Elk Hunting: The ‘Bear’ Facts

He crossed in front of me at 20 yards, broadside, walking slowly; a near-perfect setup. I took the shot and heard a loud ‘Crack!’
A black bear in southwest Colorado. Photo by David Lien.
A black bear in southwest Colorado. Photo by David Lien.

I’ve hunted public lands in the San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado since I first started chasing elk, and there’s no bigger, better, higher, wilder place to spend a week-plus during October pursuing the king of America’s big-game animals. I’m also fortunate to know one of our nation’s top traditional-bow elk hunters and hunter-conservationists: Durango-based David Petersen, author of “A Man Made of Elk” and many other hunting-conservation books.

Prior to my annual San Juans elk hunt in the mountains north of Durango — during second rifle season (Oct. 18–26, 2014) — I exchanged a few emails and met up with David, who’s also the founder of the Backcountry Hunters & Angler’s Colorado chapter. David provides me (and others) with updates on what he’s hearing and seeing regarding local elk activity. On Sept. 15, David reported on one of his elk hunt encounters:

“I really blew it tonight. It’s been a slow season, which is becoming a pattern in recent years … There was some bugling last week but it mysteriously shut down last weekend … coincidentally with the opening of black powder season … I did my usual ambush sit … and was walking out … [and] saw something I thought was a bear (tons of bears this year) … and here comes a lone 6×6 bull just clomping along …”

“He crossed in front of me at 20 yards, broadside, walking slowly; a near-perfect setup. I took the shot and heard a loud ‘Crack!’ and saw the arrow take a sharp left 45-degrees and pass under and in front of the bull. A clean miss … That’s why we call it ‘hunting.’”

David’s bear observations didn’t seem significant at the time, but they’re representative of the fact that more than 750,000 black bears now roam North America — black bear populations are higher than they’ve been in 200 years. And adult black bears require as much as 20,000 calories a day during autumn to prepare for their long winter naps.

Fat reserves can reach 50 percent of body mass by time of hibernation, but are more commonly about 33 percent. That’s a lot of bugs, berries, grass and roots. As omnivores, bears will also eat eggs, fish, mammals and carrion when they can get it, which is why the prospect of something that smells like an elk (dead or alive) would be of interest to a roving bear.

On Oct. 9, David sent another elk hunt update, saying: “It’s raining and the rut still hasn’t happened. I predict, like last year, it will peak during second rifle. You may be in luck.” And on Oct. 17, he added: “I went out from 1:30 p.m. until dark this evening and … didn’t see or hear a thing, but there were elk tracks … no sign of a herd, just scattered tracks … individuals and doubles … wish you the very best of luck.”

Friday afternoon (Oct. 17) I hiked for more than a mile through a maze of fallen timber and steep, lung- and ankle-straining cliffs (gaining some 1,500 feet) to my spike/high camp in the vicinity of the Weminuche Wilderness. There I planned to spend all week hunting along aspen- and conifer-clad high mountain benches amid some of the most surreal southern Rocky Mountains terrain and fall colors anywhere.

hunting camp

However, when I arrived at high camp something was amiss: my tent had been ransacked by a black bear. In addition to a pillaged tent, the collateral damage included my Jetboil stove, its propane canister, and a portable water pump/purifier, but the bear focused on cow elk estrus scent I’d carelessly left in the tent.

There are a smorgasbord of such scents/attractants available these days, I’ve since discovered, including: “Elk Cow-N-Heat Scent,” “Hot Shot Cow Elk Estrus,” “Golden Elk Estrus,” “Elk-Fire,” “Cow Elk Estrus” and “Elk Bugling Scent” to name a few. Although these scents are commonly used as both cover scents and attractants, I’d never heard of them reeling-in black bears.

 Ransacked hunting camp.
Ransacked hunting camp.
Bear damaged propane canister.
Bear damaged propane canister.

After taking stock of damaged gear (no food involved with this incident, gladly), I pieced the tent back together while bemoaning the numerous new “air-conditioning” vents that would likely need to be sealed to keep the tent minimally water-tight. Although a hike back down to base camp (for duct tape) was necessary at some point, I was still in good shape for opening morning, and a few days beyond if needed.

After dark the marauding bear returned for a victory lap, to survey the scene of his previous plundering, and promptly galloped away after hearing or smelling me in the tent. Saturday morning at first light I was in a blind overlooking a small meadow in the vicinity of several water holes. Hearing cow elk mewing and chirping on the bench (out of sight) above my blind accompanied by a bugling bull, then encountering a cow and calf while stalking back to camp later that morning would have been more than enough to call this a successful hunt.

But Sunday afternoon I spotted the estrus-lovin’ black bear making his rounds along the bench and contemplated leaving him a real elk (carcass) to help fatten-up for his long winter slumber. It turns out I’d do just that, four days later on the last day of my hunt, after crossing paths with a stout 6×6 bull strolling in for a morning drink.

To be continued in my next post: “Elk Hunting & The ‘Sixth Sense.’”

Photos and story by David Lien. Lien is a former air force officer and chairman of the Colorado Backcountry Hunters & Anglers. He’s the author of “Age-Old Quests: Hunting, Climbing & Trekking” and in 2014 was recognized by Field & Stream as a “Hero of Conservation.”

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