the cublike screams of a circling red-tailed hawk). Later in the season, however, a sow with cubs may kill unfamiliar, unattended cubs, viewing them as competition to her own. And one more caution: In one scene in Carlton's video Call N'Bears, a sow abandons her three cubs and comes running to his calls. As this scene suggests, the high springtime susceptibility of sows to distressed cub calls could easily result in the orphaning and death of infant cubs. Consequently, Lynn Rogers advises against this variety of calling in spring. Tom Beck likewise prefers fall over spring for bear hunting, no matter the technique employed, since “by September or October even cubs of the year stand a good chance of surviving the winter on their own, while springtime orphans are doomed to death by predation or starvation.” No matter the type of call, predator or distressed cub, the key is enthusiastic tenacity. Put plenty of energy behind your squalls, going for a frenetic, high-pitched sound. I once heard a cottontail being killed by coyotes, and it's an incredibly loud and (understandably from the bunny's point of view) passionate scream. And once you commit to calling, squall almost continually for as long as your lungs, ears and patience can take it. Clever as they are, bears have brief attention spans and may lose interest and get sidetracked if the calling is too infrequent, too short-lived or too relaxed. When conditions allow, among the most effective black bear techniques is to combine calling with spot-and-stalk. After spotting a bear at a distance, try to surmise its travel route and maneuver to get ahead of the bruin along its front-trail. Now get set up and start calling. Vision: A less well-known curiosity "bait" than calling, but potentially as effective, is a visual attractor—such as a swatch of white or brightly colored cloth (black bears do have color vision, as proven in tests conducted at the University of Tennessee) suspended high enough to be seen from a distance. To keep bears from becoming bored with your "flag," alternate colors, sizes, shapes and locations from one hunt to the next and, most important, pack ‘em out after every hunt. Beck has seen visual curiosity attract bears time and again…and with his help, so have I, to wit: Last July, Tom and I set up infrared cameras at two remote springs. With water as the only bait, across two weeks we got exciting day and night photos of bears, elk, mule deer, wild turkeys and even weasels. And in at least one instance with every species except turkey, the animals were staring, close and directly, into the ground-mounted infrared sensing unit. Why? Because, says Beck, who's seen this happen dozens of times and had predicted it to me, the delicate unit is housed for protection (from weather and wildlife) in a length of sky-blue plastic plumbing pipe, which oddity—perhaps owing to blue being an unusual color in the woods (deer and elk are believed to have some color vision, including especially blue), captures the curiosity of relaxed animals. Especially bears. Says Beck: "I've often seen bears totally ignore a smelly food or stink bait and go directly to check out that piece of blue pipe. They're the most curious critters in North America." As a close-range, traditional bowhunter, you can take ethical advantage of that natural curiosity by employing visual as well as sound and such natural attractants as forage, water, game trails and saddles. Scent: Not only are bears the most curious critters in the woods, they have noses to match. Therefore, positioning your ambush or making your stalk absolutely downwind is mandatory, as is minimizing the spreading of human scent throughout your hunting area. Contrary to widespread misconception, bears do have good eyesight, probably on a par with our own, and should be granted the same vision respect as other big game species. Wear full-body camo or earth-tone clothing where it’s legal and safe. Don't skyline or sunlight yourself. Choose hides with dense, dark backgrounds to avoid silhouetting yourself with back lighting. And minimize your movements, even in a tree stand. Memory: Also, be aware of individual bruins’ distinctive learned behaviors. Bears are creatures of habit with photographic memories when it comes to food and danger. Consequently, if you see a particular bear feeding in a particular location during September this year, chances are more than good (assuming he's still alive) that the same bear will be back again—same place, at more or less same time—next year as well. And so, perhaps, should you. On the down side of the memory coin, bears never forget places where they've encountered danger, and will avoid or at least carefully inspect all such locales before approaching. I recently saw this phenomenon in action when a hyper-cautious blackie appeared while I was sitting in a long-abandoned permanent tree stand I’d found on public land, overlooking a remote spring pool and elk wallow. Approaching on a bold game trail, as it neared the tree in which the stand was located the lanky bear stopped and stared directly at it, and thus, at me. I hadn’t blinked an eye or made a sound, and scent was not an issue as I was downwind and he hadn’t yet cut my ground trail. Clearly, the animal knew the stand was there and that it meant potential danger. After long deliberation, he opted to forego the tempting water in favor of a fast retreat back the way he’d come. Lesson: Don't use permanent stands for bear—ground or tree, old or new—and vary the location of your set-ups from hunt to hunt. Regional Variations on a Theme: Out West, where the terrain is typically a mosaic of sage flats, mountain meadows, dense forests and brushy edge cover, feed plots can be widely scattered, forcing bears to travel a lot, often passing through or grazing in open patches where they can be spotted from a distance. Consequently, western bear hunting frequently imitates western mule deer hunting with spot-and-stalk a favored technique. Here too, scouting is critical. Rather than just plopping yourself down on a scenic vista with binoculars or a spotting scope, invest first in some serious back-road driving, backcountry snooping and map work to identify likely feeding zones and the travel corridors connecting them. These are the places to watch. And as previously mentioned, spot-and-call can often be made more lucrative, allowing the bowhunter to terminate the stalk prior to the iffy, last-few-yards stage, by setting up a solid ambush and calling the approaching bear in. Easterners face a different scenario. Here, bear habitat tends to be more limited in area but richer, restricting bear travel. An exception, Lynn Rogers points out, is northern Michigan. There, bears have more room to roam and they use it. Also, nut trees there are few and scattered compared to many other eastern states and by September most berries are done for. Even so, even in Michigan, Rogers generally agrees with Beck on the efficacy of fall food-plot hunting, noting that "hazel nut, mountain ash and oak stands become highly attractive to eastern fall bears, as does clover. And in good years such hardy berries as high-bush crans, dogwood and others can last well into September." Consequently, easterners can successfully hunt bears much as they hunt whitetails, scouting to identify high-use habitats and travel routes, then setting up careful bushwhacks in the best of such places. Easterners may also want to try flagging and calling. But beware: Calling unseen bruins in the thick cover typical of most eastern hardwood forests, especially in low light conditions, can be excitingly unpredictable. Timing: East or West, if you have only a limited time to hunt, think about when as well as where to invest it. Fall-fattening bears feed up to twenty hours a day, but the greatest activity—and therefore the greatest hunter opportunity—occurs during the last two or three hours of daylight. Therefore, if you can hunt only part-time—say, before or after work—you’ll do well to concentrate on evenings, hanging in and hanging out to the last drop of good shooting light. On a broader timing scale, consider when berries and mast (or other primary fall bruin foods) peak in the area you plan to hunt. That's the time, the week or so, to be there. And when do the leaves fall? Traditional bowhunters, who have to get real close, can use the dense cover before leaf-drop to best advantage. In sum: No matter the region hunted, the basics are the same: Think when and where as well as how. Take into account your quarry’s sensory strengths and weaknesses, natural curiosities, fears, habits and seasonally determined habitats. Do your homework—talking with biologists and other locally reliable contacts, studying topo maps, reading and learning about the daily lives of bears—as well as field (scouting) work. Be persistent, patient and picky…and you might well get a go at the king of the mountain. Envision this scenario: You phone your state bear biologist who suggests certain foods, areas and times. After studying maps and talking with local hunters, you narrow your search down to the few most promising places. As the season nears, you scout those areas and, finding fresh bear spoor, settle on a brushy berry flat as your first choice. A mile to the east stands a scrub-oak acorn grove, also replete with fresh bruin sign. Connecting these two feeding sites is an active game trail crossing a timbered saddle. Due to a lack of suitable trees at either feeding site, you select ground hides at both places, taking into account wind patterns, bear travel routes, shooting lanes, light and cover. In a big pine near the top of the saddle, just downwind of the game trail, you opt to hang a tree stand. Opening day you work the berries, watching and waiting in patient silence. Next time out you hit the acorn oaks, hanging a curiosity flag from the top of a tall bush exactly where you want your bear to appear. Next time, you try the tree stand in the saddle and maybe throw in some calling. And so on, mixing and matching every trick in your predator’s bag. And bottom line, bear or no, you'll have won the game because you'll have truly hunted. OPTIONAL SIDEBAR Facts for Doubters In 1992, the citizens of Colorado voted overwhelmingly to pass Amendment 10, outlawing the spring bear season, baiting and hounds. During the heated dialogue preceding that landmark vote, opponents of A-10 forecast that without baits, hounds and spring hunting, not enough bears could be killed each year in Colorado’s rugged brushy terrain to allow for effective bear management. And hand in hand with decreased hunter success, they predicted, would come fewer hunters, meaning notably reduced license revenue to the state and significant economic loss to rural towns as well. Those were the dire predictions. Today, with the hindsight of more than a decade of experience and statistics, the reality differs shockingly from the gloom-and-doom forecasts. In fact, a lot more people are hunting bears today in Colorado than at any time during the baiting/hounding/spring season/outfitter-dominated years prior to Amendment 10. Consequently, license sale revenues are way up. And would you believe—so is hunter success, particularly for bowhunters, to wit: Across the final three years prior to passage of A-10 (1989, ’90, ’91), licensed hunters killed a total 1,413 bears in the state, all seasons combined. By comparison, total kill for the most recent three years for which counts are complete (1999, ’00, ’01) is 2,416. Similarly, while the final three baiting/spring-hunt years earned the state a total of $697,528 in bear license revenues, the most recent three years have netted $2,744,324: almost a four-fold increase. And that with no increase in the price of bear tags. END Among David Petersen’s many outdoor books is Ghost Grizzlies: Does the Great Bear Still Haunt Colorado? (Boulder: Johnson Books), which includes the hair-raising story of Ed Wiseman, told by Wiseman himself, a bowhunter who killed the last known grizzly in Colorado (1979) in hand-to-claw combat, and lived to tell about it.