Tips for the Rookie Spring Bear Hunters
The New Brunswick spring black bear season begins every year in mid-April and lasts until late June. During that time, thousands of hunters will hit the woods in search of a trophy black bear. We are extremely lucky to have a spring bear season here, as some other provinces (including Nova Scotia) don’t allow the spring hunt.
Because of fluctuations in whitetail deer populations in the province, more hunters than ever seem to be taking advantage of other hunting opportunities. One of the most accessible ones is bear hunting. The black bear population in New Brunswick is stable and growing in most wildlife management zones. There is no draw required for a resident to purchase a black bear hunting license, and a single license is good for the harvest of one black bear per calendar year, so it’s good for both the spring and fall season until you harvest a bear. In fact, residents can also purchase a second black bear license after the first harvest!
Seeing many anxious posts from rookie hunters on social media wondering what is wrong… why their bait sites haven’t been hit… what they can do… whether they are too late, gave us the inspiration to offer a “top ten tips” article for the rookie spring bear hunter out there. Whether you’re just getting started or have hunted them for a long time, you might be able to learn something from our article. Everyone likely has their own tips as well… so don’t be afraid to comment and let us know what you like or don’t like about this article!
- Don’t stress over the timing – The spring black bear season is long… extremely long! When I first began hunting black bears over bait in the spring, I used to stress about getting my setup completed weeks before the season, and then obsess over why the bears weren’t hitting it (or coming regularly) in the early weeks. Don’t stress over it! You really have lots of time and in my experience, it’s not until the weather begins to warm a bit that they start hitting regularly.
Black bears hibernate throughout the winter season, and when they awake from their slumber it seems to take them some time for their systems to get adjusted. There are several explanations for the delays. Older hunters say they have to eat grasses and the like to get their digestion working right before they can begin eating the high-fat bait barrels we put out. Another often heard reason for delayed effectiveness of baiting is that the bears clean up the carrion (dead animals) in the woods that had died through the winter. (some hunters say that if it’s really late before they start hitting bait barrels, it means it was a high-casualty winter for deer).
Whatever the reason, it’s nothing to worry about. Be patient… the bears will come!
- Bear baiting is effective – Wilderness Obsession uses bear baiting during the spring black bear season in New Brunswick, and we believe in the effectiveness and the ethical nature of it.
In the spring bear season, it is illegal (and unethical) to shoot a female bear with cubs. Black bear cubs stay with the female for about 18 months. They are born in the den in late January, and when they emerge from the dens they are often the size of raccoons. They are still very reliant on their mothers both in providing nutrition, and to learn lessons about survival. Hunters that shoot a bear hundreds of yards across a clear cut after spot and stalk are running the risk of shooting a female with cubs in error.
We also believe as bow hunters that bear baiting gives us the best chance of taking an ethical shot at a black bear. We pass up many bears every year because it doesn’t give us the proper angle to take an effective bow shot. Knowing that if we pass up on a bear, another will be back tomorrow gives a hunter a lot less angst about waiting for next time!
- Be sure of your shot – This one is an important one when bear hunting. Take your time, calm your nerves, and make an ethical shot. If you are bowhunting, be sure to put in adequate practice before you hit the woods. Whatever weapon you are using, wait for a good angle and take an ethical shot.
Bowhunters need to be aware that bears have an enormous shoulder blade bone. Wait until they are quartered away or broad side, that they ideally have that front leg facing you stepped forward, and aim further back than you might on a deer. No ethical hunter wants to wound an animal, and this is multiplied when you’re hunting a potentially dangerous predator. And don’t think because you are using a crossbow that you can take a riskier shot. Wait, be patient and ready, and the bear will give you a shot. And if he doesn’t… the one tomorrow will!
As mentioned, it is illegal to shoot a female bear with cubs in the spring season. In our experience the cubs usually appear before the female, and the group of them typically make more noise than a usual single bear. But don’t rely on that fact. Be patient… and wait to see if the bear is alone or might have cubs with it. This isn’t a race… take your time!
After your shot we would highly recommend that you give the animal time to expire before tracking it. Bowhunters should examine their arrow for clues on the shot, and don’t rush. Use good, common sense tracking skills and get help if you need it. Mark your blood trail and take your time tracking.
- Bear baiting is a lot of work – As effective as it is, for those who are just getting into it, you need to be aware that bear baiting is a lot of work. It can be hard to locate reliable bait supply, it can be expensive to purchase, and once you get bears coming you must be prepared to refill that barrel up to every day, depending on how many are coming.
Don’t obsess over what you’re putting in the bait barrel either. Popcorn, bread, leftovers, molasses, bones, fish… use whatever you can find (except chocolate)! You will be surprised to watch the bears pick it over when you’re out there. They’ll often push aside what they don’t like best to get at something else… but eventually they’ll usually eat it. They might eat that donut first when they find it, but eventually if everything else is gone they’ll eat something else they might have passed over earlier! Chocolate, on the other hand, has been proven to be fatal in large doses to bear cubs, who suffer from the same effect as dogs to it.
Speaking of that, if someone offers to have you come and hunt with them, be appreciative! You may not realize what they’ve been through in scouting, preparing, dragging bait, and getting everything ready for you (and them) but you can be sure they do. If you want another invite, be sure to offer to help them and be appreciative! Try to learn whatever you can from them, and do your best to give them a hand. Trust me… it goes a long way!
- Know your site – With this point, I am speaking about preparation and using the setup to your advantage. The size of a single black bear alone is very hard to gauge, especially if you don’t have any frame of reference. They don’t carry around big head gear like a deer or moose to let you know whether that is an animal that you want to harvest. Black bears seem to suffer more than any other animal from what is called “ground shrinkage.” After the shot, when you track the animal and find it… it seems to always be smaller than you thought it was! Use the surroundings like a bait barrel to gauge the size of the bear.
The other thing we mean with knowing your site is that you should know the ranges of various areas at your bait site. Especially if bowhunting, this is essential. Know how many yards away the bait barrel is, and how many the bear will be from your stand at other spots in the area. If he’s five yards behind the barrel but gives you a good shot, you need to be ready and know your yardage. Clean up shooting lanes to anywhere that you need (especially with bowhunting). And be aware that as often as not… you may not hear the bear before you see it. Be aware of every entry point that the bears are making. They will beat down highways to a bait site… so pay attention and be ready (but don’t rush). Awareness will help you to be ready when the time is right.
- Scent control is important – Especially if you are hunting with a bow, be aware that scent control is very important. Don’t douse yourself down with bug spray, gas up on the way to the stand, and then expect to shoot a trophy black bear at 20 yards. If you have a tree stand there for very long, the bears will notice it. Although they don’t have excellent eyesight, their noses are formidable and they will often stand on their hind legs examining your tree stand after coming out, and putting their nose into the wind to try to check for danger. You might fool a bear or two using poor scent control, but if you’re looking for a trophy don’t take it for granted!
- Bear meat is good! – Black bear meat has a good taste, something that is surprising to many hunters. We have eaten bear meat for over 30 years and enjoyed almost every one we have harvested. The single biggest recommendation we would make is to trim as much of the fat off it as you can. The fat seems to be the place that stores the wild (and sometimes rancid) taste. The fat also is greasier than many other types of meat and isn’t something that most people would enjoy. Trim the fat off, and give the bear meat a try!
We have lost count of how many people we have introduced to bear meat over the years. With proper preparation, most people thoroughly enjoy it. We actually prefer it to deer meat! Because of the issues mentioned with the fat, we typically enjoy the taste of a spring bear better than a fall bear, because the animal is much leaner coming out of hibernation than when it is trying to put on weight to make it through the winter.
If you don’t like or want your bear meat, ask around… we would bet there is someone else in your circle who would love to have it! Some states and provinces make wasting wild big game meat a crime. Ask around in advance of your hunt for someone to take it if you don’t plan to eat it. It’s a terrible shame to waste that meat. (Just remember that bear meat (like pork) needs to be cooked thoroughly.)
- Keep your bait site clean – Perhaps nothing frustrates an ethical sportsman more than seeing garbage in the woods that they love, and that includes bait sights. If you’re dragging in bait and containers just clean them up later! There is no reason to make your bait sight look like a garbage dump. Plastic bags and other garbage are unsightly and offer dangers for wildlife. It takes a tremendous amount of time for plastic to break down. If you leave a container of food in the woods for a bear to eat, just be sure to remove it later, whether you are on private or crown land. Landowners, outdoorsmen, and the wildlife will appreciate it.
- Be careful – Hunting black bears is typically safe, but it does offer dangers. Even an average New Brunswick black bear (150 pounds) possesses huge teeth and claws and has amazing speed whether running or climbing. Bear attacks here are very rare, but they do happen. Be sure to be aware of your surroundings when you are heading in to a bait site, and don’t take your safety for granted. Take precautions like letting someone know where you are heading and when you will be coming back. Even though black bears are typically scavengers, they are wild animals and unpredictable. Don’t think that you can outrun them… you can’t. Don’t act like you can scare off every bear… you won’t. Be aware and stay safe!
Even more than the dangers of a black bear itself come the dangers of hunting them. If you are hunting in a tree stand, be sure to hunt using a safety harness. Keep one attached to you from the time you take your foot off the ground until the time you reach it again. Be safe handling your weapons. Use a rope to bring up your weapon to the stand, and make sure it is unloaded when bringing it up or down. And be careful around those razor-sharp broadheads. Many accidents happen because we just don’t take proper precautions, thinking “It can’t happen to me.” Don’t let it…
- Every bear is a trophy – A few years ago, one of the instructors at my bow safety course told the class that “every animal taken with a bow is a trophy,” and I’ve certainly learned the truth in that. Bowhunting offers a great challenge and taking any size or shape or species with a bow is a challenge. I would go further than that and mention that every bear is a trophy. Not every bear out there is over 400 pounds in our region, and the average bear in New Brunswick reportedly is 125-150 pounds field dressed. Don’t worry about taking a smaller bear, especially if you are just getting started.
Black bear hunting is one of our favourite pastimes. We love watching the animals and because we bow hunt, we are literally up close and personal with them… often having them cross right under our tree stands. Nothing gets a heart pumping like seeing one of these predators right beside you!
We use a number of trail cameras and often watch bears year after year, even having nicknamed some of our favourites. Watching some of them live they all seem to have their own personality. Some might lie right down in front of that bait barrel with their head inside, while another might grab each individual piece of bait in its mouth and take it off into the woods to eat it before returning. It really is an amazing and rewarding experience, and we often have more than a dozen bears at a single bait sight… watching various ones for weeks before harvesting one. Every appearance of a black bear still gets our hearts pumping, and if that ever stops we will probably give it up… (but we don’t expect it to!)
If everything goes well, a brute like this will come out just before dark this spring for you, instead of right after dark like he did for us in June 2016:
Wilderness Obsession truly believes we need to help one another wherever we can and grow the outdoor sports if we are to keep the rights to them. Ontario lost their spring bear hunt for a while and are just starting to get it back recently. And our neighbours in Maine have been repeatedly under attack from animal rights groups trying to ban various hunting practices, and some of their larger urban areas have now been closed to all hunting (example Portland). As our population ages and urbanizes, if we don’t share our passion for the outdoors… we run into the risk of losing these amazing experiences we all love!
Enjoy it… don’t take it for granted… and good luck to everyone this season!
Contact us and let us know!