feature By: Jason Books | May, 18
My hat was almost full when I finally looked up from the bushes and noticed movement just inside the shade of the fir trees. I wasn’t the only one that wanted huckleberries. A small, cinnamon-colored black bear was making its way to the meadow, and we saw each other at about the same time – a mere 10 feet away and only a thin and cleanly-stripped huckleberry bush between us. The bear turned and ran back to the trees, and I hustled back to the river dropping a trail of fruit behind me.
The North American black bear is found in just about every state except Hawaii. For those that have decided to live in suburbia, it is known to be a nuisance, knocking over garbage cans and stealing pet food. The smaller cousin to the grizzly, it is also a revered big-game animal with most states offering a hunting season. What makes these creatures so unique is that they are opportunistic feeders and can thrive in various climates and conditions. Though they will eat just about anything edible, bears are omnivores and have a more herbivorous than carnivorous diet, with a few exceptions.
The springtime means elk are calving and does are dropping fawns. Black bears turn from eating green grasses to ravaging elk and deer. They will also find grouse, geese and other birds nesting and waste no time eating their eggs. The black bear eats, that is what it does, and using bait to lure them in is one of the most productive ways to hunt bruins. Unfortunately, voters in many states have taken to becoming “ballot box biologists” and have outlawed baiting and even hound hunting for black bears.
My creek-side run-in with the reddish bear came the summer after Washington outlawed baiting and hound hunting and made me realize that I didn’t need to put out food to bring the bears to me. I could find natural food sources instead, and locate bears. Most hunters will pick and eat berries as they find them along the trail, not really giving it much thought. But if you take the time to learn about wild-growing fruits you will increase your odds of shooting a fall bear. So, I started my studies of horticulture and various berry plants of the Pacific Northwest, and thanks to local geological features, including several volcanos, the soil is acidic from the ash of recent eruptions, and that soil is exactly what huckleberry plants thrive in.
Plants in lower elevations ripen first as the snow still lingers in the high country. This is why the bear was near the stream that afternoon while I was fishing. Since the springtime moisture drains in early summer, the plants get a start on growing. Once they become fully mature, the berries start to concentrate their sugars and ripen. Then as the high country thaws, the plants grow quickly in their short summer, and by Labor Day the berries are ripe. Frost comes early and concentrates sugars in the plants, and bears will feed on the fruit all day long to put on fat for winter. In higher elevations, the south-facing slopes ripen first, then the avalanche chutes and north- facing slopes ripen. Knowing all of this makes a better bear hunter.
One summer the mountains had a severe drought. Climbing up to a high point along a ridgeline in mid-September, it became obvious the low-lying huckleberry plants were alive with fall colors. A closer look, though, proved there were no berries on them. The open slope that had held not just one, but three bears the previous fall, was now empty of bears and berries. Those bears had hovered over the plants and vacuumed up berries like a Hoover vacuum. Making my way over to a north-facing slope that held more snow and water until later in the summer, I finally found some berries. After an hour of glassing, a black bear was located thrashing about in an avalanche chute enjoying the shade and high-calorie food.
The bear was 1,000 feet below me, but the open slopes of the alpine wilderness made it easy to descend quickly. Inching closer to where the bear was last seen feeding, a large rock outcropping stood guard over a ravine. Looking down over the edge, I realized the 100-foot drop would keep the bear safe as it fed underneath. The only way into that bear’s “dining room” was from below, and the warm thermal winds rising in the afternoon sun meant I would have to try for the bear another day.
With food sources like berry patches being the places where bears concentrate in the fall, it is not uncommon to find more than one bear working an open slope. The high country is vast and large with plenty of room. Mature boars will likely be solitary, but a sow will share the slope with other bears, especially young boars and other sows. If there are cubs in tow, the small family group will be nervous and keep to themselves. A spotting scope is a must; not only to distinguish dark shadows from bears but also to make sure that the bruin you want to pursue is a mature boar. When a bear is located, if another bear is in close proximity, they are likely sows or a young boar. Sows with cubs usually reveal themselves quickly, as the cubs don’t venture too far on their own. I am not always looking for a large boar, especially when my tent is several miles from the trailhead. A smaller boar, from 3½ to 4½ years old, eats well and packs out much easier than an older and larger boar. Just like how I found that trail near the river, bears are habitual and will often use the same routes to and from the berry patches. If you find a trail, look closely for tracks and other signs of bear use.
Scat is often looked upon by hunters as one of the signs of game. Though deer and elk hunters don’t really learn much from piles and droppings other than frequency of the animal’s presence, bear scat can teach a hunter a lot about the bruin that left it behind. Of course, it can indicate when the bear was last in the area, depending on how old it is. Once a hunter finds a pile, kick it over or use a stick and see what the bear was feeding on. The fruit of mountain ash is often available to bear in high country, and the tell-tale sign of the pits are left in the bear’s waste. Blueberries and huckleberries turn bear scat to a blue or red color, and of course it is soft. Finding one pile helps, but when a hunter starts to find multiple piles in a small area, he then knows that a bear is visiting a specific berry patch on a frequent basis and is probably nearby. Trails are often worn through the ground cover, an obvious clue that a bear is coming and going from the area.
During an early high-country deer hunt one fall, a large basin with a small pond and the headwaters to a creek was full of huckleberry plants. Making my way down into the bowl, the low-lying pink heather revealed well-worn trails. This area was about a mile from the nearest maintained forest service trail, and these paths were intertwined. They were bear paths, worn over years of use, as bears slept in the shaded hillsides and made their way to the clearing for food. It was almost as good as the bait barrels I used to put out when it was legal. The area was a natural dinner table with sign of lots of bear activity.
On the second afternoon while watching this small basin, a single bear appeared. It was ambling along from the shadows of the noble firs, using one of the trails to the huckleberry fields. The lone bear was a black boar of average size. Knowing that bears were using these trails led me to finding the bear and filling my fall tag. Unlike bears that are drawn to a bait pile or use beaches or waterways to find fish and other forage in places like southeastern Alaska, huckleberry bears rely on a constant source of sweet fruit. The tides along the islands of British Columbia and Alaska bring food to the same location with each tide change. A hunter who uses bait knows they need to refresh the bait regularly, but huckleberry plants only grow one crop of berries each season. Once the berries are gone, so are the bears. This is why hunters need to locate the plants and make sure there is a sufficient berry crop still left to bring in bruins. North-facing slopes are the last areas to ripen and often hold the best concentration of berries. Once I see that an area has been worked over by a bear, I try to find another area close by.
Bears that have been feeding on huckleberries often have marblized meat and make for great meals. I have the hams cured and smoked and some of the hard-to-tenderize cuts made into a sausage, but the steaks off a bear that has been doing its fall feeding on huckleberries are mild and tender. Hides in the early part of hunting season, with some starting as early as August, are usually thin and often not worth packing out (check your state’s regulations on this). A mid-September bear hide in high country is thick and lush after the first frost. When numerous bears are spotted in berry patches on a single day of hunting high-country bruins, it’s one of the best fall hunts you can have out West. Learn how to “read” berry bushes and know where they are located, and you will be a successful bear hunter.