Dry Side Calling - Not for the Faint of Heart
By Gary Lewis
Tod Lum thumbed cartridges into the magazine and closed the bolt. We left the truck parked on the road and climbed uphill on a bare slope. Twenty minutes later we worked onto the shoulder of a finger ridge and looked down into a canyon choked with hawthorn bushes.
We set the caller below us on the slope and found a vantage point. Insistent, the FoxPro whined its pitiful electronic cry. We didn't have to wait long.
The bear emerged from the bottom of the canyon and stopped to look back. The first shot shivered him and he ran left along the hill. Tod chambered another round, swung and shot again. The bear rolled end over end to the bottom of the canyon and came to rest against a fallen pine.
Calling bears, whether with a mouth call or an electronic unit is charged with electricity. It never happens the same way twice. Sometimes they charge right in. Sometimes they swap ends and head for cover. He comes in ready to fight, sometimes with his jaws popping, sometimes circling, silent, intent. Calling a predator armed with sharp claws and teeth is not for the faint of heart.
In the West we get our wet weather off the Pacific. Coastal mountains and interior ranges like the Cascades, the Sierras and the Rockies take the teeth out of many a major storm system. Western Oregon and Washington habitats may see rainfall of six feet or more per year, but east of the mountains in the high desert and in parts of Idaho, Montana, Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona, annual precipitation can be measured with a ruler.
Black bear thrive in moist and fertile country where spring grasses, tender shrub shoots and forbs are abundant. In rainforest habitat, they don't have to travel far to find grub. Over on the dry side though, a bear must cover a lot of ground to make his living. And when bears move, they are vulnerable to a hunter with a call and the patience to employ it.
Sometime in March or April, when the sun pushes back the clouds, when the grasses green and the buttercups bloom, bears emerge from their long winter sleep.
Hungry bruins head straight for the valleys to take advantage of succulent forage below the snowline. Grasses, grubs, flowers, and the tender shoots of smaller trees and shrubs are the target as the bears get their digestive juices flowing again.
As the foliage in the bottoms dries out, the bears climb higher in search of goodies. This brings them into the open on green sunlit slopes where they may graze for hours, eating grass and turning over rocks in their search for insects and larvae.
If you plan to put a spring hunt on the calendar, schedule the trip for later in the season. After the rains stop and the green-up begins in earnest, bears become more active. On the move, black bears are more likely to come to the call.
Over on the Dry Side
To put yourself in the best place to call a bear, follow the feed.
Dale Denney, of Bearpaw Outfitters (www.bearpawoutfitters.com) in Washington, thinks in terms of the food sources available. "In our area, there are two things bears love: fresh green grass and skunk cabbage. In other areas wild onions will be the draw. You need to pick an area that has lots of bear and you need to know what food source they want when they come out of hibernation and one of those three things is going to be in your area."
A couple of years ago, Denney's son and a couple of friends called in a bear. "It made a circle around them popping its teeth and then it charged. They got the bear but it really scared them," he said.
One overlooked source of protein is winterkilled moose, deer and elk. Steve Nunley of Arapaho Wilderness Outfitters (www.arapahowildernessoutfitters.com) in Colorado watches for winter kills as the snows recede. "Wherever the carcasses are, that's where the bears will be."
Mike Jenkins, owner of Upfront Outfitter (www.upfrontoutfitter.com), believes that when food is scarce, the call is most effective. The phenomenon is most apparent in New Mexico. "Although hound hunting is allowed, we strictly use calling and spot-and-stalk methods. I have been fortunate enough to hunt all over the West including Alaska. New Mexico bears are the most aggressive bears I have ever seen."
For Jenkins, it started with elk calling and the bears that charged in to lost cow and calf sounds. "It is extremely exciting. I called in four bears in one day while elk hunting without even trying. We shot a bear last season at eight feet. We missed a bull elk and I cow-called again and the bull came back then took off. That's when we saw this bear running in. The bear actually ran within three yards of the bull elk coming to the cow call."
Jenkins thinks dry country bears come in so fast because of the scarcity of protein. "I think they're just aggressive to find a good source of food. These bears want meat. They're eating dry dead grass and grubs and worms and bugs. They have a chance to eat a high protein meal of a baby elk or deer and they are on it."
If there's one thing a hungry bear wants more than anything, it's an easy meal. And he is used to taking food away from smaller predators.
But Mr. Bear is easily distracted. On the way in, he may stumble across a berry patch or a spawning fish. For this reason, you need to keep the sound rolling to keep him on the move. When hunting a bear, keep the calls constant. Try to be subtle and he may lose interest.
Any number of sounds may bring a bear, but larger animal sounds promise a bigger payoff. Think bigger meals. There is a lot more protein in a deer than in a rabbit. A fawn bawl will give a bear the prospect of seizing a bigger meal than it may get coming to the sound of a cottontail.
One spring we hunted the breaks of the Snake River and resorted to the call when low clouds and fog obscured the far slopes.
My friend Bryan Murphy and I hiked in and set up for a morning hunt. The call ran for an hour, but we saw no bears. In the next canyon though, our partners Lee and Matt Van Tassell were at work with a FoxPro call.
Fifty-two minutes into the distressed fawn wail, a coyote came bouncing in, Lee said, "Like it was floating along the tops of the bushes." They let it pass and then saw the bear. "We could see it every now and then, steadily coming on," he said. "And we were ready to shoot when we heard an ATV. As soon as the bear heard it, he swapped ends and headed the other direction."
A hunter on a yellow ATV, on a road closed to vehicle travel, had blundered right into their setup. Those are the chances you take on public land. Rain, wind and fog forced our group back down the mountain.
That evening we employed the call again. After 43 minutes, a cinnamon-colored black bear stalked out of the tree line across the canyon. At that moment we felt the wind on the back of our necks. The bear lifted his nose, sniffed and bolted into the bushes and back up the creek.
Over the seasons, I have witnessed bears respond in various ways. Sometimes they sit and listen from hundreds of yards away. One bear came like he was tied on a string. Tod Lum's bear waited 15 minutes before he emerged on the opposite tree line, headed away. He stopped and looked back and ended up going home in the cooler. Sometimes they take off and run in the opposite direction. If they are hungry and aggressive, they charge in.
Give him time. Depending on how far a bear has to travel, he may take an hour to reach the call. Scout first to make sure there are bears in the area. Then keep the wind in your favor and your confidence high. Commit to spending an hour at each call set.
A Bear's Best Defense
A good olfactory sense is a bear's best defense. When a bear inhales, it draws in airborne molecules that help it sort a complex array of odors which include food signals and threats.
Our challenge is to beat a bear's defenses. We succeed when we work to dispel human scents in every setup. One of the first things is scent elimination. Various scent-control products such as Scent Killer Gold by Wildlife Research Center and other products attack human odor in three categories: laundry products, body products and products for use in the field.
By removing a high percentage of human smell, the hunter makes cover scents, attractants and calls more effective.
Cover scents distract the predator from the scent of the hunter. Fox urine covers the human scent with the strong odor of a small varmint. A bear's nose may be further confused with fresh earth fumes or the scent of a food source.
Author and predator expert, Lee Van Tassell, likes to place the electronic caller at a lower elevation. From up above, he can watch more country and keep his scent high in the air stream.
One of Van Tassell's favorite tricks is to disguise his entry trail.
"I like to splash mule deer urine on my feet before I walk down to set up my call," he said.
Bears may come straight in to the call, but they may also circle and come to the downwind side. The scent of a prey or non-target animal can keep their confidence high.
An approaching bear expects to find something good to eat at the end of the trail. And he expects to have to fight for the meal. Fawn deer, for instance, only bawl when something is trying to eat them.
Don't expect the shot to be easy. The bear may charge across a meadow or it may come up through the brush. In either case, it is probably going to be on the move.
With a bear quartering head-on, hold one-third to halfway up the body between the head and the shoulder to punch the projectile through the scapula and the heart and lungs.
Sometimes a frontal head shot is all you get. Try to break the bridge between the eyebrows. It is hard to break the spine without a perfectly placed shot. Though, if the animal's head is up, a neck shot will put the bear down fast.
A high degree of confidence comes with the knowledge of how to appeal to a bruin's appetite and beat the bear's nose. A thorough approach to scouting, scent management and shot placement can pay off with a bear that charges in, circles downwind and keeps on coming.