Black bear is North America’s second-most prevalent big game animal after whitetail deer, and these adaptable ursines just keep extending their ranges. Missouri is the latest state to examine the possibility of hunting bears, and across the nation from California to Maine and Florida to Minnesota where you find ample water, cover and space there will probably be bears.
That’s good news because bear hunting is fantastic sport and bear meat — when prepared correctly — is delicious. If you’re considering going bear hunting here’s a primer to get you on track, advice on where to hunt, what to carry, and what you need to know before you go.
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Five Bear Hot Spots
Idaho: I’ll start with my favorite bear hunting destination, the Gem State. What makes Idaho so great? For starters, it has a tremendous amount of public land and a lot of bears. Idaho offers a spring and a fall season and tags are relatively inexpensive and widely available. If you’re looking for a true wilderness hunt with reasonably high success rates and you’re willing to do some hiking and camping there are lots of opportunities in areas like Hell’s Canyon, Boise State Forest, the Frank Church River of No Return and several other areas.
Idaho offers opportunities to hunt bears using three different methods of take — spot-and-stalk, hounds, and bait. In fact, on a hunt with Heaven’s Gate Outfitters outside of Riggins I had the chance to experience all three types of hunting in a single trip, eventually taking a beautiful cinnamon bear that we spotted across a large canyon. Idaho’s Fish and Game website is a wealth of information and there are plenty of affordable guided hunts here, too.
Alberta: Like Idaho, Alberta has lots of space, lots of bears and affordable hunting. There’s also an opportunity to take two bears on a single hunt, which makes these hunts even more appealing. There are no shortage of big bears in this province to, so if you book a guided hunt in an area with a high concentration of bears and you’re willing to be patient there’s a good chance that you’ll find a real monster. The primary method of take in Alberta is baiting bears, but sitting over a bait not only offers you a chance at a good bruin (or two) but also provides hunters with an opportunity to view these animals up close. Color phase bears are not uncommon and you can oftentimes book a multi-species hunt for deer, moose, or other big game in a single trip.
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Alaska: Alaska is a hunter’s paradise, and while many of the nonresidents who travel to the Last Frontier come in search of moose, Dall sheep, caribou or brown bears the state’s coastal bear population is very high and there are some absolute giants roaming the dense forests along the state’s southern coast. Some of these hunts are boat based, which means you’ll travel the waterways in search of bruins and then set up a stalk. One of the most popular locations is the area surrounding Prince William Sound. These boat-based hunts are another great combo trip where you may have an opportunity to hunt bears as well as Sitka blacktails and waterfowl, and these make great cast-and-blast trips if you’d like to add some salmon or halibut fishing as well. The state’s massive interior is also home to a lot of great bears, and while Alaska isn’t the cheapest destination the opportunities that it offers are unequaled.
Maine: Like Idaho, Maine offers a lot of wilderness and high bear populations. In the dense forests that dominate the northern portion of the state baiting and hound hunting are the primary methods employed, and if you are in the right area there’s a good chance you’ll get an opportunity at a really big bear there. Maine also has a number of highly qualified guide services and the cost of these hunts is relatively low. Additionally, there are few places that are more beautiful and rugged than the forests and mountains of the aptly named Pine Tree State.
North Carolina: No list of the best black bear hunting states could ever be complete without mentioning the Tar Heel State. The big draw in North Carolina is big bears, and this state has produced some of the largest bears on record. Each year there are bears taken in Carolina that tip the scales at over 500 lbs., so these brutes weigh as much as smaller interior grizzlies. You can expect to hunt bears in and around crop fields where the animals are a real nuisance, and the long growing season and ample food supplies are what allows these bruins to reach such immense size. There’s a rich tradition of hunting with hounds in the state, but the opportunities for stand and spot-and-stalk make this a great place to try multiple methods. The long growing season is a result of North Carolina’s relatively mild climate, which makes these hunts even more enjoyable.
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5 Best Cartridges
.30-06 Springfield: There’s a reason the .30-06 is so popular. For starters, it shoots flat enough to take bears at extended distances and offers plenty of power for anchoring even the largest bruins. Black bears are dense, tough animals and the ’06 is enough gun for even the largest bears so you won’t have to worry that you’re carrying a marginal firearm. It offers that level of power with relatively modest recoil so it’s manageable for most any shooter, and there’s a wide selection of ammunition and some really great loads. I took a bear in Alberta with a .30-06 firing 180-grain Hornady round nose bullets, and the performance was superb. If you have a rifle chambered in this caliber as your primary deer gun you needn’t look any farther for your ideal black bear rifle.
.45-70: Compared to many of the modern high-speed magnums firing spitzer bullets over 3,000 fps the aged .45-70 looks pretty anemic, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Those big, heavy bullets at relatively modest velocities pack a wallop and they offer a large entrance wound that aids in blood trailing should it be necessary — which won’t be the case if you select the right bullet and place it in the proper spot. Lever guns are short enough to be maneuverable in dense cover and in tree stands and the .45-70 is an excellent round for bears over bait as well as hound hunting. It doesn’t offer the reach of some of the faster rounds, but if your shots are going to be relatively close it’s a bear stopper par excellence.
.338 Federal: The .338 Federal is based on a necked-up .308 Win cartridge, so it fits in a short-action bolt gun or an AR rifle and allows for the use of heavier bullets that carry more energy. Additionally, the .338 Federal offers that kind of punch while still producing recoil levels that are manageable for most shooters. If you’re planning on taking your bear over bait the .338 Federal is perfect since it can be chambered in short-action, short-barreled rifles that are easy to handle from an elevated stand. Need to reach out a bit on a spot-and-stalk hunt? You’re still well armed with this round since it offers a flat trajectory and maintains energy at longer ranges. Federal’s 200-grain Trophy Copper and Bonded Tip loads are both tough enough to handle even the largest bears.
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7mm Remington Magnum: The 7mm Remington Magnum is a darling of many hunters including such notables as the late, great John Wootters, one of the finest outdoor writers and a man with considerable experience taking game around the world. The 7mm Rem Mag is a true long-range cartridge and it carries energy efficiently at long distances, especially with heavy-for-caliber bullets with high ballistic coefficients and sectional densities. Those long bullets also provide deep penetration — a key when hunting bears — and recoil levels are on par with the .30-06 so it’s a cartridge that, with a little practice, most any hunter can master. Ammo and rifles are available and affordable, too.
.30-30 Winchester: The .30-30 is still among the top-selling cartridges today, and since it was introduced well over a century ago that’s saying something. Is it ideal for every bear-hunting situation? No, it’s not. But if you’re hunting bears over bait or slogging through the woods or up and down mountains behind a pack of hounds the lightweight, maneuverable .30-30 is the perfect medicine. That is, of course, if you stoke it with the right bullets. Recoil from this old round is relatively light and while it will never be classed as a world-beating long-range round the .30-30 is still a very effective bear gun under the right circumstances. And there’s no arguing about its record on game.
Five Things To Know Before You Hunt Bears
Judging Bears Can Be Tough: Black bears are among the toughest big game animals for new hunters to judge because, quite frankly, when any bear is hovering just below your elevated stand it probably looks pretty big. It takes a trained eye to evaluate the size and sex of a bear, especially at long range. Big bears look, well, big, but some key indicators are the width between the ears and the nose length (as older bears tend to have long, sometimes down-sloping faces). If you’re hunting over bait you can sometimes use indicators like the size of the bait barrel to judge the animal.
Black Bears Versus Grizzlies: Three of the black bear hotspots listed above are areas where you might also encounter grizzlies, and if you re hunting in an area where both species are present you must make absolutely certain of the species in front of you before pulling the trigger. In general, grizzlies have longer claws, a more “dished” face and a pronounced shoulder hump, but there’s no room for error here. If there’s any question about which bear you are seeing do not shoot.
Hound Hunting Isn’t Easy: There’s a notion among many non-hunters (and some hunters) that hunting bears with hounds is easy; the dogs put the bear in a tree and you simply stroll into the woods and shoot the bear. But, like so many issues with hound hunting, that’s a fallacy. Sure, there might be times when you shoot a bear over hounds and don’t have to walk very far to do so, but I’ve never experienced that. More often you’re climbing through rough and steep terrain, often for miles, and you may find the bear in the tree isn’t a mature adult — which means you leash up the dogs and start all over. Hound hunting can be the most taxing form of pursuit for bears so you need to get in shape.
Black Bears Can Be Difficult to Trail: Black bears are tough, and their thick hides, dense fat layers, and long hair oftentimes make blood trailing very difficult. There’s a simple way to remedy this — place a solidly constructed bullet in the vitals and you won’t have long tracking job. Choose your shots wisely, shoot a weapon with ample energy that you know well, and after the shot dedicate yourself to mentally marking the bear’s exact direction of departure.
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Black Bears Aren’t Whitetail: This is a lesson I learned very quickly when a bear I was watching realized that I was in my stand and came over to investigate, going as far as to start making its way up the tree for a better look. Black bear attacks are —thankfully —really rare, but going into the thick stuff after an angry, wounded bear carries with it a level of risk you won’t encounter with most other game. Again, the best way to avoid this situation is to take a clean shot and make it count. Don’t put yourself or your guide at unnecessary risk by taking poor shots with marginal arms and ammunition.
If hunting Black Bear is on your bucket list of hunts, there are lots of places and ways to harvest the bear of a lifetime. Do some research and find the best outfitter you can and don’t forget to set aside some cash for the taxidermy.