The fall bear hunting season is quickly approaching and there are still some great opportunities for hunters to pick up a license. View the Colorado Big Game Hunting brochure for additional license information.
Bear hunting is not easy. Over the past couple of years, bear harvest estimates that between 7 and 8 percent of all licensed bear hunters actually harvest a bear. Pursuing and harvesting a bear takes an understanding of both bear behavior and habitat. The odds are stacked against unprepared hunters that randomly head into the field with hopes of harvesting a bear. I’m sure there are some stories of lucky harvests; however, preparing before you head into the field gives you a much better chance of being on the right side of the harvest statistics.
Avoid Common Mistakes
Tony Bonacquista, a CPW district wildlife manager and Garett Watson, a CPW Game Damage/Commercial Parks Manager, have witnessed some trends among the unsuccessful Colorado bear hunters. By avoiding the ten most common mistakes made by bear hunters, you’ll greatly improve your chances of harvesting a bear in Colorado.
10 Common Mistakes Made By Colorado Bear Hunters
- Not making your bear hunt the priority. Hunters tend to treat their bear tag as a secondary option, often planning to harvest a deer or elk first. If you want to harvest a bear, you need to focus on making bear hunting a priority.
- Feeling uneasy in the dark. To increase your chances of seeing bears and potentially harvesting one, you must be willing to take advantage of legal big-game hunting hours. Legal hunting hours for big game are one-half hour before sunrise to one-half hour after sunset, unless specifically restricted.
- Hunting the wrong food source. Bears are going to be where the food is, but this can often change from year to year. So knowing what food sources are available before you go hunting is key to putting yourself where you will find a bear. Hunters that take the time to scout are more successful at harvesting a bear.
- Being impatient. Your best chance at finding a bear is to be in the woods. Trust your eyes and spend the time glassing for bears. Bears like to feed in areas that are often covered in dense brush and difficult to see. Trust that if you have scouted and are in bear country, a bear will often be there and WILL show itself at some point.
- Rushing a bear stalk. Hunters often worry that every bear will be gone in a flash if they don’t hurry up and get into range. This can be true if you observe the bear just walking through an area or it has been spooked. Remember that in September a bear’s primary concern is eating. So if you see that a bear is actively feeding, you may be surprised at how much time you have to close the gap on a stalk if you are patient and methodical. Only move when the bear is feeding and if possible, when it is facing some degree away from you. Always try to use the wind to your advantage.
- Shouting, “Look! There is a bear!” Whether you have never seen a bear or you have seen dozens of them, it is always exciting to see a bear in the woods. Some bears you see from afar and some bears are close before you ever know they are there. Just remember that a bear has incredible senses. Anything we can do to not trigger them increases our chances of getting that bear.
- Overestimating the size of a bear. Most hunters tend to drastically overestimate the size of a bear. Bears, by nature, appear to be big when viewed in the wild; however, the majority of bears harvested in Colorado weigh between 130 to 225 pounds. Field judging the size of a bear is incredibly difficult without having a known reference to judge it against.
- Taking an unfavorable shot. Often hunters can get so excited about finally seeing a bear that they either rush their shot or take one that is unfavorable or outside of their capabilities. This can lead to a wounded bear. We as hunters can help lessen the chance of making this mistake long before we ever hunt. Start by practicing your shooting, knowing your limitations and remaining disciplined to your personal shooting capabilities. Visit the CPW website to find a shooting range near you.
- Returning to camp mid-day. Bears in September are active up to 20 hours per day. You will often find bears feeding or going to water in the afternoon. Most hunters tend to miss out on a prime time by heading out of the field too early.
- Being unprepared to recover and pack out your bear. Make sure you have a plan to recover and pack out your bear BEFORE you begin your hunt. And plan for the dark by bringing items such as a headlamp and a GPS unit.
Think Like a Bear
Understanding some basic behavioral changes that bears undergo during the fall hunting season can improve your hunting experience. In the fall, bears experience an increased appetite and food consumption known as hyperphagia. Their summer diet of insects and leaves and flowers of broad-leafed plants changes to fruits and nuts that provide the high fat and carbohydrates needed to quickly put on fat for winter hibernation. This change in diet begins in August and continues into late September or October. During this period, bears actively forage up to 20 hours per day. So find the abundant food production areas, and you will find the black bear.
Bears know which areas have good fruit and nut production and will migrate 20 to 30 miles from their summer range to traditional fall ranges. Most of the better fruit areas are at lower elevations of bear habitat, often away from the pine and spruce-fir forests that many hunters associate with bears. In some high-elevation parks, bears will travel across several miles of sagebrush-dominated mountains to lower canyons where chokecherries and other fruit can be found along streams.
Bears often move on after filling their bellies and look for new sites, likely returning to good sites periodically. They move across open sagebrush at night, but will actively forage in riparian zone throughout the day.
Hunting on travel zones may be productive when bears return to their summer range in late September or early October. Bears are like us in many ways: they travel the paths of least resistance during long trips, so scout natural passes and game trails.
Follow The Food
During the fall, hunters are likely to find bear in areas with abundant fruits (soft mast) and nuts (hard mast). Colorado black bears eat fruits of wild plums, serviceberry, chokecherry, pin cherry, wild crab apple, mountain ash, buffalo berry, currant and many more. The primary nut-producing trees are Gambel/scrub oak and pinon pine. Food sources will vary around the state.
Luckily for hunters, the location of bears is highly predictable during September. Still, there are a few things to keep in mind:
- Nearly all bears concentrate at local lower-elevation habitats where fruits and nuts are abundant from mid-August to late September or early October.
- Most of the good berry and nut-producing vegetation in Colorado is found in dense stands where visibility is limited.
- Many bears will feed at the same site as one another, but usually at different times.
- Wherever ‘oakbrush thickets’ dominate the mountains, you can count on finding black bears feeding on acorns in September.
During the feeding frenzy, each bear may defecate 5-15 times a day. So bear scat should be abundant. By casually examining the scat, hunters can find out what fruits the bears are eating, which in turn, will help them figure out the area to be hunted.
Prepare for Superior Senses
If you plan to hunt bear by moving slowly through dense brush stands, it’s time to make a new plan. Bears possess outstanding hearing, keen eyesight, and the best sense of smell of any animal on earth. These senses combine to keep bears acutely aware of their surroundings, even while focused on feeding.
To even the playing field, savvy hunters can take advantage of Colorado’s mountainous terrain.
- First, identify promising hunting areas by locating abundant bear food and signs that bears have been feeding.
- Next, scan the surrounding area to locate a higher point for observation. From the higher vantage point, you will be able to patiently watch the feeding area, allowing you to spot the bear and carefully identify your target.
- As with most big game hunting, keep wind direction and thermals in mind when setting up to glass for bear. Consider where you expect to see bears and what direction the prevailing wind is from. Once you spot the bear you’re after and begin to make a plan for pursuit, make sure you take into account the wind direction.
Identify a Legal Bear
Hunters need to know which bears are legal to harvest and which bears aren’t.
Legal to harvest: Adults without cubs and independent subadults and yearlings
Not legal to harvest: No cubs shall be killed nor shall any black bear accompanied by one (1) or more cubs be killed – you can not harvest cubs, sows with cubs, any members of a family group
Note: A bear’s new fall coat will be in good shape during September and October hunting seasons. A fall bear’s long hair combined with the excitement of seeing a wild bear can cause hunters to overestimate the size of a bear. Yearlings and cubs can be nearly the same size, so distinguishing them can be difficult. It is best to observe smaller bears for longer than several minutes to ensure that they are a legal harvest. Quality binoculars will help locate bears and assess size.
- The size of the ears relative to the head is a good indicator of adult bears that are legal to harvest. The smaller the ears appear to be, the larger the head and usually the larger the bear.
- Yearling bears tend to grow their fall coat slowly. If you see a bear with badly bleached, thin hair, it’s probably a yearling (55-90 lbs).
- The presence of a larger bear acting familiar with a small bear suggests a family unit. However, the absence of an adult bear does not rule out the possibility of the small bear being a cub. The cubs and mother are not always in close proximity; they wander several hundred yards apart much of the time.
- Two or three small bears of similar size together is most likely a group of cubs. Even without the mother present, this suggests a sibling group and would not be a legal harvest.
Care for the Meat and Pelt
NOTE: You must attach a carcass tag to you harvest per instructions on tag. Tags must be signed, dated and detached from the license immediately upon harvest. All edible bear meat MUST be prepared for human consumption.
A bear should be skinned immediately after death to cool the carcass. The warm temperatures of September, coupled with the heavy fall pelt and fat layer of bears, require that special attention be given to the meat and pelt.
The pelt and head of all hunter-harvested black bears must be presented to a Colorado Parks and Wildlife officer or office by the hunter within five days of harvest. The pelts will be sealed and data on age, sex and harvest location will be collected. A premolar tooth will be extracted for aging. This is an effort to monitor the number of bears killed and age and sex of animals harvested to inform future management.
Be especially careful when identifying your target. The fall bear season overlaps with archery deer and elk seasons and many archers, dressed in camouflage clothing, successfully hunt deer and elk by stalking through the dense, low-elevation shrublands where bear are often found. Always use binoculars, not rifle scopes, when scanning the landscape for bears so that you can clearly identify your target as a legal bear.
Good luck and enjoy your time in the field this fall!