Bear hunting is not for everyone. And for many years, it was not for me. Some of that had to do with a lack of opportunity, but a lot had to do with my long-held beliefs about bears and bear hunting. Much of what I had grown to believe about bears was passed to me from other people as truths. For instance, I’d been told all bears smell. Like really smell. The other common “fact” I’d been led to believe (and still hear all the time) is that without its skin, a bear looks “just like a human.” Well, let me address the last statement first. Having skinned about 20 bears now, I can assure people that a bear without its skin looks very little like a human. At least the humans I know. It actually looks like a bear with no fur. As for the smell, well, the bush and farm bears I’ve harvested over the past 15 years have smelled like the woods. In fact, I’d take the smell of a wild, bush bear over a rutted up old whitetail buck any day.
Black bears are one of the most unique, challenging and beautiful animals a hunter will ever pursue. The nose on a black bear is a supremely sensitive instrument, and can pick up human scent off a tiny leaf from a tremendous distance. Bears don’t have great eyesight, yet they can spot movement far away. I once spooked a bear that was 150 yards from me when I went to grab my rifle and moved a little too fast. At the time, I was also in a makeshift ground blind and mostly concealed. Bears can also detect sound very well, so even the click of a rifle safety can spook them. Anyone who decides to try bear hunting will quickly appreciate the phenomenal abilities of a bear to bust you.
Despite what popular culture might tell you, bears are not easy to kill. That includes bears killed over bait. Yes, baiting with a wide variety of foods is generally the most popular way to attract bears. Yet just because you have a mountain of cinnamon buns out in the woods does not guarantee success. In fact, the human smells associated with baiting often make the bears avoid the bait site during daylight. They quickly learn that they are not going to have to worry about a hunter at 2 a.m. You also don’t have to leave donuts or sweets to attract bears. More natural foods like grains and apples attract bears very well. Regardless, if you hunt over bait, be prepared to do a lot of waiting.
A more active way to hunt black bears is to spot them in open country and stalk them. You can also set up in a place where a bear can be ambushed coming in or out of a feeding area. Black bears love to eat wild berries–blueberries in particular–and spotting those big, black bodies in expansive cuts is exciting. You will need a good set of binoculars and the ability to be quiet as you sneak within range of a feeding bear. Creeping up on a bear, especially with a short-range weapon like a bow or shotgun, is especially challenging. You need the wind in your face, clothing that doesn’t rustle and steady nerves.
Although bears are scared of people 99.5 percent of the time and will run like the wind when startled, they do occasionally bolt in your direction to escape. That can be disconcerting. Very few bears attack humans, but a close look at the claws and teeth of a black bear will make you respect the potential for maiming if you bump into a rogue. Two seasons back, I was rushed by a male bear that stopped just a few feet from me, and then turned tail into the bush. This same bear had been on the land owners porch a few days earlier. The next day, I went back to the same area, made some noise, set up a blind and waited for the bear to return. It did and I shot the 250-pound male through the heart at 50 yards. Hunting a bear is a different thing than hunting deer or moose.
Another good hunting option is to watch areas where bears are travelling into farm fields to feed on corn and other crops. The damage bears do to crops usually makes it easy to get hunting permission from farmers. In corn fields, bears will generally access the field via well-worn trails. Set up a stand or blind near those openings and keep your eyes peeled. Bears are generally very quiet on the approach and just appear. They won’t normally stay in an opening long, so be ready.
Finally, one of the very biggest misconceptions about bear hunting is that you can’t eat the meat. This is not true. Bears are much like a pig with fur, and the meat is dark and tender. Yes, bears have a lot of fat and this must be removed. However, the quality of bear meat is high. It is without doubt the best wild meat I’ve ever used for making burger, smokies and breakfast sausage. You don’t get a ton of meat off a bear, but it’s good stuff. Of course, the fur of a bear makes a very pretty and appealing rug; a great and lasting memento of a northwestern Ontario bear hunt.